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One of the biggest challenges for any brand publishing team is figuring out how to create high-quality content, consistently and efficiently, week-in, week-out.
The first reason for this is speed. Gone are the days of spending weeks or months on posts and long-form reports. Modern brand publishing teams operate similarly to daily newsrooms, and rely on carefully installed processes that allow contributors to not only find ideas, but execute on them repeatedly and produce a consistent stream of articles, posts, podcasts, videos, newsletters and other types of content.
This means that publishing teams need their own ways of working. One of the most common structural mistakes made with brand publishing operations is subsuming them into marketing teams. Even if the publishing team in the company does report to marketing, or something akin to that function, it can be helpful – and even necessary – to create operations that are independent from marketing; that includes content focused meetings, calendars and thinking time.
Having a clear and set operation for any publication will mean a steady stream of content, and more importantly, also clear review and feedback processes that retain quality. There needs to be a system that creates ownership for execution, versus just for strategy.
Successful brand publishing operations build their editing processes on four key pillars:
- Run pitches and review processes effectively: Pitching should be the bedrock of any content group, ensuring that there is a steady flow of ideas from writers and other teams at all times.
- Structure a team’s operations to create momentum and consistency: Setting certain processes will help create keystone habits that ensure there is always enough content so production never feels stalled.
- Ensure quality and quantity of content remains in line with the goals of the organization: Any process should ensure there are checks and balances so quality of content remains high even while momentum is maintained.
- Build a content calendar framework: Content calendars designed for publishing operations can keep the team on track and communicate to the wider organization.
This Guide will walk teams through this operation process and provide a framework that can be implemented immediately to create a well-running operation. It’s designed for companies who want to take cues from the world’s most prominent newsrooms and media brands and apply them to their own brand publishing operations to create great content in an editorial-first, efficient and effective way.
Setting a pitch process
Long before hosting collaborative content planning meetings, brand publishing operations need organized processes in place, where clearly defined editorial missions can shine and talented writers and content creators can solicit ideas, approve those ideas, and turn them into great content. Taking cues from journalism operations can be helpful in this regard. A publishing pitch process is a step-by-step approach to asking for and generating good story and content ideas and then ensuring that they happen.
Calls for pitches
Great pitches, and the strong content creators behind them, don’t typically manifest on their own, so it’s especially important for brand publishing operations to carefully construct calls for pitches that are straightforward and have an obvious angle, topic or purpose. For example, if there is a big industry event coming up in which the company will be playing an active role, pitches need to be delivered in a way that shows how they’re connected to that specific event or a related topic. Or, pitches can offer evergreen or instructional content (discussed in more detail below) designed for leads. Getting writers to put their story ideas in the form of a pitch can do three things: (1) it can solidify what the pitch actually is, (2) it can secure buy-in, ahead of time, from the writers, their editors and anyone else who needs to know, and (3) it forces writers to be declarative about their intentions.
Many teams open up content planning meetings by asking for pitches, which can lead to rambling, confusing explanations of half-baked topics, or worse – pin-drop silence. Asking for pitches in advance gives content creators time to think through what they would need to write about, and makes pitch meetings more productive.
Collecting pitches in writing
Written pitches are a great way for writers to synthesize ideas properly and for managers to provide feedback correctly. However, oral pitches can be unclear, rambling and hide certain obvious flaws or issues with a proposed piece.
Templates for pitches can be found here, but good pitches should include:
- An approximate word count
- A suggested headline
- A description that answers why the story is important and what the central focus of the story is
- The sources or information expected to be necessary or needed
- Graphics, photos, videos, or other media elements the writer believes to be necessary
- When the writer expects to finish the piece
There should be at least a 48-hour gap between when pitches are sent in and the content meeting. During that time, pitches should be reviewed. Ideas that don’t work for the publication should be discarded or sent back to the pitching writer for further development and resubmission. Compatible ideas should be approved and set with deadlines and word counts (either the same as the writer pitched, or different ones, based on manager feedback), as well as any other needs (more on that below). Those that need more discussion can be set aside for the content planning meeting.
Organizing content planning meetings
An effective brand publishing team needs a content meeting to go through stories, ask questions and assign deadlines for approved articles. Ideally, this could even be the only internal, face-to-face meeting that writers or reporters are required to attend. These meetings may occur on a weekly, monthly or as-needed basis, depending on the demands of the content operation. This is the time to ask writers to go through stories that editors or managers might want to have more information on or tweaked slightly. This is also a good time to open up for discussion any big trends or news pertinent to the industry or company that should be covered.
For more, see the Resources section for a content meeting agenda sample and template.
Mandating “WIP” lists
While editors and managers are responsible for asking for pitches, drawing up calendars and building budgets, writers and other creators should have their own system for ensuring a steady pipeline of content.
One way to do this is by mandating work-in-progress lists, or WIP lists, for short.
WIP lists are owned by each creator or writer. They consist of up to 10 pieces of content that are works-in-progress. These are the writer’s version of their own notes and lists of things that they’re thinking about, working on in bits and pieces and will eventually be ready to file for publication.
Each WIP list should have:
- A headline or title of the piece.
- A few sentences explaining what the piece is about.
- An indication of how close the story is to being finished. This can be done by simply denoting “soon,” “medium” or “long-term” to give managers an idea of what may be coming down the pike in a few weeks or months.
Ideally, each WIP list is sent in at a specific, consistent time, such as the beginning of each month. WIP lists can change and evolve as stories develop and ideas move around, but can be a reliable way of ensuring a pipeline is in place from both writers’ and manager’s ends.
Generating “well” and evergreen pieces
Finding great stories is the hardest part of creating content. And contrary to popular belief, content teams, or even newsrooms, don’t run entirely on “new information” all the time. Writers can’t always hope something is happening in the world that they can report on, analyze, react to or simply regurgitate. For management, there may not be enough writers around, or someone may not be available for one reason or another.
In any case, content teams must operate by balancing “new” stories with evergreen stories. This is commonly called creating a “well,” which is a library of content that can be dipped into a few times a month, or even weekly, with stories and pieces that can ostensibly run at any time. How many stories are kept aside at any one time will vary, but it’s recommended to always have at least a week’s worth of content (depending on the brand’s publishing cycle) ready to go.
Evergreen stories that make up the well are pieces that are exactly that – evergreen. These stories don’t rely on new or current information and are, ideally, created and made ready to publish in advance, then shelved until needed for a slow day or around holidays, for example.
Since brand publishers are in the business of helping their customers, clients or wider audiences with practical or guidance-style content (much like this guide), evergreen stories can be especially important since they aren’t related (too much) to current events.
Evergreen content also has payoffs in ranking higher for SEO and can drive traffic on an ongoing basis, when done correctly.
Here are a few types of evergreen content brand publishing teams should consider:
- Case studies: Case studies are deep dives into specific examples. These can be great for brand publishing teams that can dig deep to find, for example, stories where the company’s product or expertise was involved in helping a client or solve a problem. Good case studies are evergreen and can help by narrowing down on success stories, using data and anecdotes from the players involved, to make them pop.
- Anatomies or autopsies. How something happened and why it’s important are always important angles and can be used to create and publish evergreen content. When someone “dies” or is shut down, an autopsy on why it happened can work. Another angle would be to provide a simple history lesson on where the company or product came from, how well (or poorly) it did and what happened next. Particularly, in the case of new technologies, for example, this can be a useful tactic. Another way to think about this is as an anatomy – why something is the way it is.
- Explainers. A close cousin of an autopsy or anatomy piece is an explainer – a classic evergreen format that can be great for search optimization. Explainers can be used for concepts, phrases, ideas or new technologies, and can be written from an expert’s point of view to solidify the organization as an authority in the space being discussed.
- Research and data. Gathering statistics and research together in easily digestible formats, such as a set of charts about a certain topic with short explanations and context on each, can be the root of good evergreen content that also displays a company’s own research and authority on a subject.
- Reading lists or resource guides. Favored by journalists during slow news weeks, reading lists – or really, any list of “resources,” such as movies to watch, places to shop or things to try – can be a good way to create evergreen content. Writers only need to ask the right people, such as execs within and outside the company, for their recommendations on certain topics, and a reason why they’re being recommended.
- How-tos and guides. Another way to turn “guidance” into content is with simple how-tos: practical advice on processes or techniques that are particularly endemic to the company and its expertise. Much like this guide itself, how-tos can be an effective way to establish expertise and authority.
There are more ideas on formats and techniques for how to create great content in the How to Create Compelling Content Guide.
Creating a content calendar
Content calendars are an important part of running a well-oiled content machine. They are organized, written schedules, shared internally within the brand publishing team, of when articles or stories are due and when they’ll publish, along with critical information about other needs for content – art, video, graphics or multimedia, for example. A content calendaring system can be very helpful for a few reasons. For management, keeping tabs of what everyone is working on can do wonders in enabling and ensuring consistent and thorough output, and it also creates a way to track performance and input in a methodical, data-driven way. And, for the writers themselves, content calendars are a way to create an accountability structure that is driven by them and doesn’t feel like micro-managing.
Here are a few steps recommended for developing a strong content calendar:
- A starting point for the content calendar is to determine how many pieces of content need to be produced per day and week, in order to hit the brand publishing team’s goals. Those goals can be focused on traffic, pageviews, business goals or even internal goals – e.g., each vertical within the company creates an analysis every week that needs to be turned into an article.
- After the desired number of content pieces have been determined, it can be worthwhile to decide and discuss a timeline for posting the content: will there be an even flow of content throughout the week, or is it better to stack articles at the beginning of the week, for example? That schedule will determine how an average week flows.
- Next, figure out how many types of content to create (see the Guide on writing and reporting for various formats and ideas. For example, on a single day, if there’s an expectation of a big analysis piece, a Q&A and a video, that needs to be determined.
- Finally, determine how the actual editing process will work. The Guide on editing and reviewing has more on how to the most effective way to give feedback, but typically, an article should be written, then edited by at least two individuals: a manager and a copy editor.
Each content calendar should be created with the above factors in mind. The resources section has a sample content calendar.
Good, well-run content calendars should be:
- Simple. While using project management tools is tempting, it’s not necessary. A spreadsheet can do the trick.
- Neat. The temptation to create a lot of different columns is tempting. But all that is really needed are columns for “pitched,” “in progress,” “in editing” and “ready to publish,” or some variation of those descriptors. The idea of a content calendar is to create process and movement.
- Owned by someone. Content calendars, like anything else, need ownership. There needs to be someone on the publishing team, ideally a managing editor or assistant role, in charge of keeping track of stories that are pitched, approved and in progress.
- Accountable. Calendars only work if someone pays attention to them. When stories are late, there needs to be a reason. Backup stories should exist if something falls through. (This is where an evergreen content well will come in handy.)
Building content budgets
Alongside the content calendar, it can be useful to simply create a weekly lineup, or budget, to be shared across the organization, of what stories are going to be published in the coming week. A budget is a document that editors manage to track the pieces coming in that week, and when they’ll publish. It’s important to share this with the entire team, as well as those outside the brand publishing group, where applicable. Unlike the content calendar, which is updated on an hourly or daily basis as things change, the budget is a lineup, best used for sharing with people throughout the organization, as needed.
The budget is a companywide document that should include:
- A slug: a quick word that identifies the story
- A suggested headline
- A two-sentence description
- A word count
- A format
- A deadline date/publish date
- Art or any other visual needs such as charts, graphs or diagrams
Checklist and next steps
There’s a reason why journalism organizations throw around phrases like “feeding the beast” or “the sausage factory.” Creating a stream of quality content at a consistent clip is difficult. There are many moving parts in any publishing operation, and for managers, running the team means building pipelines, getting ideas, approving pitches and copy and publishing constantly, all at the same time.
A breakdown in one part of the system can cause issues down the road, and often, those issues aren’t noticed until much later. For example, not having a clear pitch process for a few weeks will result in an empty pipeline two weeks down the road. Not building up a well of evergreen content now, will mean that when writers are stuck, or there’s a holiday, there isn’t anything to fill the pages of your website.
Brand publishing teams should ask themselves the following questions:
Setting a pitch process
Mandating “WIP” lists
Generating “well” and evergreen pieces
Creating a content calendar
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