How to use a swipe file to fix your content strategy

Ask anyone: writing well is hard to do. Writing well and writing regularly, even harder. But you can make it easier.

One of my favorite tips — something most marketing copywriters are familiar with, thanks to the David Ogilvys and Robert W. Blys of the world — is to keep a swipe file handy. Copywriters keep swipe files of brilliant heds and marketing campaigns for inspiration and concrete, structural formulas that can be leveraged in their own copy. But swipe files are not just for advertisers and copywriters. I’ve always kept a variety of swipe files, but recently it’s dawned on me that, as great as this is for me, the people who REALLY need swipe files are my clients. Because the one issue I hear from them? All the time? It’s not  lack of ideas. (They have plenty of those.) 

It’s that they are stuck on how to flesh them out, or differentiate them, or develop them into different content types (e.g. a visual quote for Facebook vs., say, a 500-word guest blog post interviewing the quoted person).

Even business owners with plenty of resources — specifically, financial resources and content support — get stuck on strategically developing their content over time. The problem is simple: If you can’t spec out an assignment or a theme, it doesn’t matter if you have a full marketing department and 30 writers in-house or not — your content strategy is dead in the water. Same goes if you’re doing it alone: When time comes to write that (Tuesday/Thursday/monthly) blog post, you end up with radio silence.

To that end, here’s a blow-by-blow method for creating a more strategic content approach that can easily be adapted by businesses large and small:

Create a repository (aka “swipe file”) of related links/news.

I use my Twitter lists and a Google Doc, but you might use Flipboard, Evernote, Pinterest or even a Tumblr to get the job done. The tool is irrelevant; use what makes you comfortable. Use your virtual “swipe file” to keep track of:

  • Content you like. What speaks to you about it? Tag or file it based on why you marked it — e.g., tone, headline, format, lede, topic.
  • Industry trends. (Always good to rekindle a conversation based on a recent piece, or link to it in future content of your own.)
  • Assets. Even if you’re producing business content of your own, it’s important to engage with third-party content — and link to it or use it in your own content (think infographics, photos, studies, white papers, videos, articles).
  • Resources: Don’t forget to have a resource section handy. This might be content you want to emulate (I like to jot down killer deks and ledes) or content about content — tips for recurring features, say. It might contain statistics or research. That depends on your business, and how much information you need to create valuable content for your customer or client.

Create an editorial calendar.

If content is part of your business strategy, then you need to treat it just like a publisher would. And part of that is developing an editorial calendar in advance, so you can control the quality, readership and relevance of the content you’re spending money (or time) creating. There are a few different approaches to creating a business-related editorial calendar. Some combine social posts (e.g. Facebook Page updates) with long-form content, like blog posts or guest posts. Some are highly specific and shared with multiple team members.

But in general, your swipe file will serve both as a topic generator AND a research tool to make crafting assignments (for yourself, or a writer, or a community manager) a heckuva lot easier. Here are some specific ideas and approaches that might work for your business:

  • SEO approach: Use your target keywords to develop an evergreen calendar of topics (vs. selecting topics and plugging in keywords later).
  • Develop an integrated social content calendar that differentiates topics by type/location (e.g. new product launch, Facebook Promoted Post) in concert with marketing dept./consultant/agency. This can get really granular and, for larger brands, probably has daily to-dos.
  • OR (best): Start with the 10,000-foot view instead: Create a simple 12-month content overview dictated by theme(s) or goals(e.g. 1 post per week) and get one quarter ahead with the specifics (as in bullet 1 or 2). Personally, I think it’s most effective to start big and narrow down based on 4 major considerations:
    • Resources (content writers or personas, scheduling)
    • SEO/profit considerations (keywords, paid marketing or online advertising campaigns)
    • PR considerations (launches, rollouts, industry trends)
    • Destinations (blog, guest posts, articles, social media posts, etc.).
This post has a really simple calendar template. Content Marketing Institute has a similar, “2-step” editorial calendar that can really come in handy if you’re new to this and — like most of us — busy. There are also various plugins you can use within your CMS — which I sure hope is WordPress, because for most general content-related SMB applications, no other platform compares.

Schedule periodic strategy audits.

Particularly if you outsource content, or work with a writer or multiple departments to get your business content out there, it’s worth scheduling monthly or quarterly audits. There are a few questions you can ask during these audits that will help you refine your strategy, stay on top of trends and address developments in the business:

  • Metrics — Have we seen improved [# comments, # shares, Web traffic, unique visitors, incoming links, incoming leads, likes, followers, subscribers] between today and our last audit? (Note: Metrics can get as detailed — or as basic — as you want.  But if you’re not tracking, you’re not making a dent.)
  • Research — Is the next [month, quarter, 6-week period] scheduled, assigned and up-to-date with relevant links and assets (internal or third-party)?
  • Case studies — What was our most successful [time, topic, specific post, specific campaign or theme] to date? What did we do well? What was our worst or lowest-performing content initiative? How can we adjust our calendar accordingly?
  • Resources — Do we have fewer, more or the same amount of resources (financial, writers, tech support, PR opportunities) as before? Do we need to refine our strategy accordingly and if so, how can we focus on the “best” case study (see bullet 3) to optimize our energy? For example, if you have fewer resources, you’ll want to isolate content types (perhaps writing short blog posts around an infographic or other visual that can be easily cross-promoted on social media) that give you the most bang for the least amount of time or money — without killing momentum — and change your calendar accordingly.
  • Swipe file goodies — Few SMBs can survive with a one-note editorial strategy. If you plan content by theme or time, and bang out specifics closer to their live date, make it a point to look at the most recent tags and topics that have made it into your swipe file and start adding them to your editorial calendar, either as assets, links, references or inspiration. Maybe it’s time to start a weekly roundup post to save time/energy. Maybe it’s time to drop a social network that’s under-performing and focus on another one. Whatever it is, a swipe file can provide the grease to keep those gears turning.
Any way you slice it, if you keep a swipe file of ideas handy, business content idea generation will get a lot easier — and you can focus more of your energy on strategizing content for tomorrow, instead of scrambling around for ideas and last-minute revisions today.

5 Comments

  • What a fabulously informative post, Lindsey. While I’ve been focusing more on fiction lately, I have done the things you’ve suggested in my freelance business to a smaller degree (calling them “ideas” folders of content I’ve found engaging for one reason or the other). When I was a magazine editor those ideas made the planning stages for the next issue so, so much easier. I love the SEO approach, too — utilizing your key words for evergreen ideas.

  • Great article, Lindsey. I’ve also started to keep a swipe file for videos!

  • [...] Start with magazine covers and images, color combinations, photo images and videos that grab your attention and put them in a swipe file. [...]

  • [...] of us have at least a few ideas banging around at any given moment; that’s why having a content swipe file and an editorial calendar is so valuable. It turns a disorganized process into a strategic [...]

  • Thanks Melissa. I agree, this is useful in a variety of roles — not limited to a blog or a business. But if you’re an editor, it’s critical. Nothing worse than being down to the wire and not having a strategy to lean on.

    Thanks for the comment, Gina. It works for any kind of media, really. And I suspect we are all bookmarking a lot more video/audio/image content than we used to be… ;)

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