Achieve long-lasting content governance with this four-step roadmap

Achieve long-lasting content governance with this four-step roadmap

9 minute read

Achieve long-lasting content governance with this four-step roadmap

9 minute read

Achieve long-lasting content governance with this four-step roadmap

Joseph Phillips

Content Strategist, The Examined Web

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 content governance steps every organization needs to take to get a grip on its approach to content.

Why is ‘content’ a difficult word?

The word ‘content’ is an example of an abstract word used to describe many complex things.

Similarly to other broad category words such as ‘science’, ‘food’ or ‘sports’, when we lift the lid on ‘content’, we realize that there are many possible types of intended meaning lurking beneath the abstract label.

Good to Know: Take a look at Why content governance is important and how to make it happen by Content Strategy Consultant Lauren Pope, and discover why it’s so critical to content success.

For 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 that 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 organizations 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 focused upon it:

The diagram shows core strategy placed in the centre, surrounded by workflow, substance, structure and governance.
Brain Traffic's content strategy quad helps you articulate to others what content really means, and the balance of effort between the four operational areas.

The content strategy quad above usefully demonstrates two things:

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

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 organizations’ content strategy efforts are probably far from equally distributed.

Why is 'content governance' a tricky subject?

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

Everyone knows it’s really important to pay it attention, but no one’s quite sure how best to go about it.

I think this is probably something to do with the following:

  • Substance and structure seem more like the ‘quick wins’: 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 processes — 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 with the existing organizational hierarchy.

In other words: it often calls for some level of organizational change — and that prospect can be daunting.

Content is 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
  • The user experience design of the driver’s dashboard, steering wheel and pedals...

All of 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 specialized skills.

The same is true of content.

The ability of content — as a vehicle of communication — to carry its ‘passengers’ from one place to another (with information and meaning) is defined by the synchronized efforts of various people, skills, and resources.

You can still see, touch, and feel the product, but you don’t have the means to move it forward.

"Great content results in a better user experience but time-tested awesome content doesn’t happen serendipitously. Content governance plays a critical role."
Jennifer Hartnett-Henderson
User Experience Designer, Intuit

A four-step roadmap for achieving content governance

How do you get started with content governance?

A common mistake is getting lost in the detail and complexity of content governance, and then transferring that complexity onto internal stakeholders. Let’s avoid that.

In order to win the case for better content governance in our organizations, we need to be able to articulate its relevance and value in clear, outcome-oriented terms.

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

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

Let’s take a look at each step of this content governance roadmap in more detail.

Step one: Define ownership and roles

Defining ownership and roles means that…

You have 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 that…

Ad-hoc content chaos continues to rule. It’s 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 organization.

Without accounting for governance, a content strategy just remains some nice aspirational words with little to no end results.

What’s involved in defining ownership and roles?

In all organizations, accountability for specific business areas (for example, HR, Sales, Finance) is usually formalised and clearly communicated.

How about content? Well, this is where things can be a little murkier.

Sure, a core web team might own CMS editing rights, and broadly set the agenda for what gets published, but the reality is that content is part of a much wider, complex lifecycle that everyone has a stake in.

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

A triangular model showing the three key elements of content governance
The key elements of a content governance model show the different layers of accountability, which you can use for your own organisation.

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

Examples of typical responsibilities:

  • Defining and communicating content, content marketing, and editorial strategies
  • Scrutinizing and giving the go-ahead to fresh content projects and initiatives
  • Defining tactics for content planning, implementation and measurement
  • Providing oversight of, and is ultimately accountable for, the organization’s content lifecycle

‘Implementation accountability’: The running of day-to-day operations, the ability to implement ongoing fulfilment of strategy, and the smooth running of the organization’s content lifecycle.

Examples of typical responsibilities:

  • Dealing with content briefs and daily requests for website content changes and social media updates.
  • Running/overseeing content planning, production, and publication workflows and processes.
  • Acting as the content quality controller, and holding relevant content contributors and stakeholders accountable to content standards, guidelines, and policies.
  • Managing and running editorial calendars and content planning groups/committees.
A diagram that shows how different internal stakeholders are working together to support their content team
A content team can be supported by many different parts of the editorial board; feeding into the senior leadership team (Source: The Content Marketing Institute)

Specialist input: Contributing specialist knowledge, skills or insights that strengthen the content and content strategy efforts of the organization.

Examples of the types of specialist roles involved:

  • Acting as a subject matter expert: Providing regular review and scrutiny to content topics, and ensuring accuracy, quality and relevance to organization strategic priorities and user needs
  • Being the SEO specialist: Reviewing and making improvements to how content is discovered via search engines
  • Acting as a user experience (UX) specialist (user researchers, UX designers and Information Architects, etc.): Reviewing and making improvements to content structure and design through the lens of the identified authentic needs and behaviours of users
  • Engaging as a senior manager from the organization (a member of the C-Suite, etc.): Contributing high-level oversight and the ‘sense checking’ of content projects. Ensuring that content output is strategically relevant to the business’s goals and priorities
"Get a senior-management advocate – ideally someone from the C-suite – to preside over setting up your governance structure. That’s the only way to get recognition and budget."
Cathy McKnight
Content Operations Strategist, The Content Advisory

Defining ownership and roles: how to move things forward now

  • ‍Seek out opportunities to present the content ownership and roles diagram and descriptions (above) to relevant stakeholders at your organization.
  • Ask them how they think the organization stacks up compared to this information. Which areas are lacking, or need refining?
  • Offer to set up a workshop so that you can get people around a table to identify opportunities and solutions to any current content ownership headaches.
Good to Know: This handy Roles and Responsibilities Chart [template] can be used to help you organize your team as part of your content operations.


Step two: Design and document content processes

Designing and documenting content processes means that…

Rather than content being the perennial unexpected curveball, content can move through the organization according to a common set of steps that everybody understands and gets behind.

In other words: Everybody involved in content shares a common set of expectations over how that content will be planned, produced, published, and governed; including where their role fits into it, as well as the ‘how’, ‘when’, and ‘why’.

Not designing and documenting content processes means that…

When it comes to content, the organization 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.

What’s involved in designing and documenting content processes?

The biggest mistake we make when it comes to outlining 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 organizations is simply demonstrating this unaddressed reality.

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

But content production is just the tip of the iceberg.

If the way in which your organization:

  • ideates and implements content initiatives
  • measures and evaluates content
  • maintains website content

feels completely ad-hoc, chances are, you need to sit down and formalize a workflow for how those aspects of your content lifecycle are approached in a consistent and effective manner.

And, once they’re in place, everyone will be saying, “Why weren’t we working this way before?”

A diagram showing the typical stages of a content workflow with questions for stakeholders alongside
Try using these questions as part of your considerations when you're facilitating an internal content planning workshop

Design and document content processes: How to move things forward now

  • You’ve already brought some level of order to the 'content chaos' by identifying specific content roles and ownership accountabilities.
  • Now suggest to those same stakeholders that the specific processes (or lack thereof!) that content ‘moves’ through in the organization need looking at.
  • Take inspiration from the above content planning workshop format, and either:
  • Have a go at setting up and running your own workshop
  • Or, if it feels like a significant enough piece to require third party support and expertise, consider bringing in a specialist to help.
Good to Know: Watch this masterclass recording, presented by Padma Gillen (CEO of Llibertat), and learn about everything you need to set up an effective content governance framework for your organization.

Step three: Produce supporting documentation and tools

Producing supporting documentation and tools means that…

The organization 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 documentation and tools means that…

Content is still subject to a ‘wild west’ approach within the organization, with varying approaches, standards, and ways of working causing confusion, factions, and conflicts over the ‘right’ way to do content.

And without any ‘single source of truth’ on the various aspects of content and content strategy, consistency, quality and relevance are nearly impossible to achieve.

What’s involved in producing supporting documentation and tools?

‍Three key types of supporting documentation are normally required to formalize content governance.

Plus, there are the specific tools needed to help us to operationalize that governance.

Let’s unpack each one now.

‍1. Guidelines

A guideline is a piece of advice on ‘how to approach’ something.

It’s produced in the interests of creating uniform consistency in an output that’s subject to multiple individual contributions. And I think we’d all agree, content is an example of that.

For example

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 organization’s brand, business goals, and user needs.

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

‍2. 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 the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways of doing things according to the organization.

For example

Much of the usage aspects of an organization’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 to the user: “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.”

‍3. Policy

Policy defines compliance-critical rules.

Whereas standards are expectations over quality, policies are non-negotiable rules where non-adherence could pose a serious risk or threat to the organization in some way.

For example

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

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

4. 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 control quality and evaluate content output against a specific set of identified standards

However, in the world of digital especially, people often forget that a tool is… just a tool.

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 and scheduled — how the calendar is actually used by people will, though.

One of the biggest mistakes we all make is jumping into creating and acquiring tools in the hope that they will, in themselves, make things better.

Producing supporting documentation and tools: How to move things forward

  • By this point, you’ve hopefully managed to establish content roles and ownership, as well as identify the ideal workflow processes regarding how content should move through the organization
  • 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.
  • By doing this, people around you will start to realize the level of documentation and number of tools required to bring content governance into action.
"The right tools for your organization are rooted in your culture and attitude."
Ahava Leibtag
Founder/President, Aha Media Group

Step four: Deliver appropriate training to relevant staff

And so we come 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 this point we have already:

  • Identified and formalized appropriate content roles and responsibilities
  • Analyzed existing content processes and devised all-new workflows that will get content moving through the organization 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 for you 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 and implementation levels?
  • Do the trainers need to be trained?
  • And does someone need to be responsible for identifying and acting upon all of the above needs on an ongoing basis?

These kinds of considerations are going to take some time to work through. Some might 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).

Deliver appropriate training to relevant staff: How to move things forward

  • ‍Analyse your organization’s or client’s training needs — using the above questions as a starting point — 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 organization’s new and improved approach to content governance.

Your blueprint for good content governance

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 organization’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 you with a blueprint for that and helps you to kick-start your own governance journey.

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 content governance steps every organization needs to take to get a grip on its approach to content.

Why is ‘content’ a difficult word?

The word ‘content’ is an example of an abstract word used to describe many complex things.

Similarly to other broad category words such as ‘science’, ‘food’ or ‘sports’, when we lift the lid on ‘content’, we realize that there are many possible types of intended meaning lurking beneath the abstract label.

Good to Know: Take a look at Why content governance is important and how to make it happen by Content Strategy Consultant Lauren Pope, and discover why it’s so critical to content success.

For 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 that 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 organizations 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 focused upon it:

The diagram shows core strategy placed in the centre, surrounded by workflow, substance, structure and governance.
Brain Traffic's content strategy quad helps you articulate to others what content really means, and the balance of effort between the four operational areas.

The content strategy quad above usefully demonstrates two things:

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

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 organizations’ content strategy efforts are probably far from equally distributed.

Why is 'content governance' a tricky subject?

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

Everyone knows it’s really important to pay it attention, but no one’s quite sure how best to go about it.

I think this is probably something to do with the following:

  • Substance and structure seem more like the ‘quick wins’: 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 processes — 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 with the existing organizational hierarchy.

In other words: it often calls for some level of organizational change — and that prospect can be daunting.

Content is 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
  • The user experience design of the driver’s dashboard, steering wheel and pedals...

All of 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 specialized skills.

The same is true of content.

The ability of content — as a vehicle of communication — to carry its ‘passengers’ from one place to another (with information and meaning) is defined by the synchronized efforts of various people, skills, and resources.

You can still see, touch, and feel the product, but you don’t have the means to move it forward.

"Great content results in a better user experience but time-tested awesome content doesn’t happen serendipitously. Content governance plays a critical role."
Jennifer Hartnett-Henderson
User Experience Designer, Intuit

A four-step roadmap for achieving content governance

How do you get started with content governance?

A common mistake is getting lost in the detail and complexity of content governance, and then transferring that complexity onto internal stakeholders. Let’s avoid that.

In order to win the case for better content governance in our organizations, we need to be able to articulate its relevance and value in clear, outcome-oriented terms.

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

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

Let’s take a look at each step of this content governance roadmap in more detail.

Step one: Define ownership and roles

Defining ownership and roles means that…

You have 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 that…

Ad-hoc content chaos continues to rule. It’s 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 organization.

Without accounting for governance, a content strategy just remains some nice aspirational words with little to no end results.

What’s involved in defining ownership and roles?

In all organizations, accountability for specific business areas (for example, HR, Sales, Finance) is usually formalised and clearly communicated.

How about content? Well, this is where things can be a little murkier.

Sure, a core web team might own CMS editing rights, and broadly set the agenda for what gets published, but the reality is that content is part of a much wider, complex lifecycle that everyone has a stake in.

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

A triangular model showing the three key elements of content governance
The key elements of a content governance model show the different layers of accountability, which you can use for your own organisation.

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

Examples of typical responsibilities:

  • Defining and communicating content, content marketing, and editorial strategies
  • Scrutinizing and giving the go-ahead to fresh content projects and initiatives
  • Defining tactics for content planning, implementation and measurement
  • Providing oversight of, and is ultimately accountable for, the organization’s content lifecycle

‘Implementation accountability’: The running of day-to-day operations, the ability to implement ongoing fulfilment of strategy, and the smooth running of the organization’s content lifecycle.

Examples of typical responsibilities:

  • Dealing with content briefs and daily requests for website content changes and social media updates.
  • Running/overseeing content planning, production, and publication workflows and processes.
  • Acting as the content quality controller, and holding relevant content contributors and stakeholders accountable to content standards, guidelines, and policies.
  • Managing and running editorial calendars and content planning groups/committees.
A diagram that shows how different internal stakeholders are working together to support their content team
A content team can be supported by many different parts of the editorial board; feeding into the senior leadership team (Source: The Content Marketing Institute)

Specialist input: Contributing specialist knowledge, skills or insights that strengthen the content and content strategy efforts of the organization.

Examples of the types of specialist roles involved:

  • Acting as a subject matter expert: Providing regular review and scrutiny to content topics, and ensuring accuracy, quality and relevance to organization strategic priorities and user needs
  • Being the SEO specialist: Reviewing and making improvements to how content is discovered via search engines
  • Acting as a user experience (UX) specialist (user researchers, UX designers and Information Architects, etc.): Reviewing and making improvements to content structure and design through the lens of the identified authentic needs and behaviours of users
  • Engaging as a senior manager from the organization (a member of the C-Suite, etc.): Contributing high-level oversight and the ‘sense checking’ of content projects. Ensuring that content output is strategically relevant to the business’s goals and priorities
"Get a senior-management advocate – ideally someone from the C-suite – to preside over setting up your governance structure. That’s the only way to get recognition and budget."
Cathy McKnight
Content Operations Strategist, The Content Advisory

Defining ownership and roles: how to move things forward now

  • ‍Seek out opportunities to present the content ownership and roles diagram and descriptions (above) to relevant stakeholders at your organization.
  • Ask them how they think the organization stacks up compared to this information. Which areas are lacking, or need refining?
  • Offer to set up a workshop so that you can get people around a table to identify opportunities and solutions to any current content ownership headaches.
Good to Know: This handy Roles and Responsibilities Chart [template] can be used to help you organize your team as part of your content operations.


Step two: Design and document content processes

Designing and documenting content processes means that…

Rather than content being the perennial unexpected curveball, content can move through the organization according to a common set of steps that everybody understands and gets behind.

In other words: Everybody involved in content shares a common set of expectations over how that content will be planned, produced, published, and governed; including where their role fits into it, as well as the ‘how’, ‘when’, and ‘why’.

Not designing and documenting content processes means that…

When it comes to content, the organization 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.

What’s involved in designing and documenting content processes?

The biggest mistake we make when it comes to outlining 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 organizations is simply demonstrating this unaddressed reality.

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

But content production is just the tip of the iceberg.

If the way in which your organization:

  • ideates and implements content initiatives
  • measures and evaluates content
  • maintains website content

feels completely ad-hoc, chances are, you need to sit down and formalize a workflow for how those aspects of your content lifecycle are approached in a consistent and effective manner.

And, once they’re in place, everyone will be saying, “Why weren’t we working this way before?”

A diagram showing the typical stages of a content workflow with questions for stakeholders alongside
Try using these questions as part of your considerations when you're facilitating an internal content planning workshop

Design and document content processes: How to move things forward now

  • You’ve already brought some level of order to the 'content chaos' by identifying specific content roles and ownership accountabilities.
  • Now suggest to those same stakeholders that the specific processes (or lack thereof!) that content ‘moves’ through in the organization need looking at.
  • Take inspiration from the above content planning workshop format, and either:
  • Have a go at setting up and running your own workshop
  • Or, if it feels like a significant enough piece to require third party support and expertise, consider bringing in a specialist to help.
Good to Know: Watch this masterclass recording, presented by Padma Gillen (CEO of Llibertat), and learn about everything you need to set up an effective content governance framework for your organization.

Step three: Produce supporting documentation and tools

Producing supporting documentation and tools means that…

The organization 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 documentation and tools means that…

Content is still subject to a ‘wild west’ approach within the organization, with varying approaches, standards, and ways of working causing confusion, factions, and conflicts over the ‘right’ way to do content.

And without any ‘single source of truth’ on the various aspects of content and content strategy, consistency, quality and relevance are nearly impossible to achieve.

What’s involved in producing supporting documentation and tools?

‍Three key types of supporting documentation are normally required to formalize content governance.

Plus, there are the specific tools needed to help us to operationalize that governance.

Let’s unpack each one now.

‍1. Guidelines

A guideline is a piece of advice on ‘how to approach’ something.

It’s produced in the interests of creating uniform consistency in an output that’s subject to multiple individual contributions. And I think we’d all agree, content is an example of that.

For example

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 organization’s brand, business goals, and user needs.

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

‍2. 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 the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways of doing things according to the organization.

For example

Much of the usage aspects of an organization’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 to the user: “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.”

‍3. Policy

Policy defines compliance-critical rules.

Whereas standards are expectations over quality, policies are non-negotiable rules where non-adherence could pose a serious risk or threat to the organization in some way.

For example

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

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

4. 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 control quality and evaluate content output against a specific set of identified standards

However, in the world of digital especially, people often forget that a tool is… just a tool.

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 and scheduled — how the calendar is actually used by people will, though.

One of the biggest mistakes we all make is jumping into creating and acquiring tools in the hope that they will, in themselves, make things better.

Producing supporting documentation and tools: How to move things forward

  • By this point, you’ve hopefully managed to establish content roles and ownership, as well as identify the ideal workflow processes regarding how content should move through the organization
  • 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.
  • By doing this, people around you will start to realize the level of documentation and number of tools required to bring content governance into action.
"The right tools for your organization are rooted in your culture and attitude."
Ahava Leibtag
Founder/President, Aha Media Group

Step four: Deliver appropriate training to relevant staff

And so we come 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 this point we have already:

  • Identified and formalized appropriate content roles and responsibilities
  • Analyzed existing content processes and devised all-new workflows that will get content moving through the organization 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 for you 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 and implementation levels?
  • Do the trainers need to be trained?
  • And does someone need to be responsible for identifying and acting upon all of the above needs on an ongoing basis?

These kinds of considerations are going to take some time to work through. Some might 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).

Deliver appropriate training to relevant staff: How to move things forward

  • ‍Analyse your organization’s or client’s training needs — using the above questions as a starting point — 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 organization’s new and improved approach to content governance.

Your blueprint for good content governance

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 organization’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 you with a blueprint for that and helps you to kick-start your own governance journey.

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About the author

Joseph Phillips

Joseph Phillips is fascinated by the art and science of compelling digital communication. He’s passionate about assisting organisations to adapt their mindset, skills, and resources to communicate better, publish smarter, and tell better stories on the web. Learn more on his website, Or connect on Twitter.

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