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How To Build a Marketing Calendar That Actually Works

A graphic of a calendar next to the text, how to build a marketing calendar

Creating a marketing calendar is like renovating a house. You can schedule everything to a T, hire all the right craftspeople, and purchase the most beautiful finishes—but reality rarely matches your plans.

Marketing planning is time consuming and cumbersome. So why should you even do it? 

Marketing calendars provide more lead time for large-scale projects and act as an infrastructure for any campaigns you plan to run. They also allow you to schedule out promotions and sales, and make space for you to plan campaigns that involve partnerships with influencers, other businesses, or extensive design work. 

The key to a successful marketing calendar is to start with your overarching goals and build in flexibility for when things don’t go as planned. 

What is a marketing calendar? 

A marketing calendar is a visual representation of the marketing activities that a business plans to accomplish across a set amount of time. Common time frames include a cycle, a quarter, or a half or full calendar year.

Usually, marketing calendars show the campaigns you’ll run, promotions and sales you plan to have, product launches, and any holidays you’ll plan marketing materials around. Larger businesses might have multiple marketing calendars across disciplines like social media, editorial, and product. Smaller businesses often combine all marketing activities into one marketing calendar. 

A screenshot of a Smartsheet marketing calendar in Google Sheets
An example of a marketing calendar using Google Sheets. Google

Why is it important to have a marketing calendar? 

Building a marketing calendar provides the opportunity to focus on solving bigger-picture problems in advance, rather than approaching campaigns with last-minute disjointed tactics. 

Marketing calendars build in lead time for more thoughtful and creative campaigns. They allow you time to staff projects you need extra support on or to hire and send products to influencers. They make creative space to plan for collaborations that take time.

Most of all, spending the time to create a marketing calendar lets you think through what kinds of campaigns and strategies will cut through the noise. As Shama Hyder, CEO and founder of Zen Media, tweeted, “With the average consumer coming into contact with more than 1,500 marketing messages every day, it’s not enough to run an ad and hope potential customers see it.”

How do you set goals for a marketing calendar?

Begin the process of creating a marketing calendar with a specific set of end goals. What exactly, as a business, are you trying to accomplish? 

Alex Greifeld, an ecommerce expert who has worked in the industry since 2011, recommends starting with the big picture rather than tactically. Essentially, establish what meal you want to make for dinner rather than starting on step three of the recipe. 

“A lot of digital marketers and eCom practitioners skip right from a vague objective to tactics. We start the year with a sales target and then write up a list of optimizations or new technology that we think will get us there,” writes Alex in a recent installment of the No Best Practices newsletter. “A general rule of thumb—if your strategy could be applied interchangeably to any business, it’s not actually a strategy.” 

By building a thoughtful marketing calendar based on the goals you have as a business, you lessen the risk of throwing random tactics at the wall and hoping they’ll stick. This leaves room to allocate time and money more effectively so you can take big swings when they make sense for you. 

A few questions you should ask yourself:

  • Who am I partnering with?
  • What promotions or events are already scheduled?
  • Which campaigns are fixed and which ones can be moved around?
  • Where can I leave space for new opportunities that pop up?
  • What central messaging do I need to repeat?

🚦Before we get started… Do you have a marketing strategy for your business? Learn more about establishing a marketing strategy: The 5-Step Marketing Strategy to Grow Your Business

How are marketing calendars different for small versus enterprise businesses?

Your marketing calendar will look different if you run a small business or an enterprise-level company. Larger businesses, as we mentioned above, most likely have different types of marketing calendars for each marketing segment, like editorial (blog), social media, product, or email. These businesses usually segment marketing into different teams, or hire at least a couple of dedicated marketing people responsible for each category.

For small businesses, a marketing calendar usually covers all marketing channels. 

How do you build a marketing calendar? 

Hopefully now you’ve established the overarching goals you’d like to achieve with your marketing activities. Next, we’ll walk you through the seven-step process of creating a marketing calendar for your business. 

Step 1: Determine how long you’ll plan for 

One full calendar year

For some businesses, planning out a marketing calendar a year in advance makes sense. You might need that much time to work on a large-scale event that requires coordination with multiple vendors. This also allows you to get a more holistic idea of the campaigns and promotions you might run over the course of an entire year. 

For example, you might run two big promotions a year, one for Black Friday Cyber Monday and the other during the summer or for a major holiday like Valentine’s Day. Year-long planning gives you the longest lead time, but it also has the highest potential for change. A year-long plan doesn’t take into consideration world events and cultural shifts or trends, so you’ll have to leave extra flexibility for when things inevitably change. 

One quarter 

Quarter planning sits right in the middle, and gives you solid lead time while also making space for anything that pops up throughout the year. This is a great option if you’re looking to have enough time to execute campaigns while taking stock four times per year to see how your calendar performed and what you can do to improve it. 

One month 

The shortest option, planning a marketing calendar one month at a time gives you the most flexibility. It also makes you more nimble to jump on trending topics and create campaigns around them as a business. The downside is that you’ll spend more time each month planning for the future, which can get unwieldy. You have the highest risk here of pivoting to a tactic-led, rather than an objective, strategic-led approach. 

A person holds an ipad that shows a calendar with various appointments next to a cup of coffee
Unsplash

Step 2: Decide which channels you’ll include 

Your marketing calendar should include campaigns you’ll run across all of the major channels for your business. Consider what your main marketing channels are. For example, if you are most active via email, TikTok, and SMS, those are the channels you’ll include activities for in your marketing calendar. 

Step 3: Build in flexibility for when things change 

“The purpose of a marketing plan isn’t to create a step-by-step, never-fail manual. It’s to have a roadmap to help you accomplish the best-case scenario,” writes Elise Dopson in a recent article that covers how to build a marketing plan

The same rings true for creating an impactful marketing calendar. How will you accommodate workflows for “in the moment” events you want to latch onto? You’ll also want to make a plan for when campaigns don’t go as planned. For example, you might have run an email campaign around the start of spring that didn’t perform as well or that made more sales than you had hoped. Think through how you’ll adjust and pivot your future campaigns based on the learnings of previous ones. 

Step 4: Choose the kinds of campaigns you’ll run

A marketing campaign is a series of messages around one central topic. A campaign can be as simple as a series of social media posts advertising a promotion, and as complex as a collection of emails, social posts, SMS texts, and a new landing page promoting a product launch. 

As you plan your marketing calendar, consider which types of campaigns you’ll run.

  • Sales and promotions. Notify prospective customers that existing inventory is going on sale, or entice them to make a purchase with a discount code.
  • Holiday campaigns. Center messaging around a major or minor holiday, like Mother’s Day or Halloween. 
  • Content-driven campaigns. Put out content on your email and social platforms around a central theme or idea. For example, Equator Coffee sent a recent email focused on its Earth-minded packaging. 
  • Giveaways and contests. Will you run any giveaways or contests to increase engagement and to get more emails or followers? Note where you’ll slot them in on your marketing calendar. 
  • Product launches. These are often larger-scale campaigns. They require more lead time in terms of both product development and pre-launch content, like emails or social media posts.
A screenshot of an email sent by Equator Coffee that shows an image of a bag of Equator Coffee
Equator Coffee recently put out an email about the sustainability measures it takes as a company. This is an example of a content-driven campaign—one that uses a piece of content to tell a story. Equator

Free Reading List: Social Media Marketing Tactics

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Step 5: Assign tiers to different campaigns 

Once you establish the different campaigns you’ll run, assigning a scope to each one can help you understand how much lead time and what kind of resources you’ll need. 

A simple way to do this is to use a tiered structure, which looks something like this: 

  • Tier 1: These are the largest campaigns you’ll run as a business. They might include new product launches, Black Friday Cyber Monday promotions, or a big sale you run every year. Your full team works on these campaigns, and you’ll engage people across all of your active channels. 
  • Tier 2: Slightly less in scale than Tier 1 launches, Tier 2s don’t require as much lead time or planning, but still involve a hefty amount of work. 
  • Tier 3: Tier 3s are smaller campaigns that require a moderate amount of planning and execution. These could be local to one of your marketing channels or span a few, but they only require a week or two of planning. 
  • Tier 4: Consisting of a couple of social media posts to celebrate a holiday, or an email or two to tell a story, Tier 4 launches are easy to put together quickly and require little to no lead time to be effective. 

Step 6: Narrow down the holidays you’ll build campaigns around

Besides the major holidays, there are tons of smaller scale ones throughout each year.

You don’t need to run a campaign around every holiday. In fact, that would overwhelm your audience. Instead, select the holidays and days of celebration that work best for your brand. If you sell athletic apparel, you might choose to run a promotion or social media campaign around International Yoga Day. Similarly, if you sell vintage fine jewelry, you might do the same around Valentine’s Day. 

For example, sustainable toilet paper brand Who Gives a Crap sent a cheeky email on 2/22/22. The language plays with the connotation of #2 and uses it as a jumping off point to remind folks to “top up” their toilet paper stash. Platforms like Twitter and Calendar Labs provide resources for key global moments and international days of celebration you can drum up buzz around. 

A screenshot of a Who Gives a Crap email celebrating 2/22/2022
Who Gives a Crap

Taylor Holiday, Managing Partner of Common Thread Collective, recommends creating a marketing calendar with at least four peaks if you’re planning for an entire year. These peaks represent your marketing campaigns and create a “calendar that drives performance through storytelling and imperative purchase opportunities,” writes Taylor. 

Step 7: Identify key milestones for your business

New product launches, collections, or collaborations are big milestones for your brand. These are opportunities to engage with your community and make a big splash. If you’re planning for one or all of these, add them to your marketing calendar ASAP. That will give you ample lead time to launch a more creative campaign that adds real value to your customers. 

What tools can you use to build ecommerce marketing calendars? 

Go the simple route with Google Calendar, or select a more robust tool like Coda. Here are a couple of tried-and-true options for building your marketing calendar.

A screenshot of a Smartsheet calendar in Google Sheets
Google Sheets

Google Sheets

  • About the tool: Google Sheets is simple to use, and all of its templates are completely editable. Start with a template like the one above or create your own. Assign team members to tasks or comment directly within the calendar to get full context. 
  • Pricing: Free for personal use; Google Workspace starts at $6 per month for business use. 
A screenshot of a blank Google Calendar
Google Calendar

Google Calendar

  • About the tool: Another simple, cost-effective option, Google Calendar is a great canvas for your marketing calendar, especially if you’re just getting started. Create calendar invites for each campaign, link corresponding docs, and invite the team members involved. 
  • Pricing: Free for personal use; Google Workspace starts at $6 per month for business use.
A screenshot of the Monday.com platform
Monday.com 

Monday.com

  • About the tool: Monday.com is a more robust project management software. It’s a visual tool that makes it easy to show status updates for every component of a marketing campaign. Build your workflow from scratch or use one of Monday’s 200+ templates. 
  • Pricing: Pricing ranges from $0 for two seats to $16 per seat per month for the pro plan.
A screenshot of the Trello platform
Trello

Trello

  • About the tool: Trello is another visual tool that uses cards to represent different pieces of content. Use one card per marketing campaign or create a Trello board per campaign—how you use it is up to you. With a column and calendar view, Trello makes it easy to check in on progress and see when things are going out. 
  • Pricing: Trello offers a free version for your whole team, and its premium version starts at $10 per user per month.
A screenshot of a marketing calendar in Coda
Coda

Coda

  • About the tool: One of the nice features of Coda is that you can use it to manage more aspects of your business than just your marketing calendar. Coda offers a small business option that acts as an all-in-one doc. It’s a powerful product that’s immensely editable to your needs. The best part? Coda offers a Shopify pack that integrates with your Shopify store. 
  • Pricing: Coda offers a free option that lets you create docs, free doc integrations, and real-time collaboration. Its pro version starts at $10 a month per user, and its team version starts at $30 per user.
A screenshot of a marketing calendar in Asana
Asana

Asana

  • About the tool: Asana is a calendar and work management tool that aims to simplify processes by eliminating extra tasks and keeping everything in one place. The tool’s goal is to save you time.
  • Pricing: Asana offers a free plan, and its premium plan starts at $11 per user per month. Its business plan starts at $25 per user per month.



Lean on strong storytelling and keep it flexible

Are you telling compelling stories about your product, your brand, your industry? Does your content provide value to your target audience? Before you add any campaign into your marketing calendar, check in to ensure that your audience will benefit from what you’re putting out into the world. 

Events will pop up, product launches will get delayed, and pop-culture trends will emerge. A rigid marketing calendar leaves little room to engage or react to any of these timely things. While calendars help you plan, one that’s set in stone can actually slow you down.

Marketing calendars are tools to support your business goals, and they don’t have to follow a specific equation or format. What works best for you and for your brand is what’s going to simplify tasks and propel you forward.

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