Monday, 23 January 2017

Dude, where’s my content?

One of the nice things I’ve noticed recently is that more and more people are recognising content strategy as a ‘thing’.

But even though I can hold my head high, safe in the knowledge that people understand my job isn’t actually made up (yay!), and is as crucial to a project’s success as a designer or UXer (double yay!), I still find that people tend to ignore one of the most important aspects of content - good governance.

Dropping the G-bomb

Without a doubt, the number one reason that content strategies fail is a lack of governance. You can spend hours understanding exactly what your users want, and exactly what type of content they need. But if no one’s empowered to enforce standards and guidelines (or if you don’t have standards and guidelines in the first place) all that work is pointless.

Because how will you know if the content you create is meeting those user needs? How will you know if it’s providing value for your business? And how can you be sure you’re not going to get 50 stakeholders crawling out of the woodwork wanting to sign content off before it goes live?

The answer is you won’t. So your strategy will fail. Always.

So what do we do?

If you stop to think, it seems obvious. Just setting content live and forgetting about it is a bad idea. As is just letting anyone publish whatever the hell they want on the website.

But actually, most of the time the challenge isn’t getting your organisation to govern its digital content effectively, it’s getting any kind of governance in place at all.

If your organisation has strong governance for other aspects of its business, the idea of content governance might not be all that foreign. Especially if you have strong brand and style guidelines in place for your more traditional channels of communication.

But sometimes large organisations with clear governance in traditional areas are some of the worst offenders. So how can they take what they already know about governance and apply it to content? In my mind, most governance issues can be solved by keeping in mind three things: 

1.Making sure you’ve got the right people, doing the right things, at the right time

At Cancer Research UK our digital strategy is to devolve content creation throughout the business. There’s no one central team that owns every piece of content on our site.

So one of our biggest challenges is working with teams to identify the roles and responsibilities they need to manage their content effectively throughout its lifetime.

Meghan Casey’s excellent Content Strategy Toolkit identifies 6 phases all content goes through during its lifetime.

I’d probably also add ‘retire’ to that list (or KILL if you’re applying it to a bunch of old Flash animations).

The best way I’ve found to get visibility on this stuff is to run 2 quick workshops. In the first workshop, you get all of the senior stakeholders involved in the content creation to map out every step involved in each of those phases, with the people they think are responsible for them. And in the second one you get all the people who actually produce the content itself to do the same.

By the end, you should end up with a whiteboard filled with post-it notes that looks a little something like this, once you’ve collated everything and digitised it:

Most of the time you’ll find any bones of contention slot into 1 of 3 categories:

  • Gaps appear in each phase, where everyone assumes something happens, but it actually doesn’t
  • You’ve got multiple stakeholders who all think they’re content owners who should have the final sign-off on a piece of content
  • You’ve got 1 person doing 90% of the steps in each phase. Someone who not only owns the content but writes the content and is also responsible for its sign off

Once you’ve invested the time upfront to work out every step involved in each of these phases you can start asking the big questions; why is this necessary? Who is responsible for it? What’s the output?

The answers to these questions are key for building visibility on how content flows through your organisation. And working out where the gaps, problems and stress points are that you need to address.

2.Making sure you’re measuring the right stuff

If you’ve developed an effective content strategy upfront you should (I hope) have a clear idea of what your content needs to achieve, and the metrics that let you know whether it’s achieved it.

Where governance fits in, is to provide clear guidelines on when to review your content against these metrics. And when you should consider acting.

If things are going badly – consider changing your content

Sometimes we make changes to our content that we think will move our metrics one way, but actually end up having the opposite effect. This is fine, as long as we’re able to quickly shift the blame to someone else honest with the size of the problem, and its cause.

A small problem is a bump in the road. A bigger problem might send everyone running to panic stations. Whichever it is, being honest about the size of the problem helps you work out how to prioritise what you need to fix first. And if you find you’re having a lot of these smaller problems take a step back and look for any patterns – they could be the symptom of a bigger problem.

Similarly, spend some time interrogating the cause of the problem. Speak to your users, grab as many insights as you can and work out what they mean. Yeah, sometimes your content might just suck. But sometimes the UX might be doing a bad job of supporting your content. Or that new image the designer’s put together jars with your brand messaging.

And above all, share what you’ve learnt with your team, your stakeholders and the wider business. That’s the best way to stop the problem happening again in the future.

If things are going well – consider changing your content

So our content’s smashing its metrics, our users love it and our stakeholders treat us like rockstars. Time to just sit back and congratulate ourselves on a job well done right?

Well, maybe. But failing that, questions you might want to ask yourself are “how big is your success?” and “how do I make it happen again?”

If you’ve had a big success shout about it. Build a story around what you’ve achieved that you can sell to your stakeholders to get more resources to make your content even better.

And, just like when things go badly, speak to your users and get their feedback. Once you know why your content performed well it becomes a lot easier to replicate that success in the future.

If there’s a change in context – consider changing your content

Occasionally, hitting or missing our metrics isn’t so much of an issue. Because the metrics themselves don’t matter so much to us. Sometimes our company’s goals might change and sometimes the world around us might change.

Again, once you’ve figured out how this change is going to affect your content, work out how big the impact will be. Is it a permanent or temporary change? Will it affect your competitors too?

And not all change is bad. Yes, adapting to it could be a massive resource drain stopping you from doing what really matters. But it could also be a massive opportunity to attract a whole new audience and revenue stream.

Whichever it is, once you’ve understood the size of the change you can work out how much time and resource to dedicate to it.

3.Making sure you’re keeping it lean

One thing us digital folks sometimes struggle with is confusing governance with being a bottleneck, and treating it as an enemy of the agile process. And admittedly, our plan to retire workflow process does seem a bit waterfall-y at a first glance. But it doesn’t have to be.

Instead, when reviewing your workflow ask yourself “what’s the minimum thing I need to build to move from one phase to the next?”

You might have a massive site redesign to plan, but rather than tackle the whole site audit, why not run a rolling audit of each area of the site? Can you update the content for one small sub-section of the site at a time, rather than do everything all at once? And is that stakeholder who demanded a place at the table for every editorial meeting really vital to the content’s success?

Answering these questions helps shift the perception of governance from something that impedes the progress of your content to something that actively supports it. Because it forces you to focus your attention on what drives the most value with the minimum effort, in a way that’s scalable. And that sounds pretty agile to me.

Go forth and govern

At Cancer Research UK our digital strategy relies on us giving people the tools they need to manage the long term success of their content, which is where good governance really shines. Because if we can make our processes more efficient, it gives us confidence that the right people are doing the right things at the right time. That we do have the right measurements in place. And that we’re being as lean as possible.

This all means we can spend less time worrying about the day-to-day management of our content. And more time focusing on making that content as good as it can possibly be.

Chris Flood
Content Strategy Lead

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