Content Strategy

A four step road map for good content governance

Joseph Phillips • 9 minutes

Governance is the vital ingredient to getting any content strategy, which is at least in part about people, off the ground.

Creating the right processes, resources, and interactions between people in order to govern content effectively is difficult. But getting started needn’t be complicated. Read on for an overview of the key steps every organisation needs to take to get a grip on its approach to content.

Content: a difficult word

The word “content” is an example of an abstract word used to describe many complex things.

Similar in fashion to other broad category words such as “science”, “food” or “sports”, when we lift the lid on “content”, we realise that there are many possible types of intended meaning lurking beneath the abstract label.

Example: when someone says they’re “into sports”, our instinctive response is often going to be something like, “Oh yeah, which sports?”. We need and seek specificity before we’re able to meaningfully engage in the subject.

The same is true of content. When someone initiates a discussion “about content”, what they actually want to discuss is likely to be a specific aspect of content as it relates to their area of work.

What do we talk about when we talk about content? Half the reason it’s difficult for organisations to progress their content strategy efforts is due to a lack of alignment over this question. It’s hard to articulate and get buy-in on a strategy — when the focus of the strategy is itself the subject of a dozen or so interpretations.

Luckily, things like Brain Traffic’s content strategy quad provide a framework for breaking down what we mean by “content”, and a strategy focussed upon it:

content-strategy-quad

The content strategy quad usefully demonstrates two things:

  • Content is not a simplistic commodity — it’s a complex, multi-faceted effort.
  • A huge part of content strategy actually has nothing to do with content itself. It’s about people.

The text, images, audio, and video that comprise the substance of our digital channels do not appear out of nowhere. “Content” describes vehicles of human communication.

According to the content strategy quad, these two sides of the equation are perfectly symmetrical. But in reality, many organisation’s content strategy efforts are probably far from equally distributed.

The thing with content governance is…

Governance is the high-profile yet non-communicative guest at the content strategy table: everyone knows it’s really important to pay him attention, but no one’s quite sure how best to go about it (because he’s a bit scary). I think this is probably something to do with the following:

  • Substance and structure seem more “winnable”. The content components of content strategy have more of an immediate sense of tangible product delivery, and therefore is more of an immediate pull. The content components of content strategy feel like something that can more seamlessly “tack on” to existing design products… the people side, not so much.
  • Substance and structure represent a natural extension of existing skillsets. Many people drawn into the world of content strategy have a core skillset most closely aligned to the content components side of the equation. People coming from a comms, editorial, or marketing background bring “ready-made” expertise to the creative planning and production side of content strategy, but they’re not necessarily a natural at the people components. Analysing and optimising people, skills, resources and process — that’s not always a natural fit for content people who just want to get on with doing… the content.
  • Substance and structure have less scary implications. Content governance is essentially relationship management that does not align neatly to existing organisational hierarchy. In other words: it often calls for some level of organisational change and that prospect is daunting.

Governance is the high-profile yet non-communicative guest at the content strategy table.

Content as a vehicle of communication

The building of a beautiful motor vehicle is the culmination of many factors. The technical mechanics of the engine. The aesthetic design on top of that. The user experience design of the driver’s dashboard, steering wheel and pedals. All these things play a part in the vehicle’s ability to carry its driver and passengers from one place to another. And the only way it was possible for all those features to come together in perfect harmony, was due to the synchronisation of various human roles, accountabilities and specialised skills.

The same is true of content. Content’s ability — as a vehicle of communication — to carry its “passengers” (information and meaning) from one place to another is defined by the synchronised efforts of various people, skills, and resources.

Content strategy without clear governance is like being presented with a beautiful sports car as a generous birthday present… with the only caveat being that the keys for the ignition have been lost. You can see, touch, and feel the product, but don’t have the means to move it forward.

Where to start – A four step template road map for good content governance

Knowing where to start is half the problem. A common mistake is getting lost in the detail and complexity of content governance, and then transferring that complexity onto internal stakeholders, whose response is likely to be a variation of: “huh…?!”.

Let’s avoid that. In order to win the case for better content governance in our organisations, we need to be able to articulate its relevance and value in clear, outcome-oriented terms. So let’s give that a go…

A useful way to think about and approach content governance is to break it down into into the following steps:

  • Define and get agreement on content ownership and roles.
  • Design and document content worfklows.
  • Produce and document guidelines, standards, policies, procedures and tools to operationalise content governance.
  • Deliver appropriate training to educate and align staff on content governance.

Let’s take a look at each in greater detail….

Step one: define ownership and roles

Defining ownership and roles means…

A content strategy that is actually geared up to be put into action. A workable content governance model provides a framework for practical operation and directional support of a content strategy.

Not defining ownership and roles means…

Ad-hoc content chaos continues to rule. A bit like expecting a car to move without wheels, in the absence of a shared understanding of who’s in charge, accountable for, and contributing to content efforts, and in what ways, our content strategy remains a work of theory, and thus fails at the first hurdle of making a meaningful impact on the organisation. Without accounting for governance, a content strategy just remains some nice aspirational words with little to zero end results.

What’s involved?

In all organisations, accountability for specific business areas, of one kind of another, is formalised and clearly communicated. We all know which people and teams take ownership of HR, Marketing, or Events, right?

How about content? Hmm, things are a little murkier. Sure, a core web team might own CMS editing rights, and broadly set the agenda for what gets published, where, and when. But the reality is that content is part of a much wider, complex lifecycle that everyone has a stake in. From planning to creation, publication and maintenance, there are all kinds of cooks in the kitchen. And that’s where things can get messy.

Proper governance of that pesky content lifecycle requires a few layers of accountability. How complex that gets is down to the size and culture of the specific organisation, but there are three key layers of responsibility that all workplaces should figure out:

Layers of content

Strategic authority
Staff able to make bird’s-eye view decisions on new content projects and set the future direction of the organisation’s content strategy.

For example:

  • Defines and communicates content, content marketing, and editorial strategies.
  • Scrutinises and gives the go-ahead to fresh content projects and initiatives.
  • Defines tactics for content planning, implementation and measurement.
  • Provides oversight of and is ultimately accountable for the organisation’s content lifecycle.

Implementation accountability
Runs day-to-day operations, able to implement ongoing fulfilment of strategy and smooth running of the organisation’s content lifecycle.

For example:

  • Manages and runs editorial calendars and content planning groups/committees.
  • Deals with content briefs and daily requests for website content changes and social media updates.
  • Runs and oversees content planning, production, and publication workflows and processes.
  • Acts as content quality controller, holding relevant content contributors and stakeholders accountable to content standards, guidelines, and policies.

Specialist input
Contributes specialist knowledge, skills or insights that strengthen the content and content strategy efforts of the organisation.

For example:

  • Subject matter experts: provide regular review and scrutiny to content topics, ensuring accuracy, quality and relevance to organisation strategic priorities and user needs.
  • SEO specialists: review and make improvements to how content is discovered via search engine traffic.
  • User experience specialists (including user researchers, UX designers and Information Architects): review and make improvements to content structure and design through the lens of the identified authentic needs and behaviours of users.
  • Senior management and strategy: contribute high-level oversight and sense-checking of content projects, ensuring that content output is strategically relevant to business goals and priorities.

Top tip for moving things forward:
Seek out opportunities to present the above content ownership and roles diagram and descriptions to relevant stakeholders. Ask them how they think the organisation stacks up — which areas we’re lacking in or need refining. Offer to set up a workshop to get people round a table to identify opportunities and solutions to content ownership headaches.

Step two: design and document content processes

Designing and documenting content processes means…

Content moves through the organisation according to a common set of steps that everybody understands and gets behind. Rather than content being the perennial unexpected curveball, everybody involved in content shares a common set of expectations over how content will be planned, produced, published, and governed — including where their role fits into it, how, when, and why.

Not designing and documenting content processes means…

When it comes to content, the organisation continues to chase its own tail, with inefficient, ill-thought out approaches to content, ultimately resulting in a messy, incoherent experience for our end users. Bad news for all concerned.

What’s involved?

The biggest mistake we make when it comes to planning how, practically, content should be planned, created, published, and maintained, is underestimating the time and complexity involved.

Content is hard work. The first step towards forming workable content workflows and processes in our organisations is simply demonstrating this unaddressed reality.

Content production planning specialist, Liam King, is a great source of knowledge on that front. This Content Production Planning Guide is a great starting point and “how to” for uncovering and formalising the full extent of work you’re putting into producing quality content.

But content production is the tip of the iceberg. If the way in which your organisation initiates and ideates content initiatives, measures and evaluates content, and maintains website content feels completely ad-hoc, chances are you need to sit down and formalise a workflow for how those aspects of your content lifecycle are approached in a consistent and effective manner.

Content is an ongoing lifecycle, each phase containing its own complex sub-processes.

Content is an ongoing lifecycle, each phase containing its own complex sub-processes. Delve into and expose those existing messy processes, and work them into leaner, more productive workflows. Once they’re in place everyone will be saying, “why weren’t we working this way before?!”.

Process

Top tip for moving things forward:
You’ve already brought some level of order to the chaos by identifying specific content roles and ownership accountabilities. Now suggest to the same stakeholders that the specific processes (or lack thereof!) through which content “moves” through the organisation need looking at. Take inspiration from the above content planning workshop format, and either have a go at setting up and running your own, or if it feels like a significant enough piece to require third party support and expertise, consider bringing in a specialist.

Step three: produce supporting documentation (guidelines, standards, policies), and tools

Producing supporting guidelines, standards, policies, and tools means…

The organisation is equipped with the necessary supporting and validatory materials that will uphold a consistent, autonomous approach to content. In other words: differences in opinion and individual agendas are quashed by collective, agreed upon ground rules for doing content right.

Not producing supporting guidelines, standards, policies, and tools means…

Content is still subject to a “wild west” approach within the organisation, with varying approaches, standards and ways of working causing confusion and causing factions and conflicts over the “right” way to do content. Without any “single source of truth” on the various aspects of content and content strategy, consistency, quality and relevance are near impossible to achieve.

What’s involved?

Three key types of supporting documentation are normally required to formalise content governance. Plus, specific tools help us to operationalise governance. Let’s unpack each in turn.

Guidelines: a guideline is a piece of advice over how to approach something. A guideline is produced in the interests of creating uniformed consistency in an output that’s subject to multiple individual contributions. And I think we’d all agree, content is an example of that.

Aspects of content guidelines include messaging and tone of voice guidance — in that they’re advisory principles designed to encourage content that is appropriate to the organisation’s brand, business goals, and user needs.

Content guidelines say: “When you’re producing content, think about these things and try your best to ensure they’re informed by and reflected in your work.”

Standards: a standard is an expectation over what is and isn’t acceptable. Whereas guidelines are about aspiring towards consistency through some leading pointers and tips, standards go a step further in specifying right and wrong ways of doing things according to the organisation.

For example, much of the usage aspects of an organisation’s house style guide amount to content standards. If the style guide instructs that all headings should be in sentence case, for instance, that’s not a guiding principle — it’s a set in stone, non-negotiable, ground rule. It’s a standard.

Content standards say: “In the interests of quality, accuracy, and consistency, there are specific expectations of our content output. This way is correct and acceptable to our standards. Anything that falls outside of these rules, is not.”

Policy: Policy defines compliance-critical rules. Whereas standards are expectations over quality, policies are non-negotiable rules whose non-adherence could pose a serious risk or threat to the organisation in some way.

For example, personal data or copyright policies are not about advice (guidelines) or quality (standards), they set out clear rules and parameters to avoid getting into some serious trouble.

Policies say: “If you don’t adhere to these stated boundaries, you and/or the organisation is at risk. Listen in…”

Tools: A tool is a “thing” designed to implement something or carry out a specific function. When it comes to digital content, tools are what allow us to implement and manage our content strategy. We use lots of them, for example:

  • An editorial calendar: is a tool used to plan and schedule content production and publishing activity.
  • A CMS: is a tool used to upload, manage, publish, and maintain content on a specific platform.
  • A content brief form is a tool used to document and communicate content requirements between an internal stakeholder, and content authors and managers.
  • A content requirements checklist is a tool used to quality-control and evaluate content output against a specific set of identified standards.

In the world of digital especially, people often forget that a tool is, well… just a tool, which can only be as effective as the people, skills and resources using them.

For instance, bringing in a brand-new CMS won’t guarantee a better website — just the potential for one. The creation of an editorial calendar won’t in itself improve how content is planned, scheduled and aligned to strategic priorities — how the calendar is actually used by people will, though.

One of the biggest mistakes we all make is in jumping into creating and acquiring tools, in the hope that they will in themselves make things better. But a tool is worthless if you don’t know how to use it.

Tools are made great only once the relevant people, skills, processes, and supporting resources have been built up to be able to put them to good use.

Top tip for moving things forward
By this stage, you’ve hopefully managed to establish content roles and ownership, as well as identify ideal workflow processes through which content should move through the organisation. Now think about doing an internal audit of the content guidelines, standards, policies and tools you currently have. Record your findings and present them to relevant stakeholders, identifying key gaps and explaining the value of filling them. People will start to realise the level of documentation and the number of tools required to bring content governance into action (and that’s before we even get onto training…).

Step four: deliver appropriate training to relevant staff to get governance going

And so we go full circle. Content strategy comes back to people, and content governance lives or dies on how the people it’s meant to serve and assist, receive and act upon it. By now we have:

  • Identified and formalised appropriate content roles and responsibilities
  • Analysed existing content processes and devised all-new workflows that will get content moving through the organisation more efficiently
  • Audited existing content guidelines, standards, policies, and tools, and filled any necessary gaps

Now you need to identify who needs to know what, in order to fulfil all of the above. And that’s going to take a whole load of good old-fashioned face to face communication. Key questions to consider include:

  • According to your newly defined ownership and roles framework, as well as content workflows, who needs to be trained up or refreshed on the CMS?
  • Do subject matter experts or new starters need to receive training on writing for the web, accessibility and web style guidance in order to meaningfully contribute to content workflows?
  • Who needs to be introduced to and briefed on new or changed content guidelines, standards, policies and tools, and how they’re expected to be used?
  • Do new content planning groups need to be set up — at both strategic, as well as implementation levels?
  • Do the trainers need to be trained? Does someone internally need to be identifying and acting upon all of the above needs as an ongoing responsibility?

These kinds of considerations are going to take time to work through. Some might be require a full-on training session or workshop, others a series of meetings or presentations. Some, might even be adequately addressed via a one-off conversation with relevant stakeholders.

In many ways, all of the previous steps are simply paving the way and making it possible for the real work of governance to occur. And this is where it occurs.

Top tip for moving things forward
Using the above questions as a starting point, analyse your organisation’s or client’s training needs and make a checklist. Decide whether each need can be addressed via training sessions, workshops, group meetings, or one to one conversations. Present to relevant senior stakeholders, and get agreement and sign-off to proceed with the organisation’s new and improved approach to content governance.

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Conclusion

Governance doesn’t have to be confusing. But there’s no avoiding how much thought, effort, and time it takes to meaningfully change the way that an organisation’s people approach the planning, creation and maintenance of their content.

Understanding what steps need to be taken, and in which order, is a good starting point for an action plan. I hope this article has provided a blueprint for that and helps you to kick-start your own governance journey.

A four step road map for good content governance.

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About the Author

Joseph Phillips

Content Strategist, The Examined Web

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