How to Create a Content Calendar: A Step-by-Step Guide
People that succeed in content marketing generally do two things very well:
➡️ First, they identify opportunities to create content that help them drive results.
➡️ Second, they put a plan in place to execute on those opportunities.
And oftentimes, a well thought out content calendar is exactly what you need to tackle these two points.
Throughout this simple-to-follow guide, we'll share with you exactly how to set up and maintain a content calendar as well as how to generate content ideas and ensure you're always putting out the content your audince craves.
The strategies outlined in this post are the exact ones we used to grow Buffer’s traffic to 1.7 million page views and 1.5 million sessions per month. And comes complete with tips, real-life examples and content calendar templates.
Let’s get started.
How we grew the Buffer blog to 1.5 million sessions per month
Buffer is pretty well-known for its blog.
But despite all the accolades and traffic, we’re still learning new stuff every day. And since joining Buffer, my #1 goal has been to increase traffic to our Social blog.
For months on end, I was stuck…
Here’s a snapshot our traffic throughout 2016:
We were hovering at around 1m-1.1m sessions per month…
We realized that these figures, while incredibly humbling and inspiring, were stagnating a little. We needed to do more.
So we decided to double down on our content calendar and planning.
- Ensuring every post was ready to be edited and optimized a couple of weeks before the publish date
- Identifying target keywords and putting a quick promotion plan in place before we started writing each post
- Analyzing our traffic to identify new opportunities
(More on these a little later)…
Let’s See The Results…
The focus on planning enabled us to grow the blog to over 1.7m page views and 1.5m sessions per month:
March 2017, became our biggest month ever for traffic — 1,535,222 sessions (a 39% year-on-year increase 🎉):
April and May also became our 3rd and 2nd highest traffic months respectively:
- April: 1,479,525
- May: 1,501,296
(Remember for most of 2016 we hovered around 1m-1.1 million sessions).
You might be wondering:
“OK, so how do I do that?”
Well, here goes…
What is a content calendar?
Whether you’re a solo blogger or part of a team, a content marketing calendar will help you to organize your content ahead of time and ensure you’re releasing only the best stuff.
- Without a content calendar, you’re flying by the seat of your pants ❌
- With a content calendar, you’re executing a content marketing strategy ✅
(It doesn’t matter if you’re looking to create blog posts, videos, podcasts/audio or any type content. The principles are the same… a carefully planned content calendar will help you to grow 💯)
A content calendar will help you:
- Drive more traffic to your blog or website 📈
- Worry less about deadlines 😅
- Have a better understanding of what you’re publishing and why 🎯
Content planning is one of the most effective ways you can spend your time if you want to grow your blog.
To give you some examples:
- Canva plan their content up to six weeks in advance — this helped them to hit over 1m sessions/month
- At Buffer, our content marketing calendar has helped us grow to over 1.5m sessions
- Nat Eliason used to plan content at Sumo around a month in advance and grew their blog from 5,000 visits per month to over 170,000
Bottom line: Carefully planning our your content can make a huge long-term difference in your site’s traffic.
How to create a content marketing calendar in 3 simple steps
Step #1: Set up an easy-to-use content calendar
A content marketing calendar should be a resource for your whole team to plan and understand what activity you have going on.
Your calendar should help you:
- Plan content around key events in your industry or important dates
- See where you have gaps in your content plan (with plenty of warning to line up new content)
- Make sure you have your content ready in plenty of time to publish
Here’s a peek at what our Buffer content marketing calendar looks like:
P.S. By the end of this guide, you’ll be up and running with your own content marketing calendar just like this. We’ll be sharing all the steps to create a calendar and all the tools you need to build your own 🚨
Creating a content calendar in Trello
Trello is my go-to tool for creating a content calendar.
I set up a Trello board with 6 columns:
- Content Ideas: Every idea we come up with is added here 💡
- Pipeline: When we decide we want to write a post it’s moved to the pipeline 👍
- In-Progress: A writer has been assigned and they’ve started work on this post. At this stage, we aim to set a publish date 📅
- Editing: Once the draft is with me for editing/feedback it’s moved here ✍️
- Ready to publish: When the final edits are done and the post is scheduled it’s moved to this column ✅
- Published: Finally we move posts to this column briefly before archiving them 📣
Each post gets its own Trello card and moves through each column as it progresses from an idea to a finished article ready to publish.
You can check out our board here.
The Trello Calendar Power-Up also makes it super easy to take a bird’s-eye view of your calendar and how your content is shaping up.
If you’re not into Trello, here are a few more options to set up your content marketing calendar:
Next, we’ll cover how to come up with content ideas to fill your calendar.
Step #2: Find Content With a Proven Track Record of Success
Creating great content takes a lot of time.
To make the best use of all the effort you’re putting into content marketing you should base your content on something that’s already proven to work.
That sounds kinda obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t bother with this step.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of creating content you think will do well or content you want to create, rather than content you know there’s an audience for.
Absolute most consistent problem I see in new publications = People writing stories they want to write. Not what the audience wants to read.— John O'Nolan @ 🇮🇩 (@JohnONolan) February 3, 2017
3 steps to finding content that WILL work
1. Uncover the content that's worked for you in the past
If you’ve been running your blog for a while, you’ll have a goldmine of data sat in your analytics.
Jump into your analytics account and take a look at which posts are bringing in the most traffic month-on-month.
First, open your Google Analytics dashboard and set the date range to the past 3–4 months.
Next, click on “Behavior”, “Site Content” → “All Pages”.
Now, look at your most popular pieces of content and identify any themes or commonalities.
Here’s a look at some of our Buffer data:
One thing that stood out from this quick snapshot is that two of the top posts are tools roundups:
- 24 Simple and Free SEO Tools to Instantly Improve Your Marketing
- Know What’s Working on Social Media: 26 Free Social Media Analytics Tools
We decided to dig a little deeper and also discovered that the social media analytics post was one of the highest converting posts on our blog — bringing in over 3,300 Buffer users since it was published.
So not only do tools roundups posts bring in traffic, but they also convert well when the topic is relevant to Buffer.
With this knowledge, we were able to create a few additional tools roundup posts that are highly targeted to Buffer’s audience and customer base:
- The 25 Top Social Media Management Tools for Businesses of All Sizes
- 30+ Free Instagram Tools to Help You Grow Your Following
- 20 Tools for Creating Engaging Social Media Videos, Images and GIFs in Minutes
When you’re taking a look at your own data here are a few things to look out for:
- Types of posts: Maybe lists work well for you, or super-detailed 3,000+ word articles. Look for any commonalities between your top performing content
- Topics/Themes: Does your audience love posts about Facebook marketing or Instagram. If any topics stand out, double down on what’s working and write more content focused on these topics
2. Find content that's popular in your niche
The next way to come up with ideas is to see what content is currently performing well in your niche.
First, make a list of competitor blogs and popular blogs in your niche.
If you’re not quite sure on which blogs to check, try a quick Google search like:
“best [your niche] blogs”
Next, use a tool like Buzzsumo to discover the most-shared content on each site:
Then, make a list of any super highly shared posts:
Aim to find 25–30 popular posts in your niche.
As you add to this spreadsheet, keep an eye out for any topics that pop regularly. These could be awesome subjects to write about.
I repeat this exercise each month to help come up with new ideas and keep tabs on any trending topics within the industry.
3. Answer questions people are already asking
There are a wealth questions out there people are searching for answers to. And often, some of the best content marketing is the stuff that helps the consumer solve a problem.
To find out what questions people in your niche are asking you could:
Head over to Quora or Reddit and see what questions people are asking and discussing. For example, there are tons of questions on Quora about accounting software — if you run an accoutning company you could create content to help answer these questions.
Your customer support inboxes and emails are also a goldmine for content ideas if you regularly check what questions your clients and customers are asking frequently. Any topics that crop up repeatedly could be great content marketing opportunities.
Step #3: Decide which posts to write
You should now have a ton of content ideas tucked away. But which ones should you actually write?
I tend to prioritize posts in three ways:
1. SEO potential
If you’re looking for long-term growth, SEO potential will likely be the most important factor in deciding what to write.
The great thing about content marketing vs. almost any other form of marketing is that the results can compound over time.
Tomasz Tunguz, a venture capitalist with Redpoint Ventures, compared content from news related blog to a blog of the same size that focused on evergreen, timeless content. What he found is that evergreen content becomes more valuable over time and consistently drives traffic, whereas the temporal content site struggled to retain visits.
Over the course of a year, the evergreen blog had generated an audience 3x the size of the news site.
We can attest to Tomasz’s findings at Buffer, too. Take our Facebook Ads Specs post, for example — it generated 4,490 page views in the first week after we published it, but it’s now gone on to generate more than 220,000 page views:
Compare that to one of our news-focused posts and you can see the difference in long-term traffic:
To ensure, long-term growth for your blog you should plan the majority of your posts with the aim of generating sustainable, organic traffic.
Once I've created a list of content ideas, I'll jump into some keyword research to identify which content topics and ideas carry the biggest search opportunities.
To do this I tend to use KWFinder or Ahrefs to check how much search volume each recieves.
How to research keywords
These guides will help you get started with keyword research:
- Keyword Research for SEO: The Definitive Guide
- Moz: Beginners Guide to Keyword Research
- How to Do Keyword Research for SEO: A Beginner’s Guide
Unless you’re Buzzfeed, you’ll likely need to rely on organic traffic as your #1 source of traffic.
But this doesn’t mean everything you write has to be 100% keyword focused.
If there’s a topic you’re really excited to write about or something you have a hunch needs to be written, you should write it — and then optimize it for search as much as possible afterward.
For example, we recently published a post on the Buffer blog about social media’s decline as a traffic channel for many businesses.
This post wasn’t driven by any specific keywords, but as a hot topic in our industry it was shared more than our average post and brought in more traffic than average in its first week after publishing.
Top tip: Always try to keep on top of trending topics and conversations in your industry so you know when something is worth writing about.
3. Business fit
Shares and traffic are both vanity metrics to some extent.
For example, you could write a post about the #1 trending topic on Twitter each day, but unless you're in the news business that post is going to send very little — if any — relevant traffic to your site.
Try to ensure you're writing about topics that related to your business.
For example, at Buffer our top posts are related to social media marketing, covering topics like Facebook Ads, idea social media image sizes and more:
I'll always priotitize the content ideas that are closely related to our business over those that may have high traffic potential, but don't quite fit alighn with Buffer's product.
Step #3: Find your publishing cadence
Publishing cadence is the rate at which your publish content on your blog.
At Buffer, we currently aim to publish just once or twice per week.We had experimented with publishing four or five times per week but found that things got a bit hectic and we were in danger of losing side of the quantity vs quality battle.
There’s no right or wrong publishing cadence. The best cadence is one that you can 100% stick too.
Just check out the varied publishing schedules of these three uber-successful blogs:
- Hubspot publishes content several times per day across their blogs
- Intercom publishes multiple times per week
- Brian Dean publishes every few months
It doesn’t really matter how often you publish as long as the content you do publish is:
- Incredibly high quality
- Optimized for SEO and social sharing
- Relevant to your audience and business
Experiment and find out what cadence works best for you.
Get started with your content calendar
Thanks for checking out this guide! With these lessons and examples in hand, you're good to go and set up a content calendar of your own.