Develop Your Agile Content Marketing Playbook

Posted 5/6/2015 7:04 PM by Jeff Julian

There is something about the suggestion of an editorial calendar in context to content marketing that has bugged me ever since I was first aware to the idea years ago.  The fact that it does not account for the size of the items that live on it made me wonder how you can plan to get something done without knowing what is possible. 

Coming from a software development background, I know it is very easy to get stuck in the idea that everything is the same size. At the beginning of my career, when someone asked me how long something would take, I would simple reply two weeks.  I didn’t have the discipline to scope the feature accurately; rather I would typically rush to get it done at the expense of quality. 

When we insert Content Items on a calendar, we don’t have a mechanism to estimate tasks and assign work. Instead, we just set forth to move the heavens to get the item done.  Eventually, this leads to failure, and we start slipping.  Content Items will then fall off the radar, and we end up missing our goals because we don’t properly plan. 

Commonly this is due to lack of resources.  Our teams are spread so thin that we can’t justify the time it takes to plan properly our weeks and months.  Then we wonder why we are getting home so late and arriving so early to work. 

The editorial calendar is a great planning tool for determining the priority of our items and our release cycle and is perfect when the content has already been produced.  It is, however, a poor substitute for good project planning.

So we need a set of processes or tools that can help us deliver on our needs: happy customers, happy workers, estimated delivery expectations, and adaptability.  Enter Agile Content Planning and the Content Backlog.  Scrum, an agile methodology, fits well with our need to catalog ideas and develop a sustainable pace for producing content.  We will pull from this approach and develop our answer to the editorial calendar.

What is a Content Backlog?

So what is a Content Backlog anyway?  It is a prioritized list of Content Items that is accessible by anyone on the team and the primary responsibility of the Content Owner.  This list can be kept in physical form on paper cards that allow for easy sorting or in a digital system that offers greater accessibility and security. 

Scrum outlines the approach of capturing your Backlog Items in a Product Backlog.  I feel it is necessary to introduce terms that fit an industry to ensure the adoption is swift and comfortable.  Instead of referring to the catalog of content as a Product Backlog, I use the term Content Backlog.  The items in the backlog are not Backlog Items; rather they are Content Items.  This is just a small change that has been very beneficial in the adoption of the methodology.  Nothing changed in the core principles, just the name.

Since the Content Backlog holds the most important part of the Agile Marketing process, the Content Items, your team should ensure it is properly maintained.  We refer to this process as “grooming the backlog”.  Grooming means the Content Owner will work through the list to determine what is the level of importance of the items, which ones are missing, and what is irrelevant. 

What Lives in a Content Backlog?

In every backlog, we have different types of items that live inside.  However, even though their structure and metadata may be different, they all require attention by our team of Content Developers.  Here is a list of the types of items that might live in your Content Backlog:

  • Concepts – When you are developing content ideas, it is beneficial to put a placeholder item in the backlog to represent the idea with a promise to return and complete the information.  These items cannot be placed in the workload of the content development team until they are fleshed out to ensure the value promises are in line with the audience’s goals.
  • Big ideas – Sometimes the content will take longer than the team can complete a time box, known as a Sprint.  When that happens, we need to break the big item into smaller items that will fit.  However, we can keep the item and estimate as a whole in the backlog until we get closer to production.  This could be a seasonal magazine, materials for a conference, eBook, or any other form of big content.  We want to optimize our time, and it might not be the most effective use of our team to talk about a year-end review blog series in April.
  • Developed ideas ready for production – These are fully developed items with a title, content story, a list of ways you plan to demonstrate value, and an estimate.  These items are ready for selection based on the priority determined by the Content Owner.
  • Published content that is stale – Unlike most items in a Product Backlog, once content is produced, it has an expiration date attached to it based on the information provided.  When the content hits a point when the value is no longer relevant or has the hint of being stale, we should place a higher priority of the item to have the content updated. 
  • Broken down parts of content due to scheduling issues – Once a Content Item is broken down into actionable tasks, you will find some items are influenced or developed by people who are not on our team.  Even though these items have estimated delivery dates, they do not usually align with our time box constraints.  In other words, if the items are likely to impact our team’s ability to complete the items we promised to finish by the end of the Sprint, we break it into two Content Items.  The first item has all the parts we can do before the outside resource is required and the second contains the tasks once that work is finished.  Items like legal review and quality assurance do not typically fall in this category since you cannot estimate if work is required when they returned. 
  • Returned items from a review process – Every organization is different, but we all have one thing in common, we need to produce quality content that has a value associated with it.  If we have errors in our data, grammar, or ideas, the content is broken.  Since everyone is different, your team needs to determine what steps are required for review once the Content Items are determined to be ready for release.  When an item returns from this process, more actionable tasks could be required for the team.  These Items will be added to the Content Backlog and just like other items, the team will estimate the work and the Content Owner will set the priority.

The Playbook for Your Content Marketing Efforts

Most content marketing efforts start out strong but end up abandoned or even worse, a big campaign.  Our audience wants consistent and reliable content from their sources.  We have to produce content that delivers on this expectation, and our Content Backlog will be an effective tool for ensuring that is possible.

Remember a long time ago when we created that Content Mission Statement?  We created it because through our efforts; it would guide our team, and it’s the outline that our content will fit in.  Just like every airport ticketing counter has a guide you can put your carry-on bags to make sure it fits in the overhead compartments, we need a tool that we can ensure our content fits the needs of our efforts.  Everything in the Content Backlog needs to fit within the Content Mission Statement.  This will ensure we are still focused on the audience and delivering on our promises.

So with tools like our Content Backlog, Content Mission Statement, and Personas, we can develop the playbook we plan to use to reach our audience and build loyalty and trust.  Not everything will go to plan when we work through the production and release of content.  With our constant analysis of data from the audience and change in items and priority of our Content Backlog, we will be able to make quick changes without affecting the performance of our team. 

At the beginning of a Sprint, our team will have the most accurately prioritized items based on the analytics of that moment and they will create tasks and go to work.  Once the work is finished and the Sprint is over, we will collect feedback, optimize, and start the process again.  If anything has changed, our Content Backlog will be corrected and will be reflected in the Content Items we select for the next Sprint.  Let’s see your editorial calendar do that easily.

A Replacement for Your Editorial Calendar

I love the idea of putting items on a calendar and saying we will release items on a certain date.  This approach is great if the items are complete, but when the work still needs to be done, how can you measure and guarantee success? 

Another great use of a calendar is if the work is repeatable and the scope does not change week to week.  If you have a podcast that you record, edit and release once a week, the amount of time spent will not change if you are as consistent as you should be.  Go forth and use your calendar if there is no variability, but since most Content Marketing efforts have several types of content being produced, the estimated time to complete and infographic, video, or blog post needs to be captured. 

Calendars can work with your team if they have a consistent rhythm, but what happens when a team member is added or decides to leave.  Your team will end up working more and breaking their sustainable pace that ends in fatigue or more attrition.  We need marketing environments that promote success and the ability to work at our best. 

Because of these and so many other reasons, we have to admit that our team is being set up for failure if we try to associate dates up front with the delivery of a variable set of Content Items.  The team needs a tool that can easily adapt to changes in resources and priority of the business.  The Content Backlog does not make promises of delivery.  Instead, using the information we gather from our team’s ability to work through items, we can produce delivery expectations at any given point with real data.  We will go into this in great detail in an upcoming post.

Feel Your Content Backlog First

I mentioned earlier you can store the Content Backlog in paper or digital formats.  If you are just getting started with the process, I suggest picking whatever is easiest for you to do.  However, paper at first has its benefits. 

The first benefit is touching the process.  Having your hands on the Content Item will help sell you on the process.  Think of the last time you went on vacation and the salesman was trying to get you to touch the garment or bag you were looking at.  Do you think that was just to get you to feel the quality of the material?  Think again.  When we touch something, our mind starts to take ownership of that item, and we are more likely to make the purchase.  When we get our hands in the process and start to shuffle our Content Item, we can see how one item is more important than another.  Your team will see progress in planning meetings because the stack is growing, and we can spread everything out and group items together to see where our gaps are.

After a time, the paper process starts to show its problems.  The biggest is that the stack of cards can only live in one location.  This causes a problem since only one person can view it at a time unless we call a meeting.  Another problem is the security of the cards.  There is no backup for your stack, so if your dog or children decide that stack of paper is a toy, your efforts go down the drain. 

Next Step, Store in Excel

A spreadsheet tool like Microsoft Excel is a great next step to storing your backlog.  Excel is very flexible and as you need new fields, a simple right click and add the ones you need. 

If you change the priority of an item, you can resort the column, and the most important ones are now at the top.  If you dog eats your laptop, SharePoint or Dropbox have your back, and you can recover it on a different machine. 

The other benefit of Excel is most people know how to use it.  We have all built spreadsheets for years, and the tool has been consistent for decades. 

Online Backlog Management Tools

Since we are not inventing a process, but adopting one being used by others, we can also use the tools already developed.  Some of these tools work better than others to convey the specific metadata we need for Agile Marketing, so I suggest trying a few before you land on one.

  • Asana – This online task system allows you to create text-based tasks and subtasks and assign them to members of the team.  However, it does not have any Scrum specific tools so you might consider this one for smaller teams where time boxing is difficult.
  • JIRA – Atlassian has developed a suite of tools for project management and the one for cataloging work is called JIRA.  They have also developed an agile addition that works on top of JIRA that brings the Scrum principles to the tool.  One of the big benefits of this tool is the adoption by the agile industry and the large community they have.  You can attend a local user group in most major cities as well as get answers on their online community.
  • Trello – If mobile and desktop solution is what you’re looking for, you might check out this tool.  It is flexible and can be modified to fit the Scrum process. 
  • Microsoft TFS – Team Foundation Service is the solution most Microsoft developers use for controlling their Product Backlog.  Microsoft has worked directly with the agile thought leaders when producing this tool and offers a very elegant solution.  This may be a little overkill for some teams as it was designed for software projects in mind.

The list goes on and on so find the one that is best for you.