If you like to imagine a typical Content Manager as a lonely geek, perpetually glued to his or her computer screen and furiously typing, I am afraid you are up for some disappointment. There are a lot of soft skills involved in content management: being good at building relationships is hardly the less desirable.
We already talked about conceiving a sustainable content life-cycle and setting up the most cost-effective processes. One of the most sensitive steps in this task is identifying key players. Don’t be fooled by the business jargon. Behind every “key player”, or content owner, there’s a person. More often than not, they already have their job, with deadlines and meetings and what else. Odds are, their new status of “key player” will be considered as the umpteenth nuisance.
In the best case scenario, managers are excited about their department being involved in the new process. And maybe the “key player” is happy to contribute as well. But, hey, I’m Italian, wishful thinking is not part of my DNA. So let’s consider a different scenario: happy manager, unhappy “key player”.
Make no mistake: an unhappy key player means your well-conceived plan will stall at some point. And that’s something you, Content Manager, will be held responsible for.
Here are some tips to avoid the stall:
- Be proactive When identifying key players, be involved and name names. Which ones? People you worked with already, people on the same wave lenght, people who know something about communication. And make sure to contact them beforehand, to share your intentions, so they don’t feel trapped by another (unpaid) burden.
- Promote the position You don’t have to lie: being part of the process is both time and energy consuming. Never, ever, try to sell it as something different. But try to highlight the pros: a nice break from the routine, an interesting task, the chance to see their job acknowledged on an individual basis and not as a team member.
- Talk to their managers It is vital to gain support from the management. It is vital that managers acknowledge the role of their key players, and the responsibility that comes with it. So, promote the position with them too. They have to be willing to invest some man/hours to see the benefits of having their department achievements constantly and consistently communicated.
- Ease their burden… You may have set up an amazing automated process, but sometimes daily issues get in the way. Be ready to be flexible, when you see that one of the key players is under a lot of pressure. If you don’t get your content on the CMS, you can always be briefed during a coffee-break, and write it yourself. A team is a team, even when it crosses departments.
- … but don’t take it all on yourself On the other hand, if your flexibility is often required, we have a pattern, Houston. And not a good one. Set your boundaries first, and if they are not respected, look for another key player.
- Make it entertaining I do have a secret to make this work: everybody has dreamt at some point to be a journalist. Well, create your magazine. Be the editor-in-chief. Have your correspondents. Tip them. Let them tip you. Research together. Listen to their scoops.
- Give them training, give them tools Try to set up some in-house training in the early stages, gather your key players together, and explain them the process. All of it. Let them see how it works, and why their contribution is important. Try to educate them about the deliverables. Let them see how their content will be worked and reshaped. And then hand them templates that will ease their job as correspondents.
- Don’t let them feel alone Nothing is more disheartening than being left alone with a new task, so give a lot of feedback. And don’t keep distinct lines of communications between you and the key players: let them talk to each other. Good ideas bounce in a network, and not in a straight line.
That’s what you hear in a kitchen when a hot plate is coming through. And that reminds me too that I have to talk about that little space before the exclamation mark (yes, it’s not a typo, it’s French punctuation). OK, we’ll have a little rant about localizations later on.
For now I’m glad to give you a brand new page, where I’m noting down the most frequently used words and locutions. It’s a work in progress, so don’t expect to see it finished one day. But it will be constantly enriched, I can promise that.
I said it before, but I suppose I will have to repeat it over and over: working with content in the digital era challenges our traditional way of distinguishing one role from the other. The media industry can still count on a wide variety of professionals who take care of any single aspect of the publishing process, but now every company needs to be out there and communicate with the world, and they can only count on a small group of people (in-house or outsourced) to keep that publishing stream going. They need to learn to communicate with limited means even if it’s something very far from their core business.
How do they do that?
One of the most delicate phases of this whole process is setting up a sustainable workflow to get content from each knowledge center to the communication staff. Every passage counts, whether it’s processed by a CMS system or not, and every passage must be taylored to the organization’s strenghts and limits. Guess who pops out at this point. Yes, don’t roll your eyes: it’s a dirty job and someone has to take care of it. And who’s better equipped to design the content lifecycle than a content manager?
I personally believe that it is one of the most engaging and gratifying tasks a content manager can accomplish, both as an in-house resource and as an external consultant. It’s a breed between a business analyst and a functional consultant role: content becomes an abstract entity, a raw material that’s handed from one unity to the other. The goal is to design the smoothest and most cost-effective way to get it to those in charge of the end product. Identifying key players, assigning roles and responsabilities, estabishling the flow (sometimes automated by the CMS) are tasks that, if properly planned, can decide the success or failure of a content-related project. Establish a smooth flow, and your content won’t have to emulate a salmon behaviour.
Shopping for something on the web, subscribing to a service, requesting for help online. We are overwhelmed by a massive amount of automated replies everyday. As users, this constant exposure affects our level of tolerance, and usually we don’t even cringe anymore to horror greetings like “Mr/Ms x”. As content managers, however, we can’t afford to relax and exploit the advantage, because it’s only apparent. People can only take so much inconsistency, or rudeness, or illiteracy, in one day. And the last straw could be your reply template.
Of course no standard reply can be the perfect one, and avoiding every mistake and inconsistency is an impossible task: e-mails, even the automatic ones, are part of a conversation, and conversations are dynamic entities that cannot be pinned down to a template. Anyway there are some measures you can take to prevent the biggest gaffes.
First (and foremost): Don’t let the developers put in the system the first template they find. Or, worse, don’t let them write it by themselves. Nobody is expecting you to write part of the code, and nobody would be thrilled if you took the initiative to slip some code of yours in the project. That works both ways, even if the programmers feel really confident about their language skills. You have to double-check every word that’s in the system.
Then, about the templates:
- avoid gender gaffes, such as the “Mr/Ms” above;
- at the same time make sure you don’t use convoluted or awkward impersonal forms to avoid that gender trap;
- a standard reply should be used to confirm that a task has been accomplished, or not: Don’t rely on them too heavily, or you will be set for some surprises;
- it is not the proper place to explain procedures, passages or products: Just put a link to the main website (or update the main website if it’s lacking that kind of information);
- most people are well aware that no real person typed the message they just received, but don’t take it for granted: Warn your reader that “this is an automated reply”;
- if you are selling products or service, make sure the receiver knows that he or she can contact you for further questions, and how (in case you can’t promise that, warn the Customer Service Department that you have a problem).
As made evident by the last item in the list, you have to keep in mind that content is just another form of costumer service, and that no automation can exempt you from taking care of the users. On the contrary, automated processes require the greatest deal of consideration and attention.
Proselytism? Yeah, in a sense. The bible, here, is a document called “editorial guidelines”. Anyone or any entity publishing any kind of information should have theirs.
When you start working for a company, the very first thing to do is to ask them for their guidelines, and learn them by heart. You, as a content manager, will be the high minister in charge of compliance and consistency. Your role is almost sacred, in that sense.
And, as the title suggests, if there are no editorial guidelines stop losing time reading this blog, and start writing them. It’s your big chance: you’ve been just upgraded from minister to prophet.
Some years ago I’ve been asked by someone very hip and very into the whole “2.0 thang”  whether I felt threatened by the tidal wave of user-generated content. He went on noting that even journalism was dying and that Britannica’s home page would soon sport a brand new Wikipedia logo. His eyes were glistening as he predicted the end of information as we know it. He conceded that, still, companies could try to ride the tide with a massive SEO investment, but other than that my role was going to be useless. Well, he didn’t put it so bluntly, but it was implied. His question/statement bugged me a little bit, but, as most bugging stuff, gave me also food for thought. So, let me use it to reflect a bit on the Internet and the future of knowledge. Nothing big, really: just a couple of random thoughts.
Why do you need a content manager when you have hordes of users eager to create information? (psst: auctoritas and bias detection. Keep these two concepts in mind: we will need them in a few seconds.)
I do not predict the future, but I have a privileged point of view because I am a specimen of content managers’ dying breed, but also an eager content-creating user and a clueless “let’s-google-for-info” lamer: let me try to share with you the sight from this little vantage point on my sinking Atlantis.
- As a lamer, I represent the average Internet user. I detest the condescending opinion that the majority of Internet users are stupid, but it’s true that we, as a vast percentage, are clueless to most areas of knowledge. I do have my little expertise as a user (see below), but when it comes to–let’s say–chemistry, or geopolitics, I am as square as your average Joe. That doesn’t make me stupid. It makes me clueless. And when I’m clueless I naturally seek for guidance. And that’s when the old good principle of auctoritas comes in handy.
Let’s take geopolitics: everybody agrees that Noam Chomsky is a great academic. So, based on the weight of his auctoritas, I decide to read his writings to get me started in this fascinating world. I can see some of you are frowning. There’s no need to: remember the second word? Bias detection? I am sure you can already see where this is going.
- I am also a content-creating user, since I am fairly knowledgeable in some areas. Let’s take music for example. With my decent share of records and readings under my belt, I’m going to read the review of an upcoming album by a new band on Tumbling Rocks (a mainstream magazine that’s not going to hit your newsstands, don’t worry). The album is released under the label Acme Intl, and I know that Acme Intl has invested a lot of money on this band, like some double-spread ads on Tumbling Rocks. I can already detect the bias of a magazine that has to juggle between an honest reporting and a publisher that wants to keep those spreads going. It can be a thoughtful bias (“a young, talented band – a promising debut”) or it can be a shameless one (“Meet the new Beatles”). In any case I can detect it, if not predict it verbatim. Bias detection gets me to the core of the report, which I may still find useful and interesting, because the magazine has access to some information I could never get elsewhere (auctoritas). Bias is not a bad thing per se: if it’s open, it gives you a powerful cognitive context and lets you sift the information more accurately. So, you frowning reader, yes: Noam Chomsky is worth reading, but I agree that I wouldn’t want to resort to him as the auctoritas .
Everything gets even messier when the source is collective. You may be aware of the radical stances taken by the single author, but if the filter of the collective intelligence is not strong enough, how can I be sure that what I’m reading on a wiki is accurate and up-to-date?
Now: where does all this take me as the titanic Roy Batty of content managers? Let’s say that I do believe in collective intelligence. And as a user I can heavily contribute to it. But I (still) cannot rely on it.
So, the answer to the first question is: no, I do not feel threatened by user-generated content.
Because the collective intelligence still needs a middleman to convey its knowledge to the world. I am not a publisher: I am a filter.
 Sorry for the trivialization, I have the utmost respect for the amazing things that have been accomplished in the last years, a little less patience with people whose knowledge of the Internet seems entirely based on the concepts of “social networking”, “long tail” and “collective intelligence”.
 From the Merriam-Webster: “slang: a person who is not in the know”.
 Unless we’re talking about linguistics. The guy invented this, you know?