Why your content needs governance: a tale of two clients

illustration of a civilian approaching a king.

When working with larger organizations, content governance is a critical element of content strategy.

It’s been slightly more than a year since I had my first “real” content strategy project. I was thrilled to get to put everything I’ve been learning to practice. I was excited to hear all about how content was handled in their department and couldn’t wait to be the magical unicorn to trot in and offer up all of the tools I’ve acquired to make their web content better.

I showed up to my first meeting with the client armed with questions about audiences and workflows and their content lifecycles. But, guess what? The client had all of it in place already! Roles had been established clearly, and they had a process for developing content that worked well for them. I didn’t expect this, so I tailored my role to what they needed, which was some content guidance. I was a bit disappointed, but grateful to see how a website redesign project sails along when everyone knows their roles and adheres to them.

The next website redesign project that invested in content strategy presented itself shortly after my first. At the kick-off meeting, it was clear to me that I wasn’t over the rainbow anymore.  I watched as the stakeholders around the table threw their weight around, I took note of who dominated the discussions and who seemed to be the ones who disagreed, (and wouldn’t dare with so many strong personalities in the room). 

When it was my turn to introduce myself to the team, I asked the question, “Who is your point person for content?”

I was answered by silence, a bolt of tension that cut across the room, and by a few people squirming in their seats. One person dared to answer, but was cut off by another. “Each program has people who write their web content,” was the response.

But, I never learned who the content people were in that first meeting. Or the second. Or the third. I found it challenging to get past the first line of stakeholders to talk to the actual content creators. Eventually, I did, but it was clear to me that the stakeholders didn’t have a complete grasp of the following:

  • A dedicated resource that creates, reviews, or approves content for each program
  • Voice, tone, or content guideline documents that were shared with other content creators
  • A sustainability plan (or, regular checks to make sure content is updated and relevant to the audience)

Since this was a very large organization in comparison to the last one I worked with, I knew that my role would add the most value by developing a governance model/plan, in addition to the regular resources that I provided them. 

For smaller organizations, governance plans can be less formal. But, when working with larger organizations, this is a critical element of content strategy. Hilary Marsh, a local content strategist, states that a governance model “provides structure to establish ownership, define approval processes, and continuously evaluate content and technical resources to ensure that all content is meeting the dual needs of the organization and its audience.”

Marsh considers the following questions when creating a governance model:

  • Who is responsible for creating and maintaining content?
  • What written documents exist that outline how content is created and maintained?
  • What business standards is the organization responsible for upholding?
  • What audience needs should we address?
  • What are the technical limitations and capabilities?
  • What is the budget?
  • What are the review processes?

Like most content strategy resources, this is not a one-size-fits-all approach to developing a model, but it can definitely provide clarity for everyone involved in the project -- from definition until after the site launch.