Businesses need content. Publications need content. With the rise of the “personal brand,” individual people need content. We consume more content now than at any point in history — 11 hours per day for the average person. Much of this content is in video or audio format but, lest you assume differently, words are not dead.
Unfortunately, though, there are caveats to consuming all that awesome content:
- We end up spending less time creating our own
- We compare everything we make to someone else
- Sometimes, it seems like everything has already been said
When it feels heavy and difficult to think of new content ideas, you might feel like you’re having the “what should I make for dinner?” discussion with yourself every day. Googling a “Blog Topic Generator” is a lot like Googling “food” and cooking whatever comes up first. It might work.
If you had a formula for planning dinner every night, wouldn’t that be nice? It might seem a little boring at first but soon, you’d build upon the basics and never wonder what to eat again.
If you’re feeling apathetic about content, especially as we round out the end of the year (and the decade!), I invite you to try out a formula that IV-drips inspiration while formulating your content planning process. Once you have a process that works, you can tweak it to suit you.
Explore this framework which is what I use for clients and myself, that might help you get back on track with planning and creating awesome content. The goal of the framework is to create a routine out of what is finite about your blog posts – the verticals you cover, the intentions you have, and the types of content you like to make. The finite parts become a code that prompts and predicts the infinite and inspiring parts.
A Recipe for Content Planning
What You’ll Need
- A blank Google sheet
- Your keyword tool of choice
- A few other (free) tools I’ll mention later
- A couple hours of undivided attention
- An understanding of your own brand, consumers, and services
- A beverage and a playlist
Step One: Determine Your Limits
How many posts are you going to write each month? This may vary from 2 to 200 and there’s no right or wrong answer. Choose what makes sense for your bandwidth, resources, and the amount of information you hope to convey each month. For the sake of this article (and our collective sanity) let’s aim for 6 per month. That’s 18 posts in the three months we’ll be planning together.
Homework: Set up the desired amount of rows in your spreadsheet and separate them by month. One row for each piece of content you’ll make in that month. Leave a row at the top for column headings. List the three months in column A. For example, mine would have three months with 6 posts each, like this:
Step Two: Set Your Intentions
Content without intention is just noise. If you don’t know what you want your blog post to do for you, how can you possibly measure whether it did? And, without measurement, you’re making daisy-chains in the outfield instead of catching pop flies. Stop it. Set an intention for every blog post. My most common intentions are these:
- Build authority
- Build brand awareness
- Promote a specific service
- Show some personality
- Educate someone
- Drive bottom-of-funnel leads
You might also use your intention column as an opportunity to highlight who you’ll be trying to reach such as “target C-suite executives” or “target NYC residents”.
Homework: Add an intention in column B for every post you’ll plan. I usually just divide key goals evenly among the posts I’m planning unless a specific product launch or current event demands otherwise. Here’s an example:
Step Three: Get Categorical
Next, we need to talk about categories. I’m not referring to the categories you use in the back-end of your site for your blog – but if you’ve done those correctly, they may correlate. Instead, make a list of 5-7 broad categories you cover. These often match up with the services you offer or the products you sell. For me, these are content marketing, branding, copywriting, entrepreneurship, and business growth.
We’re now going to apply your categories to the doc. You might want to double-down on one category, split them evenly, or omit one entirely in a given month. You might also notice that one category pairs well with one of the intentions you listed. The goal isn’t to set these in stone (yet) – but to begin to build a “prompt” for each post. More on this later.
Homework: In column C, add 1-2 categories for each row. You can move these later. Make sure you don’t pair the same intentions + categories every month or your content will become repetitive. Mix it up like mine!
Tip: You’ll notice I was especially careful to pair my “conversion” intention with categories that are most closely related to the services I offer. Once you get the hang of this, you’ll get savvy to which things pair well together.
Step Four: Build Your Content Menu
Your content menu is made up of the types of blog posts that you like, that perform well for you, and which (to a degree) suit the intentions and categories we’ve set up already. Here is a non-exhaustive list of the content types you could add to your blog content menu:
- How-tos and tutorials
- Product reviews or comparisons
- Rants, refutations, or rebuttals to other articles
- News and views – current events and hot takes
- Video embed and response
- Podcast embed and response
- Interview or Feature with someone else
- Customer stories and case studies
- Personal shares
- Updates and announcements
This is the part of the process where things get less finite. While I could create a list of 15, 50, or 150 types of content, you might invent a new one tomorrow. Go with what you know and already do (for now) and expand later.
You do not need to have a clear plan of what each post will become yet. Trust the process.
Homework: Add a content type from your menu to each of your rows in Column D. Pay attention to your intentions and categories to plan combinations that make sense. Here’s mine:
Step Five: Diversify Your Inspiration
Okay folks, this is the big one. I’ve given you three key prompts to plan each of your topics for the quarter. You have an intention, a category, and a type of content for each post. What you need now may vary.
If your prompts are enough, plan some topics.
Anticlimactic, I know. However, for some people, or in some months, these first three columns are enough to get the wheels turning. Other times, not so much.
If you need more inspiration, try these:
- Keyword Research
Keyword research can (and often should) be done before a topic is planned as well as after. Using the keyword research tool of your choice, explore what’s being searched right now. More sophisticated tools offer suggested and similar keywords which could drum up all the subsections of each post, too.
- See What’s Trending
Trend-ometers like Google Trends can help you find out what’s “of the moment” for your industry and at-large. You might find out there’s a big, juicy bit of news to dig into for an upcoming post or a pop culture or social event that’s unrelated, but metaphor-able. Sujan Patel put together a swanky list of tips for this.
- Resurrect the RSS
In the wake of algorithmic fatigue, most of us are ready to read, share, and follow the things we care about, instead of the things the algo wants us to see. RSS feeds make this possible and tools like Feedly and others make the process palatable. This step is not about finding an idea and copying it. Instead, it’s about exploring the verticals that matter to you and finding correlations to your business.
- Long-tail Search Aggregation Tools
Try Answer the Public. Pop your general topic or category into the bar and receive hundreds of long-tail questions and phrases real people are searching for actively. While the numeric data behind ATP is suspect, I love that it often introduces me to questions and concerns my audience would have, that I might not have thought of.
- Quora + Forums
For another look at what people are asking, check out Quora, Reddit, or forums that are niche to your industry. Try Linkedin and Facebook groups, too.
- Scope the Competition
Let me issue the copycat warning one more time – this isn’t about seeing what your nemesis just posted, stealing it, and making yours cooler. Instead, look at what your industry-mates have been brewing up and get inspired. Maybe they’ll go from nemesis to affiliate if you link ‘em up?
- Poll Your People
It’s a basic tip but it works. If you want to know what your audience wants – ask them. If you don’t have a big following, find one person who fits your target profile and ask her.
- Steal From Me
I put together a neat e-book with 365 content topic prompts that work for any industry. If you’re stumped, steal from me. It’s free and you don’t have to sign up for anything.
Homework: List a topic (title TBD) for each row of your document, in Column E. How long did it take you? Tweet us @kaylanaab + @carolynlyden & let us know!
Step Six: Tack on the Logistics
Once you have your posts set in place, it’s time to explore what you’ve created and try to make it make sense. If things need moved to account for bigger plans, timelines, or collaboration with others – move ‘em. This messy spreadsheet is not precious. It isn’t meant to be perfect, it’s meant to be momentum.
Once you have your topics laid out, you can either create drafts, port them over to your project management tool, or use this spreadsheet to track. Add keywords, word-counts, research, and whatever else you need to go from planning to producing.
A word about the pressure to produce
Maybe I’m the only one who hears ominous background music when I open a blank post draft and need to figure out a topic from scratch. Perhaps it’s just me who is tired of regurgitating something someone else already wrote, just to “keep the lights on.” Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think so. I think it’s a shared pressure.
I do hope that you know it’s okay to stop producing content for a while, to repurpose what you have, to turn those lights off, and to rest. As the end-of-year is nigh, rest should be a priority. I hope this framework makes planning easier and helps you to do just that.
Kayla is a branding & content marketing consultant at Kayla Naab Consulting. She helps small business owners launch and grow their businesses through identity, empathy, and communication. Kayla is also a business journalist and writer who advocates for the gig economy, freelancers, and remote working culture. When she isn’t doing digital things, Kayla can be found roadtripping the western US, taking nature photos, and making art.