Learn the strategy behind creating an effective editorial workflow, the secret process needed to produce high-quality content on a consistent basis.
Have you ever been searching for information on the web and all you can find are articles like, “10 Ways to Waste Your Time Reading Content?” Sure, articles like that might rank highly from time to time, but how often do you find yourself coming back to those websites when you actually want to learn something? How often do you buy anything from them?
Similarly, you probably wouldn’t cite Buzzfeed in a serious debate. But you might bring up the New York Times. Why? Because they offer more than just clickbait. They’re the paper of record, have won countless awards for their journalism, and just happen to have some of the greatest data visualizations known to man.
Creating a high volume of mediocre articles may get you traffic in the short term, but it won’t increase the credibility or value of your brand. It won’t generate quality leads that want to stick around to buy something from you either. In other words, just because something ranks doesn’t mean that it will convert.
Most companies today are either publishing a bunch of fluff at a consistent pace or barely publishing at all. But, companies that are able to produce high-quality content at a consistent pace are winning the long game.
Of course, producing great content on a regular basis is easier said than done. To maintain consistent high-quality output, you’ll need to develop a repeatable process that reduces downtime, ensures quality control, and overcomes obstacles to publishing.
This is your editorial workflow — the content creation formula that allows your team to master consistent, high-quality content production. Let’s look at how you can design your own process and start speaking to more of the right people in your target market.
To keep your workflow organized, you need to be able to track your progress with some sort of dashboard. This usually takes the form of a customized spreadsheet or software platform that helps you manage all your content, deadlines, and related data. However you do this, your solution needs to be organized, easy to read, and scalable.
In addition to the topic, title, due date and status, you will also want to keep track of assigned writers and target keywords for each piece, supporting images, total production costs, and go-live dates. In many cases, color-coding can help you quickly identify key information.
While the example above is oriented towards blog content, the most common use case, you may be producing other types of assets such as static web pages, case studies, webinars, or interactive content. With these, you may have different stages or components you need to track.
Even if you’re entirely focused on written content, it’s often useful to differentiate between blog posts, whitepapers, ebooks, case studies, and other assets separately.
No matter what type of content you’re producing, an editorial process runs on hard work. To achieve quality and consistency, you need to hire the right people to fill key roles in the content production process. Most of the time, this means you’ll need reliable writers, editors, and managers on your team.
Whether it’s a blog post, whitepaper, or a video script, you’re going to need skilled writers to produce your content. Since few companies can justify having a full-time writing staff, this often means you’ll be hiring freelancers.
Although many freelance writers are simply good at writing, it’s best to find writers that also have some level of subject matter expertise. It may take more effort to find them (and probably a little more money to hire them), but someone who is already familiar with the subject matter will have a much easier time producing in-depth, authoritative content.
You will want to become acquainted with the skills of each writer you hire and assign them to the pieces they’re best suited for. Within your content tracking system, create a section where you can keep track of different writers you’ve hired, their contact information, and their areas of expertise. This way, you can easily assign them to the right pieces, contact them quickly to check in on progress, and even rehire them for future pieces.
At minimum, your editors should be focused on making the writing more clear, powerful, and accurate. Their main concerns should be grammar, punctuation, word choice, and clarity for the target audience. They are often one of the last people to read the piece before it reaches publication, and often act as advocates for the reader. If your editor is already familiar with SEO & content marketing best practices, they can also help ensure it performs well.
Beyond that, editors should be both critical and encouraging of writers. Content marketing isn’t about self-expression; it’s about communicating effectively with the target audience. Your editor should not be afraid to cut entire sections of the draft or make comments that suggest heavy revisions on each piece. That said, editors need to be careful of discouraging writers. It’s good to highlight where writers are performing well from time to time, to help them stay motivated.
You will also need people on your team to manage your editorial workflow and content tracking system. This role will be responsible not only for keeping your tracking system up-to-date, but also setting deadlines, assigning writers, reviewing outlines, and ensuring content creators are paid on time. Their job is to hold each role accountable to deadlines, provide support and make sure your content machine is running smoothly.
The first step of creating an effective editorial workflow is planning content ahead of time. If you publish a high volume of content, it’s likely you’ll have several drafts in progress at once, each at a different stage of your editorial workflow. This is only possible if you already know what you plan to publish well before the target go-live date arrives.
Planning out a full calendar year of content may seem challenging, but in most cases, this is the best way to stay on top of your deadlines. However, if you work in an industry that is largely event-driven (e.g. a news or product reviews), it may not always be possible to plan that far ahead.
Either way, it’s important to know how many pieces you can produce in a year and how often you want to publish across each channel — your website’s blog, social media accounts, guest posts, and other blog platforms like Medium.
If you have staggered publishing intervals for different channels, it’s usually best to imagine your workflow in rolling increments of 30 days. This means that you are always looking 30 days ahead of the current date to see what is due next. This way, you can avoid being overwhelmed by the entire calendar and only focus on what is happening over the next immediate month.
Creating an editorial calendar requires more than just brainstorming blog post ideas and setting due dates. Content marketing is based on strategy. Before you start writing, you want to be sure your content marketing efforts will drive ROI.
For SEO-focused content, the process typically starts with keyword research. This helps you know what search terms you’d like to rank for in search engines. Then, carefully studying which pieces already rank well for your target keyword will help you uncover the search intent — that is, what most searchers are looking for.
Good SEO-focused content will aim to satisfy the search intent better than any competitor piece, making it eligible for the top spots on the SERPs (search engine results pages).
Once you have your topics, you will need to record them in your content tracking system. At Conversion Media, we like to specify a draft due date, editing due date, and a publishing date for each piece. Being this specific about deadlines for each stage helps us stay on track when managing large volumes of content.
Be sure to assign writers and editors as soon as possible. They will probably still procrastinate until the due date, but everyone appreciates a long lead time. It’s also important that your deadlines be reasonable. Don’t try to assign someone ten whitepapers in a month or expect to publish an ebook a few days after you assign it.
Once you have an editorial calendar and a tracking system in place, it’s time to start building quality control measures into your workflow. Make your expectations clear and achievable for your writers and editors.
To do this, you’ll need to create detailed guides and checklists for research, including content guidelines for creating content briefs, outlines, and drafts. You need to set editorial standards not only for your website content, but (feasibly) any other content that your company distributes, such as sales materials. This way, your writers, editors, or managers can clearly understand your standards and how you expect content to be created efficiently.
So, what kind of quality standards should you have for your written content? High-quality content should be easy to understand, in-depth, and concise. It should also clearly satisfy search intent and have an appropriate call to action. There are a number of ways we aim to do this in our own workflow.
Before anything else, your content should give your reader something they didn’t have before. Although you will probably be writing about topics that have already been covered elsewhere, your goal is to find a way to differentiate your content from that of your competitors. You can do this in a couple of ways:
With either approach, be sure to consider your reader’s needs. Aim to satisfy the search intent and give people the information they want to know in a way they can easily understand. Depending on your audience, you may choose to use industry-specific terminology or define jargon they may not be familiar with.
Beyond providing value for your readers, high-quality content also needs to be tailored to your brand. Be sure to establish clear standards for how you communicate across different channels, including your website, social media, co-branded marketing efforts, and more.
Good content should be structured logically, with proper headings that convey the informational hierarchy and an optimized meta description. It should also contain images that supplement key points with alt text for accessibility.
If possible, everything should be written in a clearly defined brand voice. This ensures that your online presence remains consistent and recognizable for the target audience.
In addition to educating your readers, you also want your audience to form a positive impression of your brand. Use your content to establish authority with your readers as a knowledgeable source they can trust.
To do this, the content needs to be factual, engaging, and digestible. If done well, readers are more likely to return to your site. If they don’t become customers right away, you’ve at least gained the ability to continue marketing to them.
This is why each piece of content should also have a solid call to action (CTA) that leads the reader toward the next logical step in their journey. To write this effectively, consider your reader’s level of awareness. Are they ready to buy or are they just looking for information? Either way, your CTA should smoothly lead them where they want to go.
Mark Twain once said, “Write what you know.” This is good advice for any type of writing. The same is true with online content. But what happens when you aren’t able to do that?
For the most part, you should be able to write from your own experience with some research to support your claims. However, you (or your writer) might need to produce a piece that is related to your field but beyond your direct experience.
For instance, you could be writing for your distribution business but not have much direct knowledge about the manufacturing side of the business. In this case, you may need to lean on the experience of someone in another department.
Even when you feel qualified to write on a given topic, it’s always a good idea to interview subject matter experts (SMEs) to inform the content. In most organizations, SMEs are high-performing (and highly compensated) team members whose time is inherently valuable. This sometimes makes it difficult to get a spot on their calendar. Despite this cultural resistance, subject matter expertise is key to producing high-quality content on complex topics.
Make sure you allow for ample time in your workflow to schedule interviews with SMEs, as it can sometimes take up a lot of time to schedule the interview and gather enough useful information. If you aren’t in a position to request time from an SME at your own company, you’ll need to figure out a way to get onto an expert’s calendar.
Before conducting SME interviews, it's best to preview the content topic with them ahead of time, briefing them on what you’re looking to learn via email. This way, they can prepare to talk about the topic in depth during the meeting.
That said, don’t send specific interview questions ahead of time. Live phone or video call interviews are best. In this setting, you can allow new questions to emerge and have a fluid discussion about the topic. It is often not the question you planned to ask an expert that provides the most insight, but the questions that arise as the conversation develops naturally.
When hiring freelancers (or other writers outside your company) to create content for you, there is a unique challenge for them to write from your brand’s perspective. Even internally, consistency can be hard to achieve when multiple people start contributing to your written content.
That’s why providing additional brand-focused input to your writers is a key part of an effective editorial workflow. At minimum, you should at least try to provide brand voice guidelines, audience personas, and an industry-specific perspective on each topic before creating content for your brand.
This adds credibility and brand value to your content. Often, founders, top-level executives and marketers will often have the clearest understanding of your target audience. Despite this, it’s important to make these resources available to anyone who may write on behalf of the company, whether they be internal experts, freelance copywriters, or some other role.
Although writing is often thought of as a messy process, developing a standard writing process with clearly defined stages creates efficiency and quality control within your workflow.
For most companies, there are five stages of content creation: Research, Outlining, Drafting, Editing, and Publication/Promotion. In addition to documenting your entire editorial workflow, you’ll want to define the tasks and quality standards within each stage of your writing process.
You’ll also want to set standard timeframes for each part of the content creation process. How much time should a writer ideally spend on an outline or draft? How quickly after the draft is completed should the editor finish editing? This way, your managers can assign tasks strategically to ensure everything is completed on time. This will enable you to spend less time communicating expectations and more time working on content. If you’re not sure where to start, track how long it actually takes with your current team, and build your standards from there.
Beyond that, the key to a great editorial workflow is automation. Once one stage is complete, all team members should know exactly what to do next. If you can’t automate notifications, each writer or editor should be checking the content tracking system for assignments at least once per day. Be diligent and clear when creating your standard process and your machine will run like clockwork.
To complete the research phase, your writers should have a content brief to assist them. A content brief is a document that breaks down everything the writer needs to know about the goals of the piece.
If you already have a target keyword in mind, looking at competitor pieces that already rank for that keyword is usually a great place to start developing a brief. You’ll likely notice patterns in the search intents they address, how they structure their content, what sources they cite, and more.
Using this data, you can put together a brief which includes the target keyword(s), audience information, average word count for ranking pieces, questions to address, competitor pieces & meta descriptions, and additional resources for the writer. Software like Content Harmony can greatly expedite the process of creating these briefs. With this in hand, your writers will be better equipped to produce content that is clearly best-in-class while spending less time searching for sources.
In general, there is no right or wrong way to create an outline. However, if you have a preference, you should define that format for your team.
Some people prefer more traditional outlines with Roman numerals and brief phrases. This helps visualize the hierarchy of the heading structure. The simplicity also clarifies the intended scope of the content before it is written in long form.
It’s also possible to work with a more fluid outline in which the writer creates the introduction and conclusion paragraphs in rough form first. Each heading is then laid out in order with bullet points or short paragraphs to be fleshed out during the drafting phase.
In any case, managers or editors should always review outlines before the writer starts drafting. This prevents the writer from creating a draft that is wildly off-base from the direction you had in mind for the content. It is much easier to course-correct at the outline stage than after a draft has already been written.
Ideally, first drafts should be written as quickly as possible. At this stage, the goal is to get ideas down on paper. Focus on making connections and releasing all of the interesting points found during the research stage. It's like laying out all of the pieces of a puzzle before you start putting it together.
This format allows new ideas to emerge without much criticism. If the writer creates a first draft with their inner critic turned up to full volume, it will do more than slow the process. It may even stifle the development of the most interesting points.
Before handing the draft to the editor, most writers will need to do a second or third draft in order to refine, polish, and organize the ideas from the initial draft. Writers may need to revisit the topic with fresh eyes across several days before handing it off to an editor. This allows the editor to focus on more detailed edits, leading to a more polished final piece.
Editing requires intense focus and attention to detail. Once you finish all stages of editing, the text of your piece should be ready for publishing.
For this reason, the best editing is done in phases. By applying a different mental lens to each phase, the editor can systematically scan for particular details.
If you hire a professional editor, they will bring their own process for editing. But if you’re training a new editor, the phases below may work well as a framework to build your own editing process:
The first phase uses a broad lens. Editors should first read through the content thinking like an average reader. Here, the goal is to rearrange paragraphs to have a more effective or logical structure. Start by cutting or moving large sections for clarity and noting things that need to be reviewed for accuracy.
During the first phase, most editors will double-check the heading structure to ensure it clearly conveys the informational hierarchy. In other words, heading tags are more than just a style choice.
Each consecutive layer of headings (H2s, H3s, H4s, etc) are subsets of the heading one level higher that they fall under. If your article title is an H1, then all the major subtopics are H2s, and an H3 would be a section which elaborates on a subtopic of the H2 above it.
PRO TIP: If you’re working Google Docs, use an H1 tag for the title instead of the native Title heading tag.
On the second pass through the piece, edits should be more focused. It helps to read each sentence aloud so you can hear the flow of the sentences separately and as a whole.
Here, the editor is focusing on clarity, relevance, and tone. You need to read with more detail than someone who just stumbled upon the piece, but with more distance than someone who is personally invested in the content’s success. This is the stage where editors fact-check details and follow up with writers or SMEs on anything that is unclear.
This is where your editor will check for things like grammar, punctuation, and proper formatting (though you may also edit for flow as you read the piece aloud a second time). During this pass, you want to look for things like misplaced or extra commas, misspellings, tense issues, problems with perspective, and blatant grammatical errors.
You also need to make sure the piece meets all internal/external linking requirements and that your CTA links to the proper page. Meta descriptions should also max out at 160 characters and include keywords for that piece.
After this pass the text of your piece should be ready to go live, and you can move on to graphics and publishing!
Once the draft is completed, it’s time to publish and promote your content. Take time to optimize your process especially in this phase so as to avoid roadblocks in taking things live.
Images and graphics are essential for almost any piece of content to go live. Ideally, these will be created by a dedicated graphic designer or photographer. Absent those, most companies leverage stock photos or photos obtained under a license. Add these in last, being careful to note if there are particular formatting standards to match your brand standards or CMS setup.
Prior to publication, it’s common to have other stakeholders review and approve the content. After that, try to resolve their comments and suggestions as soon as possible.
It’s best to limit these late-stage revisions to one or two rounds. By the time your content has gotten this far, it’s too late to change the focus, overall structure, or the medium of delivery. Final edits should be limited to correcting factual inaccuracies, resolving voice/tone Issues, increasing clarity, backing up claims with proof, increasing specificity, and eliminating fluff.
With most editorial workflows, 1-3 days is usually enough time for a final review and approval. After that, be sure to follow-up with those responsible and ask if they have any comments or still need more time to approve the piece.
That said, the pre-publication stage is often where content can get stuck. Without a bias for publishing, you may find yourself with a huge backlog of content that is awaiting revisions. If a piece is very nearly meeting all standards, it’s usually best to publish it and avoid a backlog. You can also go back and make minor adjustments later.
Once your content is live, you have to make sure it gets read by the target audience. When your content doesn’t get enough attention, it isn’t always a quality issue, but could be a lack of adequate promotion. Your piece needs to have quality links to rank among competitors on the first page of Google, and it isn’t likely to be widely shared on social media just because you tweeted about it once. That’s why it’s important to follow through with link building after publication.
Monthly or even weekly content strategy meetings are essential to staying on track with content production and developing your team. During these meetings, you can cover a variety of topics, but the main goal is to keep the process moving. Use this time to update your editorial calendar, assign tasks, improve your workflow, and build team morale.
Here’s a typical agenda for a content strategy meeting:
Producing high-quality content on a consistent basis is far easier said than done. Some companies create a few good pieces at random, and others may crank out one fluff piece a day. But aiming to publish content with exceptional quality at a steady pace is key to attracting a loyal audience.
While content marketing is much more straightforward than, say, writing a novel, it still requires a good deal of intuition, creative thinking, and discipline to produce an effective campaign. You’ll need to stay organized, work hard, and streamline your editorial workflow as much as you can. From there, lean into your process and focus on creating content one step at a time.
You’ll also need the right people involved to support your efforts. You may choose to build your own team of writers and editors, or you can hire an agency to run the process for you.
We can help with that. At Conversion Media, our team focuses on creating content that attracts, converts, and retains your ideal customers. In addition to filling out your editorial calendar and producing new pieces each month, we’ll also help you promote your piece to gain more of the right traffic organically. See how our services can help you build a strong online presence that lasts.
Special thanks to our Editor, Brit McGinnis, for her extra effort and valuable insights for this piece.
Steal the nine strategies that drove Ahrefs’ gigantic growth to over $55M in annual revenue purely from SEO & content marketing strategy.