By Rusty Weston published July 31, 2019

How to Survive Content by Committee

Editor’s note: This article debuted in the July issue of the now digital only Chief Content Officer magazine.

The tech company asked the agency for a “simple but impactful” presentation about cloud-based digital transformation for an important product launch. The first pass received thumbs-up from the client lead.

But then it went out to the client’s other reviewers and stakeholders. The first said “not impactful enough.” The second insisted on more tech jargon. The third had various nits to pick about the target customer. By the time eight commenters had chimed in, the number of slides had doubled, and nobody could quite remember what they had been trying to say in the first place. The presentation was weeks in development but still lacked coherence – and executive approval – only hours before its deadline.

No one liked it. No one could agree on how to fix the mess.

And it all could have been avoided.

I know from firsthand experience that group collaboration has major drawbacks when it comes to the craft of editing. Soliciting opinions from a wide range of non-editorial people not only fails to produce engaging content – it’s also counterproductive and expensive.

Getting #content feedback from a range of non-editorial people can be counterproductive, says @rustyweston. Click To Tweet

In the corporate world, content is a team sport involving more role players than you’d ever think practical. And with that size you get compromise. In the agency world, successful content requires a great brief and then, behind the scenes, frictionless relationships among the account team, strategists, the editor, and writers.

In either world, stakeholder curation – engaging with the fewest number of subject matter experts, managers, or other approvers – is a difference maker.

Think of your last mission statement exercise: Everyone weighs in and you wind up with an incoherent mess. The same applies to long-form content, where well-intentioned contributors shovel ideas into slides and storytelling is nonexistent.

No one wants to ignore a comment made by someone senior to them on the org chart. Yet that’s exactly what you need to do.

Organizations need to place content experts in charge of reviewing or approving stakeholder feedback. Here’s why.

Going off the rails

In large organizations, content is like a continual series of trains. Each must leave the crowded station on time to make room for the next one or the network quickly grinds to a halt.

Every workday, myriad teams of creatives produce countless numbers of short- and long-form articles, videos, infographics, and social media assets, which are published or shared on owned, earned, or social channels. But content specialists aren’t the only ones who touch these projects – and they rarely own the budget or have final approval.

Often, the content creation and review process is so complicated that flow charts or project management apps may be necessary to track it. A typical process looks like this:

  1. A digital agency, an internal copywriter, or communications team writes a draft.
  2. A marketing, operations, or communications team member circulates it.
  3. One (or more) subject matter expert reviews it.
  4. The piece goes back to the originator for revisions.
  5. The next draft goes on to legal/compliance.
  6. A business unit reviews it and sends it on to the web team administering a company-run channel.

Meanwhile, the agency has to address each round of client feedback until the number of revisions exceeds the agreed-upon scope, triggering cost overruns and stressful relationships.

This ad hoc process is likely to produce a neutered piece of content larded up with technical jargon, disparate styles, cautious pronouncements, and mixed metaphors.

Ad hoc process produces neutered #content, says @rustyweston. Click To Tweet

Unsurprisingly, the content may fail to perform. You can see why many pieces of content fail to meet scheduled departure times. Call it death by track changes.

Content review paralysis is nothing if not expensive. There’s the cost of extensive rewrites, followed by a failure to meet market deadlines. Take, for example, what happened when a multibillion-dollar software company commissioned an expensive white paper based upon an extensive study. In the months it took to win everyone’s buy-in, the study fell out of date and the piece landed with a thud.

And here’s another way it goes off the rails: At a Silicon Valley tech company, a talented product marketer would regularly invite new tech reviewers to comment on the second or third draft of e-books or blog posts – spinning the content in unanticipated and costlier directions.

How do we reach a more productive, more effective state of content review enlightenment?

Managing the madness

Most everyone knows the timeless expression “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” Yet, few would describe themselves as one of the extraneous chefs. Many reviewers lack the necessary writing skills or self-awareness about when to disengage from the content creation process, even if they have good intentions and marketing expertise.

To take the dysfunction out of the process, the first step is for the organization to acknowledge that the purpose of creating content isn’t to obtain everyone’s buy-in, it’s to drive higher engagement with the brand, product, or service. And that requires a different approach.

The purpose of creating #content isn’t to obtain everyone’s buy-in, says @rustyweston. Click To Tweet

Producing great content calls for embracing objectivity – which requires putting yourself in the customer’s mind – not just the marketer’s. That’s something many businesses find impossible to do. (Corporate-sponsored surveys are too long for the same reason.)

In my experience, organizations know when content has been “put through the wringer.” Still, groupthink editing persists because we live in an age of buy-in, where collaboration and co-worker consensus is the organizational priority. Yet, the critical time to gain that consensus is at the outset of the creation process, not at the end. An open-ended process rarely results in timely, effective content.

The critical time to gain consensus is at the outset of the #content creation process, says @rustyweston. Click To Tweet

A prolonged content review process is a form of organizational paralysis. Waiting for everyone’s input and approval is never worth it. A stakeholder who is slow to review content is not deeply invested in the outcome. Move on.

When hiring an architecture firm to design a new office, the company representative would give the requirements (and a sense of the budget) but probably wouldn’t specify all the materials. Similarly, once stakeholders align on the purpose of the content, then the execution should be left up to the content expert.

That’s also the catch: If the content fails to achieve the desired impact, responsibility also falls on the content experts. But that’s a good thing. You want the content team to own the process. They’re the architects and the general contractor.

Once stakeholders align on purpose, the #content team should own the process, says @rustyweston. Click To Tweet

Transform your content review process by implementing these three steps: 

Align

Obtain each stakeholder’s input and buy-in to both the content brief and the outline. Agree that you won’t introduce new stakeholders into the review process. 

Execute

Explain that for purposes of streamlining the process, further input will come from one primary stakeholder (usually whoever owns the budget), legal if necessary, and one subject matter expert as needed. Remember, someone slow to review content generally hasn’t bought into the process.

Someone slow to review #content generally hasn’t bought in to the process, says @rustyweston. Click To Tweet

Deliver

Measure your results and socialize them with the stakeholders. Performance goals may include creating higher brand awareness or generating better leads, more subscriptions, or engagement. Conduct a qualitative review of the content if applicable. Do the stakeholders want to see something different next time?

Still not sure your business partners will leave it up to you? Put it to the (A/B) test: See how professionally edited pieces perform against group-edited versions of the same content. That will arm you with data to convince them that groupthink is costing them leads, revenue, and impact.

Streamlining the review process will improve the quality – and the timeliness – of the content. Realistically, you won’t be able to avoid a compliance or legal review, and the key stakeholder (the executive who owns the budget or has the byline) must sign off on it.

If you could start from scratch, consider establishing a process like this:

  • Gather input from stakeholders (such as product or marketing executives or subject matter experts), typically via interviews.
  • Create a content brief and outline.
  • Get approval on the brief from the key stakeholder (typically, the budget owner).
  • Use a professional writer and editor (on staff, freelancers, or within an agency) to create a draft.
  • For the review, designate one primary stakeholder (typically someone in marketing or communications, or the person with budget approval) and, if necessary, the same subject matter expert who briefed you, plus one compliance (legal) reviewer.

When you achieve the desired results, the business stakeholders become free to focus on what they do best, which is to improve products, sales, and service. You’ll chew fewer Tums®.

Maintaining the integrity of the original concept falls on you. That means defending the readability of content that motivates prospective customers to take action. Gen. George Patton was right when he said, “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.” The same truth applies to business content: Do it well but do it now and without a committee.

Read the rest of the July issue of Chief Content Officer magazine here. And subscribe to the now digital-only magazine to receive future issues in your inbox. 

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Rusty Weston

Rusty Weston (@rustyweston) is a veteran content marketer, editor, writer, and strategist with agency, corporate, and journalism experience. He’s spent much of the past decade creating custom content for some of the world’s leading brands. Follow him on Twitter @rustyweston.

Other posts by Rusty Weston

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