Content Production Planning

While everyone agrees that getting the content of a website right is vital to its success, unless you’re lucky enough to have an experienced editor or content strategist on board, planning content production often seems to fall through the cracks. One reason is that, for most of the team, it feels like someone else’s problem. Not necessarily a specific person’s problem. Just someone else’s. It’s only when everyone starts urgently asking when the content is going to be ready, that it becomes clear the answer is, “Not as soon as we’d like it”.

The good news is that there are some quick and simple things you can do, even if you’re not the official content person on a project, to get everyone on the same content planning page.

Content production planning boils down to answering three deceptively simple questions:

  1. What content do you need?
  2. How much of it do you need?
  3. Who’s going to make it?

Even if it’s not your job to come up with the answers, by asking these questions early enough and agreeing who is going to come up with the answers, you’ll be a long way towards avoiding the last-minute content problems which so often plague projects.

How much content do we need?

People tend to underestimate two crucial things about content: how much content they need, and how long that content takes to produce.

When I ask someone how big their website is – how many pages it contains – I usually double or triple the answer I get. That’s because almost everyone’s mental model of their website greatly underestimates its true size. You can see the problem for yourself if you look at a site map. Site maps are great at representing a mental model of a website. But because they’re a deliberate simplification they naturally lead us to underestimate how much content is involved in populating them.

Several years ago I was asked to help a client create a new microsite (their word) which they wanted ready in two weeks for a conference they were attending. Here’s the site map they had in mind. At first glance it looks like a pretty small website. Maybe twenty to thirty pages?

A site map of a small website

That’s what the client thought.

But see those boxes which are multiple boxes stacked on top of one another, for product categories, descriptions and supporting material? They’re known as page stacks, and page stacks are the content strategy equivalent of Here Be Dragons.

A site map's page stack labelled 'here be dragons'

Say we have:

  • five product categories
  • each with five products
  • which all have two or three supporting documents

Those are still fairly small numbers. But small numbers multiplied by other small numbers tend to lead to big numbers.

5 categories = 5 category descriptions

plus

5 categories × 5 products each = 25 product descriptions

plus

25 products × 2.5 (average) supporting documents = 63 supporting documents

equals

93 pages

Suddenly our twenty- or thirty-page website is running towards one hundred.

That’s probably enough to get most project teams to sit up and take notice. But there’s still the danger of underestimating how long it’s going to take to create the content. After all, assuming the supporting documents already exist in some form, there are only about twenty-five to thirty pages of new copy to write.

How much work is it?

Again, we have the problem that small numbers when multiplied by other small numbers tend to lead to big numbers. Let’s make a rough guess that it’ll take four hours to write each product category and description page we need. That feels a little conservative if we’re writing stuff from scratch, but assuming the person doing it already knows the products fairly well it’s not unreasonable.

30 pages × 4 hours each = 120 hours

120 hours ÷ 7.5 working hours a day = 16 days

Ouch.

At this point it’s pretty clear we’re not getting this site launched in two weeks.

The goal is the conversation

By breaking down the site into its content components, and putting some rough estimates on how long each might take to produce, the client instantly realised that there was no way they would be ready to launch it in two weeks. Although we still didn’t know exactly when it would be ready, getting to that realisation right at the start of the project was a major win for everybody. Without it, the design agency would have bust a gut to get the design, front-end and CMS all done in double-quick time, only to find it was all for nothing as barely half the content was ready. As it was, an early discussion about content, albeit a brief one, bought everyone time to tackle the project properly, without pulling any long nights or working weekends.

If you haven’t been able to get people to discuss content plans for the project, these kinds of rough estimates should give you enough evidence to get everyone to start taking it seriously. Your goal is to get everyone on the project to a place where they are ready to talk in detail about who is going to create this content, and how long it’s really going to take them, and to get to those conversations before lack of content becomes a problem.

Be careful though. It’s best to talk in ranges and round numbers when your estimates are this uncertain. And watch those multipliers. Given small numbers multiplied by other small numbers lead to big numbers, changing just one number can greatly change the overall estimate. I like to run a couple of different scenarios to check what things look like if I’ve under- or overestimated either how many pages we’re going to need, or how long they’re going to take to create. For example:

Top end: 30 pages × 5 hours = 150 hours, or 20 days

Bottom end: 25 pages × 4 hours = 100 hours, or 13.3 days

So rather than say, “I estimate the content will take around sixteen days to produce”, I’m going to say, “I think the content will take about three to four weeks to produce”. Even with qualifiers like estimate and around, sixteen days sounds too precise. Whereas three to four weeks instantly conveys that this is just a rough figure.

Who’s going to make it?

So, people tend to underestimate two crucial things about content: how much content they need, and how long content takes to write. At this stage, you’re still in danger of the latter, because it’s tempting to simply estimate how much time content takes to write (or record, if we’re talking audio or visual content), and overlook all the other work that needs to goes on around it.

Take 24 ways as an example. In terms of our three deceptively simple questions: what is practical articles about web design; how many is twenty-four, one for each day of Advent; and who are experts working on the web, one to write each article.

But there’s another who you might not have considered.

Someone needs to select those authors in the first place, make sure they deliver their articles on time (and find someone to replace them if they don’t), review drafts, copy-edit and proofread final versions, upload them to the site, promote them, keep an eye on the comments and make sure there are still presents under the tree on Christmas morning.

Even if each of those tasks only takes an hour or so, it then needs multiplying by twenty-four (except the presents, obviously). And as we’ve already seen, small numbers multiplied by small numbers quickly turn into much bigger numbers. Just a few hours per article, when multiplied by twenty-four articles, easily multiplies up to days or even weeks of effort.

To get a more accurate estimate of how long the different kinds of content are going to take, you need to break down the content production work into its constituent stages, starting with planning, moving on through the main work of creation, to reviewing, approvals and finally publishing. You need to think about who needs to be involved at each step, and how much time they’ll need to do their bit.

Taken together, these things make up your content workflow. The workflow will be different for each organisation, but might look something like this:

  1. Eddie the web editor will work out the key messages and objectives for each page, and agree them with Mo the marketing director.
  2. Eddie will then get Cal, the copywriter, to write the first draft.
  3. As part of that, Cal will interview Sam the subject expert to understand the intricacies of the subject and get all the facts straight.
  4. Once Cal’s done the first draft, it’ll go to Sam to check for accuracy, while Eddie reviews it for style and message.
  5. Once Cal has incorporated their feedback it’s time to get Mo to have a look at the final draft.
  6. If Mo’s happy, it’ll get a final proofread, be uploaded to the CMS, and Mo will give the final sign-off and release it for publishing.

You can plot this on a table, with the stages of the content production process down the side, and the key roles or personnel along with top. Then the team can estimate how much time they think each of them needs at each stage.

Mo (marketing director) Sam (subject expert) Eddie (web editor) Cal (copywriter)
Outline: define key messages and objectives 30 min
Review outline 15 min
First draft 30 min 3 hours
Review 1st draft 30 min 30 min
2nd draft 1 hour
Review 2nd draft 15 min 15 min 15 min
Final amendments 30 min
Proofread 15 min
Upload 15 min
Sign-off 10 min
TOTAL 40 min 1 hour 15 min 1 hour 30 min 4 hours 45 min

You can then bring out your calculator again, and come up with some more big scary numbers showing how much time it’s going to take for the whole team to get all the content needed not just written, but also planned, reviewed, approved and published.

With an experienced team you can run this exercise as a group workshop and get some fairly accurate estimates pretty quickly. If this is all a bit new to you, check out Gather Content’s Content Production Planning for Agencies ebook for a useful guide to common content roles, ballpark estimates for how much time each one needs on a typical piece of content, and how to run a process and estimating workshop to dig into them in more detail.

On a small team, one person might play many roles, but you should still sanity-check your estimates by breaking down the process and putting a rough estimate on each stage. With only a couple of people involved, it’s even easier to only include the core activity like writing or recording in your estimates, and forget to allow time for the planning, reviewing, proofreading, publishing and promoting you’ll still need to do. And even in a team of one, if at all possible you should find at least one other person to act as a second pair of eyes, and give anything you produce a quick once-over and proofread before it’s published.

Depending on the kind of content you’re making, you should also consider what will happen after it’s published. The full content life cycle should include promotion, monitoring and regular reviews to make sure content stays accurate and up to date. Making sure you have the time and resources available to do all those things for each piece of content is essential for creating a sustainable content programme.

The proof of the pudding

Even after digging into workflow and getting the whole team involved in estimating, you’re still largely in the realm of the guesstimate. The good news, though, is that you can quite quickly start finding out if your guesstimates are right or not. As soon as you can, pilot the production process with some real content. This is a double-win: you start finding out how long it really takes to produce all this fab new content, and you get real content to work with in designs and prototypes.

Once you’ve run a few things through your process, you’ll be able to refine your estimates, confirm your workflow, and give everyone involved a clear idea of when it will all be ready, and what you need from them.

Keeping it all on track

At this point I like to pull everything together into the content strategist’s favourite tool: the spreadsheet.

A simple content production checklist is a bit like a content inventory or audit, but for the content you don’t yet have, not the stuff already done. You can grab an example here.

Each piece of content gets its own row, with columns for basic information like page title, ID (which should match the site map), and who’s responsible for making it. You can capture simple details like target audience and key messages here too, though for more complex content, page description tables like those described by Relly Annett-Baker in “Extracting the Content” may be a better tool to use. Just adapt these columns to whatever makes sense for your content.

I then have columns to track where each piece is in the production process. I usually keep this simple, with a column each to mark whether it’s draft, final or uploaded. The status column on the left automatically shows the item’s status, using a simple traffic light colour scheme for whether the item is still to do (red), in draft (amber), or done (green). Seeing the whole thing slowly turn from red to green is a nice motivator.

If you want to track the workflow in more detail, a kanban board in a tool like Trello is a great way for a team to collaborate on content production, track each item’s progress, and keep an eye out for bottlenecks and delays.

Getting to the content strategy conversation

It’s a relatively simple exercise, then, to decide not just what kinds of pages you need, but also how many of them: put some rough estimates of effort on the tasks needed to create those pages – not just the writing, but all the other stages of planning, reviewing, approving, publishing and promoting – and then multiply all those things together. This will quickly bring some reality to grand visions and overambitious plans. Do it early enough, and even when the final big scary number is a lot bigger and scarier than everyone thought, you’ll still have time to do something about it.

As well as getting everyone on board for some proper content planning activities, that big scary number is your opportunity to get to the real core questions of content strategy: do we really need all this content? Where can existing content be reused and repurposed? How do we prioritise our efforts? What really matters to our readers and users?

Time and again, case studies show that less content delivers more: more leads, more sales, more self-service support and savings in the call centre. Although that argument is primarily one you should make from a good-for-the-users perspective, it doesn’t hurt to be able to make it from the cheaper-for-the-business perspective as well, and to have some big scary numbers to back that up.

About the author

Sophie Dennis consults on content and UX strategy, and leads blended creative / technical teams (mostly agile ones) on a freelance or contract basis. She loves working with other smart, creative people to deliver digital products that make a real difference both to users and clients. Recently she’s worked on major digital projects for cxpartners, the Office for National Statistics, Bristol City Council, the National Trust, Jisc, Bloomsbury Publishing and the University of Surrey. She lives in the rural South West of England, where she runs the Digpen.com grassroots web conference with husband Andy Robinson.

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