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The Challenging Chore of Enterprise Content Maintenance

kl

With the continual growth of multi-device web browsing, everything we once knew about web content has changed. So there’s a lot of discussion these days about content strategy. Web experts preach best practices for publishing to multiple channels, making content the priority, thinking mobile first, moving away from the WYSIWYG, and creating content chunks.

A lot of these principles are well and good.

They work swimmingly when you’re building a smallish website. Or when everyone contributing to your site has a solid grasp of web best practices. Or when your main goal is publishing articles, posts, or documentation that carries similar content structures—like news sites, blogs, and help forums.

But what about when you have a 20,000 page website with diverse and varied content requirements? What if you have hundreds of web contributors who are experts in finance, biology, or event planning but not necessarily web content management?

I’ve worked in enterprise content management at a university for six years. And I’ve found a lot of the latest web content theories to be useful and relevant on the super-micro or heady-abstract level. But, if I’m being honest, many of the principles just don’t seem to scale when you’re managing a big, complex content system.

Universities, government agencies, and other mega institutions likely get what I mean. Taking these abstract theories and trying to apply them in a highly political, messy, human environment is immensely challenging and maybe even borderline impossible. When you tack on the limitations of your CMS and available resources, it feels like you’re trying to drive a system as incomprehensible as the Starship Enterprise.

So which of today’s web management principles can we actually use in our big messy systems? Is there any way to make the theories more practical or grow them to a larger scale so they make sense for our kind of work?

Here are a few of the strategies I’ve used.

Extend content management beyond the web

One of my big pushes right now is to help people stop thinking of our CMS as a tool for building webpages. Instead, I want us to see it as a system for managing information.

The CMS should be the place to store as much content as possible—not just webpages.

Some info will end up on the web, but not all of it. Some might get sent out through emails or exported for use on print pieces.

We’re trying to take a huge step back and think of not only what’s needed on the web, but what info should be in the CMS that’s currently sitting in word docs on shared drives, Adobe files on desktops, or email inboxes.

For example, this spring we needed to update our print promotional materials for our undergrad academic programs. Instead of looking only at print pieces, we decided to include the websites and work on new content for both at the same time. That way we could identify what content would be shared across print and web and then build out the content requirements in the CMS to house all promotional info together in one place.

Now, when web authors update their site, they’re also keeping content for their print pieces current because it’s all housed in the same template. Next time we need to run a print job, we can pull fresh content right from the CMS and pass it along to a designer for new formatting. When we need a blurb about a specific program for a new kind of piece or an email, we know where to go.

One of today’s web best practices that makes this system work is separating information from presentation. If we think of content as the words and images (the information), and let the CMS take care of the formatting, then the information becomes more portable and useful. The content becomes pieces of information, rather than designed elements stuck to a webpage.

It takes some work on the backend and lots of conversation and planning, but once structures are in place it becomes a lot easier to maintain information going forward. And don’t worry about doing it everywhere. Start with one small section or a single content type and see what you learn.

Find a balance between structure and flexibility

The harsh truth is that you can’t give everyone equal attention. There’s no way you can dedicate the same amount of time and skill and funds to every piece of information when you’re working in enterprise content management. And that means you’re going to have to say no and make tough decisions and prioritize.

I spend a lot of time thinking about content priority. At our institution, all information falls into 5 different content levels.

Assigning content levels to all of our information helps us determine things like:

  • How much time we should spend planning and developing
  • What information needs to go through editorial workflows
  • How much training and support we can provide
  • What tools should be used for building and maintaining content
  • What permissions we should assign to authors and contributors

Content levels also help us find the balance between structure and flexibility.

Top level content gets more flexibility. We spend more time crafting unique layouts and content treatments for higher level information. It receives more design finesse and development magic.

But that means lower level content must have more structure and follow more rules. It’s housed in similar templates and uses basic tools so that we can distribute content production to authors who don’t work with web content all day. Because turnover of web authors is high, structured systems also allow us to streamline training and make it easier to replace authors who have moved on to other roles within the institution.

Finding that balance between structure and flexibility will be different for every institution because of politics, clout, business process, and resource availability. But at the very least, it’s important to spend time prioritizing where you should invest the time to make a splash and where you need to say no to unique requests so that you have time for the projects that will make a bigger impact.

Plan for the life of your content

When you’re dealing with content on such a large scale you have to plan for maintenance. There’s just no other way to keep your sanity. And then you have to do the tough work and carry out your maintenance plans.

This is a huge challenge for us humans. We like to create, but we struggle to sustain because it’s tiring, draining work with little reward.

Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.

- Kurt Vonnegut

There’s no slick trick for ensuring your information is maintained. It’s just a lot of work. But there are some strategies we use to make it a bit easier.

First, we don’t create or publish new content unless there is a dedicated author for the information. Our web team members are not information experts. They’re here to set up web systems that work for the institution. They’re not here to know when information is out of date. All content needs someone looking after it once it’s created.

Second, everyone goes through training. We try our best to not only train people on how to use tools but also on how to create good content—from information architecture to heading structure to linking best practices.

Third, we meet regularly with those responsible for maintaining content and give them new information. Through monthly meeting ups, our authors have an avenue to ask questions, connect with each other, and build their skills.

There’s a lot more I could say about enterprise content management because it’s a huge, challenging task not for the faint of heart.

Be encouraged that there are others out there trying to figure out how today’s best practices apply to the complex work you do. There are likely times when you dream of being able to build and support a 50-page website focused on a single product or service, but know that lots of people appreciate and rely on the work you do behind the scenes to keep your giant systems running.

Keep up the good work, and know that every small step moves you forward.

6 Reasons Why Collaboration Doesn’t Make Me Cringe

kl

I’m well aware that the word collaboration causes many people to shudder. Believe me, I’ve been haunted by projects gone awry because of long meetings, dominating personalities, group think, or design by committee. I’ve been on the road to Abilene, and these experiences taught me to dread group work.

It’s true that collaborative efforts can be lousy and unproductive. But this doesn’t mean the idea of collaboration in itself is the problem.

As a writer, I love to collaborate. I know this sentiment is quite countercultural for the writing breed. Before I fell for collaboration, I’d throw on headphones and get lost in the cadence of my own voice instead of inviting other writers into my process. And when I came out of my hermitic retreats, it was tough to see how the ideas of an outsider could fit into my polished prose. I produced something great, thank you; I’m taking no comments at this time.

But, even though it’s in my nature to be the lone authoritarian of my written words, I’ve come to see that when I let other writers in, we produce something better than I could have alone. And because I want my writing to be its best, I now try to collaborate as much as deadlines allow (even if it drives fellow writers bananas).

Here are 6 truths that changed my mind about collaboration:

It makes me a better writer

We have a team of great writers here at Bethel. Whenever I let them speak into my work, I learn something valuable. With each revision and draft, I get more practice. And with more practice comes better first drafts.

It produces a useful product

In the end, what I write for Bethel is not about me.

I should care chiefly about creating the best product for my readers, audiences, and users, even if it means letting go of phrases I love. Having someone else read and speak into my work helps me focus on the bigger picture to make sure the words I’m choosing match the priorities of the project.

It creates consistency

Writers have a voice, a method, an approach to their writing that allows who they are to peek through. They have strong preferences about style and word choice. They believe in right and wrong.

But writing for Bethel requires that I quiet my voice and push aside partiality for the sake of the brand I represent. When other writers dig into my work, they take out the stuff that embodies too much of me and not enough Bethel.

It builds trust

I know I’m flattered whenever a teammate asks for my help. It validates my skills. It makes me feel valued, wanted, and appreciated. And I’m more eager to ask them for help in return because we’ve established an understanding that it’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to have questions. It’s healthy to rely on others and to support them in return.

It strengthens relationships

The pressure to write something useful each day is daunting, stressful, and draining. If I didn’t have such insightful and caring teammates, I’d be nearing the end of my marketing stint. So I involve my colleagues in my work because it creates meaningful conversation that builds our bonds. And it’s these relationships that keep me coming back to work each day.

It broadens my thinking

It’s easy to fall into familiar patterns for approaching the same content year after year for the same audiences. But when I invite a new voice to speak into my work, someone who has less history with what I do, they can help me break out of routines and habits. They free me up to take risks that might produce something incredible.

Ultimately, I do better work when I invite others to help me out. Sure, there’s often heated editorial debate and disagreement, but I believe the benefits of this tough work far outweigh the complications. And I always have a few personal side projects going just to feed my domineering tendencies.

So instead of shying away from feedback, I’ve learned that my work’s more fun when I have colleagues eager to pitch in and produce something great—together.

 

4 Tips for Writing Under Pressure

kl

As marketers and content creators, we’re under pressure.

It’s our job to dream up that next awesome campaign or turn a client’s musings into a profound message—as if a stream of clever copy rolls continuously through our minds.

But in reality, generating ace ideas for each new project is hard work—and some days, it’s just not happening. We’re human, after all, and no matter how easy Don Draper makes it look, brilliance doesn’t always strike when needed.

So how do you avoid panic when you’re out of inspiration? Here are a few tools I use at Bethel when I need to get the job done but can’t seem to cook up something fresh.

Strategy

When I’m stuck, I head back to the original strategy. Who’s my audience? What are their needs, goals, and priorities? Why should they care about this?

By articulating who I’m writing for and why, I can often reenter the project with a new perspective that’s grounded in the basics of what my writing should accomplish.

Brand

After defining my audience and what I need to say, I can then worry about how to say it. But if you have a good brand, this should be less of a chore.

A good brand sets the voice and personality for your writing. And a good branding guide helps you to get lost in your university’s culture—the language, life, and energy that’s unique to your campus—and infuse that culture into your words.

Your brand should also provide a solid vision for who you are and where you’re headed. It defines the characteristics that make your university stand apart, helping you tell a story that’s consistent and true.

Heart

In my struggle to craft the right message, I sometimes getting sucked into marketing speak and away from authenticity.

To get back to genuine conversation, I write down what I know and believe about Bethel. And when I write what I know, it tends to come from the heart. I know that sounds trite. But, for me, creative energy—and authenticity—begins to flow when I answer these questions:

  • Why do I work here?
  • What keeps me coming back each day?
  • What do I love about this place?

Clarity

When cycles are slammed or I’m hustling to wrap up a chaotic week, I don’t have the luxury of deliberating over just the right phrase. Instead, all I have time to focus on is delivering a clear message.

If I make clarity my priority, I can at least ensure my message is understood, even if it doesn’t tug at the emotions.

In your work as a content creator or marketer, may you find a bit of peace amidst the stress knowing that you’re not alone. The pressure to come up with great ideas is draining—and you won’t be at your best every day. So when you’re feeling the weight, get back to your strategy, focus on your brand, and write something clear from the heart. It might not win you any awards, but it will help you do more than just get the job done.