Expand Your Workflow Beyond Author-Edit-Publish

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about workflow, drawing on my past work overseeing production of digital content in marketing and communications departments. My starting point is a recognition that when we talk about workflow, we are usually thinking narrowly about how content gets authored, edited, and published inside a content management system, yet in the real world, this content lives much of its life outside the CMS.

This limited vision of workflow has a serious consequence: content outside the CMS can be broken in ways that defeat the purpose of a great internal workflow. It can:

  • add costs to preparing content
  • leave published content hidden in obscurity
  • shorten the lifespan of published content

To follow through on the promise of content workflows, I believe we need to expand our mental models of workflow to account for what happens beyond the boundaries of our CMS and our organization. The CMS’s workflow can no longer be the template for how we think about the content lifecycle.

Consider a good example, such as this workflow diagram by Richard Ingram illustrating a workflow for a press release. Ingram’s workflow is one of the better diagrams I’ve seen because it does account for some of the key activities that occur outside the CMS. I especially like that it uses a swim-lanes metaphor to identify dependencies on functions outside the publishing team, such as tasks assigned to legal, marketing, design, and development. In many situations, there might also be input from SEO, external partners and other approvers.

Admittedly, this is just one example of a workflow for one type of publishing task, but it is representative, I think, of the flaws in our workflow models: It begins after the decision to publish something has occured, and it abandons that content when the publish button is pressed. This model neglects critical passages in the lifecycle of content that happen before and after those phases.

I believe we need to expand our workflow model to include four additional phases: Acquisition, Initiation, Promotion, and Maintenance.

Acquisition occurs before you decide to produce a particular piece of content and deals with content created outside your organization that you will eventually use in some way. This content can be anything from guest blog posts to product information from vendor-partners. It might be an embeddable video, slide show or presentation. It could be an author bio. The essence is that this content was not created expressly for you, and is likely to require some kind of transformation for you to use it. That transformation might be an automated or manual process, such as converting a video from one format to another or adding and ingesting an rss feed into your CMS. An acquisition phase will map out the roles and activities required for externally-sourced content to be discovered and altered to meet your specific content requirements. Executing these steps in an acquisition phase will save time and resources later in the workflow.

Initiation is the decision point at which a new piece of content is commissioned. Initiation sets the author-edit-publish steps in motion. In practice, everyone goes through the initiation step, crafting the concept and assigning the job of authoring the content, along with (hopefully) a deadline. But there are many other considerations and decisions that should be tackled at initiation that are too-often left until later and dealt with on a sloppy, ad hoc basis.

A more useful and comprehensive initiation phase can plan the distribution channels, sketch out a promotion plan (and initiate a parallel promotion production workflow), and decide the terms with which to categorize or tag the content. There will be decisions at this point about who the intended audiences are, how the content will be related to other content, and how extensive the author-edit-approve workflow needs to be. The initiation phase is a chance to document these and other decisions so everyone involved stays on track from beginning to end.

For one client, I created a simple two-page worksheet for the initiation phase that helped them to make sure they made as many of these decisions up-front as possible, saving time and improving coordination later. A complete initiation phase also helps you to discover more quickly when it is time to go back to the drawing board — such as when a seemingly brilliant idea turns out to be irrelevant to your audience or too complicated to produce.

Promotion is what you need to do to get your content to the right people at the right time. The promotion can occur at the same time as the author-edit-publish phases and continue afterward.  It can involve SEO, social media, e-mail, syndication, events and all kinds of PR and marketing activities. I believe promotion is most effective when it is planned at the initiation phase and is treated as a production process with a workflow phase of its own. Just as with the content being promoted, promotion involves roles, resources, tasks, and deadlines that need to be planned and managed. We like to say marketers are now publishers, yet often marketers do not pay enough attention to promote what they publish.

Maintenance occurs after content is published and is the most-neglected activity in content publishing. Content grows stale. Links rot. New models of products outmode old ones. Items go out of stock. People get new titles, earn new degrees, change their names. Content may fail to find its audience and needs to be reviewed, tested, revised, and optimized. Publishers need to explore traffic and search data to learn from their published content. The maintenance phase needs to be designed and planned with these issues in mind.

I feel this more comprehensive approach to workflow will help you do more with less, avoid waste, increase the pace and volume of production over time, and grab a bigger share of the attention and money that you are currently leaving on the table. These added workflow phases may seem complicated, but they need not to be to start getting value out of them. Just incorporating them in your thinking and planning is a positive step.