Content operations? How to collaborate on content (effectively)


Article by Angus Edwardson, Product Director at GatherContent and Boye & Co member

Headless CMS, adaptive content, personalisation, omnichannel marketing, conversational interfaces and bots... 

The focus of CMS vendors, Content Strategists and our general industry is extremely biased towards delivery. We're fascinated by any new ways in which we can deliver content to the world. New ways to engage people. 

The challenge with this focus on delivery is that it puts a lot of pressure on production. On the production of structured content across an organisation. It's not easy to produce content that is adaptive, can be reused across multiple channels, or mapped to the 'conversational interfaces'. It actually turns out to be pretty hard. 

A few years ago, Deane Barker wrote an article titled "The Need for Content Operations". He wrote that:

"Content Operations (CO) is concerned with everything between Content Strategy (CS) and Content Management (CM). Any form of content manipulation and analysis would be managed by a CO process." - Deane Barker

Since he wrote this article, a lot of people have started talking about the need for deliberate "ContentOps". And aside from it being a great excuse to fight over a new bit of jargon, it also suggests that we might in-fact need to give a little more thought to the void that exists between strategy and delivery.

Where does your content come from?

At a time where people are adamant on telling us the source of their vegetables, do we know where our content comes from? 

This visualisation shows the Content Operations required to produce a single email in Keele University:

Screenshot 2019-02-11 15.54.28.png

I won't explain this in detail, but it shows that for a single channel we publish content to, there can be multitudes of sources (grey dots) - people involved in contributing to that single piece of content. 

In a recent higher education survey, we found that an average of 4 people are involved in the production of a single piece of content. The fact that these people (editors, subject matter experts, legal reviewers, and senior stakeholders) are often in different teams and different locations makes multi-source as much of a channel as multi-channel. 

We can also see the amount of different processes (the red dots) involved, from approval, planning, scheduling, formatting, migration or basic collaboration. And of course the infrastructure (purple dots) in this example: GoogleDrive, Word documents, email, spreadsheets, MailChimp, Youtube.... 

A single email. 

How does this look for multiple channels? What if we were to map out an entire customer journey, and look at the amount of operational work required to create the content for every touch-point? 

And a final question: How much of this operational work happens in the CRM, and for a website, how much of this work happens in the CMS? 

Spoiler: Not very much. 

This recent Forrester report articulates the challenges with the traditional CMS and it's lack of support for 'agile content curation' - the approach they see most organisations adopting.

But dad, do I have to?

But why should we bother to clean up this mess? Are a few extra dots and lines really holding us back?

Colleen Jones, the Head of Content at MailChimp, recently conducted a study which found a pretty clear (and not hugely surprising correlation): 

The more mature Content Operations are, the more likely [organisations] are to report success. - Colleen Jones

Colleen has also created a model for gauging your level of Content Operations maturity. She has 5 levels:

  1. CHAOTIC: Ad-hoc approaches

  2. PILOTING: Bringing some order to the chaos

  3. SCALING: Trying to repeat the success

  4. SUSTAINING: Creating more order than chaos

  5. THRIVING: Maintaining order and systematising innovation

This is a great way of reviewing things, and if that's not enough to convince you that it's worth caring, then consider these as motivators:

This one probably doesn't need much explanation. Everyone is now a multi-channel publisher. We are all now required to have a presence across a multitude of channels, or we simple don't have a presence on those channels. Relevant to you?

To get effective content for your audience, more and more people in your organisation needs to be able to communicate and distribute content to where it’s needed. This could be a researcher in your university, a doctor in the field, or a subject matter expert on feline behaviour. Relevant to you?

Speed of delivery
The need to create content at speed is a huge trigger for people investing in content operations. This is probably most prominent in the world of content marketing and marketing automation. Just look at 'Content Operations and Marketing' point-solution Kapost, very much focussing on speed as their leading value proposition. Relevant to you?

A greater volume of content and the digitising of services. The UK government is probably one of the best examples of large scale investment in Content Operations with the intention of digitising services at scale. This document on content types is a great summary of their effort, very much mirroring those same 'people', 'process' and 'technology' axioms. Relevant to you?

Content governance
For a lot of organisations, especially those facing regulatory pressure in terms of content governance (fun things like the CMA, GDPR, and the inbound EU Web Content Accessibility Legislation), the above points very quickly take ContentOps from being something of a luxury to a high-risk requirement. Relevant to you?

Quality & consistency
When the UK government has a more engaging content than you do. Relevant to you?

Where to start

Get a pen. Book a room. Draw some dots. Draw some lines. 

In seriousness, it's not a bad idea to begin by doing a bit of an audit of your content operations. Creating a visualisation of how things currently work is a great way to identify the weakest points in the chain.

If you're attempting to establish omnichannel experiences for your customers or audience at the moment, then mapping out the operational processes that are required to create content for that whole journey can be seriously eye opening. 

While traditional audits tend to focus on either infrastructure or the content itself, you should be sure to review the three main components of content operations: People, processes and technology. 


Following the fluffy stuff, you can consider four tangible principles which have a huge impact on content operations:

Clearly defined roles
Do you have clearly defined roles for everyone involved with content production? These are not the same as job titles - people should know what they are responsible for.

A production workflow
Have any rules been mapped out for content production. Are the steps between an idea for content, and content being presented to your audience clear? This should be repeatable and systematic.

Style guides
Having a style guide for content authors can help massively to maintain quality and consistency across channels. It can also help to keep things legal. Gov.ukThe Economist, and The Guardian are all good examples.

Content types
Having clearly defined content types and formats for the kind of content your organisation produces will make it a lot easier to maintain consistent structures, and ensure content can be easily re-used across multiple channels. 

Although the organisational change that's required to get these things set-up (and agree on them on the first place) can be hard, having these four principles definitely lead to healthier Content Operations. Four boxes to tick which lead to having more effective content across multiple channels. 

Operational Prowess 🦁

The investment in repeatable and scaleable processes for software development is a great example of an operational change that's had a huge impact on the pace at which organisations can deliver value to customers and innovate.

In a way, Content Operations simply calls for the same respect that has been given to software development to be given to content. Delivering more value through more effective content.

It also appears to be something which is not just a luxury, but a necessity for any organisation that publishes information. So... most of us. 

To achieve this operational prowess, 'ContentOps' argues that it's time for the pendulum to swing away from this obsession with delivery, and back towards the internal workings of our organisations - to establish the operational processes, roles and infrastructure that are required to make these omnichannel dreams a reality.

Are you working with communication and ready to learn more?

Consider joining the Boye 19 Aarhus Conference in November , where you can learn from Angus Edwardson’s colleague Head of Content at GatherContent Robert Mills as well as other content experts.

We also have both a content operations peer group and a digital communication peer group in Denmark and more to come.