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Marketing Workflow: How to Keep Content Production On Track

Editor’s note: Want to get your content production on a formal track? Check out this article from a few years ago.

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.

To keep content projects on track, define the #workflow before #content is created, says @RobertMills via @cmicontent. Share on X

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 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).

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 they 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 your team finds helpful. Use the terms your team uses.

When defining #workflow, use terms your team uses, says @RobertMills via @cmicontent. #contentstrategy Share on X

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 titles 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, 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 so that the person in each role knows 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 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.

As in any process, the stages of #content production follow a logical, repeatable order, says @RobertMills via @cmicontent. #contentstrategy Share on X

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 with 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, 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, they can easily identify the bottlenecks, unblock the projects, and keep them moving.

Perhaps a lot of content is waiting for John from the legal department to approve it. Until he does it, the content can’t be passed on to 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, such as Visio or other graphics programs, can come in handy.

Here’s an example done in Skitch:

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 Q-and-A 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?

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.

Online collaboration #tools like @Trello can help teams track their #workflows, says @RobertMills via @cmicontent. #contentstrategy Share on X

Some teams use spreadsheets. Others use project-management software, which enables them to plug in start dates, task duration, 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. Some content management systems enable teams to build the workflow into the system itself so that the responsible party gets notified when it’s their turn.

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

See how the right workflow helps content production

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?

All tools included in this post are suggested by the author. 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).

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute