Do you remember when you realized a content marketing deadline was more like a strong suggestion than a hard date?
I grew up in the journalism world, where a missed deadline kept dozens of people waiting to do their jobs to finish the product and get it delivered to subscribers. I took the newspaper’s daily 5 p.m. deadline seriously. My commitment to deadlines started in college when I would meet professors’ deadlines even when I didn’t even start writing until the day before it was due.
In my first 9-to-5 job in content marketing, I realized the deadlines were fuzzy. Usually, no one was waiting in the wings for me to finish. Since then, I’ve managed deadlines differently – and missed them more often than I ever did as a reporter.
I sometimes long for the days of inflexible deadlines. At least then, I couldn’t agonize over my words or wait for inspiration to strike.
To figure out how I could better set and meet deadlines, I did a little research and learned a few lessons that will help me – and your content marketing team, too.
1. Resist the urge to drop the deadline
If you’re tempted to solve a deadline-stress problem by abolishing deadlines, don’t. It probably won’t have the desired effect.
The National Science Foundation abolished deadlines for grant proposals in favor of an anytime submission process. As reported in Science, the NSF saw grant proposals decrease by 59% across four grant programs. In the end, they went back to submission deadlines.
Lesson: If people don’t have a deadline, the task often doesn’t get done.
2. Set aside time to complete important (but not time-sensitive) tasks
In marketing, some content assets are more time-sensitive than others. Think about the article for your blog that publishes daily (urgent) versus the e-book to generate leads that should publish sometime (important).
Research published in Harvard Business Review finds people focus on what must get done, pushing aside important but not timely tasks for later. (And sometimes, later never comes.)
To remedy that, the authors tested a proactive time (or pro-time) experiment. They split the employees at their employer – a U.S.-based marketing services and customer experience research company – into a control group and a pro-time group. They told the control group to keep doing what they had been doing. They told the other group to schedule a recurring 30-minute weekly planning session on their calendars. During that time, they listed their most important and urgent work tasks, then scheduled two-hour pro-time calendar blocks every day to address their important but not urgent tasks.
Six weeks later, the pro-time group reported they were 12% more likely to accomplish more, meet critical deadlines, and get important tasks done more quickly. They also were 14% more effective with their time and 9% less overwhelmed by the workload.
Most importantly, both groups were equally responsive to clients’ requests. “Pro-time did not come at the cost of good customer service,” the authors wrote. And 84% of the pro-time group recommended the organization use the method throughout the company.
Lesson: Give important content creation tasks the attention they deserve by putting them on your calendar and working on them every day.
3. Set progressive deadlines or check-ins
Establishing a deadline and scheduling time to do the work isn’t enough. As detailed in this BBC article, a social psychologist conducted an experiment with students at Tel Aviv University.
The students had to complete thousands of computer-based menial tasks separated into blocks over 90 minutes. Half the group received constant feedback on their progress, letting them know how many more they had left to do. The other group received no such updates.
The students who knew how much more they had to do were faster and more accurate. According to the research, they also reported less fatigue and took shorter breaks between the blocks.
Why? The more successful students consistently knew how much farther the finish line was. They had a better mental picture and plan to complete the tasks. The other students had to save some of their energy because they never knew when they would be done.
Lesson: Outline the tasks necessary to complete the piece of content. Establish milestone deadlines or regular check-ins to ensure you stay on track.
4. Don’t go it alone
Content creators can’t do it all by themselves – managers play a critical role in predicting deadline success.
MIT psychologists conducted an experiment to understand the effect of self-imposed deadlines. As reported in Psychological Science, they hired a group of students to proofread three passages. They gave some weekly deadlines, others a final deadline, and let another segment choose their deadlines. Students received 10 cents for every error they detected and a $1 penalty for every day they were late.
The self-determined deadline group did worse than the weekly deadline group in finding errors, finishing near deadlines, and earning rewards. However, both the self-determined and weekly deadline groups did better than those with a single final deadline. The researchers concluded that while self-imposed deadlines can be an OK strategy to mitigate procrastination, they are “not always as effective as some external deadlines in boosting task performance.”
Lesson: Content marketing managers must set frequent deadlines to help their team complete content creation tasks on time.
5. Set up a process for extensions
Not every content creator can meet every deadline. Life intervenes, additional responsibilities get added, and sometimes creating just takes longer than expected. Yet, too often, creators meet that missed deadline with silence or turn in sloppy work. They don’t ask for an extension.
Why? People place a high personal cost on asking for an extension – they are concerned about what a supervisor would think, and they don’t want to appear incompetent, according to the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Of course, that perception often isn’t reality. Other research has shown people do not respond negatively to deadline requests. And often, formal extension-request policies can mitigate the requester’s concerns.
Lesson: Establish a deadline extension request process, so creators are more likely to understand it’s an acceptable practice on your content marketing team.
Deadlines done right can work well
Establishing due dates for all your content marketing – urgent and important – is a smart strategy. But the key to long-term success is realizing a single final deadline isn’t enough. Creators do better when they have a voice other than their own checking in with them.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute