A common sense approach to real life content governance
Eivind Lund • 9 minutes
As web editors we often find ourselves overwhelmed by our content.
Our organisation’s common urge to publish whatever is on their mind seems to be infinite. That they also want it published as soon as possible, on the front page and preferably in the best and “most visual” box or banner, makes it even more overwhelming. Some of us give up and release the beast of decentralized publishing.
That way, these editors can keep (what appears to be) total editorial control over at least a minor share of the content, ignoring the fact that really the website as such is doomed. But if you look at it from a certain angle, in candle light, after a couple of glasses of wine and with your eyes partly closed – it still looks kind of pretty.
Others try to stay in charge of the whole publishing process, only to find themselves constantly frustrated, overworked and dissatisfied. They face a rapidly growing backlog, unable to cope with the impossible challenge of pleasing everybody without losing their mind.
Deciding I no longer wanted to be beaten by these challenges, I’ve designed a process for real life web content governance. It’s based upon best practice from a few of the best web teams in Norway, who actually govern their content well.
The process enables the web team to a) establish control over the content and b) make real, rational priorities, based on the strategy, for every piece of content someone feels the need to publish. At the same time, the whole organization gets the opportunity to come up with an idea or report a need for new or improved content.
The rest of this article will lead you through my process, step-by-step.
Overwhelmed by your content? Follow this process for real life web content governance.
Step one: One place to report a need or pitch an idea
Knowledge of what’s needed is found anywhere in every organisation, regardless of levels and hierarchy. Management are rarely the only people to have good ideas. To make sure important needs and great ideas make it all the way to the web team, it’s necessary to have only one place to shares your needs and ideas.
Many web teams already have a common email address (“[email protected]”). If this is well known, and people in general know that they are welcome to use it, that’s a good start. Still, a little bit more effort is needed: It’s crucial that the mailbox is manned just as good as personal mailboxes, so that people feel that the right way to send stuff also is the best and most efficient way to send stuff. Better still: The web team should use the common inbox themselves as well. Whenever they get requests, orders, ideas from managers or colleagues to them personally, they should forward it to that mailbox. Even, or especially, if the need or idea is delivered through another channel than email. Such as a phone call, in person, or when they think of something themselves.
Step two: We need to talk
Experienced web editors have been through this a number of times: The internal client demands a button or a banner on the home page. They don’t care about the rules of when and how to use buttons or banners, they only care about getting their message through. And so the argument starts. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. A lot of web editors are really tired of all these demands.
What we sometimes fail to understand is that our internal clients, our managers and colleagues, don’t make these demands even though they know better. They do this because it’s the only way they know of. We should treat every request for a button, banner, shortcut, new page, new video, new app, and new web site for that matter, as a request for help to communicate a message.
When someone make a request, find out what they need and help them understand it themselves.
Whenever someone makes a request, our job is to find out what they really need, and help them understand it themselves. This can easily be done if you are an experienced web editor with great diplomatic skills, high status and strong mandate – in a small and friendly organisation. But we need a system that can handle an unexperienced web editor in a large and less friendly organisation as well. We need to talk with the clients inside a solid framework that doesn’t leave it entirely up to personalities. The framework is quite simple, quite effective, and it greatly decreases the risk of unproductive arguing. This is how it works:
The client sends an email to the common mailbox, tells us that he is arranging a conference in a couple of months, and asks for a large banner on the front page.
We send someone from our team to talk with him. She brings with her a form to the meeting. She tells him that “we really want to help you, and to make sure we succeed, I have a few questions you and I answer together”.
This is the content of the form (words in <> should be replaced with your own details):
Describe your need or idea here. (This is where the client is actually allowed to write “large banner ad”.)
<Company> has these three targets with our website: <target one (e.g. Increase sales)> <target two (e.g. Reduce number of customer calls)> <target three (e.g. Strengthen reputation)>
Which of these targets will your suggestion help to achieve – and how?
Has these prioritized target groups for digital communication:
<Company> has these prioritized target groups for digital communication: <target group 1> <target group 2> <target group 3> <target group 4>
Which of these target groups will this content be made for? (only one)
People visit our website to perform certain tasks. Which user tasks can be fulfilled on this page?
At its most basic, the form could be replaced by just a list of questions. The great advantage of filling out the form together though, is that the challenge to the client doesn’t come from the web worker personally, it comes from the form, and the questions asked in the form are all questions on “how do you intend to translate the company’s strategy into action?”. It’s way harder to disagree with the company’s official digital strategy than with the web editor’s personal opinion. It’s also feels less worthwhile to demand a large banner ad for something totally irrelevant when you realize yourself the irrelevance yourself rather than being told so.
This is where things usually go wrong. We like to think we make rational, strategic priorities, and that those priorities actually decide what we do and in what order. However, because we are human, there’s a substantial amount of x-factor in this equation. If we dare to be honest about this, we realize that a few, perhaps unconscious, considerations come into play.
An example: A manager from another department walks over to your desk and tells you, very clearly and not too friendly, to publish something on the home page right away. It’s unclear why she wants it, in your opinion the message itself is not important at all. At the same time, a woman from customer support sends you an email, asking you politely to publish something else on the very same spot. She explains that there has been quite a few calls on this topic, and that many of the customers report that they looked for the answer on the website, gave up, and then called customer support. You cannot do both, so you have to choose between them. What do you do?
Prioritizing happens, whether we are aware of it or not. Some tasks are accomplished instantly, some are taken care of after a few hours, days, or weeks. Some are postponed into the future. And that’s exactly how it should be. If only it was intentional. But it isn’t. It just happens. Even if we do have some sort of guidelines to prioritize by, we still tend to overlook the fact that we are irrational human beings, driven by emotions. We have to recognize the irrational factors that influences our priorities and deal with them.
We have to recognize the irrational factors that influences our priorities and deal with them.
Someone asks me to do something. Do I like this person? Do I fear this person? Does this person’s opinion of me influence my salary or my career? Is this person infamous for making a lot of noise? Emotions are there, it’s not unprofessional to have them. What is unprofessional, though, is to pretend this isn’t so. We know we shouldn’t base our work priorities upon how much we like people, but we do.
Irrational factor #2: Difficulty level
I’m asked to do something. Do I know how to do it? Can I do it alone? Will I need to ask someone for help? Will I, God forbid, have to ask IT for help? Will IT have to ask their vendor for help? The level of difficulty is at least as important as the actual, rational level of importance when it comes to what gets done first and last.
Enter the spreadsheet
So, how to fix this? Here comes the boring part. A spreadsheet and a really boring meeting. Once a week or every two weeks. The key factor to get our priorities under control is this:
We, as a team, spend two hours, half a day, whatever time needed, going through every single task that’s in our backlog. All those small and large jobs people have sent to the one-mailbox-to-rule-them-all.
The meeting has several purposes: We want to see the total amount of work. We need to prioritize them against each other. Then we need to assign resources, make sure we all have a reasonable workload and realistic deadlines, and, of course, all the team members need to inform their newly assigned internal clients about all of this. “Dear internal client, we have discussed your request on our weekly priority meeting. We think your idea is great, but we have a few urgent issues to fix before we can do something about it. I am your contact person on the matter, and I suggest we have a brief talk at
A few strict rules must be followed to actually succeed with this. First of all: Every single job must go into the spreadsheet and the meeting. Second: All progress should be documented in the spreadsheet, or at least with a link to documentation elsewhere. We don’t want crucial tasks to be fulfilled after unimportant stuff just because someone called in sick. Third: Every delivery you promise must be delivered at the time you promised. This is a trade off: The internal clients lose the option to get you to do something instantly, and have to start planning with a longer horizon than two hours. They won’t like that. On the other hand, after a while, they will experience that now they can trust you. Rather than vague promises on “sometime this week or next”, they get very precise information. “Your request will be discussed Thursday 11th, on our weekly priority meeting. Before 15.00 that day, you will be contacted by a member of our team. He or she will inform you about the further progress.”
Will this create some grumbling? Most certainly. At first. But then your internal clients realize that they actually get better and more predictable service, they’ll slowly accept this new, less flexible way of working. You, on the other hand, will finally get on top of your workload.
Yes, spreadsheets are boring. Yes, detailed meetings are also boring. And yes, I know for a fact that it actually works (And of course. You can still drop everything to fix an emergency. It’s just that the frequency of emergencies tend to drop quite remarkably once you start working like this)
Finally, we can get some work done. Writing, filming, designing, developing, all the necessary work that must be done for something to actually be published on our website. Nothing new or groundbreaking here either, I’m afraid. With one possible exception: Remember the person with the idea or the request? Remember you discussed with her what should be accomplished, what business goals you would contribute to, and how you should measure it? Well, measure! And don’t you think she deserves some sort of report on whether it worked out as planned or not? I do.
Most web teams gather some sort of user statistics, in Google Analytics or similar. Unfortunately, it isn’t as common to actually use the data to improve the web site. And even when that is done, I get the impression that most teams keep the knowledge to themselves. Or maybe they are sharing highlights with management once a month. What would be ideal, though, is to actually report to the people that have stakes in the content. They actually do care. And there was a reason that they asked you to put something on the homepage in the first place. If you can help them achieve their goals, and even provide them with numbers to prove it, you will certainly gain their trust. Most likely, they’ll never ask you for a banner ad again. Instead, next time, they will tell you what their problem is and what goal they have, and ask for your suggestions on how this should be solved and achieved.
Of course, when you measure and analyze, you will not only find confirmations that goals are achieved – you will also discover flaws and weaknesses. This is great. This gives you new, better ideas. And you know what to do with new ideas now: Send that email to that one, special mailbox. Walk and talk it through the “content form”. Discuss prioritization and further actions with your team. Develop. Measure. Report.
This process has been developed to try and close the gap between the vast amounts of content we deal with, and the slim, efficient web sites we dream about. It has been tested on real web teams in real organisations, and it works. That said: Of course it isn’t easy to start working like this “just like that”. Maybe there are good reasons why you can’t do it in this exact way, and that is OK. You can change, tweak, bend, improve this process all you want to. What’s important is this: 1. Get on top of the backlog by collecting everything in one place. 2. Help people to understand that it’s not about buttons or banners, it’s all about useful content that helps users complete their tasks. 3. Prioritize 4. Develop. 5. Report.
A common sense approach to real life content governance.
Anyone who struggles with content consistency and efficiency—and who doesn't?—will greatly benefit from this course. If you want to get smarter about content planning, creation and delivery, start here.
Eivind is a senior content strategist at Netlife Research, Norway. He works mainly with large organisations, both corporate and governmental. With over fifteen years experience as a web editor, he knows just how hard it is to cope with the conflict between the users’ need for slim, efficient web sites and the organisation’s infinite demand for more content. Better yet: he knows how to deal with it.