Many organisations have tens, hundreds or sometimes thousands of staff involved in writing content for their website or intranet. This practice — usually called ‘distributed authoring’ — is popular because it avoids the publishing bottleneck that can arise if everything goes through a central team.
Distributed content management is often used alongside distributed authoring. Content initiation, review, approval, publishing, maintenance and archiving can be decentralised in different ways. Business units or departments may have some or complete control.
Both practices, which I’m going to refer to as ‘distributed publishing’, pose significant challenges that can affect the quality of your content. In this article, we’ll look at some of the challenges. In the next, we’ll consider ways of dealing with them.
1. Web writers aren’t always writers
Distributed authoring usually means that content authors are a diverse group. They might be clerical and administrative staff, services and support staff, professional staff or management.
Very few writers in a distributed authoring environment will be professional writers. Fewer still will be web writers with knowledge of structured content, accessibility, meta data or search engine optimisation.
2. Web writers don’t always know they’re web writers
Some writers won’t see themselves as web writers because they write infrequently or don’t go anywhere near a web publishing system. The most they might do, is send the occasional document to someone else to publish online.
It can be hard to reach or influence this group. They don’t come along to web forums or volunteer for web writing training. And they can be in roles senior to those who publish content online for them. So it can be challenging for publishers to suggest changes or push back on publishing content they think is unsuitable for the web.
3. Web content roles are poorly understood
Other web content roles can be poorly defined or understood. Should legal reviewers rewrite content or just comment on it? What is an approver checking for? Can the web team make changes after a manager has approved content?
I’m often asked these sorts of questions by people working in these roles, and just as often, no one in the organisation seems to knows the answer.
4. Web writing is often a hidden task
Web writing can be a hidden part of people’s roles. Their position description may make no mention of it, or if it does, it may only be a minor part of their role. So some writers may struggle to find the time to allocate to this work; other tasks tend to take priority in a busy working day.
Work that is not seen is usually not valued — by the organisation, the person doing the work, or their manager. If content work isn’t valued, little effort may be put into it.
Work that is not seen or valued is also not costed. The true cost of publishing online is often unknown. Many organisations just assume that distributed authoring saves them money.
5. Writing skills and styles vary
Many believe that anyone can write, but writing well is another issue. Quality varies in a distributed authoring environment. Some may write concisely, while others adopt a wordy style. Some may struggle with grammar and punctuation. Others will find it hard to organise or structure the information they need to communicate.
Many will use a tone that is too formal. And they may resist attempts to change this — regardless of what your style guide (which they probably haven’t read) says. Lawyers tend to write like other lawyers, scientists like other scientists. And many believe that anything else is inappropriate for their profession or subject matter.
Some may think that a certain style is expected of them. I’ve had university administrative staff tell me that they must adopt an academic style because they’re writing for a university website.
6. Silos, inconsistency and duplication are common
Distributed content management, particularly when coupled with an information architecture that reflects the organisational structure, can lead to online information silos. Business units create content and manage sub-sites as though they are distinct entities, rather than part of an organisation-wide information system. Content can be duplicated and information inconsistent.
7. There’s a tendency to publish just because you can
When content efforts are not well coordinated, content is published just because it can be. “Someone might find this useful”, “We may as well put this online” — are sometimes the only reasons for publishing.
And if silos exist, they tend to be filled. It’s not uncommon for content to be published because “We need to put some information our site” or “They’ve got a lot more than us on their site”. And I once heard: “Everyone was allowed to publish 4 pages”.
8. Maintenance often suffers
Distributed publishing sometimes leads to poor content maintenance. While content management systems can prompt people to check their content, they’re not foolproof. Busy people who struggle to find time to produce content find even less time to maintain it. And if there’s no process to reassign responsibility for content when staff leave or change roles, it gets forgotten. “I’ve just inherited a website that no one has touched for 2 years” — I bet I’m not the only one who’s heard that statement before.
Making distributed publishing work
You can make distributed publishing work if you’re prepared to identify and manage the challenges. How do you do that? We’ll take a look a few ideas in part 2.
In the meantime, have a look ‘Beyond the content audit’. It can help you identify the challenges you need to address in your organisation.