Content 101: Governance

Content 101: Governance

8 minute read

Content 101: Governance

8 minute read

Content 101: Governance

Padma Gillen

Digital Content Consultant

Content governance gets interesting when you try to do it at scale. Lots of organisations struggle with this. In this 101 article, we look at what content governance is, a digital maturity lifecycle, and issues around distributed publishing models. We also share a content governance implementation roadmap, consider user needs, and provide expert insights and links to additional content governance resources.

What are you trying to achieve?

I’m guessing you want your content to be:

  • Legally compliant
  • Accurate
  • Up-to-date
  • In the right tone for your brand
  • Appropriate for the channel
  • Consistent
  • Structured and written in a way that works for your users

You know how to do this for the content that you write, but multiply that by a few hundred publishers across the organisation and it gets more complicated.

How do you achieve this at scale? You need a content strategy, right? Right.

Your content strategy should explain:

  • How your content is created
  • Who creates it
  • How it’s managed
  • Who owns it
  • What happens when you don’t need it anymore
  • How it’s structured and organised

So far so good. But unless it’s implemented and enforced, a content strategy just sits on a drive somewhere gathering digital dust, abandoned and alone, crying into its drink. It exists as a document, but it doesn’t describe what actually happens on the ground.

How you implement and enforce your content strategy is what content governance is really about. It depends on how large your organisation is and where you’re at in the digital maturity lifecycle.

The digital maturity lifecycle

There are different models describing digital maturity, but the way we talk about it at Llibertat is as a lifecycle with 5 phases. 

  1. 1. Individual champion phase
    The organisation decides to have an online presence. Often this was a single enthusiastic person’s project. They became the ‘webmaster’ and got the organisation online. Many in the organisation didn’t know there was a website and most didn’t care.
  2. 2. Web team phase
    The organisation realises the website is somewhat important and even useful. It assigns some budget to hire a very small team to make sure the site continues. People across the organisation start making requests for the team to put things on the website.
  3. 3. Distributed phase
    The organisation realises that the web team can’t cope with the website. At the same time content management systems (CMS’s) have been developed that allow multiple people without coding ability to publish on the website. The organisation buys a CMS and lets people across the organisation publish in their subject area as a cost-effective way of representing the organisation online.
  4. 4. Hub-and-spoke phase
    The website grows at a rate of several thousand pages every year. Soon it is unmanageable, ungoverned, poor quality and potentially a risk to the organisation. There have been a couple of ‘migration projects’ to a new CMS but that resulted in only temporary benefits. The organisation decides to develop an effective governance model, publishing model and content strategy. It starts to publish content based on user needs. A key aspect of this is to have a central team in charge of governance. The devolve certain aspects of content creation and publishing to ‘spokes’ around the organisation.
  5. 5. Service design phase
    Moving to a hub-and-spoke model improved the website significantly. However, many of the systems that feed into the website and form part of its content are largely unchanged. The organisation commits to full digital transformation, including changes to products, policies, systems and processes it previously saw as nothing to do with digital. The organisation now thinks of itself as digital by default and develops its digital presence as a set of end-to-end services designed to meet user needs.

As a content consultant, I generally get called in when an organisation has been in phase 3 for a while, their website is no longer fit for purpose and they don’t know what to do about it. Or they know what they *want* to do about it, they just don’t know how to do it.

That’s the point where content governance gets interesting. In phases 1 and 2 governance is relatively easy. You have a small number of publishers who all talk to each other. You don’t even need a formal style guide for the site to have a sense of consistency about it. But when you hit phase 3, lack of formal governance becomes a big issue. And in fact it’s not until you get to phase 4 that you can really say you have any effective governance in place.

Why the distributed publishing model sucks


The distributed publishing model (phase 3 of the digital maturity lifecycle) seems great on the surface. I mean why not get the people who know about stuff in your organisation to be responsible for writing about that stuff? If you tack it onto their job description you’ve basically got a free web publishing team. What a great solution!

That was the thinking of many organisations 10 or so years ago. It’s how they tried to solve the need to move out of phase 2 without investing the time and money required to get to phase 4 and beyond.

The trouble is, in phase 3 there’s no governance: 

“Several authors (e.g., Encyclopedia Britannica, 2006; Mangu-Ward, 2007; Sanger, 2004) have explicitly warned against such open forms of content creation and have called for more stringent control mechanisms to ensure the integrity of the process and the quality of the collaboration outcome."

(Schroeder and Wagner, JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR INFORMATION SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY, 63(10):1947–1959, 2012)

Eventually it becomes clear to the organisation that there are problems with the website. It’s massive, no one can find anything, it’s difficult to understand, your audience hates it and in the end many people inside the organisation hate it too. 

In a distributed publishing model, these problems are hardwired in. This is because:

  • Skillsets Subject matter experts are not web content experts. Being able to write doesn’t make you a content designer, just like being able to add up doesn’t make you an accountant. A subject matter expert’s skillset generally doesn’t include using analytics to uncover user behaviour, interpreting data from usability testing, accessibility, iterative publishing, writing for the web or information architecture design. This makes it very easy for them to create poor content.



  • Models The subject matter expert has a very different mental model of the subject area than the person who will try to find, understand and use their content. There is therefore a high chance that the content they produce will not be optimised to meet the needs of their users.



  • Structure While they have an expert level of understanding of their subject area, they may have little or no knowledge or concern for how that subject area relates to others, and how the organisation’s content should best be structured to ensure a joined-up user experience. By default, the website is therefore generally a mirror of the way the organisation is divided up into departments and teams. This may make no sense to a user who is not familiar with the organisation, making the website practically impossible to navigate.


  • Publishing Since they are not web publishers by profession, subject matter experts generally publish and move onto the next thing. They don’t monitor and review the content to ensure it isn’t duplicating other content, leaving gaps where user needs aren’t being met, or becoming outdated, confusing and possibly even putting the organisation at legal risk.

Content governance implementation roadmap

Hopefully I’ve made the case for moving to a hub-and-spoke publishing model. You need a central content team (or even a multidisciplinary digital team) to think holistically about your digital offer, oversee your content strategy and enforce it across the organisation.

To make this happen, you need to take the 4-step approach suggested by Joseph Phillips:

1. Define and get agreement on content ownership and roles

2. Design and document content workflows

3. Produce and document guidelines, standards, policies, procedures and tools to operationalise content governance

4. Deliver appropriate training to educate and align staff on content governance

Joseph’s article unpacks this very well so I won’t duplicate it here. There are also some good tips in this article over at BrainTraffic

I’ll just add a few points based on my experience of what works:

Content ownership and roles

You should move from having specific people owning specific items of content. Instead, have the central digital/content team owning the user experience and named subject matter experts owning the factual accuracy. The central team should have the power to decide whether or not an item is ready to publish. The subject matter expert can only block publishing something on the grounds that it is factually inaccurate.

Content workflows

There should be clear stages in the workflow when draft content is owned by the content team and when it is owned by the subject matter expert for fact-checking purposes. There should also be specified timescales so that draft content can’t be blocked indefinitely from publication just through inaction.  If you don’t do this you end up in never-ending conversations, negotiations that lead to compromised content, and published content that is of little use to the intended audience. And by the way, GatherContent is a really good way to map your workflow and manage your content as it moves from draft to live.

Guidelines, tools, policies and all that jazz

As a minimum, put together: 

  • A style guide This will provide the style and formatting rules for your content. Give examples, list specific vocabulary and make sure it is kept up to date.
  • A workflow Outline each step your content needs to pass through. Allow for feedback and think beyond publishing being the final stage or goal.
  • A content strategy What is the purpose of your content? What audience(s) do you need to understand? Tactics will follow, this is your north star for ensuring content is useful, usable and serves a purpose.
  • Content templates Providing structured content templates can ensure consistency across formats and channels that you create content for. They can also help content creators provide what's needed more easily.
  • Design principles What design considerations are needed? These principles ensure that content and design are considered together, for a better user experience, whilst being on-brand.
  • A proposition document What is the proposition of your organisation? It could, for example, outline the criteria for published content.

Training the organisation

Implementing effective governance generally means change. People don’t like change. So you need to put some serious effort into communicating the change, listening to objections and feedback and helping people feel empowered and involved. You need to do this before, during and after the implementation. Do it with the organisation, not to it. 

Content governance and user needs

We’ve looked at the what and how of content governance, but we haven’t really discussed the why. So I’ll finish with that.

I believe your content should be designed to meet the needs of your users. This means your content strategy should be about how to achieve that. This means that all of the tools, roles, policies and systems you set up on the road to effective content governance should contribute to achieving that fundamental goal.

The best way to do this is to make everything you do evidence based. You need to gather data to know who your users are, what they need and how they make sense of that need.

Of course, if rational behaviour was all that was required to win in life, the world would look quite different! So you also need a supportive power structure for the times when common sense and evidence don’t work.

You need to ensure your organisation is signed up to the user needs approach at a senior level, and that this is communicated across the organisation. You don’t need to get that kind of buy-in before you make a start, but get it as soon as you can. When you combine endorsement from senior leadership with the other ideas and approaches discussed in this article, you’ll start to see dramatic improvements in the quality and consistency of your content. And great content means happy users.

Quotes

Governance is complex and experts have their own definitions, thoughts and examples. Here are a few different perspectives to add further insights to this topics.

In his article, Principles of Content Governance, Edward Baldwin defines content governance as:

“Content Governance is the system, a set of guidelines, that determines how an organisation's content gets created and published. At its most basic level, it can help you avoid getting sued or embarrassed, or both."

Joseph Phillips acknowledges the complexity of governance in this quote from his article, A four step road map for good content governance:

“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).”

In an article on CMSC Media, Lisa Welchman defines governance as:

“Governance defines how an organisation will utilise the Web and Internet, who will make decisions, and how will you integrate new digital functionality with existing legacy processes and business practices.”

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About the author

Padma Gillen

Padma Gillen is the author of ‘Lead with Content’, and CEO of Llibertat, a content-led digital agency that puts users first. He uses his expertise in content strategy and agile to help organisations get clear on what they’re trying to achieve, build a roadmap to get there and then deliver the change their users are looking for.


Previously, Padma was Head of Content Design at the Government Digital Service (GDS). He had overall responsibility for the quality of content on GOV.UK, the award-winning website of the UK Government.

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