You can’t really have a superhero without a nemesis. Without the Joker, Batman would just be a guy who dresses up and fires grapple hooks onto the ledges of skyscrapers. Without Lex Luthor, Superman would just be a guy who flies and has superhuman strength. (OK, Superman would still be pretty cool.)
For content marketers, even the best production plans can quickly go awry when they come toe-to-toe with their own archenemy: process bottlenecks.
While the demand for content has never been higher, there are things that can slow down production or even bring it to a screeching halt. When these roadblocks are consistent enough, your team won’t be able to meet this soaring market demand.
And it’s not just a reliable schedule for your internal content team. When you skip a publishing date or have erratic publishing schedules, your reader who expected a Tuesday drop might not come back if her inbox is empty on Wednesday. That’s an opportunity cost that’s difficult to quantify. But multiply that by 1,000, 10,000, or even 100,000 yearning readers, and you get the picture. If they can’t rely on you, they’ll go somewhere else.
Bottlenecks in production happen. But how do you prevent them? Better yet—how do you fix them once you’re already stuck?
What causes bottlenecks in planning?
We’ve all been there. You’re driving comfortably on local roads and then you take the on-ramp to a congested highway. It’s a bumper-to-bumper sea of cars and trucks moving in slow motion. There’s no turning back now. You should’ve tuned in to a traffic report instead of listening to a true crime podcast.
Sometimes bottlenecks in production begin at the onset, before the work even gets started. Before the proverbial rubber ever hits the road. How long it takes to shore up those early delays can have major implications on the timing of the rest of the content life cycle—from execution to review and beyond.
For content marketing teams, these planning bottlenecks happen for a few reasons:
First, the stakeholders aren’t available.
The orchestration of different departments and subject matter experts is difficult. People have competing priorities, calendars fill up, and planning meetings get pushed aside. Why is this planning meeting important when these other priorities feel even more important?
There are different ways to handle this first challenge. The most obvious solution? Create a regular and predictable cadence. By making your planning meetings feel like regularly scheduled programming, you’re letting your stakeholders know not to gloss over it when their calendar gets busy. If you publish on Tuesday and you need something reviewed the week prior, block out that review time as if it were a standing meeting with a VIP. This type of consistency and predictability also helps for scaling your production process for the long haul.
Second, expectations aren’t set correctly.
This mostly has to do with understanding your content life cycle. Really, really understanding it. What stages does each piece of content go through from start to finish? Who’s involved? How long does each step take?
Solve this by building and sticking to a documented content strategy plan. By defining what works and being consistent with your content, you can laser-focus your team’s efforts to the work that actually matters. And that pays off in the end.
Third, there aren’t enough ideas.
It’s a tale as old as time: Brands must figure out how to keep the content ideation pool running. The pressure to constantly produce ideas can also impact creativity. A survey showed that 77% of creative pros actually feel more pressure to be productive than creative with their time. That type of energy drain can deflate big ideas before they ever see daylight.
Solve this by repurposing content. By giving your existing content fresh new angles and bold new spins, you not only add to your content pool, but you’re also leaving the door open to brand-spanking-new ideas entirely.
What causes bottlenecks in execution?
Having all the ingredients prepped for a seven-layer cake is half the battle. Making sure your oven has space for anything taller than three layers is the real challenge.
Process breakdowns inevitably happen during the execution stage of content production. It’s not necessarily because of poor planning or terrible effort. Often, it’s because of two things:
First, there’s not enough firepower.
Maybe you need a bigger team of established content creators—to write the content and design the necessary supporting assets. That’s the first place you ought to look. Do we have enough hands on deck to execute our content plan?
Solve this by looking deeper at who creates content. Maybe there are subject matter experts in your organization who could write something themselves. Maybe all they need is some ghostwriting. And if you don’t have the head count to actually do the writing for them, consider bringing on a fractional content marketing team to help fill in the gaps. They can help scale your content efforts so your team has the support they need to do the great work they’re paid to do.
Second, the project management tools aren’t working.
Sometimes the technology just needs a little bit of a shake-up. There are a plethora of project management tools and platforms to choose from, but not everything makes sense for your organization’s unique contexts. Is this tool making life more difficult?
Solve this by reevaluating your marketing tech stack every 6 to 12 months to see where the strengths and weaknesses are. The truth is that some tools may be great for one team but not for another. For example, that high-powered project management tool with glowing reviews online may not be the right fit for your mostly remote team today. And that’s OK. Keep in mind that the average enterprise uses 120 different marketing tools in their tech stack. It’s possible you may need to find the right configuration of project management systems to make sure everything plays nicely with each other.
What causes bottlenecks in review?
The production expectations don’t magically end once the draft’s been written and the assets have been mocked up. The review stage is a critical part of content production, and blocks at this point in the content life cycle can really prevent your content from getting out to the masses. Process breakdowns during the review stage happen for two major reasons:
The timing is off.
Maybe there isn’t enough time allotted for reviews, revisions, and quality assurance checks. If you have to bring in legal teams to pore through your content, have you dialed in the time it would take for them to share feedback?
Solve this by constantly reevaluating stakeholder expectations. Every few months, see if you need to tighten or expand review windows. Or both. In most cases, it’ll be a blend of both. Tinker with the timings for different planned reviews, ultimately doubling down on what works. Your legal team may need the extra three days so nobody is left in the lurch. That’s OK. It’s better to know what to expect so everybody’s on the same page.
Additionally, for some content marketing processes, it’s natural to have a lot of chefs in the kitchen. In that case, it’s important to remember that one stakeholder’s process delays can hold up the rest of the assembly line. Solve this by giving strict deadlines with the understanding that if there is no feedback within the allotted time for review, it’s tacit approval that it's approved. While this may not work for compliance, it’s a bias for action that keeps growth and product teams constantly moving forward.
But some stops are good (seriously)
Like a much-needed “bio break” during a long road trip, there are some stops in the production line that just need to happen.
We get it. Slowdowns and stops are forbidden terms in marketing. We want to avoid those two things as much as possible. And for the most part, it’s true: Slowdowns and stoppages aren’t things you ever really want to see during a project management sweep.
But if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we have to keep a finger on the pulse of what the world needs to hear from us as thought leaders. Whether it’s standing up for black lives or helping customers navigate the pandemic and the new reality we all face, it’s important for brands to pivot when the need arises.
It might be a social event. There may be a global crisis. And it may even be a more industry-specific fear or panic. In any of those cases, be flexible enough so you can create what’s necessary for the moment—without letting your content well run dry.
Where to start
Content is king, and content teams are stuck with a daunting task: Always churn out good content. To do that, organizations must ensure their content production engines work. They must work well and be flexible enough to work harder when external demands increase.
Maybe you’re just starting out with your organization’s content strategy. Maybe you’re trying to mix things up. There’s no better way to start than by looking deeper at your processes. By identifying the gaps, you can fix slowdowns and eliminate bottlenecks, making sure your brand stays on top in a crowded digital world.