Planning for the New Year: How to create an editorial calendar
One of my favorite traditions comes each January 1st. Like many of you, I allow myself to sleep in, drink coffee (maybe with some Baileys), and watch football.
But at some point, during the day, I clear off my desk (or kitchen table) and crack open a brand new day-planning calendar. With a beverage of choice, I take last year’s calendar and this year’s fresh calendar and begin to dream of all I’ll do and accomplish. This means copying over important dates (birthdays, and so forth) to the new calendar, as well as holidays, desired trips, or doctor appointments. It is a moment I savor.
The first day back to work after the new year, I do something very similar with my work calendar. As you probably sense, I am a planner. I am also a visual person and enjoy plotting out to-do lists. But even if you’re not naturally wired the same as me, you can still put together a calendar with some tricks. For this post, I’ll specifically be referring to editorial calendars, which are both a necessity and helpful tool for marketers and content experts alike.
Also, I realize that in marketing we don’t always have the luxury to plan a calendar a full year in advance. Sometimes we may be lucky if we have a week to conceptualize and execute a plan. But we can aspire. This post is intended to help you get over the hurdle of a blank calendar. By the end of the post and accompanying exercise, you should have a rough plan that will take you through the end of 2017.
Here we go!
Why do you need a plan?
Organization! A calendar can help you visualize your day, month, or year ahead. It is your roadmap to what you’re up against.
It can help you when you fall short on inspiration, too. If you’ve already set up your calendar, you’ve done the gritty work of ideating topics and themes for your campaigns and copy. Now you just need to execute.
Plus, editorial calendars are a great resource to show your boss that you’re boss.
When do you need an editorial calendar?
I set up calendars and work-back schedules for everything, including daily life. Just ask my husband about our weekend schedule and he’ll go glazy in the eyes as he thinks back to the detailed plan I’ve set out for us to achieve all our errands and fun. I can’t help it! I need to calendar everything to ensure it’s realistic – to ensure all my plans will actually fit into a day. Plus, I like the constraint of time-blocking (see my previous post on productivity).
I also use an editorial calendar or workback plan for most assignments in the office.
Editorial calendars are especially critical for those of you in content and publishing – to plan work ahead including getting freelancers assigned. I come from the magazine world, where we had to plan our cover story and features months in advance. This habit trickles over into web publishing, too, to know what is being posted and when. They’re also necessary for blogging.
Some people question whether it’s smart practice to create an editorial calendar for social media. The argument against doing so is that social media should be timely and spontaneous and planning months in advance is the antithesis of that.
It’s a fair point, though I’m of the mindset that you need an editorial calendar as the backbone to your social media calendar. The reason why? You‘ll make yourself crazy if your social media plan is literally blank and you have to scour and scamper to come up with topics on the fly, day in and day out. I’m not suggesting that you line up all 365 days of posts in advance, though. Instead, strive for a balance. I gravitate toward selecting weekly or even monthly topics that help me frame up my calendar. Then I leave lots of margin to fill in with newsy posts, too.
What to include on your editorial calendar?
You don’t have to include everything on your calendar. In fact, you probably don’t want to because the more granular it gets, the more you’re going to have to adjust when things change (and they will).
Instead, start with the basics: dates, topics or themes, and key milestones. That in and of itself is a rudimentary, and effective, calendar.
But let’s go a little deeper.
How to tackle your editorial calendar
I want this to be an interactive, hands-on workshop of a blog. My goal is that you can frame up your own rough calendar while we go through the next sections.
So, to start, pull out a few sheets of scratch paper and a writing utensil for this.
(Note: while I realize we are in a digitally savvy age, I strongly encourage using actual paper and pen/pencil at this stage. You’re roughing out ideas and may do some rudimentary sketchings – and lots of scribbling. Paper works best for now, and you can transfer this to a more polished digital file later.)
First things first: prioritize your goals and tasks. Draw an inverted pyramid, point on the bottom. At the top (biggest part of the pyramid) are the things you must-do this year: launch a product, hit a certain revenue goal, and so forth. These are those things on your must-do list.
Next, move to the middle section of your pyramid and break it into four quadrants. Label them Q1, Q2, Q3, Q4 – so you have one per quarter. Think about what needs to happen in each of those time frames and write those things down, if you know. If you don’t know specific dates for these items quite yet, just fill something in anyway as placeholders. You can always update this.
In the smallest section of your pyramid, at the point, list your smaller wish list items you’d like to do if you can.
I realize it’s a little awkward to smush everything into this pyramid shape, because the result is not a symmetrical shape – especially in that quadrant section. But the intent is to get you thinking about your priorities, from biggest to smallest.
Now, grab a new piece of paper. We’re going to take that same pyramid and make it more calendar-like.
The first step is to plot out 12 squares and label each with the 12 months of the year. Within each month, plot one thing from your pyramid. That thing can be a to-do list item, a milestone, or an overarching theme. Consider key business operations here, too. For example, any conferences you’ll be supporting. Also, list national and international holidays you may be able to tie into. Feel free to add “TBD” or “placeholder” to your list. That’s OK. Your goal is to let the ideas and plans flow at this stage. Don’t judge yourself for not having all the answers. You may also have extras – more than one thing per month. Write those in for now.
As you are doing this work, my guess is your brain will start to dream. You may feel the urge to be creative here – at least it does for me. As I start planning, my brain gets excited and ideas flow. I make correlations and may even come up with catchy slogans and campaign ideas I can use later on. If this happens to you, don’t resist. Write them down. No one is watching! These notes are for you.
Step away from your work
Now that you have your months plotted, pause. You can break this into weekly or even daily and hourly chunks later. But this is good for now. You could even stop at this stage completely, especially if you’re feeling taxed and need to move on to something else.
Otherwise, allow yourself a break before you revise. Pat yourself on the back and step away at least for 15 or 30 minutes. Grab a coffee, or take a walk and come back.
Welcome back: time to shuffle
Back? Great! Now it’s time to shuffle things around and play a bit.
Grab 12 sticky notes or notecards – one for each month – and scribble in the work from your 12-month calendar. Affix them to your desk or floor and start shuffling things around to see what works best. If you have extras, give those ideas their own sticky note.
Next, look up an online calendar of holidays and make note of anything you may have missed, such as smaller holidays or national “days” (such as national dog day, ice cream day, and so forth). These can be fun things to leverage.
I also recommend you pull out last year’s editorial calendar at this stage to compare your work. If you’ve got metrics from last year, all the better. Assess what you did, what worked, and adjust.
Keep shuffling and balancing your calendar until you are satisfied. Personally, I look to ensure I have an even distribution of topics and ideas per month – but it doesn’t always work out so smoothly. At minimum, I try to have one or two major ideas for each month, with a few extras that might float between months or be nice add-ons if we have the time. And I want to err on the side of more content at the front half of the calendar than the back. You can always add more things later as the months’ tick by.
Also, take your time at this stage. This is really the heavy lifting, and it requires thought. You may even want to stretch this work over the course of a few days.
Create a one-sheet view
Once you feel solid about the plan, go back and plot your “final” calendar onto a one-sheet view so you can see it all in flow. Group your months into quarters. Assign KPIs or goals so you can measure your results. How does it look? Probably pretty polished at this stage. Great work!
Once you have your calendar and themes ironed out, now’s the time to define the details and work out workback plans. For example, assign names to to-do items. Capture key due dates for deliverables. Even make note of specific budgetary restrictions or traffic goals for your efforts.
Note that above, I said this was your “final” calendar. In quotation marks. That’s because it’s never really done, is it? You know this game by now. Everything changes – whether it’s due to a strategy shift or a new boss coming in and shuffling things around.
And it may be because you simply don’t love the plan and need to make some adjustments to improve your calendar. Remember this is your calendar, so you can come back to it and work ahead as often as you like.
Tactically, I prepare for this by setting reminders on my digital calendar every 1-2 months. I title my task “update editorial calendar” and I block an hour or two. Then, I go through the above exercises – or at least read through my plans – and make tweaks as needed.
Weekly or daily views – should you create them?
If you are on a roll and want to go deeper to create a week-by-week or day-by-day plan, you can. But if you do this, I recommend you only plan this deeply for 6-10 weeks in advance. The reason is because of what we just discussed: plans can and do change. I’d hate for you to get married to ideas and daily tasks, only to have to undo and change them all.
Going digital and final tips
Once you’ve scribbled on paper and worked out the kinks, this is the time to transfer this calendar to whatever medium works best for you and your team. Maybe you transfer everything onto a shared calendar like Outlook, Google spreadsheets, or Asana.
I suggest you create a one-sheet slide view of the calendar, probably in PowerPoint. I like to do this step so that I can insert the calendar into to the appendix of any marketing decks I distribute throughout the year. It’s also easy to print this slide and tack it to my office wall to consult.
I also like to create a single month at a time view, which I call my “at a glance” view. This helps me stay on track and clearly organize my priorities for the month.
Great work! Here’s to a successful year ahead!