6 Analog Content Management Tips for a Digital World

Good content marketing starts with good content management. And that starts with good information architecture. If landing pages never change, if your company never grows, if you never re-use content for other places, you’re probably fine. But if you document processes, advertise products, localize, personalize, or translate your information, your success depends on the foundation.

Just as accounting software makes complex things simple, content management systems can bring order to chaos. For Content Management Systems (CMS), just like accounting software, garbage in means garbage out.

So here are six tips, from the analog world of process and governance, that will make your digital content more flexible, scalable, and accurate. They’ll also make your life a little easier.

  1. Plan for the End
  2. Embrace Change
  3. Govern Accordingly
  4. Process & Procedure > Automated Workflow
  5. Write Once, Publish Everywhere
  6. Know Your Audience

Plan for the End

Different types of content have different shelf-lives. Marketing content, with an end date, can be timed to come down from a website, but About Us copy is meant to be around for a long time. And if you’re like most companies, no one on your team really looks at the copy on a regular basis.

Different types of content require different management strategies, but here are some best practices:

  • Use an editorial calendar, not just for creating content but also for review. Some web pages need daily reviews (announcements, what’s new), some need weekly, some are quarterly or semi-annually, depending on the content. Printed materials (operations manuals) should be reviewed on a quarterly or semi-annual basis.
  • Every page needs an owner. This sounds obvious, but this is a real challenge for large organizations and ones with distributed authorship. 
  • Plan to communication changes in revisions (printed docs), or to remove links to pages whose usefulness has ended. That can be harder than it sounds, so plan it into your communications.

Embrace Change

Almost every organization I’ve been in has a tendency to treat content creation as a snapshot in time, to build pages, write copy, or document processes as if “This is it! It’s perfect! Keep it that way forever!” One look at the creation process will tell you this isn’t true: how many revisions does the average press release go through? How many of you have named a slide deck something like ‘New Business Proposal v24 Final FINAL’?

Ever add two items to a bullet list, only to have it break onto a new page? Ever spend weeks designing a page to display three key attributes, only to learn that one of them isn’t ready to be released the public on the day of launch? Going from 2-up to 3-up, or 5-up to 4-up shouldn’t cause you to lose work. Build for growth, which is also building for contraction. 

  • Use editorial calendars to plan what’s next
  • Also use them to review.
  • Don’t be pixel perfect – advertisements can be perfect, but digital design moves with device type. Don’t get hung up on the exact line-up, build the framework to be correct and match the assets to the framework.
  • ‘Evergreen’ is perfectly acceptable for information that is likely to change often.
    • Avoid specific numbers (‘more than 50′ instead of ’53’)
    • ‘Loosely coupled’ – use roles instead of names (‘sales@manualmakers.com’ instead of ‘tomjones@manualmakers.com’)
    • Stock photos to avoid uncomfortable calls from former employees
    • Avoid dates if you can (blog posts, for example)
    • If you DO have dates – a calendar of events, perhaps – use an editorial calendar, have the owner check the page every Monday

Govern Accordingly

Siloes are a real threat to brand consistency, and also to consistent content. Marketing communications (ads, emails) are often separate from eCommerce functions (web site, partner APIs), and use different creative teams than Social. Throw in an operations team that is more focused on technical writing and has no agency resources and you’ve got a typical, frustrating eco-system of content that needs a goat herder.

Oh, and distributed authors. A main selling point of a CMS is that you can spread out maintenance costs because subject matter experts can write their own blog posts, update their own policies, add their own procedures. Unless they all have the same writing ability (even with a Voice and Tone guide, which you need), cross-linking, duplicate content, search engine ranking conflicts…

  • Centralize ultimate authority, someone to hold page owners accountable.
  • Enforce the editorial review calendar – if a wine tasting from last week is on your current events page, you know who needs retraining.
  • Styleguides and Voice & Tone guides are essential.
  • Train your users, update their training, and support them – everyone wants the speed to market of updating pages themselves, but few enjoy the responsibility of keeping them up to date. Make it easy for them.
  • Some documents have multiple authors. A book collaboration, for example, needs an editor to de-conflict, remove duplication, and reconcile the voice.

On that note…

Process & Procedure > Automated Workflow

Workflows are great, who would ever argue against workflows? The answer is, it’s not that simple. Workflows, the order of processes through which content moves from need to production, are great and necessary and lovely. Automated Workflows are rigid and don’t follow Rule #3 – Embrace Change – very well.

Removing the “automated” part of “automated workflow” is really just called “process”, and it sometimes requires a human being to read the ‘if/then clues’ of a situation. “If the content needs to be reviewed by legal, and this is regulatory compliance content, I send it to Bob for approval. If the content is advertising, I send it to Sally. Customer policy – ADA compliance – goes to Betty, while International privacy rules to to Johann.”

  • Workflows go to roles, but roles change. Use a traffic coordinator. Automate where you can (Trello and Slack have tools for this), but ultimately there’s a person making the decisions.
  • Map out the workflows, getting buy-in and agreement on each of the decision points. Automated workflows tend to simplify these too much. 
  • Who’s responsible? Who’s accountable? Agree to this, across departments if you have to, and stick to it. Nurture the relationships.
  • Document the process, meet regularly on the effectiveness of the process (production meetings are better than documentation for making sure people are aware of expectations).

Write Once, Publish Everywhere

A digital CMS will help tremendously with this, managing snippets, combinations, and styling, but the concept of write once, publish everywhere is inherently analog. Information Architecture was the voodoo secret-sauce of early 21st Century digital agencies. Information Architects (IAs) helped you categorize your content into natural hierarchies, with taxonomy and heuristics, and they charged you a lot (and, frankly, they were worth a lot – the good ones, anyway).

Today, we call those folks Content Strategists, or Content Marketers. It’s just another way to say: someone who helps you make better content more efficiently, in a way that doesn’t duplicate effort or conflict with other content, especially in the same channel.

For franchise operations manuals, this might mean writing a cash management policy one time, then serving it in the ops manual, the Master Training Guide, and the FOH Training Guide. A change to the process should happen in one place, then get pushed to the others.

On a web site, this might be a description of your signature product. The homepage has an advertisement for it, the product page goes into more detail, and 10 other product pages list this product as a Related Item, or “Others also purchased…”

  • The magic of hyper-linking is one solution to this. I often refer to writing a franchise operations manual, but I don’t repeat all of that information here. I link to it. Do this with phone numbers!
  • Create standard language – common disclaimer language (*Taxes and fees may apply. See Terms and conditions for details.), summary text (short product description), or other repeated content – and “pull” it into your document (this is where a CMS comes in handy).
  • Use personalization, or targets, to fill in variable spots based on context. This is common to national advertising teams – known as a doughnut ad – where most of the ad/page/document is the same, but varies by location/language/offer. Again, a CMS helps the delivery of this, but the information architecture is key to making it relevant.

Know Your Audience

Knowing what is important to your audience is the key to any content, whether it’s a web site, training manual, advertisement, or blog post. Without this, there’s no way to measure success. I point this out because the lure of digital marketing, at least at first, was that you could measure anything. “Engagement” became the buzzword, likes and loves and retweets were highly sought after metrics. 

Contrast that with the purpose of marketing: to generate sales leads. Which generate sales. Which are measured in dollars. The goal of a training manual is to train, not to “engage”, but with so many metrics a lot of content producers have lost sight of the their goals, goals which are often much more difficult to measure.

  • If your audience is your own leadership team – the people who control your budget and are easily swayed by whether or not something ‘went viral’ – then your content will have a different objective, and will use different KPIs. If your audience is SEO, the page, or blogpost, will have a different tone, and have different elements than it would if the objective was to sell.
  • Digital systems can help you measure nearly everything, from visits to time spent on page, from open rates to clickthrough rates, but what they can’t tell you is whether or not you were even pointed in the right direction to begin with.

The effectiveness of any document – digital or analog – is determined before you ever put pen to paper, fingers to keys. Your ‘digital’ is a reflection of your ‘analog’. Make sure the latter is solid and the former will have a shot at doing what you want it to do.

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