Get Your Content Strategy Out of the Drawer with Governance

All too often, strategies of every kind get stuck in a drawer—sometimes without being implemented or even reviewed after their initial creation and approval. One reason is that people forget the full definition “strategy,” which is a plan for achieving a prescribed outcome. The focus is often put on the desired outcome and not the plan for getting there (because that part is really hard).

Another reason is that there’s no formal way to make the strategy stick over the long haul or to determine when it needs to change. I’m the Content Strategist at The Nerdery, where we’re working hard to build content strategy into our overall UX process. A huge piece of that is helping our clients with content governance.

Give Your Content Strategy a Backbone

Just as brand standards and the enforcement of them have become common (and accepted) practice, tools and processes that help with the governance of content are also needed to ensure organizations can provide the right content, for the right people, in the right place, at the right time.

Without a governance model, organizations don’t have a way ensure content is on-course. And content that isn’t working is a waste of money and time. To put a governance model in place, it’s important to consider four key aspects:

  • Authority: Who is empowered to make decisions about your web site?
  • Planning: How will you plan for content overhaul efforts—from launch to ongoing maintenance?
  • Tools: What tools (e.g., guidelines, checklists, priorities, and editorial calendars) will you use to make sure that your content is on-strategy and that your content strategy stays relevant?
  • Measurement: How will you determine whether your content is working—and how will you use information about the effectiveness of your content to fix it?

Together, the four components of governance will help ensure that your content remains purposeful and profitable for your business and useful and usable for your audience. After all, that is what having a successful website is all about—achieving business goals online with content that gives your audiences what they need.

Content Governance can be the First Step

Website governance is often lacking across the board—from back-end technology to front-end user experience and everything in between. Content governance can be a good place to put a stake in the ground for overall governance of your web properties. Content is the reason people use most websites. UX pioneer Jesse James Garret said as much way back in 1997 in his book The Elements of User Experience, where he wrote, “The single most important thing most websites can offer to their users is content that those users will find valuable.”

If it was true then, it’s even truer today. The online community now creates as much content in two days as humankind did from the dawn of man to 2003, according to Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google. Most of that content is a mess, but people want it—they search for it; they ask for it. It’s our job to make it easy to access, understand, and act upon.

Content governance helps us do that. If we aren’t providing the right content properly, we will not achieve our business goals. If that’s not happening then, quite frankly, the UX and design won’t really matter. So, start with content governance, and build from there.

The Four Ds for Getting Governance and Putting it to Work

One of the reasons organizations don’t set up governance is because it seems daunting, even impossible. Breaking it down into four steps makes it a little less so.

1. Define the decisions you need to make

You can’t make effective decisions about your content and content strategy until you determine specifically what decisions are necessary. Defining such decisions does a few really important things:

  • It makes you focus on the specific questions you need to answer to be successful.
  • It gives you an opportunity to document—and communicate—the decisions you’ve already made.
  • It helps you get the right people involved, as effective decisions require that the right folks be in the room to make them.

Examples of the decisions you need to make include:

  • What business goals does the website need to help us achieve?
  • Who is the website for and how do we prioritize when there are multiple audiences?
  • What content do we need to achieve our goals and satisfy our users’ needs?
  • What technology guidelines do we need to follow?
  • How often do we need to provide new content or update existing content?
  • What kind of team do we need to manage the website effectively?
  • What is our budget for launching and maintaining the website?
  • How will we know if we’re successful?

Make a list of all the decisions you think are required, understanding that additional questions will likely arise. Then, document anything related to those decisions from what you know today. That will be your starting point for discussions with the people whose input you need to make those decisions—for pulling in the right people to secure buy-in with additional stakeholders and ensure compliance.

2. Dole out authority

It’s easy to blame the design or the content or the user experience when a website isn’t getting results. More than likely one of those things is to blame, but, more often than not, those things are the symptoms of larger problems. Problems involving people. One of those people problems is that no one has any real authority. Without authority and people being empowered to exercise it, you end up with things like:

  • A crowded and disjointed home page where everyone gets to put whatever they want on it.
  • A bunch of content no one cares about except Paula in Ergonomics.
  • A public site organized by internal departments.
  • Resources being wasted on a bells-and-whistles content features that have no business purpose and are viewed by no one.
  • Fifteen microsites on which fifteen different people wrote fifteen versions of pretty much the same content.

When you’re doling out authority, consider that there are at least two types:

  • Strategic authority refers to the more bird’s eye-view decisions, such as site objectives, resources and budgeting, audience definition, and annual planning.
  • Implementation authority refers to decisions related day-to-day operations, such as requests for home page real estate or new content, content maintenance, and editorial oversight.

Also keep in mind that authority does not mean that people work on their own and wield an iron fist. It means that they are ultimately responsible for the strategic and day-to-day success of the site and that they work with business partners to achieve it.

3. Develop the plan and the tools

Once you know what decisions you need to make and who is responsible for getting them made and implementing them accordingly, you’ll need a plan for carrying them out with some tools to support you. For example, let’s say your governance model suggests that you audit every page of your website once per year:

  • Your plan would detail whether you’ll do a rolling audit—which means auditing groups of pages each week/month/quarter—or audit everything in one fell swoop. It might include roles and responsibilities for the people participating in the audit. It could also suggest how you’ll go about implementing any necessary changes the audit uncovers.
  • The tools you develop might include audit criteria, a scoring system, audit instructions, and an audit spreadsheet to document your work and run reports.
4. Do it (consistently over time)

I’m not going to lie. This is the hardest part. It’s hard because it involves slowing down a bit and changing behaviors. Most of us don’t have the luxury of stopping what we’re doing to implement something brand new. Work still has to get done. Usually it needs to get done quickly.


So, what can you do to give your governance model a chance to take hold? I’ll wrap this up with a few tips:

  • Consider the timing. I talked with a client this morning who said that three years ago, instituting a governance model would have created conflict. Now, he feels the organization is ready because of the relationship building that has flourished over the past few years.
  • Start small. You probably aren’t going to be able to do everything at once. Choose something fairly innocuous to implement first, like a style guide or an editorial checklist. This can help you make some progress in the short-term and get people get used to doing things a bit differently. You can also build simple steps into existing processes to help people make the shift.
  • Avoid over-engineering. A sure-fire way to turn people off to the idea of governance is by instituting a bunch of overly formalized steps and processes that add a lot of work, but not much demonstrable value. Formalize it enough to make it work, but not so much that it becomes burdensome or bureaucratic.
  • Finally, keep it going and keep it consistent. Make governance a habit and avoid making one-off exceptions because it’s easier that way.

Stand up for your strategy, and, over time, your colleagues will too.

Image of antique drawer courtesy Shutterstock

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