Two years ago, the nonprofit I work for was doing quite well with our marketing. Our communications calendar was pretty darn straightforward.
And then I blinked.
Today, I wrangle at least six social media accounts, an active blog, an email list over 40,000 large, paid advertising, earned and placed media, and numerous content channels (Vimeo, Slideshare, and our own netimpact.org, just to name a few).
Coordinating our messaging across these channels is no easy feat, especially as our programming continues to grow, so a few months ago I set out to rethink how we handle our communications calendar.
A perpetual learning curve
Like all modern quests for knowledge, my first stop was the internet. Sadly, the best advice I could find online focused on the obvious:
- Make a calendar!
- Use program milestones, holidays, and current events for editorial inspiration!
- Write once, publish everywhere!
I couldn’t, however, find what I really wanted: practical advice for developing editorial themes tying our programs together that would remain relevant throughout the year, and best practices for applying those editorial themes to a multi-channel, multi-audience calendar.
That’s not too much to ask, is it?
And ask I did: after the internet failed me, I turned to the Progressive Exchange, an inspiring online community of communications professionals working on progressive causes.
The emails I received in response to my plea for examples of how others tackle editorial calendaring were only somewhat surprising. Several folks generously shared their own approach, and the rest basically said, “I don’t know but if you find out, please tell me.”
So, after cobbling together the best of what I’ve heard from others, and months of trial and error, here is a first stab at what I’ve learned.
What are we trying to accomplish here?
Trying to manage an org-wide communications (aka marketing) calendar with an editorial perspective raises plenty of challenges. I've been trying to develop a process that addresses the following:
- Channel flexibility: My process needs to be able to accommodate all of our content channels, which for my organization includes multiple web properties and their related program content (webinars, PDFs, etc), several Facebook pages/groups, Twitter, LinkedIn, paid ad channels, PR channels (placed media, releases, etc)...and more. Whew.
- Audience segmenting: We have multiple audiences, each with their own messaging cycle, which makes tracking and planning particularly challenging.
- Accessibility: Tools and processes need to be highly functional for my marketing team (3 – 4 1/2 staffers at any given time), while still being useful to lay staff and authors. This means balancing metadata-level tracking (e.g. content owner, deadlines, production status, etc), with a real time-based tool.
- Theming: The final calendar needs to accommodate global editorial themes.
Of course, while those were my priorities, I also had to consider the additional practicalities of content production (author management, asset tracking, etc).
The solution I’ve been testing is by no means all-powerful, but it is far more effective than what we've done in the past.
We’re still very much in pilot stage, as it's been tested within our marketing team for the last few months and I'm in the process of rolling it out to the rest of our staff for further refinement (gulp).
The reality: one tool probably can't manage all needs.
As we all know, there are a lot of processes involved in managing editorial content at any organization, regardless of staff size or number of channels:
- Idea intake and prioritizing
- Life cycle tracking (content owner/author, timelines, status, etc)
- Asset tracking (copy, graphics, rich media)
- Editorial theming
- Cross-channel calendaring
- Probably more...
Each of these aspects of editorial content development (or content marketing, or whatever other phrase best describes the material you’re responsible for putting out into the world) may require different processes and tools.
And the unsurprising truth is: there is no One Perfect Tool for managing the idiosyncrasies of an org-wide, cross-channel calendar that takes into account all of the above (although some ambitious folks, like Gather Content, appear to be trying).
Yet there are some old stand-bys that get the job done.
Despite the expanding world of web-based content management apps, the most popular tools appear to be those that are both familiar and free:
- Spreadsheets. Spreadsheets are flexible, allowing for the management of daily, monthly, and annual calendars, as well as life cycle and asset tracking for specific pieces of content, editorial theming, and performance tracking. A great example is the impressive free calendar developed and generously shared by Lightbox Collaborative.
- Google Calendar. The comfort of the calendar-based format and ease of sharing seem to be key factors among those using Google Calendar for their editorial needs. The time-based aspect of the platform allows content managers to maintain easy-to-understand calendars and life cycle tracking. The downside is that the format quickly hits its limit when you’ve got a lot of channels to maintain (forcing you to either dedicate a unique Google calendar for each channel, or to cram multiple channels into a single calendar, both of which become unruly very quickly).
The pilot: a customized tool and a two-way process
The solution I’m testing has a long way to go before it’s seamless, but it’s already kept the marketing team more aligned internally, and has helped us better support the teams we’ve piloted with (how often do you get an email from a colleague thanking you for that new process you put in place?).
This is essentially what I’ve put together:
Every six months
Starting with a limited (read: zero) budget, paid tools were out for my team. As a result. we've gone with a fairly substantial shared Google spreadsheet [fig. 1].
It's got one tab for high-level annual theme planning (month-by-month themes across the top, channels broken down by week down the bottom). This lets me do long-term channel planning every six months, based on my staff’s programmatic milestones and goals.
I mapped out an initial 12 months of themes (mostly a straw man to be revisited every quarter at first). There's a big learning curve here, and I have plans to refine how these get created that I'll go into a bit later.
I then used this tab to map out each team's program milestones (as they relate to external communications). This takes a lot of juggling and is a beastly process given how many programs we have!
I'm knee-deep in our current six-month calendaring cycle now. This is when the big picture strategizing gets done, and requires a lot of communication with our program teams.
Then we have monthly tabs breaking down each day of the month vertically, and each channel horizontally [fig. 2].
From here, I can plug in day-by-day communications and see it all mapped out across our channels. There's also a column for program and external milestones (i.e. holidays).
Staff has a Google form they can submit for short-term/last-minute marketing/content requests that goes to me, and I traffic the requests across my team.
I've implemented a weekly 15-min. "editorial alignment" meeting with my marketing team every Monday morning (soon to move to Thursdays to give us more advanced planning), in which we review the upcoming week's calendar, fill in gaps, ask and answer questions, etc.
This meeting alone has been huge in keeping everyone informed and working together toward the same goal. What's great about this system is that everyone can access the calendar, update it, reference it, keep an eye on "their" channels, etc.
There are still some challenges, though. There isn't a clear and easy way to designate audience segments at a glance (I need to add another plane to this matrix!).
And I worry about sharing this with staff due to its complexity. In the past, we’ve used a shared Google calendar, but that was when we were mostly communicating via email. With so many other channels now, that just gets unruly.
The plan for now is to give them access to this master spreadsheet, while providing each team with a six-month higher level version that outlines only their own team's communications. We'll see how that goes.
And then, finally, there is editorial planning/theming. If you're still with me at this point, you're either really struggling with this stuff yourself, or you're a total nerd.
This is where buy-in and communication becomes really important. Staff is happy to see their program milestones on our marketing calendar, but editorial themes are harder to grok.
We depend on non-marketing staff to serve as content authors for a lot of our material, so they need help understanding the how and why of incorporating these themes.
To that end, I've enlisted a handful of core staff members to be our guinea pigs (well, I've asked them to "help us pilot this new system"). They have access to the calendar, and I’ve provided them with some context for each theme.
They do not have to address the theme in everything they produce, of course, but their core content pieces should try to reflect the month's theme in some way. The response has been impressive. Early on, our staff testers were hesitant, expressing concern that the themes would be limiting.
After a few months, they report that having such a framework actually frees them up and has improved their ability to produce focused content.
A note about buy-in: it’s important!
Before making any kind of significant process change, it is absolutely critical to build buy-in among those who might be impacted by the change.
Among those outside of my organization I’ve spoken with, the general consensus is that in the long term, gaining the buy-in of senior leadership (who might not immediately see the measurable value in defining editorial processes) is probably harder than it is to get staff on board.
Pointing out the amount of lost time, production errors, or missed opportunities from uncoordinated channels is probably the best approach with these folks.
Staff, on the other hand, are often well aware of the difficulties of an uncoordinated calendar, but tend to worry about whether or not they’ll be heard, how much extra work they may have to do, or simply how many habits they’ll have to break or pick up to adapt to a new system.
While staff may appear to put up the most resistance at first, they often open up once processes are in place that allow them to experience time savings, better messaging for their programs, etc. It becomes even easier to pitch them the idea of change when they feel like part of the process.
Early on, I did some very simple “interviews” (also known as hallway conversations), and we came up with a simple but clear process for intaking ideas from them (allowing them to feel heard or even influential). Ultimately, communication and dialogue is key to roll-out.
To build buy-in for this process among the rest of our staff, I’ll be hosting an optional editorial brainstorm every six months (to coincide with the long-term calendar planning/program mapping), in which folks can contribute their own insight into our 12-month theming process.
This is also a great way for me to tap our non-marketing folks for hidden yet brilliant ideas that I know are lurking within.
Getting used to continuous improvement
So far, the response to these processes has been almost entirely positive. My marketing team is finally working in unison, and my staff is starting to feel more supported by our team.
I have been very vocal with everyone that this is an ongoing process that will be revisited as we go. Being willing to pivot when something isn’t working (moving our marketing team’s editorial meetings from early in the week to the end of the week, for example), shows our team that we’re willing to work with their needs to create mutually beneficial processes.
And checking in with other teams along the way gives them an opportunity to influence a process that, ultimately, is about making their work stronger.
I owe big thanks to the folks from Progressive Exchange who either shared their own approaches, or who commiserated and made me realize there is no easy or right answer to this stuff.
This is very much a work in progress, but it appears to have given us a solid foundation to build on. Hopefully sharing this approach will spark new ideas within your team, as well.
You can access a boilerplate copy of the pilot calendar via Google Docs.