As IMPACT's editor-in-chief, I find myself questioning my sanity on a regular basis. In case you're wondering why, I'll just lob this quote over the fence from Robert DeNiro for a little context:
“The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing, and soul-crushing inadequacy.
And that’s on a good day.”
If you create content for a living to drive traffic, leads, and sales for your company, you know how true this is.
Because, fun fact, pillar pages don't write themselves. Nor do content style guides, sales enablement content, blog articles, or case studies. (Oh, who am I kidding? I love what I do!) This surprises me, given how every other article I read recently has to do with the rise of Skynet as a reality; you'd think they'd have figured out how to do all of that by now, right?
Plus, hyperbolic posturing about the robot apocalypse aside, there are a lot of ways technology and automation have already transformed the way I map out, write, and produce the content for a lot of our strategies.
Since neither content (nor pimpin') is easy, I'm going to share the apps and tools I use every single day — and consider indispensable — to produce a good portion content you interact with on this website.
I'm not talking about marketing automation software or website hosting in this list, though. While those are critical to digital marketing operations, this list is all about the invaluable tools and apps (many of them free!) that help the content sausage get made.
Content strategy tools and apps
Content marketing tools and apps for when you're putting together content strategies, performing keyword research, and so forth.
Let's start strong with Semrush's end-to-end Content Marketing Platform that helps you to build a data-informed content strategy focused on your audience's needs:
Isn't it dreamy? 😍
This tool is super helpful when planning each step of the content marketing workflow, from ideation to planning, creation, optimization and measurement.
Next, you can add topics to my editorial calendar right within the platform. That way you can manage all the activities with your colleagues and track campaign performance.
Before creating content, type in a keyword you want to focus on. Then, the platform generates a brief with optimization tips taken from your top competition online. It will deliver recommendations on everything — target length of your content, links, and semantic keywords you should include, and much, much more.
The platform also has a rich-text editor, where (on the go) you can test the content that targets a particular keyword. It gives tips on SEO, readability, and tone of voice, and is available as a Google Doc add-on and WordPress plugin.
Here's where we get to some really good stuff. After writing your content, you can audit it right within Semrush. Combining data from Google Analytics, Google Search Console and Semrush right in the platform. It will also help you to analyze any content that is published on third-party sites — either your guest posts or my competitors’ articles.
I know, I know... there are a lot of other robust tools and apps out there to help you drill into what content topics you should be covering to get the most bang for your buck with your content strategy.
Still, the simplicity of Google Trends belies its usefulness:
This is an incredibly valuable tool for you to quickly compare related (but different) terms to see which has higher search volume, catch topics in your niche on the rise, and so on.
Content creation tools and apps
Content marketing tools and apps for when you're creating content, collaborating on content that's being created, etc.
Yes, I'm starting this section with a tool that has nothing to do with words or content. But trust me when I say Noisli is life-changing.
I used to spend so much time at work trying to find the perfect work playlist on Spotify to keep me on track. Music is supposed to help spark productivity and creativity, right?
Wrong. Well, for me, anyway.
I don’t know whether I’m defective or something, but most of the time I find myself distracted by music.
Either I get wrapped up in the song itself -- even if it’s only instrumental -- or, when one song ends, I don’t like what comes up next, so I break from my work to spend 20 minutes trying to curate a new ideal soundtrack.
Noisli is a stunning, minimalist (and free!) background noise generator. Or, as they like to say, Noisli is “your productivity companion.”
Even though there aremultiple studiesshowing the positive effects of ambient noise on productivity, Noisli confused me when I took it for a test drive a couple years ago, during a particularly challenging copywriting project.
At first, listening to noise while working seemed… strange. Not to mention completely boring. Now? I’m a total convert, and it’s pretty much all I listen to when I’m trying to get sh*t done.
With my free Noisli account, I’ve created and saved custom blends of sounds— which you control using the soundboard shown on the left — that can set the tone for my entire working day.
Sound options include rain, thunderstorm, wind, forest, leaves, water stream, seaside, water, bonfire, summer night, fan, train, coffee shop, white noise, pink noise, and brown noise.
There are a lot of ambient noise soundboards out there, but Noisli takes the cake for me because of its simplicity. I don't need to learn a new tool. Within seconds of firing up the totally free website, my Chrome extension, or the app, I'm off and running.
Fun fact: You can also share blends of sounds with other people.
I have a confession to make: I absolutelyhatedwriting when I was younger.
In fact, one time when I was eighth grade, I turned in an essay where the last paragraph was the same sentence copied and pasted over and over again, just so I could meet the minimum word count requirement without having to put more effort into it. (My teacher didn’t appreciate my sense of humor.)
Obviously, I've come around since then.
But my change of heart only came about because eventually I realized that (a) I was good at writing, and (b) it wasn’t the act of writing I despised so much, but rather I hated the cluttered and distracting writing experience of Microsoft Word.
Bear (available only for iPhone, iPad, and Mac) is an app that's all about empowering users to "write beautifully." And it does that so very well.
For a long while, it was my go-to for all drafting of every piece of content I created – blog articles, pillar pages, scripts, you name it. Especially since, in addition to comprehensive and lengthy content creation, Bear can also be used as an Evernote-esque notes application, making it quite versatile.
Bear is free, but if you splurge on the paid version ($1.49 per month or $14.99 per year), you can enjoy custom themes, syncing across multiple devices, and exporting capabilities.
...well, Bear was my go-to for a really long time. And then I was introduced to Ulysses, which thousands of writers and content creators swear by for their writing and drafting needs:
Fair warning, Ulysses (which is subscription-based) is not for the feint of heart. However, it only took me five minutes of using it to become a full convert. It's also only available for folks who have a Mac, iPad, or iPhone.
If you know me, this is a big deal, because I am stingy with my personal dollars and get annoyed by superfluous tools when simple (usually free) tried-and-true options are still perfectly acceptable. For instance, Google docs.
The wide range of features is positively bananas. It's also a ton more stable than other similar apps with less of a following because, well, you get what you pay for. Seriously, because this app has such a devout following, it has the revenue stream that allows it to be more developed and less buggy than other competitors.
To be clear, I don't think this app is for everyone. For some it may be overkill.
That said, if you're someone who creates a ton of content, and you're struggling to find a way to bring order to the disorganized mess of Google Docs folders, Ulysses is for you. If you want the ability to set goals, see stats, easily create polished, designed versions of your creations with a couple of clicks, Ulysses is for you.
Of course, if you're looking for a similar organizational structure without breaking the bank...
Notion is like Evernote except... it doesn't make me want to pull my hair out and it doesn't charge me to use Notion with a sync across different devices. In fact, while I believe there is a paid version of it, I have yet to run into a personal content-based use case that has forced me to consider it.
Above is an screenshot of my actual Notion account. I use it constantly for the following for work:
I also put grocery lists, budgets, and a slew of other personal things in there, too. Essentially Notion is my life when it comes to planning.
"But Liz, why do you use Notion if you have Ulysses?"
It makes sense in my head, but for me, I use Notion to plan and plot. And I use Ulysses to actually sit down and write. And that's how they're actually broken out. Notion is built around project management, organization, and yes, also writing. Ulysses is all about writing, period.
Although, to be fair, you may find that you only need one or the other. This is just the wacky world, according to Liz.
A year ago, I hated being on camera. Today... well, I'm still a little squeamish, but I'm pretty sure I used the Vidyard Chrome Extension more than any other tool in my arsenal.
I use this free screen capture and webcam recording tool to:
Create internal team update videos, since much of our company is remote, and the entire content team at IMPACT that I manage are all at IMPACT HQ in New Haven. Whereas I'm in Annapolis, Maryland.
Film short videos to include in blog articles (example), since video can punch-up an otherwise ho-hum piece of content really nicely.
Provide strategic guidance to content creators on what I'm looking for in a piece of content they've been tasked with creating. (Seriously, this is probably one of my favorite unexpected use cases for this tool.)
Our sales team also swears by Vidyard's Chrome Extension for personalized, one-to-one sales videos. (If your team isn't using video for sales, it's time to level-up your sales process.)
Whether you’re a seasoned content creator or you’re a new kid on the inbound block, you undoubtedly know how hard it is to write and edit your own work -- and not just because you are too close to your writing to gauge its quality.
In addition to being one of my favorite authors,Hemingway forces you to evaluate the readability of your work. It tells you what grade level your work reads at, and it scans your work for sentence complexity, passive voice, and overuse of adverbs.
While you have the option to write directly in the Hemingway app itself, I find these kinds of mark-ups to be very distracting while I am trying to form my ideas for the first time.
Instead, I usually type of my first draft in Bear and then copy it over to Hemingway, when I'm ready to switch my brain over to editing mode. (But how you choose to use this app is entirely up to you!)
You can use Hemingway for free through your web browser at www.hemingwayapp.com, or you can download the desktop version for $9.99.
I know, I know. At first, this free-to-use website looks exceedingly straight forward:
And it kind of is. You copy and paste your text into a frills-free box, and you get some data about how many words you wrote.
But if you don't scroll down the page, you'll miss three of my favorite things about this powerful little website:
You can also see how long it takes to read or speak your content! On top of that, it gives you a slew of reading statistics. My favorite thing, however, is that it measures what's called "keyword density," where you can see how many one-, two-, or three-word terms or phrases you repeat throughout your content.
I love that last feature because, not only can I see how many times I feature a keyword (for optimization purposes), I can also catch one of my most common writing ticks with ease — constantly reusing the same words and phrases.
I don't know what's wrong with me, but I do it all the time.
"Hi, my name is Liz. And I'm a word repeater." ("Hi, Liz.")
OK, Grammarly isn't new, but you know what is? Grammarly for Google Docs.
It's not a separate tool from standard Grammarly. It's just a new feature that is so freaking valuable, I have to call it out separately, on the off chance that those of you who are familiar with the product haven't heard about this.
For those unfamiliar with Grammarly, however, it is a standalone desktop and web app that also has a Google Chrome extension that scans your writing in various places across the web -- or as input by you -- and provides editorial suggestions.
It's not perfect, but it has saved my patootie more times than I care to admit; especially when I'm rushing through emails early in the morning.
Unfortunately, as with any technology, there were a few blind spots for the tool -- places online where Grammarly could not go -- the most annoying of which was Google Docs, one of the most widely-used content collaboration and word processing apps out there.
Even though I spent the early part of this article swearing off Google Docs for GatherContent or Bear, I still use it a lot.
For example, sometimes I want a word processing application where I can also fiddle around with images and more visual formatting that GatherContent and Bear purposefully avoid in their feature set.
Then, at long last, Grammarly made the announcement we've all been waiting for -- Grammarly for Google Docs was now in beta for those using the Google Chrome extension.
Please remember that no automated editorial assistant is infallible and it doesn't fully replace the need for you to proof your own work. Review every suggested edit; never blindly accept them all.
Oh, Trello. It took me awhile to come around to you, but now... now, I can't imagine my life without you.
Not only do I use it manage all of my projects and tasks as an individual contributor at IMPACT, broken down by content I'm on the hook for creating, strategic content objectives, team management and administrative tasks, tasks that are currently under review, completed items, and stalled tasks...
I'm a long-time GatherContent devotee (and I'm going to talk about them next), but for ongoing pipeline management for content that never ends — for example, we're publishing articles, infographics, and news reactions three to five times a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year — Trello can't be beat.
It's lightweight, it's easy to stand-up and start using immediately. You can set up automated notifications for when someone is due soon, due now, or overdue. You can keep all communication around a single piece of content in one place. You can customize and adjust your Trello pipeline structure in mere seconds. It's also allowed us to embed our guidelines for best practices, instructions on how to use the board, and more in that first column.
Honestly, I can't imagine going back to a world without Trello. Where I'm trying to wrangle a disorganized series of Google Docs and an endless stream of, "Hey, did you see my comments on such-and-such draft? I'm not sure when it's due, but..."
With Trello, all of that pain goes away. 😊
Plus, we can keep people managers up-to-date on whether or not their team members are hitting their content deadlines by adding them to the relevant "cards" within the board.
If you've ever worked with me on a project, you know I live and die by GatherContent, a centralized content creation, production, and collaboration platform I can only assume was created by Zeus from on-high -- it is that magical.
Video credit: GatherContent
From within GatherContent, I can work with multiple collaborators, give access to my higher-ups so they can see the status of a project or single piece of content at any time -- whether it's 3 a.m. or 3 p.m., they don't need to email, call, or smoke signal me to find out the status or deadline of a piece of content.
For writers, I can leave comments and assign out changes. In addition, either the writer or I can overwrite whatever content is there. There is a rollback feature that allows someone to see what changes have been made without whoever made the changes having to highlight them or call them out.
Finally, GatherContent keeps me sane. It isn't free -- although the pricing is very reasonable, especially if you're a small business. (If you're an agency dealing with lots of clients or content production, you'll need to be smart about how many projects you set up.)
But what GatherContent saves me in time, content project administration, and sanity makes it worth it to me. I'm infinitely more productive with it, and I would consider it the most important tool I use.
I also can't even imagine managing all of the different projects I oversee without it. It's life-changing.
Of course, if you're one of those folks who loves searching through endless Google Docs and emails, and spending more time calling and emailing about content projects instead of actually doing the work, you probably won't need it.
When is the right time to use GatherContent instead of Trello?
Trello is a pipeline management tool, where you're really tracking the progress of moving pieces, rather than creating content within a single space. You never have to rebuild it or keep creating new projects to keep momentum going, which makes it ideal for projects — like ongoing publication of blog content — with no end date.
GatherContent, on the other hand is an all-in-one space to create content, provide edits, move it along in a predefined workflow, and get it published. But it works best on big projects. For example website copywriting projects on a website redesign, or for time-bound pillar content strategies, where I walk each author through a robust strategy process.
Above is a custom template I created for content pillars, which is part of a larger custom project which houses all of the content pillars we're creating through Q1 2020.
Bottom line, when it comes to content collaboration tools, you may find it hard to land on a single platform that will solve all of your issues. Sometimes, you need to find the best tool to address a particular context, even if you rely on multiple tools.
That's right. We're talking about video again. Because, as I said earlier, video is one of the most powerful mediums of content you can create. So, if your company creates marketing and sales videos that require feedback from lots of people — as they often do — you are going to absolutely love Wipster.
Wipster is so easy, anyone can use it. Once a rough cut of a video is ready for review by your teams, you can share a link out. With a couple of clicks, folks can quickly add comments wherever they have feedback throughout the video.
In the example above, I point out my issue with Zach's smile. Because, really. It's not fair to the rest of us. Am I right?
Additionally, you need to read the licensing parameters for every photo or image you ever download. Otherwise, if you improperly use an image (for example, some are only licensed for editorial use, even if you buy them), or don't cite an image source correctly, if required, you could end up in a lot of costly legal trouble.
So, with those caveats in mind, here are my two favorite stock photography websites:
I love that I can sort images by orientation, image type, color, diversity, gender, and so on. It makes finding the right image quickly in Shutterstock a cinch. Also, in addition to still images, you can find footage and music.
Keeping in mind that you need to be really careful about attribution and image use (unless you like inviting legal troubles to your doorstep), Pexels is a great stock image site if you're in a pinch.
Why? Because every image is 100% free and you don't need an account to use it. Keep in mind, however, that the selection on Pexels is extremely limited, compared to what you'd find on a site like Shutterstock.
But it's great for broad, thematic images that fit a more modern (and less 1990s, early 2000s) aesthetic.
Pexels is free. Hooray!
The Best Content Hack Is Honesty
Even though all seventeen of these tools and apps have revolutionized the way I think about and approach my work, the best piece of advice I can give you about how to boost your content strategy and creation capabilities is this:
Have an open and brutally honest discussion with yourself about what specifically you don’t like about your content production and writing processes.
No app or program can tell you what your problem is or fix a writing or collaboration roadblock you can't identify; they can only help you once you have some idea of what pain point you’re trying to address.
The answers will vary drastically from person to person and organization to organization, as they should. For instance, while my struggles were rooted in distraction and focus, as well as keeping multiple contributors and stakeholders on task or updated, yours may be founded in writer’s block, tracking versions, or drafts lost in inbox purgatory.
So, while I think each of you will like at least one of these apps, I hope you’ll also do yourselves a favor. Figure out which are the most important content challenges you're trying to solve before you download anything I've recommended here.