Content creation for digital & print – a collaborative approach

Shifting where the content buck stops

The really interesting thing about content projects is that when they go well, the world and his wife will claim responsibility for their success – from the giddy echelons of the csuite down to the guy in the car park in the hi vis jacket.

But when a content project fails to meet targets, or overruns (time and/or budget), or simply doesn’t seem to change the universe very much, the buck stops with the content creator or team.

One reason for this is that content and its creation is still regarded as a linear process. It wends its way from idea to specification, to creation, to approval, to publish, with the ownership and control shifting along the way.

For example, the content team may feel they have complete control at the initial creation stage. But as soon as it goes into any form of approval process Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) will be all over it like a rash. But by the time it’s published they’ve lost interest and the content team (or person) will be running around like a demented banshee trying to keep the content fresh.

Collaborative content creation techniques, such as the Core Model and Pair Writing, are useful. I recently covered these off in a blog for emarketeers. But it’s also worth looking at raising overall content capability and understanding within an organisation.

“No one can whistle a symphony. It takes a whole orchestra to play it.” H.E. Luccock

Content capability workshops

Content capability workshops can be particularly useful in organisations where content creators (or the content creator) are less well resourced. I’ve used this approach effectively in the third sector.

The purpose is to enhance the content creation and publishing capabilities of entire organisations.

Everybody is giving a basic understanding of key areas (along with very visual and succinct handouts designed to aid topic recall). Topics covered typically include:

  • internal writing, editing, layout and publishing skills
  • developing and managing print and digital projects inhouse
  • social media
  • the importance of search
  • the role of measurement
  • collaborative creation and delivery.

Collaborative content creation and delivery

This overhauls the traditional content creation and publishing model. Rather than the skills and the means to publish being focussed on a few specific individuals, they are shared across whole departments and organisations.

It can seem a bit scary and you have to assume their will be the odd whoopsy. But if the reality is that you can’t do everything – YOU JUST HAVE TO FIND A WAY TO SHARE IT OUT!

“Collaboration has no hierarchy.” Amit Ray

As well as workshops for each topic, participants are encouraged to buddy up with people outside of their normal work groups to share learning. So somebody who is really good at making website updates pairs with someone who has an eye for visual print design. Again, this is about people who show a flair for these things even if their “day job” is adding up columns of figures.

The workshops are designed to nurture a collaborative and self-motivated approach to projects (their initiation, development, management and implementation) – both web and print.

They are delivered in bite-sized sessions that can be worked in around the other activities of the day. Anything which involves lunch or breakfast seem to go down well. Who knew?

“Those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” Charles Darwin

The workshops should also cover off -and collectively agree – what a workablechain of information custody looks like and who needs to be informed about what’s being done and by whom, including agreeing budgets and getting them signed off. It’s surprising how many organisations say that content responsibilities belong in one specific part of the organisation, while huge numbers of people all over the shop seem to be running cheeky little budgets for this social media campaign or that poster.

Uber critical is that the final way of working is collectively agreed and owned, even down to where master copies of templates and spreadsheets are kept. Please save me from SharePoint folders but better that than people recreating the wheel all the time, or assuming that content is someone else’s business.

If you are interested in content collaboration workshops – let me know

Content strategy isn’t a document but…

sledgehammer nutWhen Genghis Khan wanted to invade somewhere he went looking for his Mongol horde. He didn’t brush off the folder labelled “Invasion Strategy” and make sure his spreadsheets were in order.

But there is need for content strategists to produce supporting and defining documentation, even it it does take them away from the battlefield. Hence this blog.

When it comes to consultants and freelances, these document deliverables are often in support of project pricing, defining delivery scope and isolating the success measures by which they will be judged.

In the case of inhouse teams, the requirement to produce documentation may additionally be driven by the need to attract csuite attention and curry budget favour, as well as help raise the importance of content and its strategy internally.

The neeed for content strategy documentation

Content, particularly digital content, can seem amorphous to those not directly engaged in its oversight and creation; happening somewhere out there in the wild and woolly internet, while other business departments, such as sales or HR, operate more evidently and with a more direct link to business profitability and KPIs. Paperwork, like it or not, helps make content strategy more real.

Underneath it all there may be some fairly hefty spreadsheets and Word docs, but keep in mind your document readers, their interests and attention spans when it comes to who gets to see what (and why). A 10 page document may have more impact if its top level recommendations are actually delivered using a few punchy slides.

A lynchpin content strategy document can then pull together the top, top level overview, key recommendations, major resource impacts and the BIG risks from the underpinning documents, research and analyses. In terms of what the structure for this might look like, I’ve created the graphic below, along with a glossary of content strategy deliverables to help you Carol Vorderman your approach.

Content strategy documentation – graphic

CS documents

 Content strategy documentation – a glossary of document types

  • Business plan/objectives Content strategists should be familiar with the business plan and objectives for their organisation and have a version of this document, which maps the objectives to content initiatives and ambitions.
  • Calendars An ongoing content or editorial calendar should list key dates and events and what content is required and when, as well as where and how the content should be used. A good calendar rolls over 13 months so that learning from the current month can be captured and adjusted for a year hence (many events are annual, such publication of annual reports and accounts).
  • Card sorting A usability specialism but can be carried out more simply using Post-it notes and a blank wall. Often content projects founder because organisations have not reached real consensus about what content is required, where it should go and user friendly naming structures for navigation and headings.
  • Content audit/inventory A good way of assessing existing content before embarking on a new content project or existing content refresh. There are crawling tools that will allow you to catalogue web pages etc but you also need qualitative (human) evaluation.
  • Content gap analysis Can form part of a content audit or card sorting exercise. Based on your understanding of your users and their needs, what are you not facilitating for them with your content? A really good tool for developing this is the Core Model from Are Halland.
  • Content management system guide This is a CS produced document designed to give a top level guide, under which sits more detailed CMS documentation. It acts as a bridge between machine and human content creation processes.
  • Content ownership/ responsibilities Who does what and why? Chain of command and where the buck stops.
  • Content style guide Easy to use and to the point; covering style, tone of voice, key messages… Should work for all delivery platforms – web, email, social media; be very aware of ‘mobile first’ and content management systems, as well as internal processes, such as compliance.
  • KPIs/success measures What we measure and why we measure it. Should cover more than Google Analytics and should join the dots between content, profits and resources.
  • Personas & Scenarios These use pictures and pen portraits to look beyond the data, bringing to life audiences/audience segments and understanding what they want from your content.
  • Stakeholder surveys/ interviews As with user surveys/interviews listed below but applied to internal stakeholders such as sales teams and external stakeholders such as partner organisations and referrers.
  • Timelines Well developed timelines for projects should include duration, start and complete dates and time required for specific activities such as writing (one activity) and sign off (another activity). Should be constantly reviewed.
  • User surveys/interviews These can be anything from a quick down and dirty online survey composed of a few questions, to a major incentivised questionnaire and focus groups.

I’ve also created a guide to my Top 5 Content Strategy Deliverables –  with links to some good examples and templates. You can find this guide on the Emarketeers website

Why Rembrandt knows more about monetising content than the Premier League

On consecutive pages of my favourite newspaper there were recently two stories that for me, at least, flagged up the conundrum (wrapped in a contradiction) faced by content owners; both in terms of how they control and how they monitise.

On page 7 of the paper there was a story from the National Gallery in London , which had lifted its ban on photography. Want a selfie with Rembrandt aged 63 – knock yourself out.

The gallery’s reasoning was that it couldn’t distinguish between visitors using their smartphones (and the gallery’s free wifi) to find out a little more about Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, born in the Netherlands in 1606 and whose self portrait at the age of 63 was one of his last works) and those taking a crafty snap to post on Facebook.

Turn to page 8 in the same newspaper and there’s a story about the Premier League warning footy fans not to post smartphone videos of goals online. Obviously they don’t forsee their staff facing a problem telling the difference between the goal posters and someone simply texting a mate: “Our centre forward is a w**ker – get the beers in”. (To be fair, they are also clamping down on goals recorded from televised footage and then posted onlien, as well as developing a range of technologies to spot this type of copyright infringement.)


You can see where the Premier League is coming from. They make billions from selling the rights to such footage. Why should Sky or BT Sport part with ridiculous amounts of money (you can tell I’m not a footbal fan) if fans can share the highlights on Vine for free?

But the National Gallery must face a similar challenge, surely? Copyrighted images of priceless artworks are what keep galleries like the National running. If big business stops buying the rights to such images – “we want to use Rembrandt aged 63 as the cornerstone for a new male grooming ad campaign” – and visitors no longer pick up postcards and posters in the gallery shop, because they’re content with the picture they’ve have on their iPhone 5, the revenue loss is significant… catastrophic.

  • So, which approach is the right one?
  • The answer could be neither.
  • Both are husbanding content in a very traditional way.


The National Gallery made a judgement call based on resource (staff and best use of their time). It’s also a decision that brings it into line with other major galleries, such as the Tate (or, as I would put it, the National’s competitors).

The Premier League has made a decision based on its existing revenue model, relationships with its big spenders and the very human reaction to losing one’s grip on something, which is to grip tighter.

Both stories demonstrate how the ways in which people engage with an experience – a priceless art work, or a vital goal in injury time – have expanded.

The old master selfie and the six second loop of video uploaded to the Vine sharing platform are natural extensions of the National Gallery shop postcard, or the commiserative post-defeat pint.

Where next?

The BIG question is how do, or should, you monetise? On the face of it what you have is more opportunities to make less money.

Somebody recently gave me a copy of The Curve by Nicolas Lovell, a fantastic book that looks to make sense of the rapidly expanding opportunities to publish (and share) things digitally; audiences reluctance to pay anything for them and the need for those who own and control content to make money from it.

Much of his argument focuses on the need to harness the digital content landscape, not as an opportunity to make money (in the first instance) but to build relationships. Not the tweety, creaky relationships that evaporate in an instant but a bridge of two-way dialogue, trust, mutual respect and reward between the creator/curator and audience.

It is from the more robust platform that the process of identifying both what might be paid for at what price and who within this broader audience might pay what for it begins. I know, it’s a complicated sentence. Let’s put it into a bell curve.
  1. Get to know and engage with your audience really, really well.
  2. Look at what you have to sell digitally and how you might find exclusive elements within it worth paying top dollar for.
  3. Find the segments within your broad audience that will pay these top dollars.

It is both very simple and extremely difficult but Lovell has some impressive case studies.

And let’s take a leaf out of Rembrandt’s book. He may not have had a Vine account but he knew a thing or two about building relationships with patrons, which he did extremely successfully in the early part of his career (bar the odd cock up). He also used apprentices to produce lower priced copies and etchings.

What seems to be missing from both the National Gallery and the Premier League approach is serious (plus thoughtful and fresh) consideration of the mass market audience. (Well, you could argue that staff no longer telling gallery visitors to put their phones away removes a small source of irritation from the visitor experience perspective, but I don’t believe that was a major driver).

What it really smacks of is a desperate desire to keep the current model running smoothly. I think Rembrandt would be disappointed.

Will the new legal guidelines for social media make things better? It’s up to you…

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has issued new guidelines setting out the approach courts and police forces should take in cases involving social media. The new rules are described as ‘interim’ and will be accompanied by a three month public consultation period.

My worry is that while a lot of consulting may go on the rules won’t get stress tested – or stress tested enough – through prosecutions in that time. Lots of talk. Very little test driving. Personally, I wouldn’t buy a car built this way.

But if that’s the way it’s got to be it behooves all of us to get out there and kick the tyres on this one.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, is drawing a distinction between two types of ‘communication’:

  1. Credible threats of violence, targeted campaigns of harassment against individuals, or which breach court orders.
  2. Other communications which are ‘grossly offensive’.

Quoted in the CPS blog he states: “The first group will be prosecuted robustly whereas the second group will only be prosecuted if they cross a high threshold”.

Even then, this second group may escape the courts if the offensive communication is taken down swiftly, or blocked. That sounds fine in principle but it’s the nature of such remarks to go viral at hyper-speed, given the sharing tools that accompany social media. If I retract something swiftly but it has already been widely disseminated by others, how does that work? The Saville/McAlpine case speak to this very clearly.

What will ‘grossly offensive’ actually mean?

The emphasis seems to be on the protection of the individual. Again the question is how prosecutors might weight ‘grossly offensive’ and whether the cult of celebrity might have undue influence.

A schoolgirl trolled by a handful of individuals may be more deeply hurt than a top footballer who finds allegations of sexual indiscretion bandied about the Twitter streams of millions.

Celebrities, or other high ranking, high net worth individuals, also have more ways of protecting themselves and can, for example, fund redress through the civil courts.

The individual versus the organisation

The guidelines are not designed to prevent freedom of expression but even that opens up a can of worms.

Is the harassment of an individual somehow more heinous than the harassment of an organisation?

Can I say something offensive about a hamburger chain but not lay the same claim against an individual employee?

And would the level of offense be viewed differently if the employee was a humble burger flipper as opposed to a senior executive?

This is the kind of stuff that keeps me awake at nights. It’s the guidelines around ‘grossly offensive’ which are liable to require the most decoding. The police and the courts would need to be satisfied that the communication in question was more than:

  • offensive
  • shocking
  • disturbing
  • satirical
  • iconoclastic (this one alone is a veritable minefield)
  • rude
  • an expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion
  • banter or humour, ‘even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it’.

Starting today

The interim guidelines don’t change the law but do, in effect, lay a pre-formed interpretation upon it. I don’t doubt the smarts of the people who came up with this but I do worry that their direct experience of social media might be… limited.

The approach they set out takes effect from today, so let’s take a real interest in what happens and bring our own understanding of social media into play when it comes to what the final guidelines might look like.

If I have a concern about the consultation process itself it’s that there seems to be a desire to focus responses on the specific framing of the interim guidelines rather than encouraging broader observations on the challenges involved in ‘policing’ social media and our protection both from it and as part of it.

By that I mean looking at what’s required to both protect our rights to speak up as well as protect our rights not to be shouted down or maligned.

There’s a kind of catch all ‘further comments’ question at the end on the consultation document, but that’s as far as it goes.

But for goodness sake get involved – whether you’re an individual or an organisation.

We need our own Doomsday Clock

The Doomsday Clock is maintained by scientists as a visual representation of how close we’re come to nuclear Armageddon. It currently stands at five minutes to midnight and it swings a minute or two in either direction depending on what’s happening in the world.

Scientists pushed it one minute closer to midnight on January 10, 2012, reflecting their decreasing confidence in global leaders to get on with each other. It was last pushed away from midnight back in 2007. It’s worth reviewing the clock timeline where you have a few minutes. The impact is… sobering. Doomsday Clock Timeline

I’ve come to the conclusion that those involved in content and its delivery need their own Doomsday Clock.

It needs to be broader than just a Digital Doomsday timepiece and if I call it the Information Doomsday Clock, people will just tell me to take more water with it.

Maybe I should start by describing what my Doomsday vision (nightmare) looks like. See if it’s sobering enough for you…

It’s a few years in the future

Digital content has been locked down due to the impact of increasingly onerous legislation that runs to hundreds of pages and has titles such as the Universal Information Storage & Transmission Protection & Security Act.

The prices of newspapers, magazines, books, pay per view (including on demand television), online news and resources have increased substantially.

This is because prices contain a corporate and public libel defamation insurance premium component designed to cover both the publisher and the consumer. (But as this has never been tested in the courts nobody’s sure if it will work or not.) This premium is referred to in the popular media as ‘the McAlpine tax’. Free to view and free to publish are almost unheard of for this reason. 70% of bloggers have ceased to blog.

As part of any job application process you have to list any online media you subscribe to including personal Twitter and Facebook feeds.

You have to sign a liability clause in your contract of employment indemnifying your employer against claims made against you as ‘publisher in person’ the new technical definition of anybody who uses media of any form to disseminate information of any type to known or unknown audiences, either directly or indirectly, personally or professionally, through intent or omission, with or without malice... The actual clause is much, much longer, obviously.

Accessing social media at work, or referring to employers or colleagues in posts, results in verbal and then written warnings being issued and can quickly lead to dismissal.

Most companies have ceased to use social media in a business context. Instead, nearly all marketing is handled via formal announcements published on LinkedIn Lite.

The storage capacity of computers and other hand-held devices is also limited by law and they have to be licensed.

When children are born they’re given a pre-set terabytage of cloud storage and a unique identification number which they keep all their lives.

The security encryption on cloud storage is significant but designated government authorities have the right to go in and review what you hold under the Virtual Criminal Activity & Anti Social Intent Pre-Offence Initiative Regulations.

I could go on but I’m feeling depressed now.

This is a joke, right?

The definition of a joke is something said or done to evoke laughter or amusement. Me? I’m just adjusting the hands on my new clock. It’s currently set at 3 minutes to midnight.

When scientists move the hands on the Doomsday Clock they’re hoping to scare the powers that be into getting to grips with the state of the world and make some changes. If the world explodes it won’t actually be because of a nuclear bomb but because President this and Prime Minister that failed to get round a table and sign up to some workable solutions.

I feel the same way about content (words, images, audio, print…). Forces are marshalling and what we don’t control, risk rate and mitigate these forces will prohibit or bind tightly in red tape.

What’s getting to me currently is that we’re addressing things in silos. Online over there. Offline over here. Governance in this jar. Content creation in that one. Financial compliance governed by this logic. Content compliance by that. In the meantime someone in IT is turning off your firewall so they can work on problems from their home computer (this one actually happened).

It’s not all bad. Yesterday I had a chance to peek inside one major news organisation and was blown away (possibly a bad choice of words, but you know what I mean), by how cutting edge their content governance is.

So here’s the thing. Let’s all start working on organisationally cohesive strategies that take in everything, including the user as publisher. For that I’ll take a good 10 minutes of the clock.