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Does your content quality take a nosedive at stakeholder signoff rounds? Here's how to avoid 'content by commitee'.
"What’s the biggest obstacle to better quality content in your organisation?" I ask at the start of each content strategy seminar. And somebody (often several somebodies) will reply, with a sigh, “stakeholders”.
It’s got to be the most frustrating scenario for any self-respecting content professional.
You get an intelligent content brief agreed. You work hard to commission or create an on-brand, usable, search-friendly piece of digital copy. It’s mapped to user insights. It’s written in the customers’ language. There are clear calls to action. It’s scannable at speed even on the smallest of screens. It meets your stringent QA standards.
Then it gets circulated to stakeholders for sign-off and hey presto, their combined and often conflicting feedback transforms a potentially effective piece of content into almost comical corporate gobbledegook.
Sooner or later the content developers even start churning this out themselves as it’s ‘easier to get signed off’.
Feedback rounds are rarely a joyful experience for stakeholders either. After all, checking and approving digital content is a whole new workstream that is often bolted on to the job spec of people who were already overloaded.
It’s time consuming, difficult, usually required to tight deadlines and if they get it wrong, they might well get it in the neck.
Content by committee never works. That’s why all the best print publishers operate a strict editorial hierarchy. And yet I know that for many organisations, stripping out agonising rounds of stakeholder input is an impossible dream.
So here are five tips for managing content feedback rounds.
Limit stakeholders in number
Three’s a crowd, five’s a crush. Any more than five is one of those cooks-and-broth-type situations in the making. You have to get those numbers down as far as possible, so challenge everyone’s true value to the project before you begin.
Limit stakeholders in scope
One stakeholder, one set of feedback. One for product, one for brand or marketing, one for legal and compliance, one for digital... If there are multiple stakeholders wanting to feedback on one area, then make them collate their feedback and deliver it to you as one (after all they should be in agreement and if they aren’t, it’s not your problem).
And by the way, some search people like us to believe SEO is a dark art and requires its own feedback stream. Nah. Instead, get a clear SEO brief up front and make sure the person in charge of digital sign-off can check it’s been followed.
Create an order of priority to feedback
Does brand tone of voice trump product manager feedback? Does usability trump marketing? Does compliance trump them all?
The time to have this argument is prior to any content being created, at your initial stakeholder briefing, when you’re agreeing how the project should be run and managed. What do you mean, you don’t have a stakeholder briefing?
Let stakeholders in on your secrets
You can’t blame a person whose job it is to stop your company being sued not appreciating why you’ve rewritten their verbose T&Cs as a bullet-pointed list. Give them a chance.
We’ve recently started running short web copywriting sessions for content stakeholders prior to project kick-offs. Early indicators are that it can cut the feedback down dramatically.
Permit (encourage) people to give very little or no feedback at all
It’s an eternal truth that if you ask someone for feedback, they won’t feel they’ve done their job until they give you some. So they’ll find something to say.And then you’ll have to act on this.
Stop setting yourself up for feedback failure. If you‘ve done your job well as an editor, got a good brief and followed it, subbed and proofed and checked the work, then really, feedback should be minimal.
Take back editorial control and stop passing the work around like a hot potato. Communicate confidently with your stakeholders saying: "Here’s that piece of content for approval. I think it’s very strong and meets the brief for x, y and z reasons, so I hope you’ll feel able to sign off on it with limited or no amendments".
And remind each stakeholder what the scope of their feedback should be (eg ‘please give me only product-related feedback as so-and-so is signing off for brand tone of voice’). You might be surprised how well this goes down and how much everyone actually enjoys the release from the nine circles of feedback hell.