By Marcus Varner published November 28, 2016

4 Ways to Use Data to Better Understand Your Content Production Process

data-content-production-process

“When can you get started on that blog post?”

“When will you have that e-book done?”

If you’re like many content creators, these questions can bring on an outbreak of cold sweat, an uneasy feeling in your gut, or even a full-blown panic attack. But why?

It’s not like you’re a newbie to the production process. And you already understand the value of tracking, measuring, and making decisions based on data. But for some reason, you haven’t connected the two to become more disciplined and deliberate in your content production.

Todd Patton, content marketing manager at Branch Metrics in Palo Alto, admits:

As content creators, we are very results-focused. I’d much rather go to my boss and report that we acquired 100 MQLs from a certain e-book than how long it took me to put that e-book together.”

Unfortunately, your tendency to avoid your content creation data leaves you unable to forecast how long work will take and when it will be delivered, and unable to accurately measure the cost and value of the content you produce.

“We should all probably spend more time focusing on the time-investment-to-results aspect of content creation,” Todd says. “If it takes me three weeks to put together a 10,000-word blog, and it only gets a handful of views, there is probably something wrong.”

Spend more time focusing on the time-investment-to-results aspect of #content creation says @ToddPatton. Click To Tweet

While content marketers have taken huge strides in measuring the efficacy of their content, they haven’t invested enough in measuring the time and resources it takes to produce that content. That lack of data leaves content marketers helpless in justifying new resources, proving the ROI of their time, and pushing back against unrealistic requests.

Fortunately, you can know what your content really requires by making these four key changes.

1. Stop ‘guesstimating’

You say you don’t need no stinking metrics to tell how long work takes. After all, you spend hours a day, five days a week, neck deep in the world of content production. Who else is more qualified to estimate how long an e-book, blog post, or sales email will take or how many resources it will consume?

Except that you — yes, even you, the seasoned content marketing professional — are bound to underestimate your numbers. We all do it, often subconsciously and sometimes deliberately, to make ourselves look better. Sometimes we underestimate our time because we don’t fully understand or consider every step of our workflow.

Megan Maybee, a content marketing strategist at Salt Lake City-based ThomasARTS, recalls:

When I worked in-house and had limited resources, it always surprised me how long a project would take. Something simple like creating a social contest had so many elements from design and writing, to compliance and legal review. There were a couple times I didn’t give myself enough time and then it was a huge scramble.

How do you avoid costly guesstimating errors? It starts with knowing your workflow, every little step involved in executing each type of content. You may need to go to each person involved in the production process and ask questions to understand every corner of a project.

Avoid costly guesstimating errors by knowing your workflow in executing each type of #content. @MarcusWorkfront Click To Tweet

As Brett Harned, writer at TeamGantt, explains:

Remember: it’s better to admit what you don’t know and ask questions. Doing so gives you an opportunity to connect with your team on an individual level, and it will help you to understand the inner workings of your projects. After all, figuring out the steps one person takes to create a deliverable will work wonders in helping you calculate a true estimate.

This change could include documenting and accounting for every brainstorm, every outline, every draft, every proofreading session, every round of review and approval, and every step required before hitting “publish.” It’s about getting granular about what it takes to create every asset whether you’re a team of one or 24.

2. Track your time

This isn’t a new idea, but it’s one you likely aren’t doing unless you work for an agency that thrives on billable hours. Now that you understand the time involved in content production, track it for even more reliable numbers. If all involved in content production track their time, you can better identify needless hours and wasteful practices. A host of easy-to-use free or low-cost solutions has popped up to help teams track exactly how much time they spend on work.

Inc. contributor Jessica Stillman writes:

“[T]racking your time will be a revelation, exposing just how much time you’re frittering away and offering a chance to re-evaluate and better spend the hours you’re currently wasting.

“But there’s a more direct benefit of tracking your time … When you know what steps are required to produce an e-book, for instance, and you know how long each step takes, you suddenly have reliable data for planning and forecasting your work.

“‘But I can’t base my estimates off of one e-book,’ you might say, and you would be right. Keep tracking how long each step of an e-book takes over multiple projects and over weeks and months and average those numbers together, however, and you end up with data that you can rely on the next time your boss asks when that new e-book is going to be done.”

Drill down your time into actual work steps for a better assessment. For example, if you’re working on an e-book, don’t just label your time as “e-book.” Break it down into the specific components such as idea brainstorming, research, writing, proofing, design, project management/administration, etc. That way you can evaluate not only the total content production time but scrutinize each component of the process.

3. Archive all communication

As you track quantitative data — hours, dates, etc. — more deliberately, don’t ignore the qualitative data that comes in the form of status updates, emails, phone calls, and IMs. It’s jam-packed with priceless information about how your project is going, what might be holding it up, and what’s working well.

Reviewing archived communication about a project enables you to create a recipe for long-term improvement. Quantitative data might tell you the true cost of a project wasn’t worth it, but emails and IMs can tell you why. For example, your qualitative analysis might remind you about the design team’s complaint that it didn’t have enough time for layout. Thus, the next time around, you can proactively budget more time for layout.

If there’s one downside to mining project communications for qualitative data, it’s that project communication comes from all over the place — status updates, emails, phone calls, and IMs. Create a systematic approach to archiving this qualitative data — create project-specific folders or use archival software — so you don’t have to dig through your inbox and scroll through your IMs when it comes time to evaluate a project.

4. Collect and keep your data in one place

There is a long-held principle in the world of project management: the single source of truth. It means that on any given project for the information to be reliable you need your data to come from one source. That might be a tool or one department within your company. Doing this enables you to make apples-to-apples comparisons.

When some data comes from one tool and other data from another, discrepancies mount and drawing any reliable conclusions from that data is virtually impossible. Marketers have a lot of tools and that leaves us with many sources of truth.

Of this problem, Jordan Con at Bizible writes:

When there are multiple — and conflicting — sources of truth for the same marketing data, marketers are unable to trust any of them. When marketers can’t trust their data, they can’t take action with confidence.

When marketers can’t trust their data, they can’t take action w/ confidence by @jordanmcon via @MarcusWorkfront Click To Tweet

While Jordan may be speaking about marketing analytics, the principle is the same for content marketers and their work data. A single tool, or at least fewer tools, from which you draw data will give you more power so you can speak with confidence about what you’re working on, how long it will take, and whether or not you can take on a new project.

Conclusion

You’re probably sensing it already, but it’s worth spelling out: Data is power. When you have irrefutable data on the time and resources required to produce content, you can answer with confidence next time your boss asks for a projection on a new blog post or video. You can push back on unreasonable deadlines without looking like a complainer. And that makes it worth the extra effort to collect and analyze that data about your content production process.

Editor’s note: We appreciate Workfront’s support of the Content Marketing Institute as a paid benefactor. This article was reviewed and edited independently to ensure that it adheres to the same editorial guidelines as all non-sponsored blog posts.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Marcus Varner

Over the last 9 years, Marcus has worked in every type of content—from writing to video production to design—and is currently a Senior Content Marketing Manager at Workfront. His focus is always on breaking through the clutter while engaging audiences with brands' most foundational messaging. He currently oversees all corporate- and awareness-level level content at Workfront. Follow him on Twitter @MarcusWorkfront.

Other posts by Marcus Varner

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  • Phil Sylvester

    I use Toggl to keep track of my time on projects, not because we do billable hours, but because I work for 2 in-house brands, so have to know I’ve given them 50/50 of my time. The unintended result is it’s been useful to see how long it takes to produce a piece. However…. I think we’ve reached “peak metric” with this. When do we stop measuring and actually do things?

    • Marcus Varner

      That’s the inevitable next question. As content producers, we’re always wary of metric creep absorbing our time. And I think the answer is a two-parter. First, as much as possible, we get away from manually going into spreadsheets and we automate the gathering and the analysis of the data. Second, we limit early on which metrics are actually important (as opposed to “mildly interesting”). To be the best content producers we can be, we absolutely need to know how long and what resources a given content type takes to produce. We need to know how long each step in our workflows takes. We need to know how often we’re on time. We don’t need much more than that to report and optimize our workflows.

      • Phil Sylvester

        Should’ve added that we use JIRA as a workflow. The creative and dev’ teams work in 2-week sprints that are planned 2 weeks ahead, so we’re forced by that to know how long a project will take. The results of all the teams’ input is tracked, so we know time spent and ‘velocity’ of work they have done.