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Content and silos: How to break down the barriers

Kym Ellis • 8 minutes

Silo isn’t really a word we use in everyday life, in fact it is probably one of those corporate terms that people dislike using in meetings.

The Oxford Dictionary defines the word silo, in relation to business as “a system, process, department, etc. that operates in isolation from others.”

Many people feel that a silo mentality presents issues within teams and businesses. As content professionals, it’s arguably more important than ever to understand where fantastic input, ideas and opportunities are hiding within isolated teams.

Identifying Silos – The Benefits

As a content strategist, copywriter or content expert in any role, the benefits of understanding where these ‘silos’ exist are plenty. Identifying the silos that hold back production could be the key to removing some of the headaches and bottlenecks. Most of all, identifying silos can help you improve your content. Here’s why:

  • You gain valuable insights that you may never have stumbled upon by yourself. For example, it could be things about the content that is required, about your target audience and user needs or about the organisations needs
  • The time spent collaborating will be worthwhile because you will reap in the benefits of having a much stronger strategy that is holistic and works for everyone
  • It enables you to get buy-in from stakeholders and wider teams. This can prove to be a very valuable asset, especially when wider teams begin to understand what you do, what your goals are and how they align with their own
  • You will have many ways in which you can prove how your content strategy has helped the business, both in specific areas and in the bigger picture
  • You get to meet or speak to new people, which is good for you and good for business
  • You will undoubtedly learn things which can be fed into future projects
  • Last but not least, the content produced as an output of your collaborative efforts will be stronger, better informed, meeting business needs and most of all, user needs

Here’s the thing:

Instead of content-first, we should be working towards collaboration-first.

Instead of content-first, we should be working towards collaboration-first

The importance of structure

Businesses need structure to function and that is probably why we develop silos in the first place.

There are varying levels by which this can cause a silo mentality, but it’s often down to conflicting or isolated management and a poor flow of information. Couple this with a lack of resource and the ‘not enough hours in the day’ feeling that most of us have, and it’s easy to see how it happens.

Once this culture exists it can become increasingly difficult to break down the barriers.

Even if structure is vital to the business you are a part of, that does not mean we shouldn’t take steps to acknowledge and understand where a silo mentality is hindering productivity. The structure may not be going anywhere, but structure shouldn’t equal silo.

A positive view is that isolated teams will undoubtedly contain expertise and new opportunities that can really improve your content. You just have to find a way in!

Isolated teams contain expertise and new opportunities to improve content. Just find a way in

Creating a unified vision and working towards common shared goals is vital for content and content production.

In-house, agency or freelance

Let’s start with the fact that it doesn’t matter where or how you work, you can stand to benefit from understanding and breaking down a silo mentality.

In-house silos may be different to those experienced by people working with clients in agencies or freelancing. Here’s some examples:

  • A B2B retailer has an in-house marketing team and a separate, digital marketing team. Digital and eCommerce has been a growing focus, but it has mostly been thought of in isolation rather than as part of the core marketing team. Online and offline activities are fraught with inconsistencies and both teams are battling against differing goals and poor flow of information.
  • An agency based content team is tasked to work on a new website project alongside a web development agency and another marketing agency who are looking after SEO and paid advertising. Despite having a common goal, all three parties have different ideas, opinions and methods of working, not to mention the fact they are all in different parts of the world. Without proper management of this collaboration, a lot of time is wasted and this impedes the final outcome.

These examples highlight that issues with communication underpin a lack of collaboration — how can we overcome these barriers?

Obviously if you are in-house then getting up and speaking to a person face-to-face is a nice communication method to have. One which, by the way, can be drastically underused.
Even if that is out of the question, communication can always be improved. Here’s some ideas to try out:

  • Use technology — whether it is Slack, Trello, Gathercontent, Skype, Hangouts, Google Docs, conference calls. Find what works and aim to keep most communication in places that are accountable and traceable
  • Following on from the above, keep emails concise and ensure any key points from emails are put into channels where all can access
  • Share early — don’t save the important details until they are pertinent
  • Share your calendars, allowing others to be sympathetic when someone has a busy day or week
  • Ensure meetings (in person or online) have a defined agenda by the project lead
  • If you find you are in a situation where you have meetings for meetings sake, review the effectiveness and push back on wasted time, even if that means getting clearance from management
  • Equally, if you never have any meetings, assess if you need to schedule some to ensure collaboration is happening

Overcoming siloed barriers is not an overnight fix. It takes determination and buy-in across the company to begin to adopt a collaborative culture.

Overcoming silos isn’t an overnight fix. It takes determination and company wide buy-in

Take small steps and figure out your priorities and quick wins. Brushing up on your people skills and the art of persuasion will always help, too.

Silos within silos

Within marketing teams alone, where content teams usually sit, there can be areas or individuals working in isolation.

SEO, paid advertising, social media, print collateral and PR are some of the areas of marketing which should effectively collaborate with the content experts.

This is an opportunity to start with your own discipline and find out where people are working in isolation to the detriment of your content strategy. Let’s look at some examples.

Example 1

The content and SEO teams are working in isolation. The content team spend a month crafting a huge amount of content for a new website, half of which is already signed off. The SEO expert reviews this half way through the project and have questions about the keywords, suggested improvements and potential landing pages.

Example 2

The content and SEO teams work on new website content collaboratively. There are plans to run PPC campaigns and social advertising soon after launch but at this point the paid search executive has not been involved in the website project.

With both situations many potential issues can arise:

  • A lack of time to fix the issue before the website is launched
  • Collaborating at this stage causes friction as both parties are now already under stress
  • There may be differences in opinion on how to approach optimising content, do we create content for contents sake, content for SEO or somewhere in the middle?
  • Landing pages required for PPC need may clash with the work the SEO executive has done, so ideally this needs to be planned out together

By collaborating before this project began, any debates on the approach or execution of the work can be discussed with a unified goal in place. Processes can be signed off ahead of production and tasks can be assigned to the appropriate people.

These examples could go on. Website content not marrying up with offline marketing collateral is another common one. Any of these examples can soon become a breeding ground for negativity and dispassion for the project.

Small steps towards collaborating

Starting within your own umbrella of discipline can be the first stepping stone in collaborating more laterally, eventually. It is more likely that you will already know the people who you need to encourage to give up some valuable time a few months earlier than expected, with the view of saving time in the long run.

Go ahead and audit the project in hand. Be ambitious in your plan to collaborate with more people, but also be realistic and prioritise who needs to be involved. One thing that you can do is invite all to a pre-project workshop. More on that later.

Breaking out of your comfort zone

It doesn’t stop there, in terms of websites, content very much affects design and development. It affects sales teams, customer services, management teams and many more.

Let’s take a look at the following common areas where collaboration could be key to your content successes:

Design and Development

This is an obvious one, and you would think that these areas would be synonymous with marketing in general but that is not always the case.

There are issues with communication and collaboration that can stem from limited preconceived ideas about what design is and what marketing is. Sometimes, it can even be down to negativity about the other from either side.

Even with an increasing amount of ‘content-first’ website builds, are you still collaborating first, as well as you could be?

The people designing or building a website, app or product are working on the functionality and usability. The people doing the marketing are working on the content, structure and the ever-changing nature of the search engines.

These things are all so closely linked these days that to build a new website without involving teams from both silos seems absurd. Yet I still see it all the time.

Both sides will suffer because design and development may struggle to build a website that is fit-for-purpose, or should I say, fit-for-content. This in turn affects the content production and delivery.

All of these things will always be a moving feast and there will always be work to do post-launch. But if we we work together we can iron many things out from the off and avoid a lot of common inconsistencies.

Customer Service

You may very well spend time doing user research to inform your projects, but how many times have you spent time with the customer service department as a content strategist?

This has probably been one of the lightbulb moments in my marketing career and we’re all guilty of letting it be one of those tasks at the bottom of the list, or worse, not even on the radar.

Getting to understand the customer, whether it is spending some time shadowing, getting involved with live chat or listening in on the phones. You can ask these valuable team members any questions you might have – they’ve often seen and heard it all.

Bonus Material! Grab a PDF of our Audience Research Checklist to kick-start the process of understanding your audience.

Download the Audience Research Checklist

Don’t forget that for most businesses with a dedicated customer service team, they will be scouring your content all the time to help them answer queries. Sometimes good content is just as useful for members of staff as it is for customers!

The Sales Team

Sales teams generally have some very unique points to make about the website and it’s content. So many times I have heard clients say, “our sales team told us we need to change this on the website” or “the sales team made their own collateral”. Use this knowledge.

If the sales team are creating their own content, questionnaires or customer profiles, absolutely use this to improve your content strategy. It could highlight regular questions that potential clients have, and answers to those questions.

If the sales team can’t provide you with any information right off the mark, then why not use a surveying tool to ask them well thought-out and open-ended questions?

Management

Management can be in a silo of their own due to a lack of time. It is usually important to ensure appropriate management figures are involved in the strategy process and in the sign-off process.

Getting overall strategies, article outlines or early drafts approved means cutting out wasted time spent on something which later gets canned.

Flowchart

This list is obviously not exhaustive, but it is a good start. Think of product managers, external photographers, videographers, product designers, recruitment and HR.

Sometimes you might even have very specific areas of expertise who need to be involved in the content process, for example, an educational provider may need need teachers or tutors to be integral to the content process.

Breaking down the barriers

So we’ve seen that silo mentality can have a negative affect on content production, so what can we do to collaborate with people within our own disciplines and beyond?

A silo mentality has a negative effect on content production. Collaboration will overcome this

Here’s five key ideas to take away:

1. Always take a collaboration first approach

Just don’t wait until the project is mid flow.

2. Audit

Conduct an audit of the project in hand, find out who needs to be involved and invited. Here’s some things to consider to get you started:

  • Top level view of what needs to be produced?
  • Do you have personas and tone of voice guidelines to work with?
  • What purpose does it serve?
  • Can it be linked to a specific point in the buying cycle?
  • Who is the target audience?
  • Who is creating content? Copywriters, editors, photographers, videographers, designers, developers?
  • How will you collaborate at every stage of production? For example, will you be using pair writing?
  • Who will this content affect internally, for example, will sales or customer service team use it frequently?
  • Who will optimise the content?
  • Will it be used in advertising campaigns?
  • Who is signing the content off?
  • Potential risks/issues?

3. Invite others

One key thing to do is to find ways to prove to different departments or ‘silos’ how giving up their time to collaborate you will benefit them.

Ensure you know how you are going to measure success so that you can present it back to key stakeholders and all individuals involved in collaboration. This makes people feel positive about the project, promotes a culture of collaboration and encourages people to be involved in the future.

4. Production workshop

Hold a meeting or workshop and be the advocate of collaboration. These meetings should be an open environment that make it easy for people to give and receive feedback.
Ensure it doesn’t spiral into a counselling session on past projects, but utilise past failures to improve the workflow moving forward. These meetings should be forward-thinking and inspirational, a time to get key influencers to buy in to the content process.

Do not covet your ideas. Give away everything you know, and more will come back to you.

– Paul Arden

5. Workflow

Create a process that everyone agrees on before content creation begins — make it visual, get it signed off, ensure everyone knows what their responsibilities are. Check out the below example of a simple process flow and more of a detailed description for a specific project.

collaboration

detailed-process-document

Can I do this in the real world?

At this point you are probably thinking, well this all sounds great but realistically I can’t get all of these different people or departments to give up their time to help me do my job.

Each project will be different and it is important to understand where collaboration really needs to be inclusive across several areas or just a few. If you are unsure, try speaking to others to get an idea of scope.

If you feel strongly enough that collaboration from a particular isolated team would benefit the project outcomes and their team in some way, then speak to them about it. Chances are, they will be flattered that you are asking for their help and grateful that you have their interests at heart.

Collaborating is the future

Without adopting a collaborative and holistic approach, at best you will miss out on some great ideas. At worst, you will end up with content that is not fit for purpose.

If we approach these issues head-on we can avoid extensive mop-up projects, surprising people with work they never saw coming and giving isolated teams a feeling of disillusion when it comes to content marketing.

The challenge is to take steps to understand the silos within your company, or that affect your projects. Never stop striving to encourage an open and inclusive approach to content strategy and production.

Content and Silos: How to Break Down the Barriers

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About the Author

Kym Ellis

SEO & Content, Jungle Scout

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