Content Intelligence Blog

12 min read

How to turn content planning from your secret shame into your secret sauce

Sep 6, 2019 7:08:52 PM

We all do it.

We put out content that should never see the light of day.

We do it to fulfill a colleague’s urgent request.

We do it in the hope that something is better than nothing.

We do it when we feel pressure to do something - anything - to generate more leads.

How does this happen?

We get caught in the whirlwind of the day-to-day. Then, like a recurring nightmare where you forget to prep for a meeting with your boss,, it hits.

You are behind on your content calendar.


In that moment of desperation, we make a choice between doing content right way and simply getting content out the door.

Let’s pause for a second. How many takers do I have for doing content right?

Don’t panic. If this is you, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Let’s dive in.

Table of Contents

  • The pressure to produce effective content
  • An alternative: Smart content planning vs. the way you work today
    • Step 1: Link content to business objective
    • Step 2: Connect content to audience needs and desires
    • Step 3: Communicate content plans in a simple and consistent format
  • Get started on smart content planning today


The pressure to produce effective content

Planning, creating, and promoting marketing content has become a way of life; and, the pressure to produce great content that performs is intense. If you are like most marketers, you are yearning for that life to get a quality upgrade including a reprieve from the constant intensity.

Here’s what we know about marketers and content:

Everyone is doing it.

91% of B2B organizations and 86% of B2C organizations are using content marketing according to a Content Marketing Institute survey.



There is much room for improvement.

According to a March 2019 Heinz Marketing study sponsored by ON24, only 13% of us are extremely or very confident that our content is driving the desired results.




Marketers face many challenges.

Communication between teams and developing content strategy skills are a challenge for most of us, and the list doesn’t stop there according to a 2019 CMI study sponsored by Vennli.




It is expensive.

The Content Marketing Institute reports that on average B2B organizations spend 26% of total marketing budget on content and B2C organizations spend 22%




With all that said, why are we continuing to put ourselves through the painfully ancient processes of traditional content planning when there are ways to do it better, faster, and less expensively?

It’s time to take a new approach--working smarter, not harder.


An alternative: Smart content planning vs. the way you work today

The premise behind content marketing is simple.

For example, let’s look at Kermit’s Tchotchke Shop. Kermit needs consumers to understand how his products and/or services can help them get what they desire so that they will want to buy those products/services.

One good way to do that is to share information, like a video or book, that people like because it is helpful, entertaining, or inspiring (i.e., effective marketing content).

The idea behind smart content planning is to use simple and consistent formats for linking content planning to the overall business objective, the sources of customer data, and the content performance.

The result is a content calendar that is more relevant to what people are searching for and struggling with and is differentiated from the competition. At the same time, the calendar will be quicker to create and easier to maintain.

Today, smart content planning tools using artificial intelligence are becoming more readily available and make adopting this process a no-brainer.

Take a look at the chart below to compare the primary differences between traditional content planning and smart content planning.


Which of the columns below looks more like your process today? Read-on to learn 3 simple steps you need to make the shift to smart content planning. 

Step 1: Link content to business objective

The key takeaway here--Don’t short change yourself. Plan all your content focused on your most important goal: creating a customer (to borrow a line from Peter Drucker).

Neil Patel reminds all of us, “Your success in content marketing has everything to do with creating a strategy and delivering on your objectives.” BUT, it is easy to lose sight of your objective when organizational pressures favor getting content out the door quickly. Am I right?

Lack of strategy shows in other ways, as well. Robert Rose recently reported on a CMI research study sponsored by Vennli that nearly half of content creators said they were “project-focused” and creating content in response to internal requests. Only 14% of organizations were taking a more strategic customer-journey focused approach.


typicalSource: 2019 Content Strategy & Management Survey,  Content Marketing Institute

Ok. I feel you nodding your head that, of course, it makes sense to plan content with the business objective in mind. But, how do we do that in a way that is meaningful AND simple? 

Let me show you.

Use a templated business objective statement composed of  the following three elements:

1. Quantitative Goal

Our goal is to grow [goal, e.g., revenue] by [growth target, e.g., 10%] to [outcome, e.g., $2MM] for [our organization/division name] by [date]...

2. Intended audience creating creating more value for [persona or market segment], who need or desire [primary motivation] when they [intended action]... 

 3. Competitive context

...where they make a choice between [product category] such as our [our offering] or alternatives such as [competitor offerings]

Think Marketing Mad Libs! This deceptively simple sentence is the foundation for smart content planning. It forces you to face the ambiguity and misalignment bouncing around your organization. 

Now, before you get weak at the knees, put something down on paper to fill in the business objective for your next content campaign. It doesn’t have to be perfect. The power comes in thinking about what matters most and then pressing forward with your best judgment.

Step 2: Connect content to audience needs and desires

The key takeaway here--It pays to take a moment to research and outline your audience’s needs and desires. Your content will thank you for it, and so will your audience.

How confident are you that you know what your audience is struggling with and what they are searching for at each step of the customer journey? Not so confident? You’re in good company. The Content Management and Strategy Survey by CMI highlights that common challenges are

  • Prioritizing audiences (71%)
  • Knowing what is most important to audiences (61%)
  • Knowing audience goal at different stages (50%)
  • Knowing customer journey (49%)

You make content decisions daily. Much of the time you go with your gut because you don’t have data at your fingertips that would help you make those decisions with more confidence. 

Let’s talk about what the ideal data might look like and then a couple of practical ways you can start building a data-driven view of your audience.

We’d all love to have as information about our target audience as possible when planning content, including:

  • Targetable characteristics
  • Customer journey
  • Needs and Desires
  • Perceptions of our strengths vs. competition
  • Content format preferences
  • Marketing channels where our audience hangs out
  • Past content performance

Whew! That’s a long list. Considering all the data listed above can seem daunting. 

The good news is that you don’t have to wait for the AI revolution to move to smart content planning. Here are three things you can start today that will connect your content with your customer.

Build a library that can be the single source of truth for key business assumptions related to content

Who owns the Persona descriptions in your organization? Is it product marketing? Is it sales? No matter the answer, you can bet that there are different versions floating on laptops and shared drives around the company. 

Some assumptions are so fundamental to the success of the business, they deserve a home of their own - with a big neon sign out in front so everyone knows. For content planning, these are things like the description of

  • Target audience personas
  • Customer journey(s)
  • Distribution and promotion channels.  

Once these resources live in one place, it is easy to collaborate, align, and plan new activities.

Find ways to take a quick pulse on audience needs and desires related to your specific content campaign

You rarely have time to do fresh research on your target audience for a new content campaign. However, this shouldn’t be an excuse for not using what you have. Simply getting your messaging ideas out on paper in an organized way can connect your content more effectively to your audience.

One useful tool for capturing what you know related to your audience is a message map. You can make a grid with the relevant personas listed as rows and the stages of the customer journey listed as columns. Then, fill in what you believe is important to your audience at each stage of the journey. These key messages should now guide your content topics across different journey stages.. 

I use a shorthand for identifying messages to match journey stages: 

  • Individual needs and goals for Awareness
  • Category and product benefits for Consideration
  • Product attributes and features for conversion
  • Achieved outcomes and desired use case goals for retention
  • Category and product benefits that are inspiring, easily shareable, or build a sense of community for Advocacy


Of course, it is always better to know your audience rather than guess. Here are some ways you can improve on your message map draft:

  • Share your message map with others in your organization that are familiar with the customer you have in mind. Ask them to fill in gaps and edit your description based on their beliefs.
  • Check out your customers’ profiles on LinkedIn or Facebook and look for clues that will help you update your description or validate what you already have. Expand your review to a handful of other customers you believe are similar to one of your personas
  • Do a quick website audit of your own homepage and relevant product page along with the websites of a couple of your main competitors. Look for language around customer pain and product benefit.
  • Talk to a handful of customers that you believe reflect your Persona. These conversations are especially important for understanding motivations behind current behavior
  • Conduct a survey of your target audience
  • Use an AI tool such as Vennli’s Content Intelligence Platform to quickly review topic suggestions from third party data sources such as Google search data

Invest in marketing analytics tailored for content measurement

The best way to optimize your content operation once you have your audience nailed down is to take feedback from your current content activities and feed that back into your content plans. In order to do that you’ll need to invest in ways to measure content performance.

Analytics tools broadly come in four different flavors if most of your content is digital:

  • Search
  • Website
  • Email 
  • Social

Marketing automation suites are becoming better at collecting and reporting metrics across a variety of channels. Picking the right marketing automation tool for your organization can simplify your analytics strategy.

If a large portion of your content is offline or through earned media you’ll want to invest in a broader range of tools for measuring reach and engagement through those channels.

Step 3: Communicate content plans in a simple and consistent format

There is no content goodness without content budget. And, there is no content symphony without alignment across the different parts of your organization responsible for producing content such as marketing, sales, and product. 

Smart content planning has the ability to drive alignment around your target audience and marketing activities in a way that most current approaches do not. This alignment happens when everyone’s assumptions and plans are shared openly and are easy to understand. 

Again, we know that communicating the what and the why of our content plans is important. But, I can hear you saying, “It takes so much time, and I’m not sure that anyone reads what I share anyway.”

The solution: Content plans delivered in a simple and consistent format are easy to create, easy to share, and easy to understand.

We’ve mentioned several communication tools to create a uniform format for your content plans already. Here are those tools listed again along with others. The exact format of these tools is not as important as adopting a format and sticking with it. Soon, these tools will become a common language for discussing priorities, committing resources, and surfacing differences of opinion.

Business Objective - Want to get your boss’s attention? Start every conversation around content by referring back to the business objective.


Persona Descriptions - Want the sales team to love you and product marketing to get off your back? Champion the persona descriptions your company already maintains, or be a trailblazer and promote a consistent (small) number of persona descriptions representing the key segments of your target audience.

Message Map - Need consistent messaging coming from different departments? Give everyone access to the key messages for your audience at each journey stage.


Content Calendar - Struggling to keep all stakeholders aligned to deadlines and priorities? Adopt a content calendar format that your team, agency partners, and management can count on. There are so many templates are available online. Be sure your calendar includes dates, target audience, headlines, formats, and distribution and promotion channels.

Content Brief - Tired of writing content briefs from scratch every time a new piece of content needs to be created? Keep your content brief consistent and check off the decisions you need to make for each piece with a standard content brief narrative.



Get started on smart content planning today

Planning effective content is hard. It takes time. 

Don’t give up! The first step is to recognize that improving your planning process will have big impacts on 

  • Your ability to communicate the importance of your content work up and down your team
  • Your target audience’s engagement level with your content
  • Your organization’s alignment around the target audience and marketing priorities

Once you have a vision for the promised land, take the first step towards smart content planning. The first step for you is likely to write down your business objective for an upcoming content campaign. If you need to take a shortcut, review the communication tools highlighted in Step 3. Pick one that makes an impact in your organization. Start using it. 

You can stop feeling embarrassed that you don’t spend enough time on content planning or that you go with your gut more often than with data. Moving towards smart content planning can add that special something to your organization. People will start asking you how you do it. You’ll have to decide if you let them in on your secret sauce.

I’d love to hear about your successes and struggles with content planning. Drop me a line with your experience.

A final note: Help is on the way! Smart content planning tools like Vennli’s Content Intelligence platform are making it easier everyday to adopt a smart content planning approach. You can find out more about the latest and greatest technology here.

Bart Frischknecht, PhD
Written by Bart Frischknecht, PhD

Vice President, Product Strategy, Vennli
Bart is all about building marketing technology to help business leaders achieve growth goals. He is passionate about using data to put customers’ needs and choices at the center of strategic decision making. Bart’s background is a blend of design, marketing, and engineering, which provides a unique perspective on a company’s role to create, communicate, and deliver value to its customers.

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