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.
I’m guessing you want your content to be:
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:
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.
There are different models describing digital maturity, but the way we talk about it at Llibertat is as a lifecycle with 5 phases.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
As a minimum, put together:
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.
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.
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.”
Are you interested in learning more about content governance? You can’t go wrong with these resources:
Padma Gillen is a digital content consultant. He uses his expertise in content design management and agile content production to help organisations create quality content and maximise the effectiveness of their content teams.
He also advises organisations on how to set up and deliver successful web content projects, coaches them through the process, and provides content design teams to make it happen. He is currently helping the University of Southampton shape and deliver their content-led digital transformation project, OneWeb.
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.