Digital publishing can be a strange thing. Mention ‘user-generated content’ and people’s eyes light up. It’s the holy grail for web publishers: lots of online content and it costs them nothing. (There are pitfalls here, of course, as those who actually deal with the content know.) But if you mention colleague-generated content, many web editors may shudder.
What I mean by colleague-generated content is content that is created by colleagues who are not part of your communications or editorial team. It can fall into two main areas.
First, there is content that you want, because it has information that is important for your users or customers. It’s often specialised information which as a web editor you can’t write yourself, so you rely on the expertise of colleagues. It may be problematic, for the following reasons.
- The writers know their stuff, but they don’t know when to stop writing.
- The writers have useful, interesting information but they don’t have the writing skills to get it across.
Secondly, there is content that you don’t really want but which your colleague thinks is important. There could be various reasons for this.
- You have clients who your colleagues want to get coverage for.
- You have internal teams who want to write about what they do in great detail, even if there is no clear audience for the information.
- Someone has promised someone else that they will get included.
In all these scenarios, you run the risk of ending up with quantity over quality – and ruining your carefully thought-out content strategy. So what is the answer?
Two tips for dealing with bad content
Bad content from non-writers is not a new problem: I started out in print and often had to edit the work of specialists who were not professional writers. But there’s a safety net in print publishing: there is always an intermediary (usually the editor), because the writer can’t actually publish their content themselves. That isn’t always the case with digital media, if your colleagues are able to access your content management system (or social media accounts) themselves.
So it is worth looking to print publishing for the answers. If you don’t do it already, try creating an intermediary: someone in your comms team with editorial judgement and skills who can assess and improve the content coming in from your colleagues before it goes live. It doesn’t mean adding levels of bureaucracy, just a simple workflow process. Of course, you need to do it diplomatically: you want your intermediary to be seen as a bridge between the writer and their audience rather than as a gatekeeper.
Then, give your intermediary two roles. The following are both standard in traditional print publishing and can save a lot of grief in digital.
1. The sub-editor aka copy editor
This is the person who rewrites copy to make it grammatical, readable and to give it the right style and tone for your readers. This will deal with the first set of problems: the useful but badly written content. If you can get hold of the content before it is published, you can make it fit for purpose.
2. The copy taster
This is the person who selects or approves content, and makes the decision on whether something is suitable for publication at all. This is how you deal with content that you don’t want – because it’s irrelevant, inappropriate or just plain boring – but your colleague does. If you have a clear content strategy to refer to (in print, this would be called an editorial policy), it is easier to back up your decisions. And if you’re creative about offering alternatives – can the information be included in a blog or a tweet, for example? – you’re likely to get a better response than if you just say no.
Have you had content from a colleague that made you want to tear your hair out? How did you cope?