Content Governance for the Common Concern

April 1, 2010

Of all the principles of content strategy, governance seems to be the one treated most as an afterthought. Strategy firms/agencies don't perform it (typically), large businesses want the technology to do it (automatically), and small businesses don't want to spend any money on it (tragically). I'm part of the first and I don't often work with the second, so I'll address only the third:

Whatever your resources, good content governance is possible.

It's also critical, as small businesses tend to quickly embrace the latest and the greatest online tools, often without regard to overall content goals. The good news is that content governance is more about a set of principles than it is a set of staffers. I would know, as part of my job entails governing Digett's own content. In fulfilling that role, I've worked off of a few guidelines that can help guide any organization:

Get a grip on your publishing

It's impossible to control a far-off empire—just ask the Romans. In order to exercise any measure of control over your organization's content, you have to either develop policies for or learn the specifics of how new content gets published, how existing content gets updated, and how old/outdated content gets archived. Some ways you might do this include:

  • Conduct an audit of existing content. Additionally, make sure you're documenting the process; snag a content inventory template online and modify it for your own purposes.
  • Develop sunset policies for old/outdated content. Should a five-year-old blog post automatically be retired? How about content contributed by an ex-employee? What if it's still relevant or useful? Answer questions like that and get them on paper (it's an expression, people—don't scream to me about Google Docs).
  • Create editorial and workflow processes and enforce them. Jumpstarting publishing efforts won't do you much good if you don't put some boundaries around the process.

Articulate and enforce clear content standards

A documented content strategy will get you partly there, as it will dictate what you should publish. However, it won't tell you what you are publishing, and it sure as heck won't enforce the guidelines for you. Proper content governance requires a keen eye, especially if you publish often; it also requires that you be honest with your contributors, even if it's a bit awkward.

That's no more true than when it comes to enforcing standards for spelling, grammar, and style. You can't expect people to take you seriously if your content is riddled with errors or inconsistencies; set the bar high and clobber your content with it.

In the course of governing Digett's content, I've run into situations where new contributions didn't necessarily support our goals, conflicted with or duplicated other content we've published, or just didn't meet editorial or style standards. If the problem was significant, I went back to the author and discussed possible corrections. If it was minor, I might have corrected it myself and informed the author. In each case, they knew what was going on and why I raised the objection.

Provide leadership, not fiat

In one of my previous jobs as a corporate marketer, my coworkers and I were well aware that our department manager hated orange—we weren't allowed to use this color in any online or offline publications. I was never told why (though I could hazard a guess), and I was actively discouraged from asking for a reason. That was ridiculous.

Content governance isn't an administrative position that calls for exercising dictatorial powers, else your content becomes mechanized and your staffers start volunteering for janitorial duty to avoid contributing. You want to inspire others to embrace the organization's content goals and invite them to participate in their realization.