Once upon a time, some content was needed for something and basically someone wrote it, did a really good job of it, and it was published straight away.
That story has never happened. Ever.
That’s because, whether you’re working in-house, at an agency or as a freelancer, creating content for an organisation will involve some stages of review, edits, and approval before it gets over the line.
And that’s ok.
But are there hurdles which, with a little planning and communication, you could better anticipate and control?
The reality is, when it comes to content, people who have never written an article in their lives might suddenly have the final word on it.
That might be your immediate line manager, your director, your client or a publishing outlet if you’re endeavouring to get a piece of digital PR placed. You could find yourself locking horns with people you’ve never spoken to before, over an article which you need them to rubber stamp.
What’s more, these people may want to make tweaks and changes which you strongly disagree with. *Gasp*
And boy, have I had my own experiences of this. From six-month standoffs with colleagues about how to write the word ‘half’ in marketing materials (i.e. vs ‘½’) to urging others not to publish the blog they’ve just written because it was so littered with clichés and dullness, that to release it would probably undermine the quality of all the pieces that had gone before.
I’ve worked on whole papers that have been put into stasis on the eve of their (otherwise very timely) release because of unexpected opinions; only for their eventual issue to be granted after the ship of timeliness had sailed.
And then there’s the classic ‘I think x should see this too’ situation – when that one approver turns into four.
At the time, all these things were irritating and frustrating to me. Now I look back on situations such as the above and wonder ‘could I have worked on that content any differently?’
The answer is ‘yes’ in most cases – and it mainly comes down to opportunities I missed with communication and planning.
The mistake I’d made with past situations is that I’d go into ‘full throttle’ content creator mode. I became an unstoppable content juggernaut; motoring ahead with my mind well and truly engrossed in the task at hand... At the same time, I was an unintentional island - forgetting to cross the T’s and dot the I’s when it came to the full workflow.
Yes, I was working hard - but was I working smart?
What I’ve learned (and it’s only taken me a decade) is that firstly, you should stop thinking of yourself as an island when you’re working on that blog, paper, infographic or web content, however engrossed and/or enthusiastic you’re feeling.
The truth is you’re being paid to create content for others. That could be the senior manager sitting across the office from you at your 9 to 5 gig, an agency client who is paying for content creation with their monthly retainer, or a freelance client you’ve never even met. It matters not. What matters is that, like it or not, they are perfectly entitled to be part of the feedback/approval process.
If you don’t include them enough, you might find that when you need them to do their bit:
This. does not. a smooth sign-off process. make.
Here are six tips to help get you started.
The conventional way of planning content is to use a content calendar framework, and I’m not advising that you do anything different here. I will say this though - content calendars won’t solve all your problems, and I would expect at least half of the detail planned to either slip, get superseded by something else, or get canned altogether over the course of whatever timeframe you’re working to. That’s just how it seems to pan out in most places. People leave, priorities change and people change their minds on things...
Content calendars can be great as a reference document and for updating and gaining some buy-in from your internal colleagues or client/s if you take the time to run them through it and get their thoughts. (More about that later on.)
Before you type a single letter on your keyboard, try to take a mental step back and think through the whole process. Define a workflow for your content creation. Yeah, it’s tedious, and it’s hard to focus on something so dull when you just want to start the creative process. But what if it ends up saving you an hour of editing time?
If you’re working in-house, for example, think about who your approvers in the ‘chain’ are. Work backwards and try to plot out the timings from there. Consider that the workflow might be different for different content too.
If you’ve had the luxury of enough time to create a content strategy (because let’s face it, many of us don’t have one for everything), this is information you could set out as part of that strategy.
If you’re working in a role where you are relying on subject matter experts (SMEs) to devise most of the angles and dictate the themes, then you’re probably going to need more detail from them in order to take it all away and draft something. If you’re dealing with multiple SMEs each month for different pieces of content, you might not have time for all the face to face meetings or phone calls extracting such details might require. You’d never have time to think and write.
So this is where a straightforward briefing sheet might come in handy. A simple questionnaire to extract your SMEs’ thoughts and direction. Is this admin? Maybe... but it might just be worth it.
Use your document to capture:
Playing email ping pong with approvers and reviewers is never fun; especially when you might have several drafts of content on the go. A smarter way of working is to utilise one of the many great content creation platforms or tools available (did someone say GatherContent?) and let it be your own personal secretary.
Platforms like GatherContent are built with optimum ‘user-friendliness’ in mind, and - whether it’s content for an entire website, a research paper or a series of blogs - you’re able to use it to manage the content creation process end-to-end.
Establish clearly labelled, colour-coded workflows, give access to the right people to approve and review your drafted copy, and get a crystal clear view of where everything is at any time.
And guess what that means? No more indecipherable handwritten notes and comments passed back to you on hard copies! Everything can be handled on-screen with a tool like this.
We’ve all been there. It begins with you thinking only one person needs to see x content, and then before you know it, it descends into “I think Bruce from Sales needs to see this too” and “can you also make sure Penny’s happy with it?”.
Sometimes this kind of situation is unavoidable; especially if you work for a business or organisation that’s quite ‘hierarchical’ and bureaucratic by nature. There may also be a liberal dash of internal politics to contend with too.
My advice would be to include something on approvers in your briefing sheet (see tip #3) and nail the approver/s down at this point. That way, you might be able to reduce the volume of ‘surprises’ you’re faced with further down the line.
Lead and direct your approvers ‘invisibly’ and get people involved in the content creation process. When I say ‘invisibly’, I basically mean ‘without throwing your weight around’.
Ideally, you want to be directing things so well that no one really notices that you’re controlling the content creation process impeccably.
If you don’t keep investing the time and effort in this, there’s always the alternative - which might be any of the following when you submit content for approval:
Show them the content calendar (see Tip #1) at the beginning of each month/quarter so they have a general overview of the content ‘outputs’ planned - try to be open to colleague or client feedback/input on what’s in it. They might even help you make things better.
A content calendar is a working document - I’d look at it like a rough plan rather than a concrete programme of items. Treat it like a plan you own, but don’t hide it from your colleagues.
Maybe arrange a quick half-hour together in a meeting room (or a conference call, if you work remotely), if that’s an effective way to get them to engage. Emails can get lost or even ignored after all.
Some people find booking a block of ‘approval’ time in your approver’s and travelling SMEs’ diaries never worked.
In pretty much every role I’ve worked in, you’d send something off and who knows if it’d make it onto the website by the end of that week. It was a lottery.
It doesn’t have to be like that though; you just have to take a few steps to initiate some extra control.