When I was a “content team of one,” I had an airtight content planning process. I’d do research, talk to our salespeople, block out a few hours for thinking, and plot out my best ideas on my (personal) editorial calendar.
That process broke when I went from individual contributor to building and leading a content team at Panorama Education.
At this point in my career, I’d been a solo content marketer for five years. I didn’t have a precedent to follow for doing editorial planning with a group of folks (other than my newsroom experience back in college).
I learned pretty quickly—through lots of mistakes—that it wasn’t about my ideas anymore. In fact, it wasn’t about me at all. I had to figure out how to empower my team to do the ideation and planning themselves. Management 101, right?
Over time, I built a playbook for running content planning with my team that’s led to a blog with 100k+ monthly pageviews and a content engine that generates the lion’s share of inbound pipeline and leads.
I believe that the best way to fill your team’s content calendar with great ideas month after month is to build a culture of ownership and friendly competition. In this post, I’ll share the practices that have gotten us there.
Note: At Panorama, we’re currently a content marketing team of four in a B2B SaaS environment. Some of what I mention in this article may or may not work depending on your context. I also fully expect that some of these processes will change as our content team grows.
Content planning doesn’t have to be dry. In my experience, it can be fun, energizing, and even a little bit competitive. Make it an opportunity for team members to show their chops!
At Panorama, we take the approach of hosting monthly content pitch-offs to plan out our editorial calendar. These are structured brainstorming meetings that are meant to be generative. Each team member gets the floor to pitch ideas, and we record all of the ideas/notes in a spreadsheet as we go.
Beyond collating ideas, another ideal outcome of the pitch-off is for everyone to leave feeling inspired and motivated. Creatives love showcasing their ideas and can often get satisfaction out of that alone. Plus, team members can push each other in a healthy, supportive way with a live stage for content brainstorming. Everyone wants to have the winning ideas that get “+1”s in the Zoom chat, so people have no choice but to bring their best.
How to structure a pitch-off meeting
We hold content pitch-offs every month at Panorama to keep pace with the K-12 education space and our go-to-market needs, but you could adjust that down to a quarterly cadence. Our pitch-offs happen one to two weeks before the start of the next month.
I like to think about these sessions as structured but free flowing. We meet for one hour with a clear agenda, but plenty of room for riffing and conversation between the lines. Our agenda allocates 10 minutes of pitching for each of our four content lanes:
Within every 10-minute segment, each content creator has a chance to pitch their ideas for the given content lane. This time-bound structure keeps things moving while also leading to a rich slate of ideas across all of our content types.
Here’s a screenshot of a sample agenda from one of our pitch-offs:
5 tips for facilitating a content pitch-off
Leading an awesome content pitch-off is an art. To pull out your team’s most creative ideas and drive productive debate, you have to create an environment of safety and inclusiveness. Here are five tips for facilitating content pitch-offs based on what’s worked for me and my team at Panorama.
In my experience, these meetings get better over time as you refine the process and get reps in.
Content planning and creativity are muscles that you can and should help your team build. Treat it like any other core content marketing skill (writing, self-editing, etc.). This is how you develop a high-performing, autonomous content marketing team.
It’s a good sign if your pitch-offs are getting better and better over time, with too many high-quality ideas and not enough time or bandwidth to act on them.
At the team and individual levels, educate on the anatomy of great content for your business and audience. What concepts or ideas would get the green light, and why? This can differ for a blog post vs. gated content vs. case study. Creative brief templates are a great coaching tool for this. At Panorama, our creative briefs include key questions to help the writer self-assess their idea. Here’s an excerpt of our gated content brief:
Also, don’t hold your cards. Show your team where to get started looking for ideas. Especially for remote employees or new team members, it’s hard to know what resources or tools are available for research and ideation. Create an internal Wiki page or documentation with links to resources they should know about. I encourage my team to look for ideas and intel in a lot of places (not an exhaustive list):
I see a lot of content shops follow the model of an editor or team lead assigning articles to writers/content marketers.
That can definitely work; it’s centralized and efficient. But I don’t actually think it’s the best way to develop content marketing talent.
I prefer a “bottoms-up” approach. On my team, each content marketer is responsible for choosing the pieces they’re most excited to pursue after the pitch-off. Any idea is fair game. I still review and approve (or redirect) before we finalize the editorial calendar, but most of the time the pitch-off did its job and everyone has a sense of what’s worth moving forward with.
This approach works for a few reasons. First, it puts a little skin in the game when people get to decide what to pick up. They’re more likely to put their heart into the piece when they came up with the idea and have full ownership.
There’s also a big element of learning and development that happens when your team self-assigns pieces. If the piece flops, that’s OK. They’ll take responsibility and learn from it. (Of course, there’s a distinction between one-off misses and consistent misses. If a writer is consistently missing the mark with their ideas, you’ll need to coach them a bit more on content planning.)
And if the piece turns out to be a hit, they get the win—not you. It’s a best-case scenario. They came up with a killer idea and brought it to the finish line! Now they’re more fulfilled and engaged in their work, and they know what types of ideas to replicate in the future.
As a team lead, you should absolutely provide expectations for output (individual and/or collective) and outcomes—but let your content marketers figure out how to fill in the blanks and make it happen.
Content planning shouldn’t come from the top down. In the short term, this can get everyone on the same page, but in the long run it’s a recipe for burnout, poor engagement, and low motivation.
Give your team ownership in the planning process, bring out their competitive spirit, coach them on coming up with amazing ideas that serve the business… and get out of the way.