Wrangling the Wild, Wild West of Content

When you have inconsistent content across channels and platforms, your brand suffers. So how can you get your content under control?

Wrangling the Wild, Wild West of Content

“Our content is all over the place—inconsistent, overwritten, out-of-date—and it’s negatively affecting the way our users perceive our brand.”

Huge bummer.

Any time you have more than one person writing content for your website, you’re at risk for having content that sounds like, well, more than one person. And the bigger your team, the better the chance that your content is all over the place in terms of voice, tone, readability, and quality.

You have a few options to fix this problem. The thing to know is that all of them involve creating some sort of governance framework that features a core editorial team—whether centralized or distributed—that’s truly empowered to provide ongoing guidance, coaching, and oversight across all your content properties.

1. Centralize your writing team.

This is probably the most common sense solution. It’s also one of the toughest and (sometimes) most contentious ways to take control of your content.

Subject matter experts (SMEs) often don’t have the patience or time to deal with knowledge transfer and endless review cycles. In response, sometimes companies choose distributed authorship; ideally, this the most time-efficient, cost-effective way to create more content across multiple locations. If you have a solid editorial team empowered to provide quality assurance, then great. If not, you’re inevitably going to end up with inconsistent content—no style guide in the world can fix that.

 If you have a solid editorial team empowered to provide quality assurance, then great. If not, you’re inevitably going to end up with inconsistent content—no style guide in the world can fix that.

What I’ve seen work best is to have a centralized writing function where writers are assigned to a specific area of the business. The writer gets to know the subject matter backwards and forwards, as well as the personalities and quirks of the SMEs. The challenge here is that the writer may be perceived less as an expert and more as a producer—content requests end up getting thrown over the wall without a thought. In this instance, clear guidelines around voice, tone, user needs, and digital writing best practices are a useful weapon for the writer. Again, though, the writer (or managing editor) ultimately needs to be empowered to make the final call on substance and style.

2. Implement a pair writing process.

While I’ve never participated firsthand in this exercise, I’ve seen it work beautifully in all sorts of business environments. Here’s what it looks like (this is a summary of the GDS pair writing process):

  • Pair a writer with an SME.
  • Align on user needs.
  • Identify any information that needs to be included for legal reasons.
  • Agree on a smart structure.
  • Sit together (or share a Google Doc on separate screens) and write! The writer can act as a guide, asking questions as the SME writes.
  • Ask for feedback from other writers or SMEs.

This process accomplishes a few important things. First, it arms the SME with new writing skills—learning by doing is always great. Second, it allows the writer to more clearly understand SME objectives, which allows for a degree of empathy that can’t exist if you’re banging your head against the table after receiving (what you perceive as) meaningless feedback. Finally, it brings user needs into the center of the process, which everyone can rally around.

3. Commit to rolling content audits.

The first time I heard about this approach to maintaining good content health was several years ago at Wells Fargo. The content strategist likened it to “painting the Golden Gate bridge: you start at the beginning, paint the bridge section by section, and when you’re finished … you start all over again.” Content is a living thing that evolves over time—as does your perspective and expertise. By revisiting content on a regular basis, you can ensure it remains accurate, timely, on-brand, and user-centered. It also provides you with an opportunity to regularly engage stakeholders in conversation, which is key to any successful content efforts.

Finally: I want to clarify that you must have global editorial standards to get everyone on the same page about what quality, on-brand, user-centered content means. This doesn’t mean you need The One Style Guide to End All Style Guides—the larger the company, the more department-specific guides you’re going to have.

But, at some point, the content strategist must put a stake in the ground. Articulate shared content principles. Provide access to (useful) user research. Create usable, actionable brand voice and tone guidelines. And never stop painting that bridge.

Kristina Halvorson is widely recognized as one of the most important voices in content strategy and UX. She is the owner of Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy; the author of Content Strategy for the Web; the host of The Content Strategy Podcast; and the founder of the popular Confab and Button conferences. Kristina speaks worldwide about the importance of content strategy, educating and inspiring audiences across every industry. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with her two fantastic teens.