How to Create a Content Backlog
By Chris Gillespie, Co-Founder of Find A Way Media
Be Super Selective
For every 10 marketing ideas you draft, you should throw away nine. Like, savagely shred them and disavow all knowledge. This isn’t how most marketers operate, but it’s the sort of editorial ruthlessness that allows national news teams and high-powered content marketers to generate ideas that spread like fire. You can do it too by creating your own content backlog.
What is a content backlog?
A document where you add, rank, sort, and delete a list of all possible content ideas in order to select only the best. It’s your team’s source of content truth. Every time you think to create content, you draw it from your backlog.
Backlogs are useful because people rarely make their best marketing decisions on impulse. The quasi-political meme you thought was so clever to share in the moment often seems churlish by the light of the next day. And if you can’t delete it, it’s up there forever — a living monument to your lack of impulse control, you poor marketer you.
A backlog, then, is a nursery where bad ideas die on the vine and good ones blossom. By constantly returning and pruning, ideally, with the team, and in a perfect world, with actual readers, you arrive at the best possible decisions for the content you create.
How to Build A Content Backlog
1. Create a Google Doc (or similar)
Google Docs are ideal because they’re shareable. Choose one person to own and maintain the backlog, but give others access so they can add and comment on ideas.
You can borrow our backlog template.
2. Study what your readers care about
I don’t want to play favorites, but this is the most important step. If you don’t know who your audience is, what they think, how they speak, and which ideas they find exciting or revolting, managing a backlog is a waste of time. You’ll choose topics that interest you but not necessarily your audience, and you’ll wonder why no one comments or shares.
Typically, companies produce some sort of marketing playbook that includes customer personas and offers guidance on what topics they find most interesting. For a quick and dirty version, poll your audience or interview them and outright ask.
3. Add ideas to the backlog
Whenever ideas arise, add them to the queue, which serves as a staging area where they can cool off. When you and the team are feeling less attached, you can return to sort the entire backlog and fold them in.
4. Periodically rank your ideas from best to worst
Set a periodic calendar reminder to sort your backlog — say, every two weeks or every month.
When sorting, add topics from the queue to the backlog, then rank them all in order of interest to your audience.
If you sort it on your own, it goes pretty quick. If you sort it with a willing customer or reader, it’ll take longer, but you’ll get better results. (Sometimes, to get unstuck, we’ll run Twitter surveys.) If you sort along with a diverse team of people who understand your audience, you’ll improve the quality of your decisions even further.
If it’s a big group, make voting easy by distributing a stack of monopoly money and letting each person spend it on their favorite topics. Rank the topics based on dollar value.
Now, the hard part. Once the backlog is sorted, delete the bottom 20 percent of ideas. Yes, delete them. If someone loves an idea so much they want to copy it down to work on it on their own, so be it. Culling strengthens the herd, and makes room for new, better ideas.
5. Assign topics based on the backlog
The backlog is your source of truth for all content planning and strategy. If you assign topics weekly, allow people to select topics from the backlog starting top down.
Allow people to pick topics that they’re uniquely interested in or suited for. If one of your writers or strategists is really not in love with an idea, let someone else do it.
Make exceptions based on asset size. A definitive guide isn’t the same as a blog post. Don’t assign one writer two guides and the other two posts.
If you’re running a newspaper-style publication that traffics in timely stories, you’ll likely sort and manage your backlog with much greater frequency. And you may cull lots more — perhaps every story that’s grown old.
Over time, promoting the good ideas and culling the bad will increase the overall quality of the content you product. So-so ideas that previously might have occupied your content team’s time get weeded out, while good ideas are improved before their release.
And that, is how you consistently create great content that readers love and share. Unlike the original version of this article, which was written hastily without a backlog and so focused on the etymology and history of the term, and isn’t so useful. You can read it below. But we don’t recommend it.
The original post
What Is Agile Management?
For those not familiar, agile management or “agile” for short is a philosophy on how to create incredible software. It has basic tenants which tell you to prioritize:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
Any of this sound familiar to you customer-centric marketing writers out there?
Agile ensures that its adherents produce products that are human-centered, designed for maximum usability, and grow with use.
For your writing, this agility is the secret to efficiency.
Putting agile into practice
Now, let’s say that you want to build something big and useful, on the order of Google, Facebook, or Amazon's software. You’ll want to use Scrum.
Scrum (short for “scrimmage” from rugby), is an actual framework for developing agile software which defines team roles, processes, and responsibilities. It’s core feature is that it chops gargantuan projects down in manageable pieces or “sprints.”
Scrum users start with what’s known as a code backlog - this is a list of everything that you need to create the entire software - and then tackle pieces of it in 2-4 week sprints.
Similarly for your content, you'll plan all of your topics, and then tackle them in sprints.
In return for using Scrum, users get:
Extensive time savings
The ability to iterate and improve
The same goes for your content.
Here’s how to create your content backlog:
Your content repository and your blog aren't so different from software, when you think about it. What are they if not a text-based database of everything that your customers need to know?
Follow these 5 steps to organize your backlog:
1. Choose an owner
Who’s going to own the backlog? Likely, if you're reading this, it’s you. The person who's responsible for the direction and voice of your content owns it.
They do not, however, always assign stories to contributors - a key tenant of agile is that contributors self-organize and work on the things that excite them the most. Especially for writers, this improves the creative quality of the writing and allows them to infuse some passion into the piece. Even if you must assign, leave room for creative freedom.
2. Collect user stories
Before you go jotting down titles, you need to figure out who your reader is and what they care about. Otherwise, you’re just writing for yourself.
Make sure that you’ve nailed down your audience personas and then seek out current and potential readers and interview them to collect stories about the challenges they face in their everyday jobs. It’s by going through these hurdles to learn about their day-to-day that you’ll gather insights about things that you can help them with that maybe even they aren’t aware of.
Organize those stories into a list and list off the common challenges next to them.
If you're building content for a company that makes project management software, it might look like this:
From this, we'd likely draft topics that relate to workplace efficiency that indulge in a little Excel-bashing.
3. Craft a scope statement
With a fresh bucket of user stories, you should have a pretty darn good idea of what they do and don’t want to hear about. Now you can determine what your blog stands for and for gosh sakes, name it something other than “blog.”
As Joe Pulizzi of the Content Marketing Institute cautions, “nobody goes looking for you by searching ‘blog.’” Instead they’ll search “content marketing” or “how to be more persuasive.”
Here are some creatively named blogs:
Or, *ahem*, ours:
The Heart of Persuasion is a weekly blog that promises to educate marketers, writers, and anyone who wants to be more persuasive through writing on how to craft killer marketing content. It’s goal is to develop an engaged and enthusiastic audience who look to Find A Way Media for expertise and writing services.
Note that it includes a clear promise to customers, states how often it’s published, and has a business goal.
4. Write the backlog
Finally, it’s topic-writing time. Now that you have a good sense of the questions that customers ask and what they’re interested in hearing about, you should have an abundance of leads to follow up on. Perhaps they mentioned good blogs they already like, books they found useful, and thought leaders that they’d like to hear from. Scan the universe of what's out there and then come up with topics that have a creative spin on things. When in-doubt, go specific rather than broad.
While people have written thousands of articles on "what is content marketing?" very few have written, "How SMB retailers can utilize content marketing, on the cheap."
We also recommend that your content falls into four categories, as per advice from MarketingProfs: acquiring links, promoting shares, building SEO, or serving as gated resources.
Here’s a small sample of ours:
And finally, keep it simple. Each piece should relate back to your blog’s scope statement and to the category that it’s in. When one is compete, cross it off. Simple.
5. Schedule your sprints
Once you’ve amassed an initial bulk of ideas (50 or so for a weekly blog is a good start), schedule your or your teams' sprints. If you’ve got an editorial review process, make sure that you give yourself time for edits and revisions. We publish on Tuesdays, for example, so all pieces must be complete the Thursday before they’re scheduled to go live on our content marketing calendar.
Then, contributors are free to have at it.
With a large backlog to choose from, they can afford to cherry-pick the pieces that most excite them. And when writer have more fun, they produce far better work.
Your blog backlog is the ultimate living document. You should add to it constantly, encouraging contributors to pitch ideas and when it starts getting low, order pizza and schedule brainstorming sessions.
And just as you add new topics, comb back through old ones. If something sits for too long in the backlog, it’s possible that it’s lacking in substance, isn’t specific enough, or doesn’t have an interesting or new angle, and you should continuously refresh it and make sure that a variety of topics are being covered and that you learn from which ones perform the best.
Do all of this and you’ll have dipped into an agile and scrum-based process that’ll speed up your content creation, save you time, and allow you to publish only the cream of the crop.