Scaling a Successful Content Team

by Nick Eubanks on January 16, 2013

With content production exploding in every direction, scaling processes to maximize effectiveness is no longer just about efficiency, but has become a critical path item in terms of the profitability and sustained growth of businesses.

In this post I’m going to describe my personal process for hiring and scaling a successful content production team. Not an agency mind you, but a team for a content-focused project. Many of the identification, hiring, and onboarding approaches will be transferable, but not exactly, so you’ll have to put on your abstraction hat for this to be really beneficial.

My aim is to lay out an approach that hopefully provides some insight into the nuances of scaling content production while maintaining quality and acquiring high search engine rankings.

Content Development Priorities

prioritiesIt is never a good idea to generalize something as unique as priorities, but in my experience, most content teams tend to focus on at least these 4 aspects:

This is the why and when. What are the reasons a piece of content should be produced and where does it fit in the grand scheme of content priorities. Research should dictate the structure of your editorial calendar.

The what. Once your research has provided you with reasons why you should be producing certain types of content, it is up to your creative people to help craft an idea around the topic(s). I have personally found it best to combine elements of established successful content with some nuances gleaned from your research. The key factor being make sure you always create something original.

The polish. Editing is so often overlooked or undervalued, yet things like typos, poor grammar, and formatting can make the difference between a good piece and a great one. The incremental additional time spent editing can guarantee that your content is ready for prime time, whereas content that is rushed through the production queue is not only obvious, but tends to significantly underperform against content that has been scrubbed and tightened.

Tip: Get a second set of eyes on your content, even if only to nod in approval, additional input from peers is invaluable in affirming that your content is indeed ready to be published.

The how. Production doesn’t stop once a piece of content has been created. This is the entire lifecycle loop that happens after editing is completed including getting the content into your delivery system (or CMS), setting hooks in your other distribution channels; social, email, personal networks, etc. And finally, an idea I don’t see talked about very often (at all) is the notion of a contingency plan for revision should edits need to be made or additional content added at a later time. This is specifically relevant for pieces that do not have a finite life-cycle, a great example of this is SEOmoz Google Algorithm Change History.

Core Team Roles

strong foundationWhile the roles and responsibilities of each position are different, there is a base set of characteristics that I always look for:

  • Self-Motivated.
    Able to run with tasks or requirements until completion.
  • Problem Solver.
    Does not stop at speed bumps, not afraid to ask for help but only does so after making significant attempts to find a solution.
  • Creative.
    My favorite description of this also comes back to a bit of problem solving, if there is a fork in the road and option 1 is not the best option, but option 2 is closed, this person cuts a new road and creates a better option.

Here are the roles that I believe to be at the core of a successful content production team:

While this runs the gamut of content ideation, influencer identification, citation sourcing, this role also focuses heavily on keyword research.

I realize that may upset some people reading this, since I’m not saying that this is the sole responsibility of the SEO, but hear me out.  Your research person(s) person is analytical and generally very well equipped to process large amounts of information. These people are also often good with math and solving logic based problems, making them fantastic at building complementary and relevant keyword lists.

Content Creator
Usually a writer but also may have some graphic or aesthetic capabilities (which are preferred in my opinion). This person is process oriented and understands your target audience. It is very difficult to get this right when working in international scenarios where translation is required and often means that this role is split between 2 or even 3 different people.

Similarly it is also difficult for writers to get a good sense of their audience when working across a wide range of demographics.

Tip: Your writers are also some of your best link builders as they are often very in tune with your audience (at least they should be) and tend to be keen on who the popular writers/bloggers are in your space, often times having established relationships with these people causally through discussion.

I mean this in the more traditional sense of the term; this person’s sole responsibility is gaining search engine visibility for the target terms that are identified by your research team. They are informed of every aspect of the research and content development process but are not ‘in’ them, they instead interface with their production counterparts through communications like status reports, questions, and ideas which all flow to the SEO for feedback but the core focus of this person’s responsibilities is slightly more technical.

SEO’s within content production should be keeping an eye on things like canonicalization, URL architecture, content visibility, inbound links, press relationships, and any other factors that affect the visibility of your content within search engines.

Content Owner
This is my term for the editor. When appropriate I prefer to use titles that help define the responsibilities of the position. And in the case of the content owner, this couldn’t be more true. This person is has the final say and ultimate responsibility for the content being produced to spec, on time, and distributed according to the defined publication strategy.

Content Manager
This person is comfortable with HTML and working within your CMS. They understand that MSO code has no place in a website, and they know when to use <em>’s versus <i>’s versus <span> tags.

Shout out to the best content manager anyone could ever ask for, Yo-San Imaeda. Not to go too far afield but in only 18 months Yo has transformed from a content consumer to a serious content manager and producer, getting pieces features on popular publications like Yahoo! News, Androidken, and many other very popular Japanese blogs.

Experience Designer
This may confuse some people but I look at design, generally,  as taking a backseat to experience. The difference to me is that design tends to focus more on graphics, where experience has more to do with intuitive controls, engaging interactions, and very fast speeds.

A good experience designer can usually handle most design requirements (not graphics!) organizing information quickly – these people think logically about their customers and generally take the lead on designing information which can be used to inform the interface. Funny as it may seem often the best experience designers come from a background in customer experience or support. They design for the entire experience loop including interfaces, documents, and communications to maintain consistent brand display across all interaction media; search, social, press, web, email (both transactional and with team members)

An experience when architected successfully can build whole communities of users/fans/readers/followers; all synonyms for brand advocates.

Front-End Engineer
This person is well versed with HTML and CSS, has experience in Photoshop, and is able to at least read if not write Javascript. They will be slightly more autodidactic than the rest of the team (although to some extent they all should be too – so should you) less perhaps your developers, as these days the best developers are polyglots and get excited at the opportunity to increase their knowledgebase or sharpen their skills.

This is ultimately your right hand person. Depending on the requirements of your content you may only use them infrequently, but their contributions will always be of the utmost importance.

You will be no doubt leaning on the developer (if the team is larger than this might be an SEO Engineer, Experience Engineer, or CMS Manager) to implement all of those fancy server-side changes as dictated by your SEO.

Finding Talent That’s The Right Fit

perfect fitFor so many startups and companies in growth phases this is the most challenging part of building a team.

But to be honest, this is actually really easy if you know what you’re looking for and have a solid process for identifying talent that is a solid fit for your organization.

The absolute first thing you need to do before anything else is to define what an ideal candidate, or “A Player,” would look like for the position.

Contrary to what I’ve been reading the past few months on hiring and recruiting blogs, I have saved an exorbitant amount of time by designing a rigorous screening process, that goes something like this:

1.) As part of your job posting, include a link to a pre-screening test, here is the one I created for any SEO positions we were hiring for. Here is another questionnaire for a rails internship.The idea being make sure this person has the core competencies you absolutely require before spending the time to qualify them further. This tends to cut about 80% of the wheat from the chaff.

2.) Once candidates have passed any pre-qualification tests, next comes the email screening test. I use a series of 5 questions, each with multi-part answers; and this is key. For most of the roles within a content team, process-orientation and attention to detail is paramount; so test for this on the front-end.

The way this is done is laying out specific instructions and then paying attention to the details of the candidates execution. For example, one questions might be:

Please describe your 3 greatest strengths, 3 greatest weaknesses, and the biggest pro’s and con’s of your last 3 jobs.

See what I did there? That one question requires 12 answers to complete; let me break is down for you:

a. 3 strengths
b. 3 weaknesses
c. pro’s and con’s (2 answers) for last 3 jobs = 6 responses

This gives you immediate visibility into their abilities to take detail-oriented instructions, and follow a process. You would be amazed at how many people don’t get this.

3.) Next comes the phone screening. Similar to the screening questionnaire via email, this is 70% about process and 30% about content. Use multi-part questions and don’t cut any slack, do not move onto question 3 until they have provided a complete answer to question 2.

Give them some leeway at first, but pay attention to their mistakes, if they get caught up, if they stay on topic… remember this is an exercise in behavioral psychology and not a literary exam.

From here comes the more formal interview process, usually done in person – for this I’m not going to tell you how you interview (it’s so different for every organization) but I will let you know that I have used Topgrading extensively and very successfully.

Optimizing Process

One of the key factors in scaling any process is finding ways to increase efficiency.

Often times doing this means helping to develop your team members capabilities to allow them to be cross-functional across tasks.

One way we did this at Factor Media was to begin to combine the roles and responsibilities of our content team, so for example creating and publishing a new piece of content used to take 4 sometimes 5 people:

  1. Keyword and Content Research (Researcher)
  2. Content Ideation and Creation (Writer)
  3. Translation (Contract Translator)
  4. Graphic Design Support, when needed (Contract Designer)
  5. Implementation into Our CMS (Content Manager)

But as with the case with any autodidactic team within a culture of production, this has been optimized down to 1 person, 2 if we need design support.

This was done by investing the time heavily in training and building out a thorough internal knowledgebase and wiki. For internal education we used Bloomfire (which I’m a big fan of) but there are a number of knowledge management systems out there, and if the budget is tight – there are a number of themes available for Google Sites that can help minimize costs.

Developing a Culture of Production

I hear software firms all the time talk about their culture of engineering, which makes a lot of sense in a place where ingenuity and innovation tends to lead to better products and thrilled customers.

But how do you adapt this to a content team? It’s actually not that hard… just focus on what it is you’re doing; producing.

The best way I’ve found to keep everyone on the same page when it comes to managing content lifecycle (from concept to publication) is to create requirements that force your team members to work with one another.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to group responsibilities into buckets, so researchers are working with the writers, the writers are working with your outreach team and the SEO’s, the content owner and content manager both work with the developer or designer on final implementation; giving everyone a sense of ownership.

One other important aspect for developing this culture is 2-fold deadlines. Deadlines across functional departments should be both shared and incentivized.

This not only shares the responsibility to get your content shipped across everyone involved, but keeps everyone on the same page, motivated to get it done right and on-time.

Incentives do not need to be monetary, and in fact, I’ve found that they tend to work best when they’re not. It’s true that money is a motivating factor; but it’s not the most powerful.

As talked about in the best RSA animate I’ve seen, what motivates us more than anything else is a sense of purpose. So empower your content team with a sense of purpose; share the targets and goals you have for the content, and give them control (when possible) to make decisions.

Scaling Production

The trick to scaling production, beyond optimizing processes, is about making sure your content team doesn’t get burned out. The easiest way to do this is not to make them operate in a vacuum; involve them in the creative process for other types of content.
The second most important part in scaling your content team is to make sure you give your team members the opportunity to grow vertically into other positions…

Grow your writers into larger content management roles, groom content managers to become content owners, set your content owners on a path to be site managers…

This is all an exercise in operational management; groom them by having them coordinate the editorial calendar, work closely with content production and outreach teams, dedicated meetings with research and analytics to talk through trends and make decisions on vertical pivots when and as necessary…

Don’t push too hard or too fast, but start small with new tasks; splitting responsibilities among your team to develop new competencies in the short-run and proficiency within these competencies over time.

Working in Sprints

In case you are unfamiliar with the concept of working in sprints, it is the notion of working in 2-3 hour blocks of hyper-productive, hyper-focused production.

The reason this is so important within a production environment is it helps to maintain creativity, high levels of production, and more than anything else, sanity.

Humans are physiological beings; we were not designed to sit at a desk, in front of a computer screen, for 8+ hours a day. Hence our best work is not going to come as a byproduct of being shoehorned into this ‘corporate’ environment.

Sprints allow for a refresh. I tell my employees all the time that I do not want them working for more than 3 hours on something; as it tends to create diminishing returns.

Go take a walk, read a book, play some ping-pong, do anything except stay at your desk and look at your computer.

Sprints allow for mental variance and creativity, as sometimes the best thing you can do is go outside and do nothing.

In Conclusion

Like just about everything in business, there is no silver bullet.

The best way to scale anything is taking pages from the books of those who have successfully done so before you, adapting their processes to fit the nuances of your organization, and then testing and refining until it works.

Never be afraid to try something new or to throw out and start over.

If you enjoyed this post, if it inspired you, if you took anything away from it, please consider sharing it with your followers – as it may help others to get unstuck or find inspiration to try new things.

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