Think like a publisher: 6 ways to streamline your content processes

Commissioning a brilliant copywriter is one step to great content, but you also need to work on processes in-house. Here are six things to try.

Chris Alden, freelance copywriter

Congratulations: you’re a marketer who understands the value of content. You know content can help drive sales, attract prospects, generate leads and build a brand. So you’ve taken steps to clarify messaging, engage clients and stand out from the crowd.

And that’s all good news. But before you started on this road, did you ever realise that creating high-quality content would be so much, well … work?

THE TRUTH ABOUT CONTENT: IT TAKES EFFORT, IN-HOUSE

Sadly, many businesses underestimate what it takes to get content up and running behind the scenes. They assume that, just because they’ve hired a freelancer or an agency to create content for them, their work is done.

Little do they realise just how much vital work is left to do – from planning and production to managing sign-off and content flow.

But commissioning brilliant copywriters and designers is only half the battle. To be successful at content marketing, you need to think like a content publisher.

What does that mean in practice? Read on to find out – and discover six things you can try to improve your approach.

1. Ask yourself: who ‘owns’ content in your organisation?

Imagine you work for a newspaper or a magazine. How many people do you think take responsibility for each piece of content that the company publishes?

The answer is that it depends. On social media, it might be just the reporter. But when it comes to a 2,000-word feature for a glossy mag, that number is much higher. There’s the writer (maybe a freelance); the sub-editor or page editor; the chief sub-editor; the designer; the art editor; the picture editor; the photographer; the desk editor; and finally the editor, who oversees the whole shebang.

That’s a lot of people, each of them invested in a successful outcome, and all pulling in the same direction, in an ideal world at least.

Now: I get it. You’re a B2B business; your primary purpose is not creating content, so there’s no way you can match that level of editorial oversight. But there are still a lot of people who have a role in making sure your content is a success.

There’s the marketing assistant. The marketing manager. The product manager. The technical expert. The senior exec. The head of comms. The CEO.

Each of these people, and often many more, might be involved in a piece of content – so they need help to understand its value, so they can take responsibility for it. And, because this isn’t a media business, it’s up to you, the marketer, to help them develop the necessary skills.

Improving content skills

To improve the skills in your organisation, it might help to use a mixture of these strategies:

* External training in content skills (because the better the skills you have in-house, the better for you)
* Identifying internal ‘champions’, i.e. people with content or editorial skills (see also point 5, below)
* Recruitment from content-focused fields like journalism and PR into ‘business’ roles such as product management.

And if that all sounds tricky in the short term, then plan for the long term. And meanwhile, ask: who ‘owns’ the content right now? In an ideal world, who should own the content? And what small steps can you take to improve things, right now?

2. Ask yourself: how does content flow?

Do you ever wonder why it takes so long for a piece of content to get from idea to sign-off? Are your product managers or technologists always on your back, wondering why that case study hasn’t been approved yet? And do you ever think what you could do to make things faster?

Serious media businesses don’t, typically, suffer from these issues. Sure, editors have to chase laggard writers all the time, but generally the time from conception to publication is known. That’s because they have content flow down to a fine art – and so they should do, because content is their primary product.

But when you’re a B2B business, it’s harder.

Speeding up content

So how do you speed content approvals up? I suggest you start by gathering data. Look at one or two recent pieces of content that you created, and ask: how long did they take to do? Where were the hold-ups or bottlenecks? What took longer than we thought it would? And what can we do to make content flow around the organisation better than it does now?

If that feels too much like playing the blame game, you could, instead, track a piece of content going forward – and compare your estimated timetable to reality. Think of it like one of these experiments where the scientist gets on a boat and puts a GPS tag on a seagull’s leg, only to discover that the seagull spends most of its life outside a chip shop in Newquay. You might learn something new. Or you might not. But you tried.

And if you do learn something new, a few solutions should present themselves. For example, it might mean:

* Adopting new tech, such as a better content production system (but tech is never the only answer)
* Getting a clearer idea of who can sign off a piece of content, and who can’t
* Nominating a deputy who can sign off content in an executive’s absence (after all, do magazines stop production when an editor is on hols?)
* Recognising that a single exec’s negative comments do not necessarily mean the whole piece of content needs to be reconceived
* Providing training in the art of content feedback for senior managers (feeding back on content is not an easy skill)

These are all just some ideas of many potential ones – but first, start with gathering data, and you can soon start gathering answers that are suitable for you.

3. Use deadlines – and make them sacrosanct

Can you imagine a newspaper business working without deadlines?Successful media firms publish hundreds, sometimes thousands, of articles per day. Do you think these firms could survive if they let article approvals happen only “when the CEO had time to look at them”?

Of course not – because if there’s one thing media businesses are famous for, it’s respect for deadlines.

Deadlines, of course, have their origins in print lead times. Once upon a time, if you didn’t get your page to the printer by a certain time, your paper would not be on the newsstands in time for the commuters next morning, and your sales would suffer as a result. Little wonder that deadlines became a commercial imperative.

Of course, technology changed. But just because you can hit “Publish” and launch a blog post in the blink of an eye, that doesn’t mean deadlines no longer matter. On the contrary: if you operate without content deadlines, chances are that sales will still suffer, but in a more insidious way, as your content withers on the vine.

‘Agility’ means respect for deadlines, too

If that isn’t enough to convince you, consider this: the software world has been making a great play in recent years about the value of “agility” – and it’s been a roaring success.

If you work in tech, you know what agility is. For everyone else: agility was conceived to solve a recurrent problem in software projects – that teams would spend months or years working on misconceived tech that failed to meet clients’ needs.

So, instead of trying to make the tech perfect, developers realised that they are better off making products which were imperfect but viable and testable, within limited timeframes. To do this, they started working on short-term “sprints” to staged deadlines. And by and large, clients loved it.

For decades, newspapers and magazines have essentialy worked in the same way. In the media world, it’s common practice to publish content that’s imperfect and on time, rather than waiting to publish content that’s perfect – and perfectly late. (Of course, perfect and on time is better, but not always practical.)

So if you’re a content marketing team, try this plan out for size. With the consent of your teams, look to put in place deadlines for every stage in a content process – including sign-off and legal approval – and make sure these deadlines are reasonable, mutually acceptable, and sacrosanct.

If nothing else, you might get the projects finished faster than you did before.

4. If things get bogged down, consider a style guide

Here’s another possible way to speed up content processes. It’s also a tactic that marks you out as an organisation that’s really getting to grips with content.

Do you waste time arguing about the usage of words? Are there common terms in your organisation that you use again and again – without agreement on how to capitalise them or even how to spell them? And do some people insist on putting job titles in upper case, while others use lower?

If so, it’s time to refer to the experts – and get yourself a style guide.

An editorial style guide is a guide to how to write in your organisation – whether you’re a staffer, a freelancer, or the CEO. To see how a style guide can change the way you come across to your readers, take a look at the different style guides of the Guardian and the Economist. Each has a different readership, so the way they write – including spellings, hyphenations, bullets, abbreviations, and so on – changes accordingly.

Do you want a style that’s like the Guardian, or like the Economist? Or does your organisation deserve a style of its own? If you want your content to be taken seriously, creating one can be a major step forward.

5. Consider hiring a content expert with clout

It’s a sad truth that at many content marketing teams, the person with the most edtorial experience is the person at the end of the chain: the freelance copywriter, who is external to the organisation anyway. And that’s fine, up to a point, because at least they are working hands-on with your copy from scratch.

But ultimately, it’s a good idea to have someone within your organisation who has long experience in content – and who therefore has the clout to sign off content marketing and get it over the line. You might call this person your head of content.

Your head of content doesn’t need to be a talented writer (though it helps). But they do need to be a talented editor who can keep the content show on the road – someone who executives know will be on their backs when a content deadline is looming; who has the confidence to make tough content calls; and perhaps even the authority (to be used judiciously) to sign off content in lieu of others.

By hiring an in-house head of content, you can perhaps engender more respect for deadlines, reduce the steps needed to get content signed off, and act with more confidence because you know there’s an in-house champion to make big content decisions. It could be a recruitment you need to get content up and running within your organisation.

6. Finally: it’s OK if progress is slow

I want to sign off this longish piece by saying: it’s OK. I understand that in a traditional B2B business, it can be tough to get senior execs to value content, to respect marketing deadlines, and to champion best practice in what must seem to some like a brave new world. That’s to be expected in a rapidly changing industry.

But – and here is the big but – a funny thing might start to happen when you start simply involving people in content decisions.

For example, you might ask someone senior to put their name to a blog post, or you might decide to get a thought leadership article signed off by a higher-up. Sure, you might get pushback – or silence, which is worse. But on the other hand, people may open up – and start to engage with the issues in response to the questions you pose.

The very act of asking an executive to chip in on a blog post on an issue of importance to a user – as part of SEO copywriting, for example – might in fact help that executive conceptualise that user issue and become better at putting themselves in a user’s shoes. And even if that executive’s response is slow, and sign-off seemingly interminably delayed, it might still mean that good things are happening. You’re starting to reflect on the user experience – and that’s what creating content is ultimately about.

So, good luck creating content in your organisation: and if you’re a B2B business creating quantities of high-quality content on a fraction of a media business’s editorial budget, you have my every respect. Keep up the good work.


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