How to plan a “season” of content, emulating Hollywood showrunners

What should we tell the audience about? This question plagues many content marketing teams. The brand message can be crystal clear. The product carries a specific value proposition and has its own distinctive features. The marketing team understands the media, the agency works on the creative elements, and the PR team prepares news about employees, products and partnerships.

However, the content group has issues with themes. And content marketers often solve them by brainstorming.

It usually goes like this. Someone on the demand generation team suggests making a list of all the questions that potential buyers or customers might ask. The product marketer likes this idea and says, “We could write articles answering these questions and then explain how we solve different problems.” The brand marketer says, “Why don’t we release a few posts about our new brand mission and how our products and services help solve climate change?” He emphasizes his offer by tossing Simon Sinek’s book “Start with Why” on the table. The product marketer chimes in: “Yeah, we could talk a little about how our product solves those problems as well.” “I know,” someone in public relations says, “let’s write posts that feature our executives and their thought leadership in the marketplace.” The brand marketer nods approvingly. “Yes, great idea. This is storytelling. And we have heroes.” The product marketer stands up and says, “I love it, and maybe the executives could talk a little more about how our product solves problems.”

Only the people on the content team sit silently, looking at their notebooks. They made exactly zero entries.

They bring pizza, the meeting ends. The brand marketer shrugs, “I don’t know what you’re all so worried about. We have something to write about.”

Looking for a big story

I work with content marketing teams all over the world and I find that when they are trying to find some editorial direction to solve their problems, this is usually what happens. Because they didn’t lay the groundwork for a larger story in their work.

Without a big, focused story (or stories), any alternative seems acceptable. But as a result, the blog looks like a collection of answers to frequently asked questions. The expert section is a collection of random promotional materials and case studies. And the webinar program is just a one-stop program that includes anyone who can say something about how their product solves some problems.

I once wrote about the importance of planning. But that description of the planning process assumes that the relevant teams have already met to select a larger story that can be used as the basis for future publications.

But what if it hasn’t happened yet? How are you going to find this great story? As it turns out, there’s a lot to learn from TV showrunners.

What do showrunners know?

TV series are created by teams representing all the parties it takes to create great content. There are writers, directors, actors, editors, production specialists, and so on.

Similarly, multiple teams come together when the content marketing team gets to work on their goals. And just like that, this team relies on a wide variety of experts: writers, designers, subject matter experts.

Both teams face the same challenges. This chaotic creative process requires the participation of many groups. How do you bring all these groups and disciplines together and develop a coherent story?

Question in Hollywood: “What’s the story?”

The question in content marketing is: “What is the story?”

Here’s an approach that looks to work in both situations. Find the big story and then plan it out for the season.

The first thing I advise content marketing teams to do is find the focus of the story they want to tell over a period of time on certain platforms. You can use brand history to find topics, you can reload old, already used ideas. But there is another often overlooked aspect of the first step in coming up with themes – planning how your story will develop over time.

Hollywood showrunners do this by bringing all the writers together to figure out what will happen in the episodes, how the plot and characters will develop.

Content marketers can learn from this experience. Why not get the team together to come up with and plan out ideas to help tell a big, complete story? It’s worth treating this process like planning an entire season of content and choosing a big theme for your editorial strategy for the coming quarter.

With this approach, you will get more than just a list of disparate article titles. You’ll schedule different chapters (or episodes) of a larger story that may lead to different types of posts for different platforms.

Map out the chapters – then “pack” them into formats

The next step for showrunners is to create outlines for the episodes that make up the show’s season. These detailed sketches help other professionals understand when things like filming locations, guest actors, or a bigger budget might be needed.

In content marketing, describing upcoming chapters of a larger story helps you understand which formats will work best. For example, you might decide that for the initial “episode” you want to create a large article plus a blog post. And decide to combine the second episode of the show with a white paper, a webinar and another blog post.

In the future, the choice of formats will be separated from the creation of content, and the form will not affect the content (you have a big story). All team members will be alerted to the fact that they will need to write content for the wide variety of formats chosen to unfold the story. Designers will have a view of the entire “content portfolio” and can use it to create all the necessary materials.

Planning at this level of detail allows you to take full advantage of the calendar. All teams can see the roadmap for the big story and the different platforms it will be told on. They may begin to realize that a content season is actually doing all they can by reducing the demand for dedicated resources.

Create but don’t publish

The next step is for the Hollywood showrunners to map out the storyline for the various episodes. All the writers know the plot and plans for the upcoming episodes, so the showrunner can choose the most appropriate writer for each. Similarly, the content marketing team might assign the creation of the first few episodes to one team of “writers” and then hand it off to another.

You can approach it this way: if you have presented and outlined your entire story, you and your team know what will happen next. You can work on chapters at the same time, knowing that everything can change if necessary. More importantly, this approach allows you to work ahead of schedule, rather than constantly chasing deadlines.

The key here is the writing of texts, not the choice of formats or digital resources. The goal is for the stories to be created well ahead of the deadlines set in the schedule. For example, one successful content marketing team I’ve worked with does a “Content Digest” for each of their episodes. This single document includes all text for all resources where they will be placed (for example, advertisements, blog posts, social media posts, large articles, etc.), as well as a summary of all elements in which the content will be packaged . And as soon as a new theme goes to work, the creative team starts developing the design.

You may have 10 or more episodes ready before the first one is published. This allows the production schedule to be adjusted as the audience perceives each episode as it is released. For example, if episode 1 went really well, you can make changes to episode 6. We’ve seen this principle in action on TV shows. The character becomes a fan favorite in the first episode, and has much more screen time by the fifth.

Plus, it’s a much more efficient process. You know that Episode 3 (which is already written) will require an up-to-date fresh ideas paper, a webinar, and a blog post. Now you also know how to help the production team plan their time and effort. And there is an opportunity to change the implementation of the big story if the first webinar is so successful that you want to add more.

One story to rule

Creating a big story and working on a plan with cross-functional teams not only improves efficiency. It helps to ensure accurate focusing. Now you can match any idea that comes up with something important: your big story.

And when that inevitable comment finally hits you: “Yes, and can we add more text about how our product solves this problem?” You will be able to look through your many entries and say: “Sorry, but no, this is not part of our history.”

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