How to define content principles for your team

How to define content principles for your team

6 minute read

How to define content principles for your team

6 minute read

How to define content principles for your team

Lauren Pope

Content Strategy and Digital Transformation Consultant

Content principles are a shared set of commandments for how your team approaches content and collaboration. They help you do your best work by helping you focus on the right things, make the right decisions, and work together.

In this post I’ll explain why you need principles, share examples of what they look like, and explain how to define a set for your team.

What content principles are and why you need them

An old boss of mine described principles as ‘knowing how we do things around here’, and I think that’s a good way to approach them. Principles should give everyone on a team a shared understanding about your approach and ways of working. 

They’re almost like a set of commandments: the core beliefs and rules that you all abide by. If you have the right ones, they will help to:

  • Frame your work: give you a focus for how you approach your work
  • Guide your decisions: help you choose the right path and pick the right solutions
  • Align your team: find your way as a team and collaborate better.

A few years ago I was part of a team working on content strategy and operations for a big financial services company. One thing we implemented was a set of content principles. We designed each principle to address a specific challenge they wrestled with. One of those challenges was that their content needed to stand out and embody the brand in a sea of similar content. The principle we came up with was ‘Only [big financial services brand] can do this’. This principle took off and became a kind of mantra; the team repeated it all the time and invoked it to challenge one another to improve their content and make it unique.

What do content principles look like?

So that’s what principles are, but what do they actually look like in practice? 

Principles are typically a set of four to eight short, punchy statements with a slightly longer clarification of what each one means.

There are plenty of brilliant examples out there to take inspiration from, particularly if you consider the wider picture and include design principles as well as content-specific ones. 

The best-known set of principles is probably the UK Government design principles. My favourites from the list are:

  • Start with user needs
  • Do less
  • Understand context

The NHS design principles are great too and have some excellent ideas to learn from (or steal):

  • Design for the outcome
  • Design for trust

For content-specific examples, Greenpeace’s content principles are a great place to go for inspiration. I like:

  • Include the right people for the right reasons
  • Promote flexibility and modularity  

What your content principles should cover

Your content principles should respond to the specific context of your work and the specific needs of your team. What your principles should be will depend on where you are, what you struggle with, and where you want to go.

With the examples above, you’ll notice that most of the principles focus on how to design or how to create your content. This is an important part of any set of principles, but it’s important to think about collaboration and ways of working too. In pretty much every content project I’ve ever worked on, collaboration has been a huge part of the challenge. Principles can help you address these kinds of issues..

Here are some ideas for principles to address collaboration and ways of working. A lot of them focus on making people feel safe and included, which is so important for building a strong team:

  • Your work is important as mine: No one’s work is more important. We’re all equal
  • We prototype together: We make prototypes as a team, so we can attack the problem from every angle
  • No question goes unasked: We never leave a question unasked and we never assume what the answer will be
  • We’re not defensive: If someone’s asking questions about our work or critiquing it, we’re open to what they say
  • We give good feedback: When we give feedback we’re constructive and kind
  • We eat together on Tuesday: We sit and eat together on Tuesdays and talk about anything but the project

How to define your content principles

Creating a set of principles has to be a team effort. In the case of the financial services company I mentioned, the principles were successful because we came up with them together in a workshop. You’ll struggle to get buy in on anything that your team doesn’t feel a sense of ownership over. 

My recommendation would be to book a meeting room, grab some Post-its and snacks, and make it a group exercise. Sessions like this can be very therapeutic for teams that struggle with collaboration, because it lets you deal with problems constructively.

To define your principles, it's helpful to share examples like the ones above. But while you can take inspiration, you won’t get a great deal of value from just copying principles wholesale from elsewhere. They need to address your specific context and issues.

A future mapping exercise is a great approach to this. Start by asking people to write down where things are with content and collaboration right now. Then ask them to imagine a perfect future where the team is collaborating brilliantly, producing amazing content, work is fulfilling. Get them to write what they’re imagining on Post-it notes. From there, work backwards: Where are the gaps? What are the things that need to happen to get to that ideal state? What barriers or bad habits do you need to break? What new ones do you need to build?

Once you’ve done that, ideas for principles should flow. Get people to write ideas on Post-its, cluster similar ideas, and use sticky dots to vote on the ones that are most important. Then refine down to between four and eight ideas.

Bringing your content principles to life

It’s not enough just to have the workshop and come up with the principle. You need to bring them to life and make them a part of your work.

After the workshop, spend some time perfecting them and polishing the copy to make them memorable. Do this as quickly as possible to keep up momentum. Once you’ve done that, put them where you’ll all see them: a poster on the wall, pinned at the top of a Slack channel, on your wiki, wherever your team hangs out.

The most important thing of all is to use them. They need to be part of your day-to-day work and process. Depending on how you work, this might mean making them a part of your team meetings, planning, prioritisations, or retrospectives, incorporating them into your content project briefs or acceptance criteria.

Talking about them and using them in conversations matters too. In the financial services example I gave, it worked because we repeated it and made it part of discussions about content. So keep using them, repeating them, and using them to think about and improve your content. The goal is for them to become shared mantras.

To sum up: content principles are like a set of commandments for your team. They’ll help frame your work, guide decision making and work together. You should create them together as a team, and make sure they address your specific context and challenges. And finally, don’t create them and forget them: make them a part of your processes and conversations about content to realise the full benefits.

Content principles are a shared set of commandments for how your team approaches content and collaboration. They help you do your best work by helping you focus on the right things, make the right decisions, and work together.

In this post I’ll explain why you need principles, share examples of what they look like, and explain how to define a set for your team.

What content principles are and why you need them

An old boss of mine described principles as ‘knowing how we do things around here’, and I think that’s a good way to approach them. Principles should give everyone on a team a shared understanding about your approach and ways of working. 

They’re almost like a set of commandments: the core beliefs and rules that you all abide by. If you have the right ones, they will help to:

  • Frame your work: give you a focus for how you approach your work
  • Guide your decisions: help you choose the right path and pick the right solutions
  • Align your team: find your way as a team and collaborate better.

A few years ago I was part of a team working on content strategy and operations for a big financial services company. One thing we implemented was a set of content principles. We designed each principle to address a specific challenge they wrestled with. One of those challenges was that their content needed to stand out and embody the brand in a sea of similar content. The principle we came up with was ‘Only [big financial services brand] can do this’. This principle took off and became a kind of mantra; the team repeated it all the time and invoked it to challenge one another to improve their content and make it unique.

What do content principles look like?

So that’s what principles are, but what do they actually look like in practice? 

Principles are typically a set of four to eight short, punchy statements with a slightly longer clarification of what each one means.

There are plenty of brilliant examples out there to take inspiration from, particularly if you consider the wider picture and include design principles as well as content-specific ones. 

The best-known set of principles is probably the UK Government design principles. My favourites from the list are:

  • Start with user needs
  • Do less
  • Understand context

The NHS design principles are great too and have some excellent ideas to learn from (or steal):

  • Design for the outcome
  • Design for trust

For content-specific examples, Greenpeace’s content principles are a great place to go for inspiration. I like:

  • Include the right people for the right reasons
  • Promote flexibility and modularity  

What your content principles should cover

Your content principles should respond to the specific context of your work and the specific needs of your team. What your principles should be will depend on where you are, what you struggle with, and where you want to go.

With the examples above, you’ll notice that most of the principles focus on how to design or how to create your content. This is an important part of any set of principles, but it’s important to think about collaboration and ways of working too. In pretty much every content project I’ve ever worked on, collaboration has been a huge part of the challenge. Principles can help you address these kinds of issues..

Here are some ideas for principles to address collaboration and ways of working. A lot of them focus on making people feel safe and included, which is so important for building a strong team:

  • Your work is important as mine: No one’s work is more important. We’re all equal
  • We prototype together: We make prototypes as a team, so we can attack the problem from every angle
  • No question goes unasked: We never leave a question unasked and we never assume what the answer will be
  • We’re not defensive: If someone’s asking questions about our work or critiquing it, we’re open to what they say
  • We give good feedback: When we give feedback we’re constructive and kind
  • We eat together on Tuesday: We sit and eat together on Tuesdays and talk about anything but the project

How to define your content principles

Creating a set of principles has to be a team effort. In the case of the financial services company I mentioned, the principles were successful because we came up with them together in a workshop. You’ll struggle to get buy in on anything that your team doesn’t feel a sense of ownership over. 

My recommendation would be to book a meeting room, grab some Post-its and snacks, and make it a group exercise. Sessions like this can be very therapeutic for teams that struggle with collaboration, because it lets you deal with problems constructively.

To define your principles, it's helpful to share examples like the ones above. But while you can take inspiration, you won’t get a great deal of value from just copying principles wholesale from elsewhere. They need to address your specific context and issues.

A future mapping exercise is a great approach to this. Start by asking people to write down where things are with content and collaboration right now. Then ask them to imagine a perfect future where the team is collaborating brilliantly, producing amazing content, work is fulfilling. Get them to write what they’re imagining on Post-it notes. From there, work backwards: Where are the gaps? What are the things that need to happen to get to that ideal state? What barriers or bad habits do you need to break? What new ones do you need to build?

Once you’ve done that, ideas for principles should flow. Get people to write ideas on Post-its, cluster similar ideas, and use sticky dots to vote on the ones that are most important. Then refine down to between four and eight ideas.

Bringing your content principles to life

It’s not enough just to have the workshop and come up with the principle. You need to bring them to life and make them a part of your work.

After the workshop, spend some time perfecting them and polishing the copy to make them memorable. Do this as quickly as possible to keep up momentum. Once you’ve done that, put them where you’ll all see them: a poster on the wall, pinned at the top of a Slack channel, on your wiki, wherever your team hangs out.

The most important thing of all is to use them. They need to be part of your day-to-day work and process. Depending on how you work, this might mean making them a part of your team meetings, planning, prioritisations, or retrospectives, incorporating them into your content project briefs or acceptance criteria.

Talking about them and using them in conversations matters too. In the financial services example I gave, it worked because we repeated it and made it part of discussions about content. So keep using them, repeating them, and using them to think about and improve your content. The goal is for them to become shared mantras.

To sum up: content principles are like a set of commandments for your team. They’ll help frame your work, guide decision making and work together. You should create them together as a team, and make sure they address your specific context and challenges. And finally, don’t create them and forget them: make them a part of your processes and conversations about content to realise the full benefits.

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About the author

Lauren Pope

Lauren is a freelance content strategy and digital transformation consultant, working with organisations that make the world a better, fairer, more beautiful place.

Lauren has been working in content and digital since way back in 2007 and since then has worked with some of the world’s biggest brands, including adidas, American Express, Microsoft and Tetra Pak.  

She lives in Brighton, and loves the Downs, the sea, dystopian fiction and bold lipstick.


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