Producing quality content with multiple contributors

Simple tips to get things done

Content Strategy

This series of articles explores content strategy and interaction design. Curated by Colleen Jones of Content Science, each article highlights a new voice, a new way of doing content strategy, or applying tried-and-true content principles to new situations.

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You’ve probably heard the saying “too many cooks spoil the broth.”  It implies that having lots of people involved in the production of any one outcome isn’t a good thing. The same can be said for managing large websites. In fact, “too many authors spoil the content” is a much more pertinent issue in today’s digital world. Unfortunately it’s one that’s hard to escape.

Think about where you work

In your organization, who writes your web content? Do you have a dedicated team of authors? Are they centralized, or are they spread out everywhere?

Regardless of where they sit, if you have a large website, you more than likely have many people writing content for it. You may have divisions or departments managing different sections—such as the corporate blog, product information, customer service, knowledge base, or promotional pages. Or it may take a lot of input from different subject matter experts to develop content in the first place. In either case, it can be challenging to continually produce quality content.

So what do you do?

Here are three practical ways to make things easier:

1. Create a usable style guide

In the same way site content must be useful and relevant to your visitors, so should a style guide be useful and relevant to your authors.

Don’t turn into a boring ogre who jealously guards a monolithic style guide that no one wants to use.

The bigger the style guide, the more daunting and confusing it becomes. Don’t get caught up including every possible style consideration you can think of. Instead, keep it smart, keep it simple, and include things like:

  • The site’s personality and subsequent tone. Is it funny, cheeky, conservative or social?
  • The correct way to spell and punctuate your organization’s name (give examples).
  • The spelling and correct titles of your management team.
  • How you punctuate headings and titles (choose either sentence case or title case and stick with it).
  • Your stand on capitals—when it’s OK to use them for (names, divisions, headings, project names, and products).
  • Other punctuation tips such as the use of apostrophes, bullets, and acronyms.
  • How to write descriptive links with anchor text.
  • How to link to documents or downloads, and abbreviations for common downloads.
  • Clear links to other resources like the CMS user guide, metadata standards, and governance model.

Stop the bickering about style and punctuation preferences by getting the guide signed off by senior management. There will always be different opinions—don’t waste energy being the referee if you don’t have to.

There are also some fantastic (existing!) style guides available online or in bookstores. You don’t need to re-invent the wheel—choose a guide that closely reflects your organization’s style, and use it in conjunction with a cheat sheet that can be pinned to the wall of every contributor for easy reference.

2. Encourage learning and collaboration

Whether you’ve got a team sitting together or contributors scattered across the country—it’s important to unify authors so they are motivated to develop quality content.

When you have multiple authors, you also have multiple backgrounds, multiple strengths, and multiple weaknesses. The key challenge is to ensure that the strengths are shared and the weaknesses overcome:

  • Get authors excited about why they are developing content in the first place. Connect the dots between business goals, website goals, and authors’ personal content goals. People learn best with examples so develop case studies to showcase success stories.
  • Create a collaboration space on the intranet so authors have easy access to each other and any documentation they need to do their job—such as the latest style guide, CMS documentation, processes and forms. The space shouldn’t be closed off from others in the organization. Give it high visibility to help promote web content style and standards for everyone.
  • Use the collaboration space as a learning centre, too. Add webinars, podcasts and links to content forums. If someone attends training, ask him to present or provide feedback to the group so that everyone benefits.
  • Any new author who joins the organization must be trained not only in how to use the CMS, but also in writing for the web, usability, and metrics. Buddy him up with another author so he has a mentor to guide him through the process.
  • Promote the notion of why instead of what. Why should the content go here, rather than what content should go here. This approach improves quality and encourages authors to be accountable for what is produced.
  • Show how web content fits in with the overall communication material of the organization. If the web team sits within a dedicated web or IT area, ensure there is some sort of liaison or relationship built with the marketing area so that key messages are reflected across all communication activities.

3. Use an author-friendly CMS

It sounds obvious, but a content management system (CMS) should actively enable quality content to be produced.

Don’t get me wrong; using a CMS to manage your website is smart. You just have to understand that it won’t solve all your content worries. You have to put thought into what you want your CMS to do, and how you want it to do it.

You want a system that is easy to use from the authors’ point of view. Here are some things to consider:

  • The greatest web writer isn’t necessarily the greatest information architect, so as a rule don’t let authors make structural changes to the site.
  • Make it simple to keep content up-to-date by avoiding complex approval workflows for your content. It’s much better to have a simple process that everyone uses well, than a complex beast that authors do their best to avoid. Also, be wary of creating bottlenecks in your approval processes. Yes, you may need a senior manager to approve content at some point along the way—but if that requirement is going to clog up her inbox with requests, think of a better way to do it.
  • Keep it easy for authors to stick with the style guide when entering content. Enforce mandatory components where you can.
  • And finally…include a spell check. Sounds crazy, but I once worked on a project where a spell check in the CMS was an optional extra!

With a little planning, it is possible to have great content on a site with many contributors. Dust off your style guide, keep everyone connected, and make sure your CMS is working for you and not against you.

What have your experiences been?

Sally Bagshaw

Sally Bagshaw is a Brisbane copywriter and content strategist who loves content. Follow her on Twitter, or connect with her on LinkedIn.

12 comments on this article

  1. I worked on a project for Philips, to create their editorial CMS for writing product documentation and translations. We integrated with a product then-called AcroCheck (by AcroLinx). This was around 2004 or so. Not to plug it, as it’s not for sale. But what it did was quite relevant to what you describe on styleguide and collaboration rules, as in fact it’s a technical implementation of what you suggest here.

    It allowed us to create a Philips-specific styleguide with rules, it detected sentences and productnames (with alternative suggestions) and was able to do actually to a quality check on your document, and give very detailed feedback like “Your sentence here is written in 3rd person, though our styleguide wants you to write it like so and so”.

    It went live with thresholds: grading content based on the company styleguide and only allowing content to be published when it was rated an 8 or higher.

    Also, for writing quality content, practice makes perfect. I think is a great place to learn writing content.

    Oh, and highly recommendable: ROWE – Result Only Work Environment, for those teams working from all around the globe.



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  3. Yaron Gez on

    > and finally…include a spell check. Sounds crazy, but I once
    > worked on a project where a spell check in the CMS was an
    > optional extra!

    There is a good program that adds spell checking to all Windows programs. It also adds spell checking to cms. It is called Spell Check Anywhere, and it can be found at SpellCheckAnywhere.Com.

  4. Thanks so much for your comment Martin. The project that you worked on at Philips, were the contributor/authors trained writers – or did they come from across the organisation?

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  8. I used to be the Documentation Manager at a software company (or 3). My team wrote user guides and online help. I couldn’t agree more with this: “Get authors excited about why they are developing content in the first place. Connect the dots between business goals, website goals, and authors’ personal content goals.” But I’d go further to say that it’s not just a logical connection of the dots; it has to be emotional. Every member of the team needs to feel that their individual contribution makes a difference. A difference to the company, a difference to the department, a difference to the team, and ideally a difference to their bank balance. When people feel they’re making a difference, and that those benefiting from their input care, they’re far more motivated.

    That’s how it was with me, anyway. When I worked in a great small company where that happened, I was a BRILLIANT employee. I worked long hours and did excellent work. I loved it, and it showed. But as soon as the company went public, and deliberately adopted big company processes (which meant driving out small company caring), they stopped caring about — or even knowing — what I was doing. So I went surfing.

  9. Robyn Ball on

    Great article Sally. The tips for what to include in a style guide are particularly useful.

    I’d like to add that while site authors may be scattered around-and sometimes outside-an organisation I think it is necessary that there is one designated staff member who has keeping an eye across all web content included in their job description.

    Whether this is a web manager or editor, a marketing person or someone else, there needs to be someone who is going to ensure that authors are following the style, talking to each other and getting the training they need. A Content Strategist would no doubt recommend someone take on this role as part of their governance guidelines so things don’t fall apart as staff come and go.

    The last time I returned to my organisation from extended leave I discovered there were three new content contributors who had joined the company who were not aware the style guide existed. There was one other new staff member who had been given the guide. Seemed it depended on who the manager was. To overcome that problem, the style guide and basic training have since been added to the induction process in that particular company.


  10. Franz on

    good article,
    It seems the problem is one of people management and communication.
    Soft skills are any great manager’s prerequisite to success.
    Great leadership is needed even in the content management (UX)arena.

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