6 Ways to Improve Your Content Production Workflows
Content production workflows are fundamental to the work marketing teams do, but getting them to function effectively is harder than it looks. Built right, a workflow is a strategic tool that brings your content strategy fruition. But built wrong, a workflow is a little more than a doomed to-do list.
What is a Content Production Workflow?
At its core, a content production workflow is a series of service-level agreements between the stakeholders responsible for collaborating to produce an asset. In less jargony terms, I like to approach workflows similarly to the way I might approach cooking a meal with a group.
Let’s say you’re on vacation with your extended family and you decide that, for your last night together, you’ll all cook dinner. This has the potential to be a beautiful family moment…or an absolute disaster.
If you’re working alone in the kitchen, a well-written recipe is all you’ll need to get the job done. Your recipe will tell you how long you’ll need to complete the dish, the steps you’ll need to take, and the order in which you’ll need to complete them if you hope to end up with something edible. But if you’re cooking alongside other people, you’ll need proactive communication and task ownership to get a meal on the table without wanting to throw a hunk of raw chicken across the room.
Avoiding culinary disaster requires that the night’s chefs confab ahead of time and divide their work strategically. Someone should have ultimate ownership of the cookbook, directing traffic and keeping the various components of the meal on track. Everyone involved should know what they’re responsible for and when others will be counting on their contributions. The same thing goes for content.
An effective content production workflow should:
- Start with a template
- Have defined steps with specific assignees
- Include wiggle room and dynamic due dates
- Be managed by a single project owner
- Be iterated on over time
Let’s take a closer look at the ways you can design better content workflows and help your marketing team serve up its best work.
There are certain things, like adding content metadata, that you know need to happen every time your team creates content. And beyond that, it’s likely that most of the assets your content team creates are types they create again and again. Blogs, emails, digital ads—whatever you’re making, there’s no reason to reconstruct the process from scratch every time.
Luckily, the members of your content team are your in-house experts: All you need to do is draw on the wealth of experience they already bring to the table. For each asset type, gather stakeholders to discuss how the production process usually works, who owns what, and where bottlenecks and confusion slow things down. As a group, walk through the steps that must be completed to get a finished asset out the door, from initial draft to hitting publish and tracking metrics.
Use these discussions to create a content production template for each common asset type. Keep in mind that these templates don’t need to be exact, and you don’t need hundreds of separate versions that cover every minor variable. Ideally, these templates serve as jumping-off points that can be quickly tweaked to fit each particular piece of content as needed.
Break Down the Steps But Don’t Overdo It
One of the most surprisingly tricky aspects of creating an effective content production workflow is determining the steps themselves. What needs to be included? Is it possible to get too specific?
Here’s a simple rule of thumb: Every handoff needs its own workflow task. In practice, that might look something like this:
To produce a first draft of a blog, a writer probably brainstorms a topic, creates an outline, does research and maybe even interviews subject matter experts, then finally writes the draft. These are all important elements, to be sure, but they risk cluttering the workflow if every single one is awarded its own separate step. Instead, compress these many elements into the first task, “Submit First Draft,” and leave the specifics of the writing process to the writer. The next step (perhaps, “Review/Edit”) should be included in the workflow because it will be handled by a different member of the team.
Establish Who’s Doing What
The quickest way to miss deadlines is to head into a project without a clear understanding of who is responsible for each step of the process. Leaving just one task unaccounted for can throw an entire project into disarray. There’s nothing like an asset languishing in the “Copy Edit” or “Legal Review” stage to render all previously punctual collaboration moot—simply because no one knew they were needed.
Before any work kicks off, each step of the workflow should be assigned to a stakeholder who is aware of both the existence and due date of their impending task. That way, any potential bottlenecks can be cleared before they risk grinding progress to a halt.
Include Padding and Assign Dynamic Due Dates
In the perfect world, everyone would hit their deadlines and everything would go exactly as planned. But in the real world, people get sick, miss notifications, or fall behind. If your workflow is designed with no room for error, you’re dooming yourself to heartache. Acknowledge the reality of shifting priorities and unexpected interruptions and build in more room between tasks than seems strictly necessary.
Similarly, you may want to consider assigning dynamic due dates that adjust automatically to reflect the shifting realities of an asset’s progress. For example, instead of assigning a static “Copy Edit” date to a piece of content, set the “Copy Edit” task to be due two days after the date that “Submit Draft” is completed. By ensuring dates are current and reflect the real status of the piece, you’ll reduce the risk that stakeholders won’t trust the accuracy of your workflows and simply wait to be told what to do.
Assign a Single Project Owner
Beyond assigning owners for each production task, you’ll also do well to ensure that responsibility for the completion of the asset itself rests with a single project owner. This person isn’t necessarily the one doing the majority of the work—they’re simply the one ultimately on the hook for ensuring the content goes out the door correctly and on-time.
It’s this project owner’s job to assign task owners and due dates, answer questions and triage issues, and to alleviate bottlenecks and chase missed work when things don’t go according to plan. They should keep watch over the progress of the asset and be proactive in ensuring the final product is fully finished on deadline.
Iterate, Then Iterate Again
A content production workflow should be a living document, not a static list of rules. People, technology, plans, and processes change over time; bottlenecks reveal themselves and previously necessary steps become redundant.
Know that continuously updating workflows doesn’t mean you made them wrong the first time around. Rather, iteration is a sign of a healthy production process that indicates your workflows are evolving alongside your team and your strategies. So learn from your mistakes, hold regular retrospectives, and always keep an eye out for where your team is hitting snags and how tweaks in the workflow might make their jobs easier.
The most effective workflow is the one teams take for granted.
Your content production workflows should be designed to guide contributors through the process smoothly and efficiently, ensuring every crucial task is completed—on time and every time. Building high-quality workflows probably isn’t the most exciting thing on your content wish list, but doing so will form the springboard from which to execute your content strategy and ensure your team is empowered to do their best work.
I’ll start you off. Step one: Get going!