Teams that produce and archive lots of content — things like blog posts, recorded videos and audio files — can easily overlook the massive value right under their noses. We all know the SEO value of this material, but what about the head start it provides for future content creation?
How to Simplify Content Creation
- Determine a structure for your storage.
- Choose a database tool to index content.
- Choose a storage tool to house your materials.
- Organize and store your old content.
- Remix and reuse relevant materials to create new products.
The Content Problem
When I first began working with my business partner, he had been creating content for nearly two decades. Notable outlets like The New York Times and Morningstar had published his work regularly, but I uncovered so much stuff in the first few weeks of working with him that I quickly realized his published work was just the tip of the iceberg. A podcast he started in 2004 had hundreds of episodes, there were hundreds of interviews with press outlets from the previous two decades of his career, and we were sitting on nearly 1,000 webpages from new and old websites with copy ranging from a brief summary of a concept to 1,500-word blog posts. He also had more than 700 of his sketches in various places.
I’ve come to find that the way his creative process flows is genius, and I had never seen anything like it before. He records thoughts as audio or video files, and then passes those along to a team to structure, organize, and get down on paper. From there, we can form new products like online courses, a deep-dive audio series on a topic, or a new book without anyone sitting down in front of a computer and staring at a blank text document.
Befitting one of the most creative people I’ve ever met, he unsurprisingly created new things daily. Because of this constant creative practice, on day one, I found myself sorting through files scattered across a massive, semi-organized Dropbox account, a Google Drive, and even external hard drives.
One of the first big projects I wanted to tackle was organizing all the past content. I knew instantly that we were sitting on a goldmine if only it were in a cataloged and searchable system. Thanks to all this material, the process of creating a new digital product could become like a producer listening to beats, picking the ones that go well together, and sitting down to mix and record.
If your team is sitting on a large pile of past content, or you think you may be in that spot within a few years, creating a database of your content may be just the thing to make future projects much easier. Now, our content database is one of our most valuable assets.
But how did we do it?
Building a Content Database
Let’s take it back to a time that some of us may remember. Before libraries used computers to organize things, library books were indexed in card catalogs. These were cabinets with drawers of physical index cards. The cards were sorted by author name, book title, or subject. If you were looking for a book, you would open a drawer and flip through these cards, hopefully landing on the index card of the book you wanted and then looking at the identification number to physically find the book on the shelves in the library. (Now, of course, this information is available in digital format!)
This old-school system that I saw as a kindergartener inspired my organization of our team’s content assets. What if I could create a digital version of the cabinet of index cards and the numbered books on bookshelves? What if we could easily connect pieces of content based on shared criteria like subject, where it first appeared online, or even specific words used in the material? What if our team could find connections between existing pieces of material created a decade apart to create something brand new and immensely valuable to our customers today? What if we weren’t always starting from scratch when we wanted to make something new?
You need to get two things in place before you can start adding your content to a database.
1. CHOOSE YOUR DATABASE TOOL
Knowing that we had somewhere in the ballpark of 5,000 individual pieces of content meant we had to have a fairly complex database. I also knew that some stuff hadn’t been captured yet by the existing, hodgepodge system. For instance, some email campaigns hadn’t been saved in Google Drive, Dropbox, or on an external hard drive. I was also sure that the amount of content on my hands would grow daily, so I should think big.
So, a Google Sheet wasn’t feasible. I wanted room for tens of thousands of records, each with features like tags and references between records (meaning one record could point to a handful of related records).
If your team is just starting out with a few hundred pieces of content or less, however, a Google Sheet may be a great place to experiment with a “version one” of your database.
Here’s how a super simple Google Sheet could look:
This template has all the starter fields you will need. As your database grows, you can always transfer the data to a more robust tool. No need to over-build now!
For our database, I talked to some peers to find an option that was more robust, and several people pointed me in the direction of Airtable. After I looked at Airtable, I quickly realized it was the perfect option for our team.
Our Airtable database is organized by content type, which includes tabs for things like audio, video, slide decks, press, and feedback such as testimonials.
2. CHOOSE YOUR CONTENT STORAGE TOOL
Now that you know where you’re going to build your database (remember, that’s our cabinet with drawers of index cards), you will need to take stock of your content to see if you need a storage place for the files (which are like the books on the library shelves).
For some teams, the content may be mostly blogs or social media posts. This means the assets you’re cataloging are mostly text, and you don’t need a content storage tool because cataloging and storing is easy to do in a Google Sheet. There’s no file tied to these text-based assets. You can simply search by words in the Google Sheet to find what you’re looking for and open up a cell to see all the text. You can also sort by field in your Google Sheet for another data point, such as date.
How to Catalogue Content
A search of the Google Sheet for “TED talks” will quickly point you to that blog post you wrote a couple of years ago where your team shared their favorite TED talks. Once you find that entry, head over to the column titled “Associated Text” to see your full blog post. (Note that formatting the cell to “clip” the text will make it so the “Associated Text” column doesn’t get overwhelming.)
In addition to text-only material, we have a large amount of image, audio, and video files. It doesn’t make sense to store large files inside Airtable because Airtable’s pricing tiers limit the amount of storage. For us, Airtable is just a cabinet of index cards and not where we actually store the books. We assign identification numbers to content in Airtable, which is the ID field for all the records. Then, we save the files in a tool made for storing files. For this, we picked Dropbox.
As I said before, our Airtable database is organized by content type, which includes tabs for things like audio, video, slide decks, press, and feedback such as testimonials. We use this same system in Dropbox. We have folders for each content type and inside those folders each file is named by starting with its ID number, found in Airtable. This means that when we find the piece of content we are searching for in Airtable, we can head over to Dropbox to download the file.
As an example, here is how our Audio folder looks in Dropbox:
As an extra tip for all the database nerds out there: To make our Airtable database more search-friendly for non-text assets like video and audio files, we will add a transcription of the file to the “Associated Text” field for the asset’s record in Airtable using a tool like Descript. Once you have a transcription of the video or audio file in the database, doing a search for the times “impostor syndrome” was mentioned in a podcast episode becomes super easy.
Using the Content Database
So, now that you are starting to build out a content database with all of your assets, how will this help you in your day-to-day operations?
For teams looking to ramp up their content marketing strategy, you now have an asset that is pure gold to any content marketer you hire. Rather than creating everything from scratch every time, their job becomes to remix past content. Sure, your team will put out new content — and that goes at the bottom of your database as a new entry — but there’s no reason you can’t search the database, pull out valuable past content, and package it again. Our team has fast tracked the build of entirely new digital products around remixing past content and packaging it up in a brand new way.
For solo creators, you now have an asset that can get the ball rolling on working with a freelance writer on a long form piece of content, like a book. Rather than writing a long form piece of content from scratch, you can work with a ghostwriter or editor to search your database, find the meat of a topic or two that you have mentioned often, and put together a first draft of a long form piece. All of the content you’ve created lives in one central, searchable place, which makes it much easier to craft it into something new.
Build Your Own Database
Creating this database may seem daunting at first, but it’s the best way our team has found to scale content creation. While out team spends time each month in our database adding recently published content, checking that records are tagged correctly, and keeping the database organized and tidy, it saves us a lot of time when it’s time to create something new. We view it as an investment in the scalability of the businesses.