A Communicator's Guide to Content Calendars
October 4, 2023
Plan the work; work the plan. That’s the ideal state, anyway.
When it comes to developing internal content, it’s easy to get caught up in a reactive state. Between unexpected events, stakeholder needs, holidays, announcements, engagement surveys, and open enrollment, there’s a never ending stream of content that needs to go out, yesterday.
It’s no secret comms teams are under-resourced. Everyone is busy with so many responsibilities that developing a rich cadence of content for internal audiences can easily get pushed behind a queue of urgent updates.
That’s where a reactive approach to content slips in. The more reactive content production gets, the more reactive you’re forced to be later, and the easier it becomes to miss deadlines and make mistakes along the way. Before you know it, you’ve got a crisis of your own to deal with.
Luckily, there’s a tool that can make it easier to do your best work, reduce publishing anxiety, and deliver reliably stellar content to your internal audience. It’s not an exciting new SaaS tool; in fact it’s been around for thousands of years. It’s just a calendar.
Why You Need a Content Calendar
A content calendar, sometimes called an editorial calendar, outlines the practical details of an internal communications strategy. This document usually encompasses at least a quarter’s worth of work, although it’s possible to plan the content production for the entire year. The further out the plan, the less worry each time a deadline approaches.
Of course, planning takes time, which is why so many communication professionals push it to the side. Instead of viewing this work as a massive time sink, let's re-brand it as a time investment—one that can be made incrementally, and will continue to pay dividends throughout the year.
Content calendars actually save time because working sessions with a team of creative professionals almost always result in more and better ideas than a single person under time pressure.
It’s also completely unnecessary to funnel all this activity into a single event. Experiment by fully dedicating 15 solo minutes a week, and one informal 20-30 minute chat with internal stakeholders each month solely to your content calendar and nothing else—not production, voice, style, or tone—just the calendar itself. See what unfolds over a single quarter.
To make those minutes even more productive and enjoyable, here’s a helpful framework to use.
Start With the End in Mind
The first step to developing an effective content calendar is to identify long-range goals. Do your friends in HR want to deepen existing relationships, or would it be a better use of resources to offer educational opportunities? When there is a clear goal, creating measurable and actionable objectives is more of a straightforward task.
Those objectives can then be broken up further into assigned tasks and given a clear timeline, resulting in a comprehensive content calendar.
Elements of an Effective Content Calendar
Schedule a meeting with all team members involved in internal communications. Ask them in advance to bring their best content ideas, which will make your synchronous time more productive.
The best way to create this document is to start with a spreadsheet infrastructure with the following 12 columns.
1. Date of Publication
The first thing to decide in a content creation brainstorming session is how frequently the team will publish content. This is dependent on the available resources, and it’s important to be realistic. If the team agrees to post a new blog three times a week and is unable to keep up, your team members will lose trust and wonder what's wrong. That’s the opposite of any content marketing goal.
While the frequency of publication is an individual decision for the business, experts recommend a best practice of posting 13 blogs a month. However, if the team can only commit to one, that’s still better than none at all.
In the content calendar’s first column, set firm deadlines for publication. Work backward to set the micro-deadlines for each part of the creation process.
2. Type of Media
Next, the team needs to determine what kind of media to produce using different content creation tools. Content creation can mean many different things. Your content could be in the form of:
- Written text
- Team-generated content
- Email newsletters
- Case studies
- Interactive content, such as quizzes
In many cases, a great piece of content will combine several of these forms in one. Which is best will depend on the goal set at the beginning of the campaign. However, it’s a good idea to think comprehensively. The best posts will benefit from excellent images. Adding video to webpages, meanwhile, can vastly improve engagement.
Remember that everyone has different learning styles. Research shows that the vast majority of students preferred learning from multiple modes, including visual, auditory, and reading.
Once the team determines when to publish and the form in which to publish, the next obvious question is what to publish. This is the heart of the content calendar: planning out the topics and themes to cover will feel like a gift months from now.
Brainstorming content ideas is also the most challenging part of the process. Start by researching what your team members are asking and develop a list of common questions that blogs can answer. Start with a large list — with no bad ideas — and pare it down to the best.
An easy way to start this process is to acknowledge the annual events that are of regular interest. An open enrollment process may happen roughly around the same time every year and would need a designated time of focus for content. Certain holidays may be a big cause for attention.
New product roll-outs might happen at a less reliable cadence, and may mean spotlighting integral teammates or important launch deadlines. Fill out the themes that should have a dedicated place on the calendar first, then add in the remaining ideas.
When you know the theme, the next step is creating a title. It’s tempting to save this for another day but resist the urge to procrastinate. Content calendars are best when they are detailed. Besides, you’ll want to be sure to include the appropriate keywords.
What are keywords? They’re the next column of your calendar.
5. Keywords and Tags
If you want to make a searchable database for employees to enjoy your content long after publication, you'll want to think like a content marketer. Keywords are the words that people type into the search bar at the top of the screen. This is a common practice for marketing professionals looking to rank well on Google search results pages, but it can work for internal communications, too.
Who will produce the content? By delegating the task, you can quickly tell whether the proposed work is realistic. If no one is available to write the piece, or the additional deadline feels like too much for your in-house experts, decide if you want to spend resources to hire an outside writer.
7. Author Delivery Date
To make the expectations clear and follow the publication schedule, determine the date the work is due from the author. Consider the time needed for the submission of the first draft, editing, and posting to the various platforms used by the company. Give everyone enough time to complete the work well to reduce errors and confusion.
8. Word Count
For newsletters, posts, and other written content, it can be helpful to outline how long the piece will be. It is more important to have high-quality, original, and relevant content than long-winded writing to fill the screen.
As the writing or content creation begins, be sure to consider other writing best practices. Keep the target audience at the forefront of the work. Use the proper tone and voice that will resonate with readers. Have a clear call to action with a link, and write using scannable text. You show employees that you value their time by keeping content helpful and succinct. This means including smaller blocks of copy, such as:
- Short paragraphs
- Bold text
Just as the content calendar should identify the writer, it also needs to delegate the editor. Ideally, every published piece of content needs to be reviewed by someone other than the original creator. Even the best writer is sure to make a typo or use a phrase that isn’t completely clear. Have an editor review for content, structure, and style. Your goal is to craft authentic, clear communications that team members will want to read.
For small but mighty teams—or teams of one—the editor and author can be the same person, but in this case, it can be really helpful to give the document a “resting period,” so that it’s easier to come back to it as an editor with fresh perspective.
10. Editor Delivery Date
Next, the content calendar needs to include a deadline for the editor. There needs to be time between the completion of the first and edited drafts. There also should be at least a day allocated for the person who is responsible for the actual publication of the content.
There should be a separate column to delegate the team member who is responsible for sending out the finished work. It can take time to share across the company intranet or internal social channels, so don’t underestimate the task. Otherwise, you risk creating unrealistic expectations among the team, resulting in unnecessary stress and lower morale.
11. Publishing Channels
The work may be produced and edited, but it’s not complete until it’s live. For some internal communications processes, it may make the most sense to simply send it directly to team members through the company email platform. But perhaps there are often a variety of groups and platforms to which you can post.
If you’re using an intranet that has multichannel publication capabilities, this can be an excellent way of bringing important information to everyone on the team at the same time, no matter where they work.
12. Other Notes
Having a section in the content calendar for additional notes for each topic or theme is also a good idea. Often, there will be certain backlinks, concepts, interviews, or other notes for the writer, editor, or content manager to know. The more you can communicate in this planning document, the better. Get the entire team in agreement long before the work begins.
This section can also be a place to give kudos to team members working throughout the quarter or year on content marketing. Producing different kinds of content can take a lot of time for already-busy internal communication teams. A kind word can go a long way to keeping everyone motivated and focused.
Creating and executing a content calendar is a lot of work, but that work can be spread across a broader timeline, and it's a key factor in helping the team reach its goals. How can you know if the team has been successful in reaching its goals? Measure the impact of the work using Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that align to those goals. For some guidance on measuring success, check out our recent post on the topic.
Plan the Work; Work the Plan.
While not all internal communication professionals take the time to plan, thoughtful content calendars can save hours and headaches long after a content strategy begins. Especially when you are focused on internal audiences, it’s worth the effort to brainstorm the practical steps needed to help team members work together to reach the company’s long-term goals.
For true, measurable success, the team needs to create a steady stream of high-quality content that truly benefits their peers within the company. When you plan the work using a content calendar, it’s more likely that whatever is produced will hit the mark. This makes a positive impact, both on the experience of team members and the organization’s long-term success.