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Top 17 content marketing tools and apps you need for 2020

From content strategy and creation, to keyword research and DIY design tools, this list is a digital marketing toolbox paradise.

Top 17 content marketing tools and apps you need for 2020 Blog Feature

Liz Murphy

Director of Web & Interactive Content, Speaker, Host of 'Content Lab' Podcast

October 24th, 2019 min read

As someone who considers napping to be a competitive sport, you might say I'm an easy-breezy, path-of-least-resistance kind of gal.   

So, I find myself questioning my sanity on occasion for embarking on the intense, mentally-challenging career path that has led me to my current role as IMPACT's content director.

Because, fun fact, pillar pages don't write themselves. Nor do content style guides, whitepapers, 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?

Just kidding, I love robots — from a distance

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 (or 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.

1. SEMrush

If you're a content strategist, content manager, or content creator, you need to get comfortable with keyword research tools. And one of my absolute "never leave home without it" keyword research tools is SEMrush. 

We've already shared a massive, top-to-bottom review of SEMrush before, so I'm just going to focus on the specific features I use within SEMrush when performing keyword research.

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I use the Keyword Magic Tool to do broad keyword research into content topic opportunities. It not only gets me critical volume and competition data for the target keyword I'm looking for, it also gives me tons of ideas for other keyword opportunities, that are easily sorted or reviewed by a number of factors. 

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I also use the Keyword Difficulty Tool to determine how hard it is to rank for every keyword opportunity I want to go after. (The higher the percentage, the tougher it can be to rank, or the longer it will take to have my content climb.)

I'D LIKE A 14-DAY FREE TRIAL OF SEMRUSH

2. Answer the Public

Answer the Public is a powerful visual keyword research tool... 

Screen Shot 2019-10-24 at 2.23.37 PM

It's similar to SEMrush's Keyword Magic tool, but it's a lot more visual (obviously), while also delivering more "human" ideas about what searchers are asking about a given topic.

Content creation tools and apps

Content marketing tools and apps for when you're creating content, collaborating on content that's being created, etc.

3. Noisli

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.”

noisli-app.png

Even though there are multiple studies showing 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 leftthat 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.  

Noisli is available for free through the website. There is also a free Chrome extension and iOS app available for $1.99.

4. SEMrush Content Template

I learned about this gem when I was working with Franco Valentino of Narrative SEO on a comprehensive SEO analysis. Now, I don't leave home without it, so to speak -- especially when I'm crafting individual pillar strategies.

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If you have SEMRush, simply click on “SEO Content Template” in the menu on the left near the bottom and enter the keyword you want to base a piece of content around. It will spit out recommendations on everything -- target length of your content, links and semantic keywords you should include, and much, much more.

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It also has a rich-text editor, where you can test the content you're creating that targets a particular keyword string against the recommendations it provided:

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SEMrush costs money, but it's also worth the money. They have a lot of different pricing plans, depending on the needs of your organization.

I'D LIKE A 14-DAY FREE TRIAL OF SEMRUSH

5. Bear

I have a confession to make: I absolutely hated writing 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.

Enter stage left, Bear

bear-writing-app.png

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.

It's gotten to the point where everything I write -- IMPACT blogs, content projects for clients, freelance projects, etc. -- always passes through an initial rough drafting stage within Bear.  

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. 

6. Vidyard Chrome Extension (Formerly GoVideo)

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. 

vidyard-go-video

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.

Our sales team also swears by Vidyard's Chrome Extension for personalized, one-to-one sales videos. (Seriously, if your team isn't using video for sales, it's time to level-up your sales process.)

Vidyard Chrome Extension is 100% free! Swoon.

7. Canva

Because, sometimes, I don't want to bother our graphic designers when I just need simple graphics fast for a piece of content I'm creating...

Screen Shot 2019-10-24 at 3.37.47 PM

For example, Canva came to the rescue above for my recent article on motivational sales quotes

Obviously, Canva shouldn't take the place of your designers entirely. Canva works for putting together quick social media graphics, accent images for content you're creating, and so forth.

Canva is free, but it also has a pro option for $12.95 per month, as well as custom enterprise pricing for teams of 20 or more.

8. Placeit

Bless IMPACT Head of Editorial Content Ramona Sukhraj for introducing me to the utterly invaluable Placeit, a website for creating mockups...

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Do they look good? Well, the end product is going to depend on your eye for what a good uploaded screen capture looks like. But the short answer is yes, definitely.

In fact, here are a few examples of ones I've made for other pieces of content... 

mockup-featuring-an-imac-set-up-on-a-beautiful-wooden-desk-a20415

Used in an article on images vs. no images in email newsletters.

mockup-of-a-book-over-a-bicolor-surface-24498

A quick little image I threw together of the new edition of They Ask, You Answer, before I had a physical copy of the book in my hands.

mockup-of-an-ipad-lying-on-the-corner-of-a-multicolor-table-24723 (1)-2

And here's our newsletter, THE LATEST, in action.

Heck, even the featured image at the very top of this article is a mockup from Placeit! (I know, how very meta of me, right?)

Again, the final product of your Placeit mockup — whether it's a t-shirt, book, computer screen, smartphone, tablet, or mug — will depend on the quality and placement of the image you upload. 

Placeit is about $7 per image or ~$15 per month We use it so much that the monthly services pays for itself within a week of the first of each month.

Proofreading tools and apps

9. Hemingway

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.

Thankfully, someone created Hemingway.

hemingway-writing-app.png

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.

10. WordCountTools.com

I know, I know. At first, this free-to-use website looks exceedingly straight forward:

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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:

Screen Shot 2019-10-24 at 2.29.39 PM

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.")

11. Grammarly for Google Docs

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.

grammarly

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.

Screen Shot 2019-01-02 at 7.43.49 AM

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.

Grammarly is free, although I highly recommend the premium version, as it scans for more nuanced grammar issues that can substantively elevate the quality of your writing. 

Content collaboration tools and apps

12. Trello

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... 

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...we also use it to manage our internal production pipeline with our 60+ individual content contributors — because everyone at IMPACT contributes at least one piece of content per month:

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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. 

Trello has a free version, plus paid options starting at $9.99 per month. I've been using the free option for some time, and even at that level, it works really well! 

13. GatherContent

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. 

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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.

gathercontent-revisions

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.

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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.

As I mentioned, GatherContent isn't free. It starts at $83 per month, with lots of options for organizations. 

14. Wipster

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.

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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?

Wipster has a free version, as well as options for Team and Enterprise pricing.

15. InVision

You know what's not fun? Passing around an infographic or design to an entire swat team of people and having to manage those comments and track changes.

That's where InVision comes in.

It's like Wipster, but for graphic and web design:

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Just like Wipster, anyone can leave comments on a website page mockup or design.

InVision has free, team, and enterprise plans available, with paid options starting at $22 per month.

Stock images and photography

Look, I'll be the first to admit that, in the wrong hands, stock photography can be the kiss of death. That said, there are ways to leverage stock photography, when custom photography isn't an option, so it actually elevates your content.

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:

16. Shutterstock

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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.

With Shutterstock, you can buy each image individually, or you can purchase a team packages, annual packages, and more.

17. Pexels

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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.

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