By Robert Mills published July 21, 2016

How to Define a Workflow That Keeps Content Production On Track

Content-Production-Workflow

Is your content often delivered late? Do you have trouble getting it signed off? Does it typically get stuck in limbo?

If you’re nodding your head, your content team probably hasn’t defined its workflow. Every content team that wants to keep its projects on track needs to define its workflow before any content creators’ pens touch paper or fingers hit keyboards.

What is a content workflow?

A content workflow is a set of tasks that a team needs to complete for a given client or content type — a web page, a blog post, a white paper, an email, or any other kind of content that the group needs to deliver. In her book, Content Strategy for the Web, Kristina Halvorson says that a content workflow determines “how content is requested, sourced, created, reviewed, approved, and delivered.”

Even if you haven’t defined your workflows, your team has them. Every team does: Certain people do certain things at certain times over and over. A workflow may be simple or complex. A team may have separate workflows for certain clients or types of projects.

A typical content workflow includes tasks like these:

  • Outline
  • Write
  • Review
  • Edit
  • Approve
  • Publish

When documented, a workflow often takes a visual form showing the progression of tasks. This example, which shows each role in a “swimlane,” conveys the progression of tasks across roles (vertically) and over time (horizontally).

Marcia_SwimlaneDiagram-01

Why define your content workflow?

If you leave your workflows undefined, it’s difficult to keep track of a large number of projects, and projects can get stuck. People on the content team may be unsure of their responsibilities or unaware of the amount of effort required to complete the content.

Here’s what defining a content workflow enables your team to do:

  • Break down the content process into manageable tasks.
  • Identify each piece of content’s stage of development.
  • Identify each step for the content to receive approval.
  • Know who is responsible for each step and when.

A defined content workflow tells people in all roles where the content is in the process when their turn comes, and it clarifies what they must do to deliver what’s needed when it’s needed.

The workflow also helps the project manager recognize bottlenecks so that he or she can take measures to keep content moving toward production.

How to define a content workflow

To define a content workflow is to identify who does what when. You can do this in any way that your team finds helpful. Use the terms that your team uses.

When defining workflow, use terms your team uses, says @RobertMills. #contentstrategy Click To Tweet

Let’s look at each part — who, what, and when — separately.

Identify who is involved (the roles)

Your content projects probably involve a lot of people who have distinct responsibilities at distinct project stages. The first step in defining a content workflow is to understand who will be involved. The number of roles and what they’re called vary greatly. Examples:

Identify what each role does (the tasks)

After you have identified the roles for a given workflow, identify the tasks (“create a draft” or “approve a draft,” for example), assign each task to a role, and put the tasks in order of completion.

Then define each task in as much detail as needed to minimize time spent on avoidable edits, queries, and general confusion. For example, when defining the task “approve a draft,” you might spell out exactly which aspects of the content need approval. Spelling and grammar? Accuracy? Readability? Voice and tone? Compliance with certain policies or legal requirements?

For any tasks that need more details than will fit in the workflow itself, point people to those details. For example, you might tell writers where to find the content’s purpose, audience, word-count goals, style guidelines (for voice, tone, and format, etc.), and anything else they need to know.

Define each task thoroughly enough that people in each role know what they need to do to complete their tasks satisfactorily and keep the project moving. If the task definitions are left vague, prepare to hear things like “I didn’t know I had to do that” or “That’s not my job” or “I thought Peter was taking care of that.”

After everyone included in the workflow has been allocated their responsibilities, you have reached the place where you can define the phases that the content will pass through.

Identify when the tasks get done (the flow)

“ASAP” isn’t a deadline. “Yesterday” isn’t a helpful response.

As in any process, the stages of content production follow a logical, repeatable order. Those stages need clear milestones and dependencies so that the whole team can see the interrelated deadlines.

With a workflow for content production on a website project, of course you start with a brief and move through production and review and then to publish. The narrative is linear and makes sense. But it isn’t always that straightforward.

Introduce several feedback loops (marketing, HR, legal) and you’ve added several layers of complexity to the workflow. But now you know who is doing what, when they need to do it is the next requirement.

This varies greatly on the scope of the project and how many people are involved. But several considerations are relevant to all projects.

First, let people know when in the workflow they are featured. You may show this visually, get everyone into a room and talk through the workflow, or use a tool to manage this. Find what works for you but make sure this information is disseminated effectively.

Pushing content through the workflow requires a shared understanding to keep things on track. For example, if you know a certain subject-matter expert is away every Thursday, don’t set the sign-off date for a Thursday as that will thwart success and set things up to be late from the beginning.

This is where the understanding of people’s day jobs and related schedules can inform the assignment of work and tasks across the workflow.

You also need to be realistic about when things can be done. Allocate a realistic amount of time to each stage.

Using a simple 750-word page as the example, let’s say the average time it takes to get from brief to publication is 12 hours. Scale that up to a website with dozens or hundreds of pages, and it becomes evident how time-consuming content is.

This is why a clear workflow can help teams keep projects on track. There is no room for excuses such as “I didn’t know it was my responsibility” or “That’s not my job” — things I’ve heard many times when working with clients. With a defined workflow, everyone who helps plan, create, and publish the content knows the process and how their individual tasks fit into it.

Assign someone to oversee each content project

Let’s say you’ve defined your content workflow. You’ve covered who, what, and when. This effort alone doesn’t protect you from pitfalls. The process doesn’t run itself. There will still be bottlenecks and there will still be some buck passing.

That’s why you need a sole person who is responsible for overseeing the project, including keeping each piece of content moving through each stage of the workflow.

This person may be a project manager, a content strategist, or a marketer. As this person will understand the workflow in terms of who is doing what and when, he or she can easily identify the bottlenecks, unblock the projects, and keep them moving.

Perhaps a lot of content is with John from the legal department to approve. He hasn’t done it and the content can’t be passed onto the next stage of the workflow, which is proofreading by the editor. Knowing that John is a bottleneck means you can address the reasons why (no time, other priorities) and help unblock him.

It’s not a blame game buy rather a way to identify issues that need to be addressed to keep the content (and project) moving.

As with any content documents, such as content inventories and style guides, the workflow should be a living document.

Explore ways to use software tools

You don’t have to use software tools to define content workflows — you could use a crayon on the back of a manila folder — but a drawing application, like Visio or other graphics programs, can come in handy. Here’s an example done in Skitch:

workflow roles with hair

Marcia Riefer Johnston tells the story of how this workflow came to be:

I was part of a team that was having a devil of a time getting clear about the QA part of our workflow. Everyone was confused. I finally drew these stick figures and sent this drawing out to everyone. Someone else added the wigs. Whoever said workflows can’t be fun?

Whoever said workflows can’t be fun? says @MarciaRJohnston. #contentstrategy Click To Tweet

Online collaboration tools, like Trello, can help teams track their workflows, possibly using a built-in calendar to give a graphical view of the editorial calendar.

Some teams use spreadsheets. Others use project-management software, which enables them to plug in start dates, task durations, and dependencies so that date changes ripple through automatically.

Some tools enable teams to see at a glance what phase of the workflow a piece of content is in. For example, in GatherContent, each phase of the workflow may be assigned a color for a visual overview.

Some content management systems enable teams to build the workflow into the system itself so that the responsible party gets notified when it’s his or her turn to take action.

Tools for defining and communicating about your workflows can be basic or sophisticated. Experiment to see which tools best support your team.

Conclusion

Want to put content workflows to work for you? First define workflows for each content type or client:

  • Identify who is involved (the roles).
  • Identify what each role does (the tasks).
  • Identify when the tasks get done (the flow).

Then, assign someone to oversee each content project, tracking the progress through the workflow. Finally, explore ways to use software tools to communicate about the workflows and possibly even integrate the workflows into your systems.

What experiences have you had with defining content workflows? What has worked well for you, and what hasn’t?

Want more on developing strategies for your content? Sign up for our Content Strategy for Marketers weekly email newsletter, which features exclusive insights from CMI Chief Strategy Officer Robert Rose. If you’re like many other marketers we meet, you’ll come to look forward to his thoughts every Saturday.

Please note: All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team. No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).

Cover image by Negative Space, unsplash, via pixabay.com

Author: Robert Mills

Robert Mills is Content Strategist for GatherContent – the pre-CMS content collaboration platform. He is also editor-in-chief of the GatherContent blog, a go-to resource on a range of content strategy topics. Rob is a journalism graduate, ex-BBC audience researcher, and former Head of Content and project manager at a branding and design agency. He also collects typewriters!

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  • http://adventurist.life Brian Driggs

    Huge value in this one, even for those of us on smaller teams without the ability to be so granular. At it’s most basic, this is a reminder to take a step back, look at the pipeline, patch leaks and remove blockages to keep things flowing smoothly.

    We use Google Drive and Trello to keep things sorted at our recently launched magazine. There’s only three of us running the show at this point, so we’re all wearing multiple hats. It’s working, if not flawlessly.

    I run the digital & outreach side of the house, my co-founding partner handles print & platform, and our editorial coordinator keeps us sorted and on-track. She’s great.

    My workflow (read: Trello board) is based roughly on agile/scrum methods. Everything starts on the backlog list as a unique card. Active content development takes place Google Drive, attached to unique Trello lists for inbound and internal WIP so I can track both what I’m waiting on, externally, and working on, personally.

    Once I have clean copy & images, if the piece looks like a contender for print, I throw it over the fence to print and tag my editorial coordinator for “first dibs.” She and my partner chew on it a bit, then either keep it for an upcoming issue or toss it back for digital.

    After the print/digital question has been answered, I pull things into my weekly build “sprint” list. This is usually less than half a dozen pieces at a time. (I’m working on my burn rate, but yet to bring points into the mix.) These get built one-at-a-time in WordPress and, once they’re scheduled, move to my scheduled/share list for scheduling on Instagram, which syndicates out to the usual locales.

    This might all sound complicated, but it’s really just a row of five buckets. Each bucket has a very limited focus and each is smaller than the one to the left of it. A big list of ideas, two shorter lists of active WIP, THE short list being built and scheduled, and a wrap up for social before it goes into the archives. I want to have a bigger team before I try making things any more granular.

    It’s taken me about a year to get things dialed to this point. Hope it helps someone else out there. 🙂

    • http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Michele Linn

      Really appreciate your detailed processes, Brian. I love hearing how others manage all their content.

      • http://adventurist.life Brian Driggs

        Thanks, Michele.

        I appreciate being inspired to participate in the conversation again. It’s been a while…