Managing distributed publishing - 9 solutions

Some common problems arise when organisations use a distributed publishing model for their website or intranet. In this article, we outline 9 ways you can start managing these problems.

1. Know your content people

If you want to improve content quality the first step is identifying the people you need to reach. Get out and talk to people. Find out what's going on in content publishing across the organisation.

Which parts of the organisation publish content online? Within those departments, who initiates new content? Who writes it? Who reviews or approves it? Who puts it in the content management system or uploads it as documents? Who maintains it? Who decides when it needs to be removed? Identify the range of roles and people involved in content production.

How do these people see or understand their content roles? How much time do they have for them? Are their roles acknowledged in their job descriptions, by their managers?

What skills and knowledge do your content people have or lack? What training do they need? What support would they benefit from?

Can you find any content people who could help you with mentoring or co-ordination? Is anyone keen to work with you on improving content quality and governance?

2. Engage your content people

Try to bring content people together and keep content on the agenda.

Have informal content events. Try 'coffee and content' morning teas or 'brown bag lunches' with short presentations from content contributors across the organisation.

Create a monthly or quarterly newsletter. Use it to provide content usage analytics, content audit reports, updates on content activities, or links to interesting articles and resources you've found online. Get people to contribute items for the newsletter.

Run competitions. Set a theme and get people to contribute motivational quotations, write a haiku or design a poster.

Reward people's efforts. Provide annual awards for 'clearest writing', 'most concise writing', 'most accessible content' and so on.

Host an annual content conference day or half-day with invited or internal speakers.

3. Work on changing attitudes

Distributed publishing often reinforces a siloed approach to content, especially when the information architecture is based on the organisational structure. Authors and content owners tend to see the content, and the sub-site they publish on, as theirs. Some defend their territory vigorously.

Your information architecture may need to change, but just as importantly, attitudes need to change. Content people need to see that they're contributing to a larger effort on behalf of the organisation.

This change may not happen easily or overnight. Two key ingredients that you'll need are:

  • Evidence — investigate and document the problems with the current approach. Make the case for change by supporting it with facts.
  • Leaders — find people in your organisation who are influential enough and committed enough to take on change.

4. Focus on the purpose of content

To stop people publishing content for the wrong reasons (like 'we may as well put this online', or 'we don't have much on our part of the intranet', or 'someone might find it useful'), you need a clear view of what you're trying to achieve with content. Two approaches can help.

The first I call the 'top-down' approach, since you'll need to involve senior management. Look at your organisation's strategic plans, vision or mission statements, digital strategy and related documents. Based on these, develop a set of principles that outline how content should support your organisation's business objectives. If you're familiar with the content strategy quad, I'm talking about the 'core strategy', the guiding principles for making decisions about content.

The second approach is to encourage writers to plan before they write—this is the 'bottom-up' approach. Before any piece of content is written, encourage writers to consider the business goals the content must support, and user needs that it must meet.

5. Communicate your content standards

Even in the most anarchic of publishing environments, people generally accept the need for a style guide and other policies that lay out standards for content. The tricky part is making everyone aware of them and getting them to use them, particularly the style guide.

If you're creating or updating a web content style guide:

  • Collaborate. Involve content people from across the organisation in developing the guide. They can then help you promote it.
  • Make it useful. Do your research. Find out what your content people need to help them produce quality content.
  • Make it usable. Test it as you develop it. Do people understand how to apply the standards? Can they find what they need?
  • Provide examples. Many content authors are not writers. They might not be aware of what 'avoid nominalisations' or 'prefer the active voice' mean. Provide 'before and after' examples too, so people can see the benefits of applying the guidelines.

Get your style guide and other important content policies on people's desks. Sure, they should be online, but it might be worth providing some printed copies too. Some people don't see themselves as writers, so they won't even think of looking for these documents.

6. Define content roles

Common content roles are content owner, writer, editor, approver and publisher. Some people play more than one role—a content owner might also write and approve content, for instance.

Make sure everyone knows what's expected of them in their content role. For instance, writers need to plan and review, as well as write. Approvers need to know if they can edit, or if they should just be providing feedback to writers.

Role definitions should identify who is responsible for keeping content up to date. And make sure someone is responsible for reassigning roles when staff leave or change jobs.

7. Train and support your content people

Develop training to match the skill sets and roles of your content people. Keep their primary role and availability in mind too. Managers who approve content are not going to come to a full-day web writing course, but they might come to a 45-minute 'Approving web content' session.

In a large organisation with a diverse content community, you'll need a range of training options: short seminars, longer training days, face-to-face and self-paced options. Training also needs to be ongoing. Even people who write regularly won't become great writers after a single training course.

Provide supporting materials like articles, posters and writing tips. Find ways of getting these materials to people regularly, but in bite-sized amounts so you don't overwhelm them.

Mentor writers. Find people within the organisation with the skills and willingness to act as mentors. Support and encourage them in their supporting role.

8. Review content workflows

Workflow problems are common because they're often focused on content management systems rather than on people. If your content management system is difficult to use, don't expect a manager to log in to it just to approve content once or twice a year. Workflow doesn't have to happen inside your system.

Some workflow problems come down to lack of flexibility. Different content and different departments may require different workflows. Be open to these possibilities.

Some areas may have no workflow at all. You'll need to encourage them to adopt some basic steps—planning and review are essential—but don't try to enforce anything too elaborate.

9. Monitor activities and adjust as needed

Dealing with content and the people who publish it is challenging. You'll need to monitor progress and change your approach when things aren't working or situations change.

References and related articles

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