If you ask writer Matthew Stibbe how to effectively manage your writing team, he would likely suggest an infinite pizza budget and plenty of space for them to wander and mutter to themselves. You really need more than a cabinet full of teas and comfortable chairs to support a content marketing team composed of internal and external contributors.
The typical content marketing team is anchored by strategists, who act as the masterminds of the operation, and a managing editor, who is the keeper of the editorial calendar and the superconductor of your publishing machine. At the heart of your team are your content creators. For most brands, these content creators are a mix of in-house writers – the folks deeply ingrained in your brand messaging – and external writers – the influencers and subject matter experts who broaden your content reach and credibility.
While your entire team might contribute to the content funnel, your writers are the primary producers. As Stibbe points out, writers want real deadlines and good feedback. They crave creative freedom balanced with structure and guidance.
How do you manage these mission-critical team members while giving them the structure, freedom, and feedback they require to produce quality content? And maybe more importantly, how do you keep your sanity when managing a team that lives outside of your realm?
Arm yourself with these three key elements.
1. Contributor guidelines
Provide clear direction to your content contributors. Yes, each campaign or writing assignment will require its own set of instructions. However, you still want to develop a defined set of writing guidelines that helps with overall consistency, cuts down on revision time, and standardizes quality. Create and distribute writing guidelines to your entire team of both internal and external writers.
Include the following items as appropriate to your scope of work:
- Content objectives: Describe the mission of your blog or content campaign. Is it to instruct? Inspire? Entertain? Be specific, even if it’s a mix.
- Audience description: Create a picture of who your ideal content consumers are. What is their professional status? Are they potential customers? Brand loyalists? Industry peers? If appropriate, create buyer personas to more thoroughly identify the audience.
- Voice and tone preferences: Describe the voice of your content in alignment with your objectives and audience. Be careful though not to define the tone so tightly that contributors don’t have room for creative freedom (unless you really just want flat, boring content). Rocket Media offers advice on distinguishing between the two.
- Style and formatting preferences: Define expectations about the use of subheadings, bulleted lists, HTML specifications, word count, and sentence and paragraph length.
- Image and multimedia requirements: If contributors are expected to include images or rich media in the content, define what that looks like – screenshots, stock photo suggestions, etc.
- Preferred topics and types: If writers will be pitching ideas, give them a general list of topics that you cover. Describe the types of posts you accept (how to’s, long lists, etc.) and link to examples if possible. CMI Blog Guidelines illustrate this well.
- Sources and link requirements: Include a list of standard sources and sites you use as resources. Any sites that are off limits?
- Writer bio information: Include specs for word count, head shots, and links to social media accounts.
- Editorial process: Give writers clear instructions on how to submit their finished drafts and how you handle revisions. Shareholic.com does a great job of describing its process.
- Republishing and rights: Be up-front about whether contributors can repost their content and if so, how they should attribute it.
2. Communication channel
It’s easy to be satisfied with an email relationship with your external writers. But resist the urge to leave it at that. You develop a different rapport with people via phone and video calls. At project kickoff, schedule a phone or video call to collaborate with your content creators. Use this time to reiterate the guidelines, set expectations, and open the lines of communication among team members.
Where do you start? One of the easiest and free channels, Google Hangout enables you to schedule a video conference call for up to 10 devices. If you have people in more than 10 locations, you could use Google’s Hangout on Air, which streams live and records your call via your YouTube channel. But, remember, the point is to connect verbally with each member of your team. Consider setting up multiple calls or individual calls with each writer if the team is too large to connect effectively in a single call.
UberConference is another free basic option. Use your phone or computer for this conference call service, which allows you to add social profiles, display locations, and chat. Bonus: Forget the elevator on-hold music. Uber keeps you cool with a funky custom tune. For ongoing conversations, consider a free tool like Yammer, which enables you to set up a private social network so your team can have conversations and collaborate on the fly.
You’ll find a ton of other communications options, but no matter which you choose, use it to keep the conversations going. If you find that your first meeting is productive, schedule more around major deadlines. Test different platforms to see what works best for your team. Set boundaries but keep other lines of communication open whether it’s via email or chat.
3. Version and collaboration control
You know that moment when you’re finally ready to edit a piece of content and troll through your emails only to realize you have no idea which version of a draft is the most current? I call it version vertigo. And it’s not fun. That’s when you need a document management solution.
The most economical (free) solution is Google Docs. The revisions feature is among the most impressive features of this ever-evolving service. From the file menu of any Google Doc, use the “see revision history” for a record of every change by any person who has revised the document. You always know the last saved version is the most current, but if you need to restore the previous version, Google Docs made it ridiculously easy.
Other pay services focused on document-management solutions are also available to keep your content organized and findable. If you’re rocking it old school with Microsoft Office products, be sure to establish a file naming system to help alleviate version vertigo. Or, consider an all-in-one collaboration workflow tool.
Collaboration fortifies your team and elevates the quality of your content. The challenge is powering collaboration in a way that keeps your team organized and productive. Find a collaboration tool that sets up your contributors for success and scales to your organization.
Remember that most writers are by nature, creative people. They want to take pride in their work and deliver on expectations. Empower them to do so by arming them with clear direction and tools that help them get the job done (and by feeding them pizza).
Looking for more advice on how to organize your content marketing team for optimal collaboration and productivity? Read CMI’s eBook:Building the Perfect Content Marketing Mix: Internal Processes and Content Marketing Strategy Tactics.
Cover image by CDC/Dawn Arlotta acquired from Public Health Image Library via FreeStockPhotos.biz