How To Run A Content-Planning Workshop

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James Deer is founder of GatherContent, the content productivity tool that helps you plan, produce and publish content to wherever you need. He previously … More about James ↬

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Content is hard. It takes a lot of planning, collaboration and governance to produce high-quality content that meets business needs, speaks in an authentic way and targets an audience effectively.

Whether you’re an agency working with clients, or an in-house team working with others around your organization, getting people onboard with producing content is challenging. Thankfully it isn’t all doom and gloom. There is something you can do to help soothe your content woes. You can run a content-planning workshop.

Workshops work really well to get everyone onboard with how to produce content. By involving as many people and key stakeholders as possible in these workshops, you can really underline people’s responsibilities, where they fit into the workflow and make it clear this process won’t happen overnight.

In this article, I’ll share the approach we developed to run content-planning workshops. While you will need to adapt the format to your scenario, you should be able to apply most of the steps.

More after jump! Continue reading below ↓

1. Prepare

You’ll have to sort out a few things before inviting people to the workshop. These workshops have a few components, so put in the work beforehand to make sure everything runs smoothly and you don’t have awkward pauses during the session.

Put in some planning work beforehand to make sure everything runs smoothly and to avoid awkward pauses
Put in some planning work beforehand to make sure everything runs smoothly and to avoid awkward pauses.

Find a Venue

You’ll want to get a room with a large table and a whiteboard. If you’re in-house, this should be easy to arrange. If you work with clients, you could bring them to your agency’s boardroom or do the workshop somewhere off-site that you agree on. Having an inspiring new environment is always good for attendees. Sometimes they will be engaged, but I’ve been in a few workshops where no one wanted to be there and they were constantly checking their email or not taking it seriously.

Finding the best environment, either somewhere familiar or somewhere neutral, can help keep everyone interested and makes it easier to set ground rules (no phones, for example).

Invite the Project Manager, Project Owner and Senior Editor

These roles will vary according to the project. Either way, involve some kind of senior manager and someone on the ground who will actually be producing the content. This way, you’ll get buy-in from the top and a realistic plan from the bottom.

Invite a technical person, too, so that they can talk about CMS formatting and any details regarding migration and publishing processes. By inviting people who represent key areas of the project, you are minimizing risk. I’ve been in workshops where someone from legal turned up and effectively redefined the requirements by sharing important legal requirements.

Invite Representatives From Different Teams

Invite one or two representatives from each of these groups: writers and producers, subject experts, and digital producers. Again, these roles will vary according to your situation. Essentially, you want to get managers from a cross-section of departments, as well as the people who will actually be carrying out the production process that you map out. Be aware of organizational politics and the workloads of the people you’re involving.

Bring Materials

Bring plenty of sticky notes and markers and some big sheets of paper. These will be used throughout the workshop, and you will need enough for up to three groups.

2. Map Your Process

First, look at the production stages that a piece of content will need to go through before it is ready to be published. This generally starts with identifying the key content types (for example, “product pages,” “course summary pages,” “how-to guides”). Content types are not necessarily “pages” as such, but could be more modular components of the website — things like product specifications or staff biographies.

Look at the production stages that a piece of content will need to go through before it is ready to be published.
Look at the production stages that a piece of content will need to go through before it is ready to be published.

Once you’ve identified the main content types, look at what’s involved in taking them from a basic page brief (which outlines what an item of content is supposed to achieve) to a product that is published and maintained.

Choose a Content Type

Choose a content type that you expect to appear on your new website, such as a service or product page, a blog post or a course outline. Choose something that everyone can relate to; avoid specialized content types such as legal documents and engineering reports.

Map a Publishing Process

In groups, map out a production process to get a single piece of content published on the new website. Again, this will vary according to your team.

A simple workflow might look something like this:

  1. Draft content
  2. Edit tone of voice
  3. Review internally
  4. Get approval
  5. Optimize for search engines
  6. Import to CMS
  7. Review web page
  8. Publish
  9. Maintain

You might need to account for legal and compliance reviews or technical accuracy, or you might need to specify phases for formatting and publishing content (such as formatting for mobile or converting items into downloadable PDF documents). This is another reason to start with a fairly generic piece of content, and then move on to creating more elaborate workflows for specific content types or sections of the website.

The bias that stems from people’s roles in the project is always interesting, which is why having people with different roles involved in the workshop is so valuable in the first place. You might find legal representatives claiming to need four separate stages for legally reviewing every page, while a copywriter might want to break the editing for tone of voice into multiple phases. A concerted team effort should result in a workflow that is balanced, realistic and agreed by all.

3. Assign Responsibility

One of the most powerful things about these workshops is that you assign responsibility, making it clear who exactly is accountable for which work. Failing to clarify responsibility over content is one of the most common causes for delays. Bottlenecks happen usually because people didn’t know they were expected to produce content or because responsibility has all been put on one person. This part of the workshop should prevent such trouble.

Failing to clarify responsibility over content is one of the most common causes for delays.
Failing to clarify responsibility over content is one of the most common causes for delays.

Assign Responsibility

Annotate each stage on your sheet with the person or role responsible for it. This might look something like this:

  1. Draft content: subject expert
  2. Edit tone of voice: copywriter
  3. Review internally: senior editor
  4. Get approval: project owner
  5. Optimize for search engines: SEO editor
  6. Import to CMS: CMS editor
  7. Review web page: project owner
  8. Publish: CMS editor
  9. Maintain: subject expert

Identify Lack of Ownership

Mark any stages that don’t have a clear owner. This is often a huge revelation. “We need to hire an SEO editor!” “We need a copywriter!” “We need a pastry chef!” By simply highlighting the parts of the process for which no one is responsible, you’ll quickly see where the challenges for your project lie. By acknowledging these now, you will save a huge amount of stress down the line. You might find that the plan is solid and has no gaps, or you might immediately see that hiring a copywriter will save you a whole lot of trouble. Either way, this part of the workshop is critical.

Clarify Responsibilities

Ask, “Do the people responsible know they are responsible?” This is another great opportunity to minimize risk. Make sure that everyone knows what’s expected of them, and see whether anyone has too much on their plate. A well-organized content inventory or dedicated project-management software comes in handy here.

4. Identify Risks In The Process

Building on the previous step, make sure the following questions are resolved to avoid bottlenecks.

“Do Too Many People Have a Say?”

Multiple heads aren’t always better than one for producing content. Keep an eye out for pages or sections of the website that have a lot of editors and reviewers involved. I’ve seen so many projects delayed because content was bounced between editors for days on end, often just leading to over-edited and nonsensical text.

“Is One Person Overburdened?”

These workshops are the perfect time to assess the volume of work assigned to individuals and assess how realistically they can get it done. Give less outspoken people a chance to air their concerns, which is a lot easier when you’ve estimated the hours of work involved. Speak with each individual to review their workload.

“Do We Have the Skills Required?”

Is poorly written content a risk? Or could the content be misinformed (due to a lack of expertise)? Will the content be optimized for search engines? Go back to your content requirements and make sure you have the manpower to meet them all. If you don’t, call for some outside help.

“Where Might Things Get Political or Contentious?”

It’s an awkward subject to broach, but organizational politics could pose a serious threat to the project. I’ve often seen people hold back their opinion (or, more dangerously, overestimate their ability to deliver work) due to certain people being in the room. The best way to deal with this is to treat all team members as equals and to ask probing questions of everyone in the room.

5. Estimate Hours

It might not be easy, but try to calculate the hours of work required to complete each stage of the process. This isn’t the same as calculating how long it will take to complete a stage, although both are important when planning resourcing.

Estimate how much effort is required to complete each stage.
Estimate how much effort is required to complete each stage.

Estimate Workload

Estimate (in fractions of hours) how much effort is realistically required to complete each stage. Once you’ve come to an agreement on the time required, write the number beside each stage. If the debate about estimates is taking too long, you could try adapting the “planning poker” technique used in scrum.

Calculate Time

Add up the time required to complete all stages. This might be a good time for a break.

Estimate Total Workload

Multiply the total time by the number of pages anticipated for the website to get an estimate of the total amount of effort required for all of your content. As mentioned, you might be dealing with modules or items of content (things like product specifications or staff biographies), rather than pages. Either way, consider the average size of these items to get a realistic estimate of the time required to get the work done. I often group together additional content, such as microcopy, treating it as a single item in the calculation.

The calculation might look like this: 4 hours (time to produce and approve one page) × 125 pages = 500 hours of work.

6. Present The Process

Everyone should review the process at the end of the workshop to be clear on what’s going to happen, who is doing what and how it will be implemented. This is also a good time to outline the next steps.

Walk Through the Process

Each group should walk the whole team through their process (on a sheet of paper) and then open up the presentation for discussion. The person facilitating the workshop should go around and get input from everyone in the room. Address any concerns or anxieties immediately. Concerns tend to focus on whether there is enough time! Also, address any technical issues that people might not feel confident asking about.

Try to film the presentations so that any absent stakeholders can keep up with the discussion.

Following this discussion, move on to the slightly more serious task of setting realistic deadlines for the content and assigning responsibility. Talk about the software you might use to host your editorial calendar, once you have a clear idea of the process that the software has to support. Choosing the software first could lead you to have to shoehorn the process in; this is best avoided!

Workshops Work

Hopefully this template will help you to run successful content-planning workshops of your own and, more importantly, help you to get content finished on time and to a high standard.

With everyone on the same page (literally), the risk of delays with content production will be far less.

Additional Resources

Further Reading on SmashingMag:

(This article was updated in July 2015.)

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