Use a Table of Contents to improve your publishing strategy

Books have a much better signal to noise ratio vs. the internet. When well written, they are a cohesive learning experience.

Blogs, on the other hand, are often rapid-fire, “spray and pray” outlets for learning. One week you’re talking about this, and next week you’re on to a tangentially related subject.

Even with a unifying topic, this still makes for broken reading. That’s okay, but having an established “path” for learning is essential.

There is a better way to help customers succeed with your education, while still keeping things fresh and interesting on a medium that demands it.

That’s by using the “table of contents” strategy.

Planning a content strategy For Dummies™

In non-fiction, the joy of reading books comes from a new, comprehensive learning experience — all thanks to a single source.

Blogs publish in chunks, but they can steal an important section found in every educational book: the table of contents.

Consider, for instance, that the For Dummies series certainly isn’t run by a bunch of dummies. The company behind the books, John Wiley & Sons, spends millions of dollars researching topics. Once they identify a topic that has a proven market, they get to work.

The reason the books do so well is because they create an approachable learning experience that takes the customer from A → B, from “dummy” → informed.

If content is about helping customers succeed, you couldn’t ask for a better outcome. But what does the table of contents itself have to do with this?

Simply put, it is the roadmap the book provides in its effort to teach you about everything you need to know. It is made by a thoughtful author who decides, “Covering these topics will help people the most.”

Does content strategy have an evolving “table of contents,” planning your roadmap of what to cover in order to get customers from “dummy” → informed?

It should. How can you know what you should write about next if you don’t identify what people need to learn?

Start with a mini-series

I’d be loathe to find out that this post made anyone go stress about writing the perfect table of contents for their blog in one go; it just isn’t going to happen like that.

Do you think For Dummies books get planned in one draft? You’ll need an evolving table of contents, which adds new paths to explore as you learn more about your customers. To start off, start small.

I am fond of slowly addressing individual “chapters,” which you can view as a mini-series.

Ideally, a potential Help Scout customer will go from “I’m having a hard time hiring for support” → “I have a gameplan on how to hire, what to do, and who to look for.”

Again, can one ask for a better end result for their readers?

Adhering to blogging best practices

One important thing to keep in mind is that you can’t let a well-structured table of contents stop you from using blogging best practices.

While a section in Investing for Dummies is allowed to be named “Basics of Mutual Funds,” you could never write an article title like that, because it’s too generic.

A college book purchase that I don’t regret!

You would need to wrap that information around something suitable for the web, a la “8 Common Mistakes that….”

A last point that deserves mentioning: don’t let your table of contents hinder your creativity.

The recent coverage in my LinkedIn publishing experiment was definitely a detour for this blog, but thousands of people read and enjoyed it — it’d be a real shame if you shot down useful article ideas because they didn’t fit neatly into a specific “chapter.”

Drafting a table of contents is more about your big picture, long-term content strategy.

It will ensure your teaching experience continues to offer comprehensive coverage of your reader’s biggest pains, but it shouldn’t stop you from exploring creative affinity topics.

About the author: Gregory Ciotti is a marketer and (embarrassingly infrequent) writer. Previously, he led content marketing on Shopify’s growth team and was executive editor on the communications team.