How to keep a content plan on schedule

final_deadlineOne morning last fall I woke to the most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt in my life. I had never had a kidney stone before and hope never to have another. Suffice to say I was incapacitated for several days.

Yet while I was out of commission, my blog posted right on schedule. The following week my email newsletter went out on time, even as I was scrambling to catch up on client work. I won’t say I wasn’t stressed, but I wasn’t worried about letting my content slide because I had “more important” things to do. I didn’t have to think about it at all because my marketing machine can run without me for a while if it needs to.

A consistent schedule is critical to any content marketing plan, whether you send just one newsletter a month to a small email list or blitz the world with a multi-channel campaign. And since your content plan works its most powerful magic over time, it needs to keep running even when you go on vacation, get the flu, or land that huge project from DreamClient, Inc.

That may sound like a tall order, but it’s not. With a little effort, you can set up a content plan that runs like clockwork even if you get sidetracked. Here are five tips to help you make it happen:

Release perfection

The biggest obstacle to regular self-promotion that afflicts creative professionals — and many other business owners — is the feeling that every newsletter, blog, or post on must exemplify the pinnacle of their creative brilliance every time. This mindset invariably stalls the plan every time.

So take a page from the Frozen playbook and “let it go.” Pursue excellence by trying to make each piece you create a little better than the last within the time you allot for marketing, but leave it at that. You’ll publish a brilliant thing that grabs attention once in a while — usually when you’re not trying to — and that’s enough. Potential clients will be far more impressed when they see that you can stick to your timetable reliably month after month.

Create a content schedule

The question “what should I write about this time?” is a lot easier to answer if you’ve created a plan in advance. One of your first content development tasks should be simply to brainstorm the topics you want to cover for a certain period — about 2-3 months’ worth seems to work best for me. This saves you a lot of time because you always know the next thing you need to write about. When the topic list starts to run low, do another brainstorming session. It’s also a good idea to jot down topics whenever they occur to you. I use Evernote to capture ideas.

Your schedule doesn’t need to be anything fancy. I use a spreadsheet with four columns: publication date, format (newsletter, blog, etc.), topic, and deadline. If more than one person is working on your plan, add columns to indicate who’s responsible and the current status of each piece.

Work ahead

An incredible sense of peace and calm descends upon you when your content plan is scheduled well in advance. Try to have at least one month’s worth of material scheduled and ready to go at any time. When I help clients start a new content plan, I actually encourage them to launch with three months of material scheduled. The same strategy helped me keep my cool during the aforementioned kidney stone incident.

Having a stockpile of content doesn’t prevent you from responding quickly to current events. You can always drop a time-sensitive piece into the mix and re-schedule “evergreen” items you’ve already written for a later date.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

Content generation consumes time and resources, so don’t use it only in one place. Last year I created my eBook The Writer-Designer Dream Team largely by collating a series of blog posts and adding a bit of new material. For several months, in fact, my content schedule bore a striking resemblance to the eBook outline, since I knew ahead of time that I would be using the material for both projects.

Get help

Still feeling overwhelmed? There’s no shame in bringing someone else in to help you out. A good designer can create the right look and feel for your marketing. A good writer can help you craft the right voice or run with a topic list. If you’re short on cash, you might even be able to work out a barter deal. Last year a designer friend and I swapped copywriting for web design, and both of us walked away happy.

  3 software tools every writer should know

dashboard-menuOne of the perks of being a writer is that you don’t need a huge suite of software to break into the business. The days when a pencil and a notepad were enough are long gone, but these days you can get by with a cheap laptop or tablet, a word processor, and an Internet connection.

That being said, knowing a few of the most common software tools used by editors and designers can make you more versatile — and more marketable. It’s worth investing a little time to get to know them.

Reviewing tools of Microsoft Word

Have you ever looked at an edited document and wondered what’s changed? There’s no mystery with Word’s reviewing tools. From the moment you or a collaborator clicks the “Track Changes” button, Word highlights everything — and I do mean everything — that changes in a document.

You’ll know at a glance where a word was changed, where a serial comma was added, what was added or deleted, who did it, and when. A black line in the left-hand margin indicates where changes have been made. New text is highlighted in a color that’s unique to the user who made the change, and deleted text appears in a bubble in the right-hand margin with the same color code. Users can also add comments that don’t modify or become part of the body copy.

Buttons in the review bar allow users to click through each individual change, reducing the chance that you’ll miss something. As the editing process proceeds, reviewers can accept or reject changes, making them disappear.

The highlights are fairly intuitive and designed to keep the document readable. Be aware, however, that colors for each user are assigned locally on each individual’s machine — your editor’s comments might show up in red on your screen but in green on someone else’s.

Adobe Acrobat

If Word is the standard for text editing and proofing, Acrobat is the complement for graphic designers. In addition to text reviewing features, Acrobat adds annotation and markup tools that allow you to scribble, post sticky notes, attach files, apply pre-designed “stamps” and sign off with digital signatures. If you regularly work with designers or need to review text in draft layouts, Acrobat gives everyone on the team an easy way to interact.

Acrobat’s tools are a bit more free-form than Word’s, but you can still access everything in a Comments List to make sure you don’t miss anything. Better still, each item has a checkbox so you can easily keep track of what you’ve already dealt with.

If you’re working with a savvy designer who knows how to activate commenting for collaborators, you can access many of these features using the free Adobe Reader. If you do a lot of this sort of thing, consider purchasing the full version of Acrobat — that way your designer won’t have to jump through any hoops to make editing features accessible to you.


A growing number of websites are being built in WordPress, partly because it’s easy for non-programmers to use, and partly because the explosion of content marketing has created demand for regular content updates.

A writer who knows WordPress has a competitive edge when working with clients like this, because he or she can load copy directly onto the site, freeing up the in-house team for other tasks. An editor or content manager still needs to review the work before it goes live, but can preview it exactly as it will appear. It’s also a godsend for the client when a blazing-hot deadline is looming.

Trust is essential in this type of workflow, so you may not want to dive in until you have a good feel for the working relationship you have with your writer. It’s also best for the writer and design team to agree ahead of time on key design conventions, such as how style sheets should be used.

Bonus tools (nice, but not essential)

Adobe Creative Suite

Writers who work regularly with designers don’t really need the Adobe Creative Suite, but having access to it and knowing how it works can give you a valuable window into the mind of your artsy colleagues. Designers who spend most of their time in Illustrator or Photoshop, for example, think about copy differently from those who build their masterpieces in InDesign. If you’re so inclined, you might also use the suite to offer additional services like indexing or variable data.


If you regularly work with web copy, whether in WordPress or some other tool, it doesn’t hurt to know a few basics of HTML, the code structure that runs the Internet. Knowing what’s going on “under the hood” allows you to peek backstage.

Monkeying with code can quickly lead you down time-sinking rabbit holes, so you’ll want to carefully balance how much of this sort of thing you do against the time you spend writing copy. Knowing just enough can save a web designer time by enabling you to write code-friendly prose and do a little basic troubleshooting on your own. I also like to keep tabs on how hyperlinks in my web copy work, for example, by making sure that they open in new windows when clicked — something text editors sometimes overlook.

  9 Marketing Lessons from 1812

erie-jibOr: “All I really need to know about marketing I learned from Commodore Perry.”

(with apologies to Robert Fulghum)

All I really need to know about how to write and motivate readers to take action I learned by participating in the 200th anniversary re-creation of the Battle of Lake Erie in 2013. (Need a quick history refresher? Check out the 90-Second Know-it-All’s humorous recap of the event.)

These are the things I learned:

  • Use prevailing winds to your advantage by knowing what your customer really needs and wants.
  • Make sure everyone is willing to follow the battle plan before you set sail.
  • Positioning is everything.
  • Great victories sometimes require risk-taking. If choppy waters make you seasick, keep your eyes on the horizon.
  • Don’t give up the ship—though it might be prudent to change ships if the one you’re on is sinking.
  • You can’t change course quickly without good sailors, even if your navy has more ships than anyone else.
  • The biggest competitor can be outmaneuvered by an energetic young upstart.
  • And then remember the Aubrey/Maturin books and their timeless lesson — Lose not a minute!

And it is still true, no matter how many years you’ve been sailing, when you go out on the lake, it is best for all the ships in the line to stick together.

Wednesday, September 10 marked the 201st anniversary of the battle.

  Where can you find good writers?

Woman-with-binocularsMany designers are eager to work with writers, but struggle with the process of finding scribes who are right for them. Some have had bad experiences with freelancers who didn’t meet deadlines. Others need copy that requires specialized knowledge in fields like healthcare, finance, or technology. Even when you find a good one, successful firms and solo creatives often have enough projects going to keep multiple writers busy.

While there’s no “silver bullet” solution that will find great writers every time, some hunting grounds offer a far better chance of success than others.

Ask for referrals

Referrals are by far the best way to find a great writer. Someone who’s already worked with a particular writer can tell you firsthand what the experience was like. Ideally, they’ll be able to advise you about the writer’s ability to stay on schedule, the quality of the work, how well they responded to change requests, and the response from the target audience.

Another reason to seek referrals is writers, like many creative professionals, don’t like to spend a lot of time doing self-promotion. This is especially true of good writers who get really busy—referrals are often the only way to find them.

Start by asking your professional colleagues—creative directors, designers, marketing directors, and others who might have worked with outside writers or in-house people who’ve since gone solo. Friends and acquaintances can provide leads as well, but consider these character references rather than skill recommendations—they’re less likely to have worked with the writer directly.

You can cast a wider net by tapping into your LinkedIn network. Start with a status message, but understand that only the people on your contact list can see it. You may also want to let LinkedIn Groups for like-minded professionals know that you’re looking. Ask members to contact you privately with recommendations.

One resource that isn’t as obvious: other writers. Many established writers have a network of colleagues who they refer when they’re too busy to take on new work or when a client would be better served by a different skill set than their own.

Professional organizations and industry events

Copywriters in search of new business are often attracted to groups and functions that cater to marketing, publishing, and design. Experience levels will vary—you’ll find everything from industry luminaries to rising stars—but in general a writer who’s willing to make the investment in membership fees, conference admission, or travel expenses is likely to be a cut above average. The majority of these writers take a professional approach to their craft, treat it like a business, and are actively seeking to improve their skills. All of these traits are to your advantage.

A few good places to look:

  • The Creative Freelancer Business Conference, part of HOW Design Live, is an annual event that attracts high-caliber solo professionals.
  • The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) is the world’s leading independent organization for data-driven marketers. Many writers who cater to this industry are members or attend DMA events.
  • The Specialized Information Publishers Association (SIPA), now part of the Software & Information Industry Association, is the international trade association dedicated to advancing the interests of commercial information providers. As with the DMA, many copywriters join to get access to potential clients. Writers who attend SIPA events are more likely to specialize in the needs of specific niche markets.
  • You may also find smart writers hanging out at your local AIGA meeting or other places designers congregate.

Beware low-cost websites and random searches

You can always find someone cheap on websites that cater to the lowest bidder. Writers on these sites tend to be inexperienced, and can introduce costs to your project that far outweigh their “low” fees. That’s not to say you can’t find diamonds in the rough, but understand that you’ll have to do some expert hunting. Most good writers raise their rates and move on from bargain sites once they recognize their value.

Similarly, using a Google search to find a writer is a lot like spinning a roulette wheel. A writer who’s lucky enough to be the top hit in a search engine may have won the SEO lottery that day, but that’s no guarantee they’re easy to work with, able to meet deadlines, or the right fit for your job.

Test, test, test

Whatever method you use to locate writers, it’s best to try them out on one or two small projects to see how well the relationship works if you have the opportunity to do so. It’s a bit like dating—a writer should be on best behavior when you start forming a relationship. If it’s a struggle to get a small, low-stakes job done when you’re just getting started, things aren’t likely to get better when you have something bigger on the line. Look for writers who treat even your small test jobs with professionalism.

Happy hunting!

  Currents featured on Marketing Mentor

marketing-mentorI don’t often toot my own horn here, but I’m pleased to note that Currents was recently featured by Marketing Mentor in a collection of newsletters published by creative professionals.

Each of the newsletters were chosen “because they are excellent models, each approaching email marketing from a different angle AND because the content is also very useful.”

Check out the other great samples in the collection on the newly-relaunched Marketing Mentor website.

  5 content marketing myths debunked

content-icnI didn’t become a believer in content marketing overnight. I was dragged kicking and screaming—and many of my content marketing clients were too. Yet once we reached the “other side,” our attitudes quickly changed to “why didn’t we do this a long time ago?”

For those of you who may be grappling with similar doubts, here are five common myths that hold creatives back from using content marketing successfully, and how to get beyond them.

(Need a quick primer on content marketing? Check out the post: 5 things to know about content marketing.)

“Content marketing” is just a the same old marketing with a new name.

While some of the techniques used in content marketing may not be new, it’s a mistake to think of content marketing as a traditional sales pitch in disguise. Critically, a fair amount of the content marketing process shouldn’t try to close a sale, but to establish relationships by building your credibility, generating awareness, and creating goodwill.

If you’re doing it right it almost feels like you’re giving something away for free, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get value in return for your efforts. Think of the information you share as a “free sample” of the service you provide. If you’ve learned the needs of your audience well enough to make your content useful, they’ll be more likely to recognize your value—and to turn to you when they’re ready to buy.

Only big organizations get any benefit from content marketing.

One of the advantages of doing business in an Information Age is the power of the Internet, which allows even a one-person business to enjoy the king of global reach formerly available only to big firms with deep pockets. The key to success is creating content your audience is excited about and getting it in front of the right people.

Once your content machine is up and running, prospects can find you through Web search, subscribers will forward content they like to their colleagues and friends, and if you hit the jackpot the social media monsters will take your content viral. For even better results, find a way to get your content published by the sites and periodicals your best prospects read.

But even if none of these things happen, you can still get big paybacks just by showing up regularly in your subscribers’ inboxes. My “house” mailing list is pretty modest, but most of the people on it are high-quality prospects for my services. They run the gamut from close friends and relatives (hi, mom!), to past and current clients, to people I’ve met at industry and networking events. Some have become clients after receiving my newsletter for several years. Others have referred good clients my way because they’ve learned who I’m a good fit for by reading my stuff.

There’s so much noise out there already that it couldn’t possibly work for me.

Actually, the noise is your friend. With so many choices for information, your prospects may be confused about who to listen to.

Good content marketing overcomes information overload by providing useful insights to a highly-targeted audience. Demonstrate that you are the source who understands their needs best and your message will have greater weight with your audience. The resulting relationships establish you as a trusted curator, enabling you to shut out some of the “noise” of your competition.

I can send out content marketing whenever I feel like it.

Today’s technology makes it easy to send messages whenever you feel like it, but there are two compelling reasons not to do this.

First, if you only push content out when you feel like it, it becomes easy to let it slide whenever day-to-day stuff interferes. Pretty soon nothing’s getting done.

Second, a regular schedule makes you more credible to your readers, especially if you show up at the same time every month, every other week, or more often. At a bare minimum, you should try to touch your audience at least once a month, preferably on the same scheduled day (the second Tuesday of the month, for example). Committing to a schedule also helps you stay accountable to your marketing goals, and will encourage you to build your content plan into your schedule.

I don’t have the time to do content marketing.

Spending an hour or two a week on a content marketing plan is a small price to pay for the substantial benefits it returns over time. If even that sounds like too much, the good news is you don’t have to do everything yourself. Outside firms or talented freelancers can help you develop a content strategy and take the task of keeping it on schedule off your shoulders. Watch for more details on how to make this work in an upcoming post.

  5 things to know about content marketing

signup-iconEveryone seems to be talking about content marketing these days, yet a surprising number of creative professionals don’t actually know what it is. Is it a real marketing technique that drives new business or just the latest industry buzzword? Here’s a quick rundown of the basics.

What is content marketing, anyway?

Simply put, content marketing is the practice of providing something of value that reflects your expertise (that’s the “content” part) and making it available for free. The content can range from useful information (“Tom’s timely tips for more effective marketing”) to content that entertains, such as viral videos. It can take the form of e-mail newsletters, a postcard series, white papers, blogs, website content, conference and webinar presentations, social media interaction, or—most effectively—some combination of marketing channels.

What makes Content Marketing different from regular marketing?

Unlike advertising and other common forms of promotion, content marketing isn’t a sales pitch. It’s not even meant to close a sale. It’s a “soft” marketing technique that targets a specific audience you’d like to build a relationship with, attracting their interest by satisfying some need they have.

How will I know what to write about?

Listen to your target audience. Get to know them intimately enough that you understand their interests, challenges, needs, wants, fears, and aspirations. Read what they read, attend the events they attend, and do anything else you can to learn how they think. Look for overlaps between what they need and what you can provide, and topics for content marketing will begin to appear.

Will Content Marketing get me quick business?

Nope. Content Marketing is S-L-O-W. It works a lot like erosion—a slow, steady drip that wears away the rock of prospect resistance. Be prepared to do it for six months, a year, or even longer before you see any results that you can trace directly to your content marketing plan. That may sound like a waste of time, but it isn’t. Think of it as making an investment in the workflow that you’ll need 6–12 months from now.

Content Marketing sounds like a lot of work. Why should I bother with it?

When done right, content marketing creates a kind of “client magnet” that attracts ideal business to you with a lot less effort. Over time it helps you to stand out from competitors, builds your credibility with the prospects you want most, creates new opportunities with people your readers forward your content to, and actually reduces the amount of work you have to do to promote your business. It’s also the single best form of insurance against the dreaded “feast-or-famine” cycle. For a real-world example of why I’m a true believer, check out my earlier blog post: “I feel like I already know you.”

  5 Reasons to Outsource Your Marketing

lab-icnIf you’re like many creative people, marketing is the last thing you want to spend time on. Paid gigs, shooting or designing personal work, editing images, doing taxes, and other business tasks usually seem a lot more urgent.

The trouble is if you don’t do marketing — especially when you’re busy — you’ll eventually have far too much time for marketing. That’s because you won’t have any work.

Luckily, you don’t have to do it all yourself. There are many great reasons to outsource marketing tasks to someone who lives and breathes in that world.

Read more at The Lab Blog.

  Self-promoting? Opt for opt-in.


We’ve all met “business card collectors” at networking events. They were a mild annoyance before the Internet came along, but now that content marketing is all the rage some of them—the ones that aggressively add the people they meet to their email lists—are becoming a serious nuisance.

Self-promotion is critical to any creative business, and you do need to find ways to build and grow a good mailing list. But you don’t want to be “that guy” (or gal) who signs up everyone they meet before you can even get home from your latest encounter with corporate luminaries over rubber chicken. So how do you attract new readers without coming across as a desperate huckster? The secret is that “opt-in” equals “win-win.”

A good place to start for the answers to what an email marketer can and can’t do is the compliance website for the 2003 CAN-SPAM Act. You’ll note that the act explicitly requires all email marketers to clearly state how to opt out, and to honor opt-out responses promptly (items 5 and 6), with penalties of up to $16,000 for each separate email in violation. This applies to all commercial messages—not just bulk email. These are regulations you need to pay attention to, but don’t let them discourage you from starting that email newsletter. Luckily, most good email services will assist you with compliance by automatically generating all the fine print the government requires.

Now I’m not a lawyer, but I can tell you that most reputable bulk email services—if not all of them—have it somewhere in the fine print that everyone who is added to a mailing list must either “opt in” or give explicit permission to be added to the list. Many require a “double” opt-in, which sends the subscriber to a confirmation link in an email that must be clicked before they’re officially added.

This process can often be bypassed by the list owner, but that doesn’t mean you get to bypass responsibility as well. MailChimp, the service I use most, also requires users to check a box for every subscriber they add manually, stating that the list owner has the subscriber’s permission. Any list service that’s still in business probably has similar safeguards to protect themselves from lawsuits.

More to the point, whether or not it’s technically legal to sign someone up with no more pretext than a business card exchange, it’s a bad practice that ultimately hurts the list owner more than the accidental “subscribers.”

First, it feels like an invasion of privacy (which it is), causing instant damage to the sender’s reputation. More insidiously, it weakens the mailing list. The false assumption that borderline spammers work under is that building a successful list is nothing more than a numbers game. They think the more subscribers they sign up, the more opportunities they’ll have to generate business (from people they’ve annoyed by invading their privacy…how’s that again?).

The truth is that successful content marketing is highly targeted to quality prospects with a sincere interest in what the list owner provides. I’ll take a list of 100 well-qualified prospects over one with thousands of random people who’ve been “bumped” at a local chamber meeting every time.

Smart email prospectors go for the opt-in two ways: by being so awesome that people want to read their every word (which can work, though it’s rare if you’re not already a rock star in your niche), or by dangling some kind of carrot in exchange for the opt-in. These are known in the trade as “bait pieces.” Done right, they open the door to future business. Even though your readers know perfectly well that you’re giving something away in order to earn the right to send them email marketing, they’ll sign up if the bait piece is compelling enough. The difference between this and the card collector scheme is that subscribers go in with their eyes open, trusting that they can opt out whenever they like.



P.S. Like this post? Click here to opt-in to my list!

  Is great content enough?

symbols_splayedLast month’s newsletter, “What makes perfect customers call,” caused quite a stir among my readers.

Within minutes, several people had sent me some variation of the same question: “Is it enough to publish content each month, or is there more you have to do to get calls like this?”

The not-so-simple answer is “it depends.”

While regular content marketing will rarely be the only factor involved when you make a new client conversion, it reinforces everything else you do to promote your business. A good marketing machine has many components, including face-to-face networking, referrals from existing clients, public speaking gigs, and other channels depending on who you’re trying to connect with.

Sometimes your machine will bring you a pre-sold prospect like the one who called me last month. More often, new contacts aren’t ready to act the first time you meet them. This is where your content strategy comes into play. Stay in touch with these folks regularly through your mailing list and you’ll benefit in several ways:

  1. People you’ve met will receive a regular reminder that you’re out there, which encourages them to act sooner or to prefer you to another provider when they’re ready to buy.
  2. Like the prospect in last month’s story, some of your readers will already feel a sense of connection with you when you’re first introduced. At a recent conference for example, many of the people I met were more relaxed and friendly because they had read my articles.
  3. Prospects who are turned off by your style won’t call you, saving both of you a lot of hassle.

How you craft your content also plays a big part in your success. It’s not enough to post 2,000 words on the Internet each month if you’re simply writing fluff. Here are four extra tips to add to last month’s list to help you get the most from your content:

  1. Your content must be relevant. If what you write has value to your readers, they’ll keep reading. It’s that simple.
  2. Post your content where it will be seen. In addition to this newsletter, I write for several sites that regularly attract the interest of my ideal clients. Much as I love the folks on my house list, the reality is that my business is still getting known. As a result, the majority of my new business currently comes from other sites with more-established reputations. In addition to attracting more eyeballs, you can build credibility by writing for sites or publications that appeal to your best prospects.
  3. Make it easy for prospects to sign up. Whenever you meet someone you want to stay in touch with, ask them if they’d like to be added to your newsletter list. Make it as easy as possible by offering to sign them up yourself, and do it promptly. This small effort on your part will increase your signup rate, and it’s worth doing to get new prospects into your system so that you can stay connected automatically in the future.
  4. Offer an incentive. One way to beat the “good grief, not another newsletter!” response is to give your subscribers something of value right away. Whether it’s a digital download, a free 30-minute consultation, or some other offer, make sure there’s some obvious benefit for your subscribers so that it’s not just about you.

Thanks for reading Currents in 2013—watch for some exciting new changes in 2014! In the meantime, here’s wishing each and every one of you a truly meaningful holiday, no matter what you celebrate.