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Content strategy Governance and workflow

A working definition of content governance

Content governance is the oversight of a complex system. Some parts of it are carefully designed while others are informal. They all affect the quality of your content.

I have a new job, working remotely as the Director of Content for a fast-growing tech company (SaaS, basically). I’ve come in as the workforce is clicking up somewhere between 100 and 200. This is the size where organisations outgrow workable informality. Meanwhile, as a remote team member, I’m experimenting with internal blog posts as a form of working out loud. This is the first such post that I’ve modified for Content is the Web. It started when I was asked some quite general questions about content governance. It’s a recognised weakness (because informality hasn’t been an issue yet), and it’s more or less my responsibility now. Like any good content strategist though, I ain’t touching any problem until I’ve defined the shit out of it.

It’s about a decade since my professional life first moved beyond “copywriter/editor” to something more like “content strategist”. One thing that changed was how I thought about the quality of content. I realised that content quality is a function of content governance. After that, there was no turning back: I wanted to be a content strategist. I wanted to help content producers and managers make better stuff in a complicated world.

Let’s go back to my days working as a writer. With other people’s help, I would create and publish web content. It all went through various approvals, and it all had to conform to standards for things like SEO and accessibility. But it seemed that writers like me were the ones who made sure that the content we published was good. (Exactly what counts as “good” content can sit unanswered for now.) After all, it was our content, right?

Wrong.

Over time, I saw that individual writers had much less control than I thought. Approvers (like lawyers, marketing managers or product owners) would require changes that went against the company’s tone of voice or plain language guidelines. These requests would pit one definition of “good content” against another. Deadlines would hit before we were happy with what we’d produced. Webpage templates would squeeze our words in weird ways, so they didn’t work as well as we wanted. Getting similar pages with different owners to be consistent was a nightmare. The editorial calendar wasn’t under our control, even in those rare weeks when it reflected reality. And that was all before we’d even published anything!

After content went live we’d see its quality decline over time. Complaints about out-of-date pages would arrive before we knew that facts (like product specs) had changed. Our brand tone would evolve and leave some webpages behind. Links would 404. Menus would bulge and new pages would blow out an information architecture that used to work well. As our market changed, content became less useful to the customers we wanted to attract.

The list of things beyond my control as a writer kept getting longer. The illusion that I could possibly control the quality of content, all by myself, disappeared.

So how can you improve content quality as a content strategist? You start by defining as many of the “inputs” that affect content quality as you can. It’s useful to categorize these inputs too, for example:

  • “Communication direction” decisions which dictate what we will and won’t work on. Before a single word is written the direction is set. Ideas are hatched and given shape. We imagine the audience we’re addressing, the purpose of the piece, and the information it will convey.
  • Elements of the writing process, and the training and support that goes into the people who work with words.
  • The editorial angle, i.e. the final decisions about the wording of a piece of content.
  • Workflows that involve different people for different reasons at different times. Ideation workflows; approval workflows; design workflows; publishing workflows.
  • Constraints designed into the presentation system – e.g. page templates and site menu structures.
  •  Tools that people work in use (for example they might draft in Google Docs, Typora, or straight into the CMS; and then check it against a style guide, or with Grammarly).
  • Systems for managing work (like Trello, Jira, Assembla, sticky notes*, whiteboards, or good old email and spreadsheets).
  • Different roles assigned to different people – SMEs, decision-makers, approvers, writers, editors, owners and more.
  • Calendarisation: The timing of all the actions that go into content creation.
  • Post-publish processes and habits, like routine reviews.

This list is not everything, but you get the idea.

Content is an output of all these things. If any of them change, so will content quality. Because they work as a system, nothing can change in isolation.

Content governance is the oversight of this system. That’s not to say that it’s the “management” of this system. It’s okay for things to be managed separately so long as united oversight makes sure that they’re aligned. You know, aligned against a content strategy.

Content governance is an art and a science. It is the sum of many things which can change independently of each other, but which need to work together. An ecosystem with human, technical, and systematic parts. Some parts are formal, and some are not.

So, as a new arrival with a broad mandate, what does it look like when you decide to take a look at content governance? It looks like you asking a lot of questions. (I’ve basically had people talk me through their entire working life, year-by-year and minute-by-minute.) It’s also the gathering of all the things that describe content inputs (like documented processes and policies, designated tools, common collaboration methods, and more).

After you know what’s been intentionally built into content governance, you can identify the unintentional bits. Things like informal processes, or decisions that get made by default rather than through careful consideration. (Back in 2012 I wrote about discovering your company’s hidden content strategy. Still relevant.)

Then ask what’s working and what’s not. When content isn’t as high-quality as it could be, what’s gone wrong? Was there a mismatch between the tools we have and the way we used them? Did someone lack a piece of information, or a technical skill? Did we make a bad decision when we decided to start a particular piece of work? Did one process or opinion trump another?

Where something’s not working, adjust it and observe the effect of that change. The aim is to find the places where improvements will have the biggest gains.

Content governance is always evolving. Document what you can as soon as you can (especially anything you change), and share it widely. Formalise and socialise the inputs that you can, while understanding that this job might never be done.

The system that you’re working on will respond to being described and treated as a system. Content governance can look like a tangled mess of unrelated things. Untangle and unmess what you can and it will start to take shape.

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This post is 1159 words long, with a reading grade of 8 (measured by Hemingwayapp).

*UPDATED, 24 October 2019. I owe a debt to Renee, a friend and former colleague who pointed out that I’d forgotten my favourite work management tool.

By Max Johns

Content strategist and web writer.