By Marcia Riefer Johnston published November 12, 2015

The Basics of Digital Governance: What Content Marketers Need to Know


Do you ever feel confused about which members of your digital content team should make what decisions and when? Do you even know who all the team members are and what they do?

Do you sometimes smell ROT (information that’s redundant, outdated, or trivial) and wish that your organization had a better process for maintaining its old content so that customers were more likely to discover only content that’s relevant, up-to-date, and useful?

If so, you’re yearning for digital governance. You’re yearning for the things that Lisa Welchman talked about at the Intelligent Content Conference (and that are summarized in this post). And if the popularity of her session is any indicator, you’re not alone in your yearnings.

You can learn even more by downloading CMI’s e-book, Digital Governance: A Primer for Content Marketers.

What exactly is digital governance?

As Lisa defines it, digital governance is “a discipline that focuses on establishing clear accountability for digital strategy, policy, and standards.” In other words, digital governance gives organizations a way to manage content-related decisions that does not involve the seat of anyone’s pants.

Most digital governance challenges come from not knowing who’s supposed to decide things. We’re not talking about micromanaging. We’re talking about supporting people in doing their jobs. For example, if you need to pick a color palette, “it’s not a community decision,” Lisa says. “It’s a conversation, and then you say, ‘That team over there gets to decide.’ Because that scales.”

Does governance stifle creativity?

No. Governance enables innovation and creativity.

A small digital team, like a jazz ensemble, can get away with making things up as it goes along. A large team, on the other hand, needs to operate like a symphony orchestra, as Lisa explained to me after her talk. Improvising doesn’t scale. A large team needs to follow standards just as an orchestra needs to follow sheet music. Unfortunately, most large teams don’t mature into the orchestra model.

Standards help a large group function by “providing the structure needed for people to prepare and deliver content on a large scale while still allowing for creativity and a beautiful outcome.”

Does every project need a governance plan?

No. You don’t need governance for every content effort. For example, when you launch a new channel or do something experimental, governance would just get in the way. Lisa calls this early phase after launch “organic growth.” During this phase, you try things and figure out what works.

You need digital governance only after you start to figure out what’s working. At that point, you should think, “OK, how are we going to put some standards and mechanisms in place to scale this effort?” Along with that, you should think about what content is worth keeping and what should be thrown away.

Most organizations don’t do that. Their content falls into chaos, as represented by the blue dots in and around this arrow.


Lisa Welchman, author of Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design, addresses the middle part of this arrow – moving from content chaos to basic management. “I want to show you how to get yourself out of trouble, to get your feet on the ground, and do some things intentionally – governance by design – instead of firefighting all the time.”

How do we get started with digital governance?

To get started, create a digital governance framework by following these steps:

  1. Organize the digital content team.
  2. Identify the strategists.
  3. Identify the policymakers.
  4. Establish workable standards.
  1. Organize the digital content team

Find out who’s on your digital content team and organize them. The team may be broader and more dispersed than you expect, maybe even “sprayed all over the organization.”

The team – the full set of resources required to keep your digital presence functioning for your organization – comprises these sub-groups:

  • Core team
  • Distributed team
  • Working groups and committees
  • Extended team

“You have to get a handle on the whole team,” Lisa says, “and it takes some effort.”

  1. Identify the strategists

After you’ve got a handle on your team, you need to identify the leaders in the realm of strategy. You need two kinds of strategists: Those who can establish vision and those with the digital savvy to enable that vision.

Many organizations have a problem in that the people with digital savvy are, as Lisa says, “much more junior than the executives, so there’s this big gap. Even when there’s a chief digital officer, often that person is not as senior. That will change.”

  1. Identify the policymakers

To develop adequate policies, you need two types of people:

  • Policy steward (the person who makes sure that the necessary policies are in place)
  • Policy authors (the people who write those policies)

Policy is about managing risk. People usually attend to policy only as much as they have to. If you look at the footer on a website, you’ll see policy-related terms like privacy, terms of use, and security. The larger the organization, the more numerous and complex its policies are.

Often, organizations have privacy and security policies that their IT groups have created. In general, though, Lisa says, many organizations are “very immature on policy.”

  1. Establish workable standards

Lots of people care about – and argue about – this final step in creating the framework. This step is where you determine the nature of your organization’s digital presence. This is where you answer questions like: Who determines the nature of your digital portfolio? Who decides what stuff we make and what it looks like? What’s the tone?

Standards fall into four camps:

  • Design
  • Editorial
  • Network and infrastructure
  • Publishing and development

When you define a standard, you have to think about implementation. If a standard would be hard to implement, scrap it and come up with a basic, workable guideline. When you create workable standards, and when the digital content team understands who’s in charge of which things, no one has to enforce the standards after the fact, saying, essentially, “That doesn’t work – take it down.” Compliance is naturally high.


After you’ve put a digital governance framework in place, ideally everyone on the content team embraces your organization’s digital content standards the way orchestra members embrace their sheet music. In that standards-compliant environment, team members know who’s supposed to do what when. Together, they make beautiful music – and give audiences the kind of experience they came for.

What governance issues do you struggle with? What processes work well for your team? Let us know in the comments.

To learn even more, download this e-book: Digital Governance: A Primer for Content Marketers.


Want to learn more about digital governance and other content strategy topics in person? Register for the Intelligent Content Conference: Content Strategy for Marketers. Lisa Welchman is also offering a workshop specific to digital governance.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Marcia Riefer Johnston

Marcia Riefer Johnston is the author of Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them) and You Can Say That Again: 750 Redundant Phrases to Think Twice About. As a member of the CMI team, she serves as Managing Editor of Content Strategy. She has run a technical-writing business for … a long time. She taught technical writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University and studied literature and creative writing in the Syracuse University Masters program under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @MarciaRJohnston. For more, see Writing.Rocks.

Other posts by Marcia Riefer Johnston

Join Over 150,000 of your Peers!

Get daily articles and news delivered to your email inbox and get CMI’s exclusive e-book Launch Your Own Content Marketing Program FREE!

  • Shiny Johnson

    Nice blog!!! Marcia. In this digital world content marketing plays a vital role in a business. This blog is very useful for me as a content marketer of a B2B platform that involves different businesses.

    Bizbilla – Global B2B portal

    • Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Thanks for your note, Shiny. I’m glad that you found this post useful.