Several months ago, a client asked me to help them figure out whether their sole manager was enough staff for their ongoing needs. I started by pointing them to some existing online tools that have done a great job of capturing the time to create digital : Shane Diffily’s web content production calculator and Rob Mills’s article, Calculating the Cost of Creating Website Content. But those tools were missing a really important part of the content manager’s role: the relationship with the subject-matter experts (SME) who “create” or “own” the organizational offering (product, service, program, event, resource, information, or tool) that the content is about.

And that’s the rub – our organizations don’t account for that either. Many organizations have not realized that they are publishers. I remember saying back in the mid 2000s, that if an organization has a website it is, by definition, a publisher.

planning meeting

In a publishing environment, subject-matter expertise is only part of the equation: an editor-in-chief decides what content to publish in a given timeframe, assigns the content to professional writers, who conduct the research and write the article, and still, the publication checks the facts and edits the articles so they flow well and fit the publication’s voice. This takes time and people, and publications are structured and budgeted for both.

In contrast, many organizations have a large staff of people who have deep expertise in a subject area but are not professional communicators. The organization publishes the work of those subject-matter experts (SMEs) online with little or no editorial involvement – no planning, no understanding of the audience, no clear goals, and no attention to the organization’s voice and tone. Some organizations take an opposite approach, where marketers or communicators draw information from subject-matter experts, adopting a similar approach as publication article writers.

But most large organizations with content-rich websites (associations, corporate intranets, universities, and governments) have adopted a hybrid model for content and digital governance, where a central team is charged with oversight of the digital properties, setting and enforcing standards and working with the departments where subject-matter experts live.

None of the discussions I saw took that hybrid model into account, so I created one. The topic of resonated with many content strategists I spoke to as I refined my calculator. I have included some of their comments and observations below.

Caveat: This entire staffing model may not hold for e-commerce websites, where I suspect there is less “wrangling” over audience, goal, and words versus association, non-profit, and other environments.

Why UX needs to understand content staffing

  1. Sometimes content staffing is UX staffing. In some organizations with small web teams, it might be the same people doing UX design and content management.
  2. UX teams can benefit from understanding what it takes to support content through its entire lifecycle. Each member of a web team adds a different perspective to the work. Content managers develop an especially deep understanding of the business needs, which are an important addition to the audience needs that UX designers focus on most.
  3. If an organization doesn’t staff its content adequately, the UX will suffer as much as the content does.

Wojtek Aleksander, UX writing lead, GetResponse, said, “I always have to justify needing extra people. I think this will always stay this way (just like everywhere else?). I see it a matter of both the budget and providing enough value (at a given time). From my experience, the case for needing more people on the team is the combination of two things: volume and what we deliver (to business and users).”

Some people are working to change the SME/content manager dynamic.

“Content ownership comes up a lot with clients,” said Marli Mesibov, VP Content Strategy at MadPow. “In large organizations, the web team can’t make changes because content owners won’t let them. Business owners don’t understand web content and don’t want to learn. We are shifting the term ‘content owner’ to mean the person who can make the decisions about what content gets published. We’re trying to get client web teams to identify that they can act as a resource. We put them in a position to train subject-matter experts to make intelligent decisions about content and be content owners, or if the SME doesn’t have time or interest, that SME can be an advocate but not an owner.”

Content planning also suffers from the issue of volume fluctuations. Healthcare institutions and corporate intranets need extra work in preparation for open enrollment, universities with enrollment timeframes, and financial organizations with tax deadlines.

In situations like this, Mesibov advises organizations to staff for the highest-volume quarter and use the rest of the year for content maintenance tasks. Joe Young, EBS Collaboration & Productivity for Intuit’s intranet, on the other hand, shared that Intuit hires freelancers for high-volume periods.

Susanna Guzman, Director of Web Services at the CFA Institute, contrasts traditional publishing with online content. When she worked on a medical journal in the 1990s, the monthly, 300-page journal had five manuscript editors, a senior editor, a managing editor, and an editorial assistant. When they received content, it was written by a member expert and vetted by the editor-in-chief, so the staff’s job was simply refining the content for production. In contrast, the web team at her current association receives content that is good from the SME’s perspective but has not gone through any vetting. It might come in the form of a PDF, with no context, no goals, and no promotion plan.

“The print publishing model assumes that all of those initial questions have already been answered, decisions have been made. But for a website, the SMEs have not given any thought to creating the experience,” Guzman said. “In the transformation to digital, we didn’t ‘save money,’ but just shifted it elsewhere. We’re probably spending just as much, but we’re not spending it strategically. We are replacing a small number of experienced communicators who have a sense of the audience and the value of the content with a large set of subject matter experts who don’t have skills in communication, audience, or finance.”

Content strategist Melissa Breker of the Breker Group says, “I think the greatest hurdles we face relate to decision-making (how are decisions made), governance (who is responsible and process), and communication (what we do to share information in a strategic way).”

Young acknowledges that the web team/SME balance is tricky. In the past, when a subject-matter expert didn’t truly carry responsibility for making sure content was effective, it created a burden on other teams. “The organization either had to expand staff elsewhere, or we couldn’t do core functions because we had to do your job for you,” he said.

For example, the staff member in charge of 401k programs published basic information about the program and, although a significant number of employees called the HR help desk with questions, was unwilling to update the core content. To compensate for this gap, the help desk had to publish other content about the 401k program – putting aside other priorities to do so.

The Intuit intranet team has implemented several tools and processes to solve this challenge. “We have feedback mechanisms built into every page. Every comment delivered through that mechanism becomes a ticket. The central web team vets those tickets. We assign it to ourselves if it’s a tech issue. About 80 percent of the feedback is about the content, so we assign those to content owner. The web team manages that process. Our content teams refresh content based on these types of alerts rather than on a set schedule.”

Intuit also focuses on analytics to drive content decisions. “We are starting to use data analysis to drive edits,” Young said. “We get reports for every page about page visits, popularity, and click analysis, and each content owner also gets those reports for their pages. I can tell HR where people are clicking on the help components most often. We’re hoping our content owners will start using that data to improve their experience.”

The content staffing calculator

The content staffing calculator I have created is available for all to view or share.

screenshot of content staffing calculator

How to use the content staffing calculator

Figure out the realities of the tasks

Each organization should list actual tasks over the complete content lifecycle. For more details, see this blog post about the content lifecycle  and download the accompanying content lifecycle criteria worksheet.

The content staffing calculator contains task calculators for both new content and content updates. Most organizations find that content updates require fewer tasks and less time, and each organization has a different proportion of new and updated content.

Identify the time each task takes

Share the task calculator sheets with subject-matter experts and content creators. The sheets contain formulas that should calculate the average length of time for each task. There are separate sheets in the calculator for new content and for content updates.

Adjust the names of content groupings and volume

On the staffing calculators, Row 1 lists “departments,” which is the model for content creation in an association. In a corporation, the more accurate term might be “lines of business” (LOBs) or “product groups.” Adjust as needed to reflect the groupings of people who create content.

The first column in each grouping lists the content volume per year. Adjust that for each grouping. It’s important to think about the volume on an annual basis, since it is intended to drive discussions and decisions for permanent annual staffing.

Work with the web team and subject-matter experts to identify the balance of work for each task.

How much of the work do subject-matter experts do, and how much does the web team do? It might be best to have the web team draft the numbers and vet them with SMEs. There are formulas built in to the spreadsheet that calculate percentages and hours.

Compare the numbers by department/LOB and overall to your existing staffing model.

To translate hours into staff, use a round calculation that 2,000 hours equals a full-time employee (FTE), based on 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year. Most organizations will find the numbers, particularly the hours required for the web team, to be substantially higher than the current size of the web team.

If you find a discrepancy, read on.

Staffing numbers drive smarter decisions

Most organizations are surprised to see how much time it takes to create a single piece of content. That black-and-white number can drive new discussions with management about the staffing needed to create and publish effective content. I’ve found that the staffing numbers might be two to three times greater than the actual staffing in place.

Armed with numbers, the web team can then raise important issues with the organization.

If we want the web team to commit less time to each content item, will the subject-matter experts get additional hours to do that work? They also will need training in digital publishing, and the content publishing work will need to be incorporated into their job description and acknowledged as one of their core responsibilities. Often, SMEs are currently expected to publish content “in their spare time.”

And even more important than content responsibility time and effort is an understanding of the opportunities and consequences for adequate and inadequate content staffing.

Effective content takes time. If an organization skimps on this time, the content will suffer. And it is that content about its core work – the products, services, programs, resources, information, and tools — that provide its core value to its audiences, and its very existence. Therefore, it is critical for executives to understand that sacrificing a relatively small investment in content will result in a substantial reduction in the organization’s ability to meet its audiences’ needs and its business goals.

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