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The Art of Content Approval

by , Co-founder, Word Lions

Writers: More than on your mere talent, your success is built on the ability to work through the review gauntlet and on to publication. Your content budgets, timelines and quality rely on the art of approval.

It is not easy or straightforward, and is the greatest challenge in our work. I can successfully estimate the effort to create a first draft of just about any piece of content, even for a new client. I am pretty proud that at draft 1 most every project is spot on for time and effort.

Then the estimate can go out the window – as can the deadlines and the original scope of the project. When we find ourselves all frustrated and pointing fingers, we want to know what happens, we want to know who to blame.

It is not you – it is writing

To me, gaining content approval is at the core of The Content Game. Every writer, editor, and strategist I have ever spoken to – without exception – agrees that projects bulge and collapse in the interface between stakeholder and writer.

One can point fingers at poor commitment by clients or weak branding or confusing power structures. One can point the finger at bad writers making bad content or doing, as my developer friend Kristin Wille calls it, the “the slow fade.”

To win, regardless of the client, we have to take responsibility for approval. To me, this is the artful part of the profession.

It is not them – it is important

First, let me say that your clients are not stupid. Perfectly intelligent people need your help to understand and build content. Creating content is creating words and images that represent someone else. The client has to be comfortable standing for what you compose. We are, at our best, manufacturing authenticity. Gaining approval is at the core of our jobs. This is important, and this is hard.

Word Lions often come in to companies who had had a failed project. The blame for that project is usually laid at the writer, who was fired for that failure. Usually, that person was a sole writer, not an agency.

It is my belief that these failures are usually failures of process and culture rather than a sign that the writer was a bad writer. My suspicion is that the previous writer was fine at writing but not good at the art of approval. Perhaps his techniques did not suit the culture of the client.

Process is king

Over our five-year existence, Word Lions has thrived by introducing ourselves to clients as process-oriented. We nerd out on process more than we do on the Oxford comma (though that is a plenty important topic let me tell you). We have found that no single process works everywhere. The art is to meet the client where they are and give them the opportunity to provide good feedback.

For this post, I collected a few techniques that I find frequently successful. I have to say that I would ditch any of them on a moment’s notice if it made a particular client’s approval easier.

I would also like to note that these are from the perspective of an outside agency model. It would be interesting to discuss how to modify them for an internal content team. I would love to have that conversation because, again, I am a nerd about process.

Technique #1: Bill by the hour

It seems to me that outcomes in this world can be predicted by incentives. Billing by the hour incentivizes everyone to be efficient and create the best product.

Prospective clients can understandably be resistant to billing by the hour. A flat bid project is more predictable for budgets. As we bid and introduce the project, we make them comfortable by explaining the reason we use hourly billing. Then, we make ourselves accountable for every hour we work on a project.

As a former co-worker said once – on a call with a prospective client – “Fixed bid just assures that one of us gets screwed.” He has a way with words. We explain that working for an hourly rate allows us to work in the way that is most efficient for the client.

The result is ongoing information about the true costs and changes in a project. This helps the current project and informs estimates for future projects.

Technique #2: Work the way the client wants

I am honestly enamored of GatherContent’s product, but there are scenarios when I am not going to introduce a client to some new piece of software in order to get their feedback. I have come to a peace with the fact that I email a lot of Microsoft Word documents as attachments.

Introducing technology is a ramp up. Evaluate whether the ramp up energy and stress multiplied by the number of people on the project is worth the efficiency gained. Our hourly rate will guide the way to efficiency. For short projects, new technology is rarely the case. In addition, if important stakeholders are accustomed to their way of working and just plain not going to create another set of login credentials, I don’t fight it. Word documents attached to emails it is!

That is not the most efficient use of the available technology, but it can be the way to get the most effective feedback. Thus, it is ultimately the most efficient way to drive to approval.

Technique #3: Don’t make (or at least don’t show anyone) outlines.

In Word Lions’ quest for process, we have learned that outlines are ineffective review devices. What tends to happen is the outline is read, revised, and approved. Then, the first draft is not at all what the client suspected. As a result the project experiences delay and potentially a breakdown of trust between the parties.

Perhaps your writing process includes outlines to some extent. I believe that an outline is really a series of notes to yourself. The author excludes far too much information. The outline does not address style or the connections between thoughts.

In reviewing an outline, the reader then fills in these gaps as they please. I believe that in most cases outlines are somewhere between a waste of time and a project risk.

Further, I would note that having an approved outline constrains the writer from realizing a dynamic structural shift as they write. As a result, I have de-emphasized outlines in my own writing process.

In place of outlines, Word Lions writes and shares creative briefs with clients. Depending on the project, these can vary in formality from a two-sentence email to a large, thorough template.

Example headers from a Word Lions case study brief

Technique #4 Teach as you go

It is imperative that the content team signal when process changes are going to hurt the project. Try thinking of the project not as writing something amazing but as garnering approval. When you completed that strong first draft, your job just started.

Write a good handoff email that points reviewers to specific areas that need their attention. If you think a reviewer glossed over an issue, follow up.

One of the most difficult, most notorious situations that require education is initiated by a harmless-sounding quip:

“I’m just going to run this (otherwise fully approved by all parties) piece by my boss before we publish.”

The boss will have input and it will be our imperative to address it. Since the boss was not a part of early conversations or decisions, there is a great possibility that this surprise review will contradict previous decisions.

Let them know. This is where technique #1 can be an important part of the conversation, as this review will add cost to the project.

Better yet, confirm all reviewers at the outset of the project. I request that all reviewers read all drafts. This is not always convenient for all clients, but it is an ideal that we aim for.

Technique #5: After Draft 2, Resolve Specific Issues

Try to get the squishy tone questions largely clarified in brief and draft 1 reviews. Develop consensus on structure in the first draft review. Then, make additional revisions about specific issues.

This will cut down on the number of review cycles. When all issues have been satisfactorily addressed, we are done. Pop the champagne and send it out the door.

One way to help is to be the historian. Remind stakeholders what has already been agreed so that drafts are refinements that build on each other. If drafts are “another try at it” then we will never know when we are done. Again, technique #1, bill by the hour, encourages forward movement.

Content approval is hard

Building accord among stakeholders is hard. Writing something that is technically accurate and reflects the corporate marketing message is not a straightforward job. If all you want to be is a talented writer, I believe that you will consistently fail. Become a student of the art of content approval and you will win out.

About the Author

Co-founder, Word Lions

Joel co-founded Word Lions in 2008 to write meaningful content for technology and B2B companies. More a craftsman than an artist, he likes a good critique. He wants you to listen to his podcast about making the web, PushPull. Connect with him on Twitter.

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