The Complete Guide to Creating a Community Content Calendar (with a little help from AI!)
Get the process (and template!) I use with my clients to help them create community content calendars that generate impactful community engagement
Over the course of my career in community management, both in my work as a consultant and in my work building training programs for other professional community managers while at Commsor, I’ve had the privilege of working with hundreds of community builders trying to create impactful community programs that deliver bottom-line returns for their businesses. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about working with such a high volume of community builders and projects is the chance to notice trends in both pain points and solutions. And, I’ve noticed that regardless of scale, almost everyone cares about increasing engagement. And when it comes to garnering not only a high volume but a high quality of engagement, I’ve noticed there’s a clear difference between those who are successful and those that are not: whether or not the community builder is proactive in providing engaging content and structure to kickstart engagement, or whether they expect it to happen wholly organically.
This might seem like a silly distinction, because creating meaningful engagement is such a nuanced topic, but—you might be surprised to learn how many people I’ve worked with who know they want to increase engagement in their community, but are not currently using any strategies to proactively support engagement. It seems to be a common belief in the community industry that you just have to wait for engagement to arise organically, or even that using proactive strategies to prompt engagement will wreck authenticity. And while the latter is a real concern, it's not one that's solved by silence—it's actually one that's solved by careful planning. When I come across clients or projects like this, I’ll almost always walk them through the process of creating a Community Content Calendar—a tool that has been tremendously helpful to me in my prior community projects in helping me think through my strategy, scaffold high-quality engagement with members, and ultimately measure impact. And while I won't claim that using a tool like this will solve every problem you have with building engagement, I do think it's an essential first step to identifying your strategy and giving you something to test and tweak from.
But, even though I’ve been using roughly the same process with my own projects and with clients for years, I’ve never actually taken the time to put all of this information into one comprehensive guide, which is what I’m aiming to do here. In this blog post, I’ll cover:
Founding principles of creating a content calendar in a community context: how they overlap and differ from other types of content calendars, how they support not only high volume but high quality engagement, and more
Understanding the purpose behind different content cadences in communities: how to think about the difference between day-to-day prompts and high-value quarterly events
A step-by-step process for creating a community content calendar: what I do to produce these assets, and in what order
A walkthrough of how to use AI to decrease effort as you continue to produce content calendars month after month
A template to help you create these assets more easily
Additional resources to help you balance and measure your efforts
I’m excited to be sharing this knowledge with you now in one place, and I look forward to hearing your questions, examples, and stories about implementing this process. Let’s dive right in.
(psst—if you want to grab the template now so that you have it open as you read, you can do that below):
Founding principles of creating Community Content Calendars
Before we dive into a process for creating a community content calendar, it’s important to talk about some of the ways that they differ from other types of content calendars. I first started thinking about community content calendaring back in my days working at Teachable, when I actually worked on a brand and content team, so I had lots of opportunities to see the overlaps and divergences between what was most useful for me as a community builder versus what was most useful for my colleagues who worked in social media or editorial. In this section, we’ll take a look at some of the philosophies that underpin this type of planning tool—in my experience, understanding these principles is the difference between effective and ineffective content calendars for communities.
1. “Content” means something different in a community context
First, it’s important to understand that when we say “content” in a community setting, we mean something slightly broader than what “content” may immediately call to mind. For many of my clients, when I say “content,” they immediately think of the types of content they would typically use in an outbound broadcast channel, that is to say a one-to-many channel like email or a blog. But, it’s important to remember that communities are many-to-many channels—so the role that content plays in them is different, and it’s important to never start to treat your community like just another broadcast channel where you post "content" to a captive audience. Instead, we should think about community content as having a few unique traits that inform how we use it.
First, community content is not always as formal as what you might imagine when you think of content for another channel. It can run that gamut from things that are as small, quick, and informal as conversation prompts all the way through more high-effort, high-value content like workshops. When we talk about community content, we’re talking about anything that you proactively place within your community to garner an engagement output or other output—all of those things, from the smallest to the biggest, belong on a community content calendar. We’ll talk more about some of the common forms and cadences of community content, and the purposes they play, later in this blog post.
Second, community content differs from other forms of content in that it generally has a larger goal than simply providing value, generating a lead, or establishing the authority of the author—all of which are common content goals for other channels. Instead, community content is there to invite participation and connection from community members, such that they begin to become content creators themselves. It is there to model ideal contributions, not to in-and-of-itself be the only source of value in the community setting. Keeping this in mind is a great barometer for what’s appropriate content to place within a community, and can help prevent you from accidentally turning your community into a broadcast channel. You should always be thinking: how is this piece of content inviting engagement or creating more autonomous members who spark engagement themselves? If the answer is that it doesn't, it’s probably not appropriate content for a community (this is why so many community builders struggle to effectively use thought leadership in their communities; we’ll talk about this more later as well).
Third and lastly, community content differs from other forms of content in that it is fundamentally circular or bidirectional. This means that when we create content calendars, we have to keep in mind that we as the community builders are not the only content creators for the community—ideally, our members are content creators, too. We should be aiming to create content that empowers that dynamic, rather than hogging the airspace or giving the impression that we are the only expert in the space. Further, it’s important to remember that “community content” is not just what we put into the community to spark conversations, it is also the content that we are able to mine from the user-generated interactions that are taking place. Communities can be a powerful source of inspiration and source material for outbound content that has other purposes in your business. While in our content calendaring work, we’ll focus mostly on what we put into the community versus what we take out, it’s important to keep this principle in mind as you design.
2. Community content should be connected to community purpose
I would be remiss if I didn’t include a section in this guide reminding readers that just as we generally want to avoid engagement for engagement’s sake, we also want to avoid content for content’s sake. Remember that while prompting engagement is a common purpose for creating community content calendars, we should always challenge the notion that more engagement = better. Instead, we need to get a clear picture of what the bottom line goals for our community are, and have a clear picture of how engagement supports those goals, and in turn, how content supports those goals.
To give an example: when I worked at Teachable, an online course creation platform, the bottom line metric I cared about was member retention. My hypothesis was that if the entrepreneurs I served through the community were successful at creating and selling online courses, they would be more likely to stay members of Teachable for longer, which would show up in cohort comparison on factors like churn and lifetime value. So, the engagements I wanted to create in that community program were ones that would likely lead to that outcome: in other words, I focussed on fostering conversations about entrepreneurial best practices. And, crucially, even if the content I created was successful at generating more engagement in the community, if that wasn't reflected in churn or lifetime value metrics, it was a sign my hypothesis wasn't playing out. That's why it’s important to create a clear link between your bottom-line-impact, what high-quality engagement means to you, and the content you create to attempt to spark that high-quality engagement. The more groundwork you can do to get clear on these relationships, the stronger your programs will generally be.
In my experience, a good litmus test for what community content is going to prompt the most high quality engagement is whether it presents the opportunity to impact even the members who don’t directly participate. Content that’s meant to spark surface-level engagement, such as sharing an article and asking people to emoji react if they liked it, may appear to generate engagement, but is generally only going to have an impact on those who actually read the article and respond. But, community content that’s geared at starting rich conversations will generally have an extra layer of impact, in that they create compendiums of knowledge that are valuable for members who participate in the community only at a “lurker” level. Trying to create content that presents opportunities for multiple layers of impact is a great way to ensure your community content meets some of the standards I’ve discussed in this section.
If you need more help with these ideas than the above examples, I’ve written extensively about high-quality engagement and goal-setting for communities on my blog in the past. Some articles you may want to check out are here:
Symbiotic, Tangible, Existential: 3 Pillars of Effective Goal Setting for Online Communities will help you learn a process for setting community goals that connect to the bottom line of your business
How to Elevate the Quality of Engagement in Your Online Community will help you understand more about the pitfalls of engagement for engagement’s sake, and how to connect your engagement more to tangible impact
As we continue in this blog post, we’ll also talk more about that fact that beyond the big-picture purpose of community content and engagement, each type and cadence of community content also has a distinct purpose in your strategy. The takeaway here is that you start to look at your content less as “checking a box,” and more as, “what in my community strategy am I accomplishing through this piece of content?”
So, our key takeaways from this section and the new approaches we want to cultivate as we complete this process are:
We should create content that’s connected to our purpose, and with creating valuable engagement in mind
We should remember that community content is primarily about modeling and scaffolding great contributions from members
Now, let’s move on to talking about some of the common forms of community content by cadence.
Types of Community Content by Cadence
When I start working with someone on creating their first community content calendar, after we’ve established their overall goals for their project and why they actually want more or higher quality engagement, I usually start by talking with them about the different common types of community content and the cadences in which they typically appear. In other words, we talk through what types of content and engagement they’re committing to provide in their community on a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or yearly basis. I find this can be a clear framing mechanism for creating a community content calendar for a few reasons:
Laying out your content cadences like this is sort of like creating a “feature list” for your community. In other words, when you “pitch” your community to prospective members or describe it to colleagues, these cadences will often be the tangible value proposition that you’re describing. (Think: "Tell me about your community." "Well, we have daily conversations about x topic, every week we do a Q&A, and each month with bring in an expert to do a workshop.")
Breaking down typical community content types by cadence is also a great way to visualize the fact that these different cadences typically serve a different purpose in your engagement strategy, which we’ll explore here.
Because as cadences become more infrequent, the level of effort increases, breaking down your community content cadences will also help you balance the level of effort you are posing for both your community members as participants and you as a content creator.
Let’s break down some of the different content cadences in community—for each cadence, we’ll look at a few examples of the content type and we’ll discuss the purpose of the content cadence within your community strategy.
Day-to-day community content
*Lowest effort, highest frequency
Quick discussion prompts — sentence-to-paragraph-long prompts aimed at starting discussions aligned with your community’s goals and purpose.
Sharing thought leadership in your communities space with “calls to connection” — in other words, not simply sharing a relevant article as you might on a broadcast channel, but starting a unique conversation around that article.
Announcements & housekeeping — sharing registration pages for events, company announcements, and the like. These generally have fewer opportunities for engagement, and should be kept to a minimum.
I like to think of day-to-day content in a community as similar to providing a “snack table” at a party. These are things you provide for members to congregate around while they are still forming connections with other members that allow them to participate in the space more autonomously.
Day-to-day content primarily serves to model great contributions to your community. You should think of yourself as the community builder as playing the role of an ideal community member, not the role of an administrator. You’re showing members: “this is what we talk about here. This is what it looks like to start a great conversation” with the intention that they can go on to do this as well.
It’s important to note that this content cadence is going to primarily impact existing members. In other words, this is there for people who are already opening the community—it is not likely to entice net new or skeptical members to open the community (more on that in just a moment!).
Weekly community content
*Medium effort, medium frequency
Rituals — recurring, anticipated prompts or activities in your community. For example, weekly goal-setting rituals, accountability checks, etc. Rituals are a wonderful way to create habits and decrease the difficulty of high-effort prompts through repetition, but they should be used sparingly. Do not use rituals more than once or twice per week.
Q&As or other low-effort live events — generally opportunities for your members to either interact with staff or experts, or to have more high-touch, high-value experiences with one another without putting a high content creation toll on you.
In contrast to your day-to-day community content which is there to serve those who are already opening the community, weekly community content serves to build and strengthen habits around community usage. It is there to ensure that community members' experience is recurring, and that they begin to remember to open the community on a recurring basis.
Building habitual usage is also a great way to shift away from transactional community usage (i.e., members only opening the community to solve specific problems, then leaving).
Weekly content can also serve to create ease around difficulty. Certain forms of community engagement that require deeper thought or effort from members, such as providing feedback to one another, are going to be difficult to execute on a one-off or infrequent basis, but may be effective to ritualize.
Monthly, quarterly, and yearly content
*Highest effort, lowest frequency
Expert workshops available to community members are a common form of high-effort, low-frequency community content. Other live-event types such as summits, conferences, in-person events, roundtables, and masterminds are also common.
Many communities conduct infrequent but thorough community-wide research intended to benefit community members, either by giving a group of people with shared qualities actionable information (for example, salary range research in a professional community) or by using research to provide better services (for example, user research in a software user group).
Challenges can be powerful ways to test more formal content arcs, like courses or sub-communities, before fully launching, while providing community members with high-quality outcomes and accountability.
Because the content types in this category are high effort, I like to think of them as “showstoppers”—and I believe every community should have at least one “showstopper” content type when they launch. What I mean by a “showstopper” is that it’s a content type that’s so highly coveted by members that they are willing to undergo friction to get it—that’s why it’s essential that you do some research around what you’ll invest time in before choosing to do it.
Showstoppers are generally going to serve to give skeptical members a reason to open the community and begin to adopt the community—the idea is that once they’re there, they will start participating in more of the day-to-day or weekly content types that lead to engagement more directly. In order to get this outcome, it’s essential that you advertise this content type outside of your community, to an already habituated channel (such as email or push notifications) so that you are effective in capturing the interest of non-habituated members.
Now that we’ve taken a look at how different content types can come together to serve community members at different levels of habituation, let’s dive into what you’re really here for: my step-by-step process of creating a community content calendar, complete with a template you can use to get started.
Step-by-step process to create a Community Content Calendar
We’ve made it to the real meat and potatoes of this blog post: the how to. As you follow these steps, I recommend that you download my content calendaring template so that you can work as you read (and by the way—when you download this template, you’ll also get access to my entire template library so far, which includes a ton of great stuff like a community launch process, a curriculum mapping tool, and more):
Choose your tool & set up your calendar. Start by choosing the tool you’ll use for your community content calendar. You can either use my spreadsheet template using the download button above, or you can use a project management tool like Monday or Asana. (For what it’s worth—I recommend keeping it simple. If your organization already has a project management tool that the rest of your team uses, default to using that. That said, none of the project management tools are built specifically with community in mind (yet!), so a spreadsheet will work fine). A couple of tips during setup:
When I set up my calendar, I usually start by blocking off any unavailable days (for example, if you won’t be engaging in the community on weekends, or holidays). This is a good time to think through the boundaries you want to set with your community.
I also recommend creating a different calendar for any space where you are trying to actively prompt engagement—for example, if your community has three different mutually exclusive tiers for different members, or if you have a main community and then a community just for folks taking your course, you’ll need to run content programs that benefit each subgroup. This is part of why I usually recommend the lightest-weight possible community architecture—more complexity usually means more effort prompting engagement.
I recommend planning about a month in advance. You can plan things like workshops earlier, but for more short-term and low effort community content, avoid planning too far in advance, this can prevent you from staying responsive.
If you’re using my template, I recommend that you write your community goals at the top of the template (there’s a space for this!). If you’re using another tool, see if there’s another way you can keep your community goals top of mind whenever you’re using the tool, like putting a post-it in your workspace. Doing this will help remind you to keep your purpose in mind as you plan—this can be easy to lose track of, even if you’ve been doing community work for years. Again, I have a goal setting article and template that can help you with this process if you’re stuck.
Write out the content cadences and types you are committing to. Again, if you’re using my template, there is a space for you to do this. Doing this is also a great way to give yourself a reminder of what you need to program into a particular time frame in order to keep your value proposition to your members strong.
I recommend that all community builders consider choosing 3-5 content pillars for their community content. In other words, choose 3-5 high-level themes that you will try to connect all community content that you create to. Another way to think about this is, what are the big categories of things you want to see your members discussing within your community (and therefore, what will you model and scaffold conversations about?). For example, if I were creating a community for Petco customers, my content themes might be: 1) discussing pet care products (food, grooming tools, etc) that are sold by Petco 2) discussing pet training and care techniques 3) discussing social and emotional connections with pets and 4) pet adoption and advocacy. If you are using my template, there is a space to write your content pillars at the top. Creating content pillars has several benefits, namely:
They help you focus your efforts and not feel like you’re working from “a blank page” when you plan content each month
They help you measure your efforts more effectively—if you are intentionally laddering up engagements to content pillars, it will be easier to identify themes of what your members are most (and least) interested in and adjust as you go
Now that you’ve set up your community content calendar and noted some key decisions on it, you’re going to start filling it in, working backwards from most infrequent to most frequent. With clients, I like to talk about this like “packing a suitcase”—when you pack your suitcase, you don’t start with your socks, you probably start with the most rigid, inflexible things and then fill in the empty space with the small, flexible stuff (like your socks!). Creating a community content calendar is similar—you’ll start with the stuff that’s most inflexible (like workshops), and them move to the most flexible (like conversation starters):
Start by filling in quarterly or monthly events. Don’t forget to program in any associated housekeeping, like registration reminders, announcements, or replay shares.
After filling in my high-effort showstoppers, I usually pause my process to open up my calendar to any external requests. The level of external requests you need to program in will vary depending on the organization the community is embedded in, but for example, if you work at a software company, you may need to use the community to announce new features or ask research questions. I usually place this here in my process to provide flexibility to my team while still making sure I get my most important programming out of the way before the calendar gets full.
Next, fill in any recurring rituals or other weekly cadences to your content calendar.
Lastly, any remaining real estate in your content calendar can be used to create discussion prompts. This is usually for me the most creatively difficult aspect of content calendaring because it requires a high volume of original content, so I wanted to share a few tips to help with this:
I usually keep a conversation starter compendium that I keep open while I work in a community, and will regularly add ideas for conversation starters that are sparked while I work and interact with members throughout the month. Then, when it’s time to plan a content calendar, I’m not working from scratch. If you're using my template, I'd recommend just adding a tab for a conversation starter compendium so that you have it at hand.
This step in the process is a great place to make use of AI. While I wouldn’t only use the suggestions of a tool like ChatGPT or copy them exactly as is, you can use a tool like this to get some inspiration and spark creativity. Plus, the more creative you get with the questions you ask to ChatGPT, the more interesting your results will be. Here are some examples of me using ChatGPT to generate conversation starters for my imaginary Petco community I referenced above, stating with generic asks and moving to more specific:
You can even ask ChatGPT to help you work on your tone as you ask conversation starters.
6. Lastly, leave some room open in your content calendar for responsiveness. You may want to leave 1-2 days open with either nothing planned, or knowing that you’re going to ask a conversation starter but not decide what it is until the actual day comes. It’s important not to overcrowd your community content calendar, which can make a community feel inauthentic or like there’s no room for member contributions.
Lastly, I want to make sure to share an oldie but goodie from my blog—The Online Community Engagement Ladder. This is a really helpful tool to use in conjunction with your content calendar work to ensure your content calendar has a healthy balance of different engagement types for different community personas.
Want to take any of this a step further?
I hope this post has been helpful for you and given you a strong start to creating a community content calendar that will truly impact your community and your business. That said, I understand that this can be complicated stuff, and sometimes you need a hand to help put it all into practice. The reality is that no matter how comprehensive a guide I try to make, there will still be lingering questions that apply to specific projects. I work with clients every day as a strategic coach for online community projects, and community content and engagement is one of the most common topics my clients want to discuss. If you would like to work together 1:1, you can learn more about how I work and get in touch here.
It’s also my hope to make this the most comprehensive guide to content calendaring available—so if you noticed anything you think is missing, or have any questions, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’d love to continue making updates and will likely add an FAQ section soon. Thanks again for reading!