No shortcuts: content calendars

No shortcuts: content calendars are not dead

In Ideas by Peter Gearin

Despite wishes to ‘kill them right now’, content calendars remain a vital part of any broader content strategy.

The advertising/marketing and health/fitness media share many traits. One is the need to find shortcuts for complex problems. Whether it’s training regimes (“Two weeks to your perfect bikini body”), nutrition (“Eating chocolate makes you thin”) or increasing revenue (“10 easy ways to convert prospects into buyers”), these clickbait platforms specialise in making you think it’s possible to achieve the seemingly impossible.

Another trait these platforms share is a desire to kill things off. Clickbait publishers love being the “first” to bid farewell to tried and tested practices, our sacred cows. The more esteemed the practice or established the tradition, the larger the point size and more hysterical the arguments. “Advertising is dead!” “Sit-ups are dead!” “Newspapers are dead!” Content marketing has had its obituary written and debated dozens of times.

So when B&T published an opinion piece recently, “Why you need to kill your content calendar right now”, it went straight to that special place all dieting fads and marketing technology promises go. Written by former Tourism Australia head of content Andrés López-Varela, now head of strategy at Sydney-based content agency Storyation, the article claims content calendars should be junked because they only add to the “noise”. He claims many marketers falsely use the calendar as their content strategy, and because of this they fail to understand their audience’s needs, don’t know what they should be measuring and are unable to focus on brand voice and style adequately.

He writes that marketers who stick rigidly to a content calendar do so with the same fervour “a toddler might commit to a security blankie”, and don’t end up “focusing on outcomes, but rather the process”. “Those teams and organisations that are fixated on using the content calendar as a means to measure and track their content program’s performance are kidding themselves,” he writes. “If you’re focused on ‘pumping out’ a set number of content items for a month or even as part of a campaign because that’s what the calendar says, then you are making it exponentially harder for your great content, the real stuff that works and should connect with your audience, to actually make an impact.

“The calendarised approach to content cultivates marketing teams that are passive and unfocused when it comes to meeting their audiences’ needs or even just ‘doing good marketing’.”

“I don’t see how you can implement a strategy without some way of organising your production.”Sarah Mitchell

The article certainly played well to B&T’s audience of ad agency people and enterprise-level marketers and social media producers. “Spot on, mate,” responded Thomas Hutley, head of OMD Create at agency OMD Australia, on LinkedIn. “We stopped doing them a while ago. So much time, energy and budget go into developing content that really adds no value to the business or end customer.” Brand Tales asked Hutley if this meant his agency no longer does content calendars for clients but he didn’t respond.

One brand marketing specialist, Stephanie Trachsel, replied: “Love love love this. So many clients/companies push for content calendars that are simply old school redundant and do not leverage the power of social.”

Carat Australia social director Samuel Stevenson says he is also wary of marketing teams that rely too heavily on a highly regimented content calendar. This is particularly the case for teams using them to schedule content on clients’ behalf for social media.

“I believe this structure comes at the cost of flexibility,” Stevenson says. “Plans can always change, but it can be too risky to put change in [clients’] minds even when it can make something better. Most of the time the person having that conversation doesn’t have the capability to communicate that to the client without them then becoming nervous about the change. It’s that inflexibility once a plan/calendar is in place that to me suggests a shift from activating an opportunity to simply completing a task.”

The value of content calendars

Marketers of all stripes have been told for years about the importance of consistency and regularity when it comes to publishing content. As publishers everywhere have found – even B&T, presumably – a critical factor in success is having a schedule of work produced at the same time every day, week, month or year. By any commonsense measure, having a publishing schedule that is well managed and easily followed by a content team leads to more predictable, measurable and effective results. The theory is that producing quality content regularly breeds customer loyalty, which leads to your target audience coming back for more.

Yes, flexibility is essential. Things change all the time. Stories often drop in and drop out, interviews get cancelled, more urgent news or timely commentary take precedence. But a content calendar – even when used as a plan A – dictates that things get done. That’s why even a simple publishing schedule that lists objectives for each piece is valuable for anyone serious about content marketing.

What that doesn’t make a content calendar, however, is a content strategy. That’s because it should only be a plan based on agreed business goals, says adviser and long-time content marketing advocate Todd Wheatland.

“A content calendar is only effective as a tool to execute against a strategy that’s being measured,” Wheatland says. “If someone’s too lazy to have a strategy, and is just pumping out content on a set-and-forget model, they’re asking for suboptimal outcomes.”

Bobbi Mahlab, who founded one of Australia’s most successful and longest-running content agencies, Mahlab, agrees. “Content calendars should never replace a strategy and shouldn’t be used as a strategy but they do have a purpose because they enable you to plan and ensure the detail delivers on the broader pillars and objectives,” she says. “I agree they should be flexible but a plan is the best way to reach an objective. No plan means no clear path.

“Content calendars are just one piece of the content puzzle but they are an important piece.”

Anyone reading the B&T article, however, might think having a content calendar is a waste of time. That rather than carefully planning, checking and scheduling content according to your content strategy, you would be better off only reacting to your audience’s needs at all times.

In a LinkedIn response, López-Varela said he would like to see content marketers take a more agile approach to producing relevant content. “Ultimately, I think any process that values regularity of content over delivering content that is valuable and useful to the audience is not fit for purpose anymore.

“There’s no one size fits all answer, but I do think that taking some cues from the Agile Software Methodology approach is a good start. That process, which I have seen adapted into marketing contexts successfully, encourages timely, responsive engagement with the business and audiences’ needs and focuses on only planning for the very short term to increase visibility over the production and publishing process and increase the likelihood of quality outputs.”

Content calendar’s role

Marketing strategist Sarah Mitchell has been a long-time proponent of content calendars. All a calendar does, she says, is track production activities. It has no role in developing strategy.

“I don’t see how you can implement a strategy without some way of organising your production,” Mitchell says. “I certainly endorse a content calendar for this purpose, especially one that can be shared with everyone on the production team.

“I also think a content calendar needs to include the intended audience on everything produced. It should absolutely record the call to action and the expected outcomes of the piece. All of these things are developed in the strategy and tracking them in a content calendar is a good way to determine if production is aligned with your strategy or if you’re drifting away. You can also use the content calendar to see trends and identify areas needing attention.”

Mitchell says the last thing anyone involved in content marketing needs is to plan for the very short term. “The whole discipline is a long play, creating value over time and building equity,” she says. “Common wisdom says it takes 12-18 months to see results with content marketing and that’s certainly been my experience. Recently, [US marketing author] Mark Schaefer is saying it takes more like 30 months to affect change in your business.”

But try telling the B&T crowd that they might have to wait for two-and-a-half years to see real results from their content marketing strategy. It just doesn’t sound sexy, does it?

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