Predict the future with a content calendar

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“Planning For the Atlantic Film Festival” by Chris Campbell on Flickr

Many social media managers know exactly what they’ll post on Facebook tomorrow. Some know what they’ll post next Tuesday. And a few even know what they’ll post on January 1.

Are they clairvoyant, or do they have other mystical powers? Nope. In fact, there’s nothing special about them other than how they approach social media management. Those who seem to be able to predict the future merely have made planning a priority through the use of a content calendar.

Content calendars – also sometimes known as editorial calendars – predate social media by decades. Most media outlets have used them in some form to establish themes and to allow enough lead time for their staff to generate content. Smart social media managers take the same approach, looking ahead to plan what they’ll say and when they’ll say it while allowing for some flexibility as new ideas evolve.

The alternative – posting whatever content seems appropriate on a given day – might seem like less work, but it’s actually much more labor intensive. In addition, it’s ultimately less effective, since opportunities are often missed and gaps between posts are more likely to increase as social media managers scramble to find something to post (and as they often settle for uninspired content).

In short, if using a content calendar sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is – but not using one leads to chaos.

Like many things in our working life, however, a little time invested in building a content calendar saves exponentially more time in the long run. If you’re not currently using one, the onset of the new year provides a great opportunity to reboot. Here’s how to get started:

1. First, consider who will use your content calendar. Is it just you or – as is likely to be the case in most organizations – are others part of your social media team? If it’s a collaborative effort, you’ll want to make your calendar easy for everyone to share and edit. Cloud-based documents are especially useful since team members can use the same document without worrying about which version is the most current.

2. Next, think about what format to use. While it can be a calendar – as the name “content calendar” suggests – a spreadsheet can be equally effective. Others use project management tools like Trello. There truly is no one right answer; whatever works for your team – and is most likely to actually be used – is a great choice.

3. Build your calendar. Consider which platforms you have at your disposal and how frequently you’ll want to post to each. For example, let’s imagine you have a Facebook business page, a personal LinkedIn profile, an Instagram account, and a blog. It’s likely that you’ll post more frequently to Facebook than you do to your blog, so you’ll need to plan accordingly. That starts with accounting for every day of the year on your calendar – and perhaps accounting for multiple posts on certain days, even if you don’t plan to post daily to every platform. It’s better to have more flexibility than you need instead of not having enough.

4. Populate it with content ideas. This is where your calendar comes to life. Remember, however, that these are just “ideas.” Some entries are unlikely to move (e.g., a notice that you’ll be closed on Thanksgiving that posts the fourth Monday of November), but you may have more options for others (e.g., an evergreen profile of one of your staff members that you’ll share on your blog). The key is getting enough ideas down to reduce the labor of deciding what to say while having enough wiggle room to be responsive to the timely ideas that will inevitably emerge throughout the year.

Regardless of whether you use a content calendar, there are two facets to content development: identifying ideas and actually producing them. Using a calendar, however, makes you better at both. It won’t remove all the labor involved in being a social media manager, but it will make it seem like you can predict the future, even if all you’re doing is simply planning for it.

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