A Quick Guide to Nailing Topic Planning

What goals do you have for your content marketing this year?

One that we hear frequently is a renewed commitment to putting out quality content on a regular schedule. “Let’s do this!” the business owner cries enthusiastically, only by February or March, they’re staring at a blank screen, wondering what on earth to write about.

We’ve all been there when it comes to content creation – we know it’s frustrating! One thing that helps is having topic planning nailed down ahead of time.

Some people worry about this approach, thinking that it might stifle creativity. On the contrary, we think that it helps to promote creativity and better overall content quality. It’s always easier to start something when you have a plan to begin with, right?

So the next issue to tackle is actually sitting down and creating that plan. How can you get into the groove of consistently coming up with excellent topics for your blog?

As a critical first step to planning your content, make sure you can clearly articulate what you would like to achieve from it. One problem that we commonly encounter is companies that flip-flop, or can’t seem to decide exactly what it is that they want from their content.

This often leads to a confusing and inconsistent experience for their audience and in general, is not a great way to build a regular following.

If you clearly understand your audience, your goals, and the content metrics you’d like to see, you have a great starting point for planning blog topics. From there you can consider both broad categories and individual topics which will interest your audience and help you achieve those goals.

A good place to start is to think about the key problems your target audience has, as they pertain to what you can offer them. This gives you a logical starting point from which you can lead them toward your solution.

Find ideas for blog posts

The next stage of your content plan is to put together ideas for blog posts, gathering them all up into one place for review. During this idea generation phase, we like to use a simple Google Sheet, allowing other team members to view, make comments or add suggestions as needed.
Of course, the big question is, where do you find those ideas? Here are a few proven suggestions:

Involve your team

In a recent interview, Brian talked with Buffer’s Ash Read about their extensive content production. Buffer is a content powerhouse, publishing on a regular schedule across four separate blogs. One thing that Ash emphasized was the importance of involving anyone and everyone in the team as sources for topic planning; “inspiration can come from anywhere,” he says.

You may or may not have team members who are dedicated to content production (Buffer certainly does), but regardless, others on the team can have valuable contributions to make. For example, what about your customer service team? These are the people who are on the frontline with customers every day, are familiar with your audience, and hear directly about customer problems, interests and preferences.

You might be surprised at some of the topics that come up! When you’re highly involved with the content, sometimes it can be difficult to take a broad-level view. One of our clients regularly sits down with their whole team to discuss content, with particularly relevant contributions from those who talk to the customers. Frequently they have said, “I wouldn’t have thought of that!”

Ash made a second good point, suggesting that you should have a place where all can contribute to content. As mentioned, for us that’s a Google Sheet, but we also see companies who list ideas in Trello, creating a new card for each idea and providing some notes for it on the back.

Keyword searches

We’ve all got some idea of the relationship between SEO and content marketing, with keywords still playing a role in getting your content found on search engines. You need to have some knowledge of the keyword phrases that your customers search for as it relates to your product or service. These will often be problem-related, or show buying intent, depending on what stage the customer is at in their journey.

The old days of blackhat SEO with people trying to “stuff” as many keywords as possible into their content are gone. Google has become clever about distinguishing quality content from the rest, penalizing those pointless word salads. They’ve also become smart about the context of both the content and the searcher’s intent, meaning there isn’t as much need for exact keyword matches. This is where you can find further content inspiration.

Good keyword research can help you discover and flesh out the topics that people really want to know about. Keyword research tools can help you to:

  • “Spy” on competitors – learn which keywords they rely on to draw traffic.
  • Discover related topics and search phrases.
  • Find the types of content that are ranking for any given keyword. Can you improve on them somehow?

Even the simplest tools can provide you with some kind of content inspiration – when you start to type in one of your keyword phrases, what comes up on Google’s autocomplete function?

Take inspiration from your customers

Some companies like to take the route of directly surveying readers on their blogs. This can be helpful if you have a responsive audience and ask very specific questions. For example, rather than asking general questions like, “what would you like to see on the blog?”, try being more specific. Questions like “What is your biggest frustration with (related area to your business)?” may yield more helpful results.

If surveying isn’t for you, there are other ways to be inspired by your own customers. What problems have they expressed? What sorts of questions or comments are you getting from them, either on your blog or through other channels?

Discussion on social media can frequently trigger blog inspiration too. Use every channel at your disposal to tap into the interests of your customers.

Relaunch old content

This is a part of topic planning that many companies miss. Everyone always assumes that it’s about churning out more and more new content, but what about the nuggets to be found in your old content?

Ash discussed with Brian how Buffer looks to relaunch old content and give it a new lease on life. For example, they might look at anything that sits on page 2 or 3 for search first. This suggests that it does okay for hits, but could possibly be improved to push it up the rankings.

They look at that content and see what might need updating in it – sometimes rules, technology, or applications may have had some changes. Next, they look at the relevance of the keywords used in the article. Ash recommends using Google Tag Manager to determine how visitors are finding the article.

Once the article has been revamped, they reshare it to social media accounts and bump it back to the homepage of their blog. This is a great way to not only help them to maintain a regular content schedule, but to get more “bang for the buck” out of the content they already have.

Have a good system for planning

Once you’ve generated your topic ideas and sorted through them to choose which ones you want to go ahead with, getting them into a good content calendar is an excellent way to manage them and ensure that you’re kept on schedule.

We like to use Ops Calendar because it syncs directly with WordPress, as well as Google Analytics for automated reporting. It also helps us prepare and post to social media on a logical schedule. We find that automating as much of the process as possible is one of the secrets to ensuring that a good content marketing plan really happens!

Final thoughts

Creating and following through with an effective content marketing plan is always a challenge – it’s a lot of work! Preparing ahead with your topic planning is a good strategy to get out in front of it, as this will help to keep you on a regular schedule.

If you find the idea generation part tricky, use every resource at your disposal. Topic planning doesn’t have to be a solitary exercise – get ideas from your team and customers, those who may be the closest to the important issues.

Remember, in the words of Ash Read, “inspiration can come from anywhere.”