Great brands are born through vision, thoughtful planning, and inspired, consistent execution. If retail or sales is your corporate lifeblood today, marketing is the circulatory system delivering you tomorrow’s better future. Marketing forecasts what’s to come, but we don’t just stop there: at our most strategic, we enable the future too, generating sales pipeline [B2B] or orchestrating campaigns that lift customer demand [B2C]. As a result, brand and communications planning has become the starting point of the modern marketing lifecycle: plan, create, execute, then learn from the entire process to improve tomorrow’s work.  

So in a world of drones and self-driving cars, billion-user mobile messaging platforms and digital brand-building, what’s the most common calendar tool content marketers and agencies rely on to kickstart their creative process?

The spreadsheet. An electronic file type invented in the 1970s, 1979 to be exact.

From Handwriting to Software History: The Invention of the Spreadsheet

In the fall of 1978 Dan Brickland was sitting in a Harvard Business School lecture hall, watching his professor slowly erase and recalculate equations on a blackboard. It was taking forever, and, like many of his fellow students, Brickland was bored. “Maybe I wouldn’t have to sit through this if somehow the blackboard could recalculate whenever a number changed,” Brickland must have thought to himself.

But Brickland’s idea didn’t end up a dead-end student’s daydream, because he also knew how to program computers. Brickland began coding a calculator app for the newly-released Apple II personal computer, and spreadsheet software was born. His spreadsheet program was so crude Brickland’s first try used a video game joystick for Pong to move the cursor [he sensibly switched to arrow keys for the second version], but the impact was unmistakable. His spreadsheet program, VisiCalc, sold over 700,000 copies by 1985. That same year, Microsoft released its first version of Excel based on VisiCalc’s initial design, giving accountants, bankers, and, of course, advertisers a new canvas to calculate and plan.

Dan Brickland and Bob Frankston, inventors of VisiCalc the first spreadsheet

VisiCalc co-founders Bob Frankston (left) and Dan Brickland (right).

And throughout the 1990’s spreadsheets were the record-keepers of economic growth. For marketers, campaign planning templates and content calendars stayed pretty simple: a few rows for TV, radio, print, out-of-home, and retail distribution, and CMOs didn’t need much to keep tabs on their media budget (small pun intended).  

The New Multi-Channel Marketing Calendar

Today however, the spreadsheets found in marketer’s shared drives have ballooned with multi-channel complexity. In all likelihood, a Fortune 500 consumer marketing organization is now active on over 100 different channels and consumer touch points [yes, 100. They add up fast when you count them]. Multiply all that channel activity to account for different customer personas, campaigns, content pieces, product SKUs, and market segments, and the traditional spreadsheet table is stretched well beyond its limits. Marketers and planners need to creatively connect the dots between many different types of data in “many-to-many relationships,” the way relational databases that manage the information and activity behind apps like Facebook and Spotify work.  

Content Calendar Examples

Client marketing calendars analyzed by our product team during the development of the Percolate’s marketing calendar. 

But can marketers and agencies really move beyond the time-trusted spreadsheet into marketing calendar software? Do the benefits outweigh the challenges, as well as the work to migrate and change workflows?

From my standpoint, having recently gone through this effort with my team, moving on from Excel and Google Sheets for content and campaign planning requires three ingredients: (1) the right product, (2) the right process, and (3) the right people. Below I’m going to look at the first element — the technology — and how it works in concert with the other elements of marketing to improve transparency and team effectiveness, while saving individual members of our team hours of work each week.

The Right Product – What Marketing Calendar Software Needs to be to Replace Excel

Marketing software is evolving and improving quickly, particularly when it comes to best-in-class calendar technology. Here’s an overview of the benefits and capabilities you should make sure to evaluate when thinking about replacing your planning spreadsheets with software.

1. Ownership and accountability

I can email a spreadsheet request or comment in a Google doc and ask a teammate to do something, but there’s no tracking or accountability. Whether you’re using software for campaign planning or recurring editorial work, having your marketing calendar track user activity, support multi-user collaboration, and integrate with task management for workflow accountability will boost team productivity and reduce errors. Spreadsheets don’t understand or enforce campaign deadlines, and they don’t reduce back-and-forth email chains. The best marketing software does.

Percolate Task Management Software

While some marketing and agency teams adopt task or project management software as a compromise, most of these solutions fall short when it comes to naming conventions, creative collaboration (all the assets belong somewhere else and have to be uploaded and exported), distribution (project management software doesn’t connect to the publishing process), analytics (generic workflow tools can track tasks and projects that get done, but can’t link creation with performance), and other areas.

2. Versioning

Versioning and version control is a consistent challenge for teams working with static Excel files. Different timestamped file versions are often passed back and forth between team members, with only one team-member able to have the “master” version at a time. Make sure your marketing calendar supports real-time, multi-user collaboration all the way down to the data object level (such as an individual calendar entry), and tracks any and all changes to a brief or campaign.

3. Visibility and Transparency

The right planning system should get everyone on the same page and help them see everything they need to know. Senior executives and global marketers should have visibility into marketing activities across every team around the world, while local marketers and remote teams should be able to keep track of the brand’s activities elsewhere to tap into upcoming campaigns or learn from successes in other parts of the organization. Your marketing calendar should be the central point of collaboration between brand teams, creative and media agencies, and other third parties involved in the marketing process, which breaks down in an environment where spreadsheets are created and stored locally, then emailed back and forth. [And, if you’re interested in reading more about our view on visibility, transparency, and context in marketing, have a look at this recent article by Noah, our CEO.]

The Best Alternative to Excel Content Marketing Calendar Templates

4. High usability and well-designed workflow integrations

Increasingly, top marketing organizations are developing closed-loop editorial systems to efficiently plan, create, approve, distribute, and analyze content. Spreadsheets, by comparison — even cloud-based options — don’t connect to the other key steps in the content sequence, slowing teams down. Uniting the full publishing workflow in one fluid, interconnected software platform saves team time, puts resources like content abstracts, brand guidelines, and photography in one organized, easily-discoverable place, improves content quality and consistency, and enables data capture at each step of the marketing process. As a result, teams work faster, get more mileage out of the same budget, and better understand how individual campaigns or even content items drive business results. Great software is easy to use, full stop, and your marketing calendar should deliver on that promise.

5. Flexible configuration

While every brand may be unique, every effective editorial system is built on an organized foundation of process and categorized communication. Newspapers and news websites divide their content across sections like Business, Sports, and Entertainment, and brand publishers should approach their work in a similar way. Best-in-class marketing calendars should be configurable for four building blocks:

(1) The type(s) of content the brand creates

(2) The way that content is developed

(3) The values, ideas, topics, and keywords the brand should be talking about, which can be captured as metadata via tags

(4) The channels that content will be distributed to and measured on

This flexibility should also extend to data visibility, so campaigns and marketing activity can be filtered by channel, team, region, topic, or any other element. Ultimately, your marketing calendar should be easy to configure for your specific brand and the ways you work, while streamlining an effective planning or marketing operations process.

6.Stability, security, and customer success

Elegant design and a high-quality user experience should be built on a foundation of stability, flexibility, and longevity. If you’re evaluating products from a technical perspective, or involving IT in the purchasing decision, make sure to understand your provider’s architecture, security levels, user permission and access capabilities, API maturity and availability, uptime, training approach, and support model to make sure the solution is deployed effectively, adopted widely, integrated with other key elements of your technology stack, serviced at a high level, and can meet all your requirements for data security and compliance. This will ensure you purchase a long-term solution, not a temporary tool that will need to be replaced in a year.

To truly eclipse Excel planning and content calendar templates, marketing software needs to be a better, safer workflow alternative that accelerates team productivity, improves brand security, and increases internal visibility across different teams and channels. Marketing may not be fully ready to abandon the spreadsheet en masse, but it will be a better, simpler day when we do. Based on my own work alongside our product management and design teams on Percolate’s own use of Percolate, I’m confident that day is close.

Looking for a better way to plan and organize your campaigns and content? Click here to learn more about Percolate’s industry-leading marketing calendar.