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Content governance: It’s about people as much as process

Good content governance is the secret that helps marketing teams deliver on their content strategy.

Good content governance is the secret sauce that helps organisations and marketing teams deliver on their content strategy. A way of coordinating all the activities surrounding the content marketing system. Importantly, to implement a high-functioning content governance model, you have to start with people.

Content governance is the day-to-day detailed management of content delivery and style, as well as the longer-term execution of your content strategy. For coordination and consistency – and to manage risk, support scale and ensure sustainability – every organisation needs a content governance model. An overall structure that determines priorities, this model also provides guidelines and standards of how content should look, behave and interact with intended audiences, while assigning ownership to people within the organisation so they can make sound decisions about content.

It’s a complex, multifaceted thing. For each content governance model, moreover, there are three dimensions to consider. Two of these are processes and tools. Here, we cover the third (and arguably the most important): people.

Expectations and roles

Directly or indirectly, governance touches virtually every aspect of the content marketing ecosystem and cycle. It plays a role in ideation through to prioritisation, creation, publishing, promotion and storage. Governance procedure can also determine which existing content on your website should be refreshed or retired. All in all, it is a pretty pervasive mechanism, influencing and inflecting staff across various departments in a business.

A central principle underlying this mechanism is that everybody involved should have a clear understanding of the goals and expectations of the program, and importantly, of their role in helping to achieve success.

In terms of role clarity, an organisational chart, even a basic one like Ann Handley’s from a while back, is a good place to start, but it doesn’t give much clarity on responsibilities, lines of interaction, lines of reportage or accountability.

Here at Mahlab, for our internal content marketing strategy, we have a small team. The core members number just three: the content creator, marketing manager and editor. Clarity around the roles is achieved by assigning a defined responsibility set:

  • For the writer, this is execution on the content, and doing whatever it takes to take a good article – research, approaching internal SMEs for insights and negotiating interviews with external thought leaders.
  • For the marketing manager, this is around operation and governance. They are the master of the editorial calendar and of planning and reporting, and will determine workflow and processes to ensure deadlines and milestones are met.
  • For the editor, their role is one of quality control – proofing documents and providing mentoring and feedback for the writer.

We are somewhat unique in having three layers of approval for each content piece – a result of our fastidiousness for quality as well as the ‘ghostwritten’ nature of a large portion of content, where content is produced on behalf of in-house experts (who are not always natural writers).

With a small team, the need to document workflows, roles and responsibilities is minimal. Instead, daily conversation and collaboration is how we achieve role clarity, such that the team is always fully across strategy and the KPIs that our performance is measured by.

The truth is that the tools, documentation and methods each team uses to give clarity around roles will always vary from business to business. In consulting and for many larger organisations for instance, RACI charts are still the ‘in thing’, whereas Atlassian’s roles and responsibilities exercise promises clarity in just two hours.

The consequences of a muddy governance model

While it’s sometimes misconstrued as such, only a poor content governance model looks like a bureaucratic tangle of unnecessary layers. Having no model in place, on the other hand, looks like a dog’s breakfast.

If a task is left undone, neglected or overlooked, that’s a pretty good indicator there is something amiss with your governance. Take the following example. Let’s say an article on the evolution of customer banking habits in Australia has been scheduled in the content calendar. It’s sent out to a new freelance writer, with a brief so light on substance, it could be boiled down to ‘do it’. No style guide was provided, nor any specification of whether the publisher wanted certain statistics or quotes.

The person who was in contact with the freelancer then goes on annual leave, let’s say to Barbados (why not!). They gave no other point of contact to the freelancer, who emails their flaky article through to the office manager a day before deadline. When the piece is (at last) published, only then does it come to light that the topic had already been covered a year ago. Nobody had bothered to check. And nobody bothered to take down the previously written post, because everyone thought doing so was someone else’s job.

Like we said: a dog’s breakfast. If roles, responsibilities and processes had been better defined, only unchecked negligence could’ve brought about a similarly woeful state of affairs.

Appointing a chieftain as the ultimate decision-maker

When it comes to governance procedure, both teams and overall systems function best under the guidance of a single, senior team member who holds the biggest share of decision-making clout. In some businesses this is the Managing Director or CEO who wears this hat, while in others it is the Content Strategist, Marketing Manager, Content Marketing Manager or Editor. As the designated ‘mastermind’, with eyes on all the turning cogs and wheels of the content machine, it is their job to provide the vision, as well as pre-empt, address and resolve small jams before they turn into wince-worthy system failures.

It is the duty of the governance chieftain to hence defer, delegate, manage and coordinate. They can be imagined as the corporate version of a conductor; quick to respond when either a whole section is out of key or timing, or a single player is scraping out a deviant tune. Ideally, tact, diplomacy and a certain degree of firmness will be components of the governance chieftain’s character.

Depending on the size of the team, the chieftain will also be tasked with setting the content strategy, approving content, convening and leading regular content marketing meetings where team members provide ‘work-in-progress’ updates, discuss any obstacles getting in the way of productivity, and other problems to be overcome.

Creating a decision-making hierarchy

content governance

The activities of content marketing can – and should – diffuse many layers of a business. This doesn’t mean that everyone in the company has equal involvement or equal say though. Good governance acknowledges, organises and manages the hierarchy of decision-making. One general way of getting a sense of this hierarchy is to divide your content marketing team into their distance from the ‘nucleus’ of the operation. Lisa Welchman, author of Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design, suggests sorting your team players into the following subgroups:

  • Core team
  • Distributed team
  • Working groups and committees
  • Extended team

Within these subgroups, you’ll have various creators, strategists, policy makers, managers and advisors. Each will be afforded a certain ‘decision-making weight’ by your governance chieftain – an assignation important to getting your content engine going and your momentum up. Remember, after all, that ‘agreement by consensus’ does not mean ‘everybody must agree on this one course of action’. If this were the case, nothing would ever get done.

Educating, training and culture around content governance

As a business grows and the landscape changes, content governance systems will inevitably shift. When they do, staff should be kept well-informed.

Minor shifts in operations (e.g. a change in reporting line) may require only an email or, preferably, a face-to-face meeting. More significant adjustments, like the introduction of a new process or content management platform, may require a training workshop and/or updating existing workflow documentation. All up-to-date information about your governance system should be included in on-boarding material for new team members.

Working out a systematic management and process is the practical means of ensuring good governance. But maintaining it will be laborious and prone to dysfunction if openness, collaboration and communication haven’t been sown into a company’s culture. A productive content marketing team is – as it should never be forgot – predicated on the values that the people in the team and the organisation lives by.

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