How to Create a Flexible, Value-Driven Content Marketing Plan

Content marketing offers limitless opportunities to use the content you create to market your brand, products, and services to a large audience of prospective customers. It allows you to grow organic traffic, expand reach on social media, and drive visitors deeper into the purchasing funnel.

Because content marketing offers limitless opportunities, executing it without a plan can be detrimental. If unfocused, your efforts may yield little value.

A content marketing plan allows you to identify which specific tasks provide the most value. Efforts can then be focused on those tasks, eliminating waste and increasing the effectiveness of your campaigns. However, only 37% of content marketing teams have a documented strategy, and one of the most common reasons cited is that they don’t have time to create a plan.

Creating a content marketing plan doesn’t have to be a huge, time-consuming effort. With agile best practices, you can easily create a content marketing plan that drives value, enables streamlined content production, and amplifies success.

Step 1: Creating a Backlog

A backlog is a prioritized list of all the tasks you want to complete. It is the backbone of your content marketing plan.

To form a backlog, you need to sit down with your team and brainstorm ideas for tasks, campaigns, and initiatives. At the brainstorming stage, no ideas should be disregarded; you’ll evaluate the value and practicality of all ideas in a future step.

For your initial pass, you just want to get all ideas down on paper so you have a basis to work from when forming your plan. What you come up with will likely be a combination of both small and large tasks.

Once you’re finished brainstorming, you can start breaking the large tasks down into smaller components.

By the end of this exercise, you should have a long list of things you want to do. This list is the starting point for creating the backlog that will serve as the central component of your content marketing plan.

Step 2: Attributing Value

Agile requirements are delivered in user story format. User stories are unique because they define requirements from the perspective of your audience. This is useful when creating a content marketing plan because it forces you to think beyond what you want to do—beyond what will benefit your business the most—and focus instead on the value of your initiatives to your audience.

User stories are always written as follows: As a [who], I want [what] so that [why]. To write tasks in the form of user stories, you must first determine who you’re writing the piece of content for, what is it that person is seeking, and why they need it.

For example, imagine that one of your tasks is to create a piece of skyscraper content detailing how to optimize a website for mobile.

To write your user story, you first need to define your audience. More than likely, it’s people whose websites are not optimized for mobile, or people with sites that are only minimally optimized.

Next, you need to define what that audience needs. This part is simple because the need is already defined in your original task: a detailed piece of content describing how to optimize a site for mobile.

Lastly, you need to define the why: the value this piece of content provides your audience.

The outcome of this exercise is a user story:

As a website owner that has not yet optimized my site for mobile, I want comprehensive information on how to optimize my site so that I can form a plan of action for making my site more mobile-friendly.

After you’ve defined the value for the user, you can also define business value. In this instance, let’s say you’re a web development company that builds responsive websites.

Business Value: By gating this content, we can collect contact information for quality leads.

The tasks you want to perform are those that have both user value and business value. If you’re struggling to come up with one or the other for any task in your list, it’s likely the task is not worth completing.

Doing something that’s useful for users but has no value for your business may be fine on occasion, but for the most part, you’re going to want tasks that are helpful to users and helpful to your bottom line.

Likewise, if something has business value but you can’t come up with any reason why a user would want it, it’s unlikely to be discovered or utilized by your audience, and in extreme cases, it may just be spam.

Once you’ve broken down tasks, written user stories, and added business value statements, you’re ready to prioritize.

Step 3: Prioritizing

Agile uses relative prioritization. This means that prioritizing 10 tasks requires you to assign a number, 1-10, to each task; you cannot have multiple #1s.

The reason for this is because relative prioritization makes you think about why something is valuable and worth doing. It can’t be valuable just because you think it is—or because your manager thinks it is. The value must be definable and measurable.

Understanding the value of other tasks can sometimes help you understand why prioritization instincts were wrong. For example, let’s take one of the tasks from above:

A relative prioritization of these tasks requires you to determine which is most important, second most important, and so on. Determining which is most important forces you to thoroughly investigate which provide the most and least value, highlighting tasks that have less value than you originally expected.

For example, let’s say you’re a B2B company marketing to individuals in leadership roles at enterprise corporations. You discover in your prioritization research that:

  • 75% of your targeted audience is active on LinkedIn.
  • 50% is active on Twitter.
  • 98% have Facebook accounts, but they rarely follow brands.
  • Less than 5% are active on Instagram and Pinterest
  • Less than 1% are active on Snapchat.

Not only does this make prioritizing simple—you need to be where your audience is—it forces you to think about the overall value of spending time and energy growing a following on networks like Pinterest, Instagram, and Snapchat where there just isn’t much potential for growth. You may decide to prioritize them lower in your list, or you can decide it’s not worth executing on those tasks at all.

At best, those tasks become a nice-to-have—something you’d like to do in the future, but only when interest in those channels improves or you just have nothing else to do.

Additionally, when your manager comes and asks why you’re not maintaining your Snapchat account, you can show him/her hard data as to why it’s just not worth your time to focus on that channel.

When prioritizing, you have to rank every single task and sub-task against each other. This allows you to identify which tasks have the most value to your business and your users and focus on those first.

By focusing first on tasks with the highest potential yield, you’ll see progress more quickly, and the time between effort and yield will be shorter. The end result will look like this (but will certainly be much lengthier):

Step 4: Estimating Effort

You’ve captured and prioritized all of the tasks you want to complete, and now it’s time to schedule your tasks.

Before beginning to schedule tasks, there are a few things you need to do.

  1. Decide how long you want your iterations to be.
  2. Determine how many hours are available during an iteration for completing work.
  3. Estimate how long each task will take to complete.

In agile software development, developers work in iterations. Iterations are a period of time—anywhere from one week to one month—in which work is scheduled for completion. By committing to complete work in an iteration, developers are able to focus their efforts on the highest priority tasks, avoid delays, and deliver high-value functionality more quickly to the end user.

To set the iterations for your content marketing plan, choose a time period that you want to work in over the course of the year. A week is a decent amount of time for an iteration if you plan to execute mostly on small tasks, such as writing single blog posts.

If you find that tasks tend to be more complex and require more time, choose a longer iteration cycle—anywhere from two weeks to one month.

Next, you need to determine how many hours are available for work to be completed during that iteration:

  • Identify the number of people that will be working to complete the tasks in your backlog. Example: you have a team of three people that will all be working full-time on content marketing.
  • Identify the number of hours each person will allocate directly to completing tasks in your backlog. For example, all full-time people may work 40 hours a week, but it’s rare that they’ll spend every minute of those 40 hours on tasks. A good rule of thumb is to expect six hours of work from a person on any given day. This allows for variations for meeting schedules, email maintenance, and breaks.
  • Multiply the number of hours available by the number of people on your team. If you have three people devoting six hours a day to tasks over one-week iterations, then you can pull 90 hours of work into each iteration (6 hours per day * 5 days per week * 3 people = 90 available hours).

Once you know how many hours you have available, you can start estimating work. The best way to estimate is to make sure all of your work is broken down into the smallest components, then determine how many hours it will take to complete each task.

For example, if you have a task that is to write and publish five blog posts every week, break that task down into five individual tasks to write one blog post. Then, estimate the effort of the task by determining how many hours it usually takes to write a post.

If it usually takes 6 hours to write and publish a blog post, assign six hours to each individual task for that work. If it usually takes 24 hours to write a piece of skyscraper content, assign 24 hours to that task.

Don’t worry too much about figuring out exactly how many hours it’s going to take—you can adjust over time if you find certain things are averaging out to different amounts of time than you originally anticipated.

Step 5: Scheduling Tasks

Once you’ve estimated all tasks, you’re ready to start pulling work into iterations. The goal is to pull the highest priority work in soonest without exceeding the number of hours in the iteration.

Let’s say your highest priority tasks and estimations are as follows:

  • Create 5 blog posts = 30 hours
  • Create a piece of skyscraper content = 24 hours
  • Schedule all new content to post to LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook = 2 hours
  • Create a video to post on Facebook = 16 hours
  • Write and record a podcast = 48 hours
  • Create a YouTube channel = 4 hours

In total, you have 90 available hours in which work can be completed, but you have 124 hours of work you want to complete. Since your plan for the iteration can’t exceed 90 hours, you have to do one of two things: either you have to skip a higher-priority task and come back to it in the next iteration, or you have to break down tasks even further to fit them in the iteration.

For example, 48 hours is a lot of time for writing and recording a podcast, so maybe you can break that down into two tasks—writing a podcast and recording a podcast. You estimate that writing the podcast will take 18 hours and recording and editing it will take 30 hours. You can now pull the five highest priority tasks into your iteration and move the two lowest priority tasks into the next iteration:

Iteration 1: 90 hours

  • Create 5 blog posts = 30 hours
  • Create a piece of skyscraper content = 24 hours
  • Schedule all new content to post to LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook = 2 hours
  • Create a video to post on Facebook = 16 hours
  • Write a podcast = 18 hours

Iteration 2: 90 hours

  • Create 5 blog posts = 30 hours
  • Schedule all new content to post to LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook = 2 hours
  • Create a video to post on Facebook = 16 hours
  • Edit and publish your podcast = 30 hours
  • Create a YouTube channel = 4 hours
  • Create optimized landing pages for gated content written last week = 8 hours

Continue to go through this process for however many iterations you want to include in your content marketing plan.

If you want to plan for the whole year and are going to work in one-week iterations, then you need to plan for 52 iterations. If that amount of planning seems overwhelming, plan iterations for a month out, and then get together once a month to plan the next set.

The beauty of planning by iteration is it allows for plan updates and shifts based on new information. Say you discover after a few months that podcasts just aren’t bringing in enough traffic to account for the effort required to produce them. You can simply de-prioritize creating podcasts and update future iterations to pull in higher priority tasks.

Or say Facebook is bringing in many more leads than other social media sites. You can move tasks for Facebook higher in the list of priorities and focus on that before other, lower-performing tasks.

Keep in mind that tasks that need to be completed in later iterations need much less detail than those you’re going to complete sooner. Let tasks that need to be completed three months from now stay generic and include little detail—you can add more specific details when it’s time to pull in that work.

On the other hand, work that will be completed soon needs much more detail. A task that needs to be completed next week—like “publish a blog post”—should have all detail needed to complete the task, like the keyword the blog post should target, the length of the post, etc.

Get together with your team at the beginning of each iteration to plan the iteration and assign tasks to team members. This gives everyone a detailed plan for the week, allows them to pick up the tasks they’re most interested in, and keeps them focused throughout the week.

Once the plan for the iteration is set, new work should not be added to the iteration unless it’s an extreme circumstance. If your CEO comes and demands a new piece of skyscraper content is built that week, you’ll need to re-plan the iteration to ensure that that work planned for the week is still completable.

Continuous Planning

Your initial content marketing plan is simply a framework from which you can work from to ensure highest-value work is being completed soonest. However, the framework can—and should—be updated continuously to account for new information, shifts resulting from A/B testing or analytics insights, or new market trends.

While short-term iteration plans should be set in stone as much as possible, long-term plans should shift to ensure you’re always working on the tasks that provide the most value to users and your business.

At the end of each iteration, take time to conduct a retrospective—a short meeting to reflect on iteration progress, impediments, and insights. This will allow you to refine future iterations, eventually becoming a well-oiled content marketing machine that produces high-value work consistently.

Planning Tools

While initial planning can occur in spreadsheets and documents, those documents become hard to maintain over time and are prone to becoming outdated or incorrect if you have multiple individuals maintaining and updating them. If you try out agile planning and determine it’s effective for your team, you may want to consider adopting planning software to improve processes.

While there are a lot of options to choose from when looking for agile planning software, I recommend starting with Trello.

Trello is a simple to use, intuitive, and flexible way to document tasks, assign owners, and prioritize. Best of all, it’s free.

If you need some inspiration to get started, check out these sample boards:

Getting Started on Your Content Marketing Plan

Agile best practices enable creation of a content marketing plan that allows your team to focus efforts, consistently drive towards value for both your business and your users, and shift quickly based on new information.

Even if planning work across multiple iterations seems like more trouble than it’s worth, taking the time to brainstorm all of the tasks you want your team to accomplish and prioritizing those tasks relatively will give you a platform for analyzing the value inherent in completing each task.

By knowing how much value each task is providing, you can form a content marketing plan that not only grows traffic, generates leads, and increases conversions, but also eliminates waste, improves productivity, and encourages collaboration.