Great content doesn't happen by accident. It's usually a byproduct of refined processes that help teams work together efficiently and effectively. However, planning editorial workflows and implementing content creation processes can be challenging.
Today’s guest is Justin Zimmerman from Salesmsg. Justin talks about how marketing teams can develop and implement editorial workflows and content creation processes to create better content.
Ben: Hey, Justin. How's it going this afternoon?
Justin: Feeling fantastic. Thank you. I appreciate being here with you and everybody in the CoSchedule family and community.
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. I'm super, super excited to have you on the show and to talk editorial workflows and content management, which are topics that are near and dear to my heart. I believe they are yours as well. Super, super excited to have you on.
Before we get too far along, first off, why should marketers care about having defined editorial workflows for content? I feel like when we talk about workflows, we're talking about processes and I think sometimes the process becomes interpreted as red tape. Creatives, I think, just inherently hate anything to do with red tape and bureaucracy when it comes to governing their work. Why should they care? What's a better way for them to look at this?
Justin: I have some really deep experience being on both sides of the fence with the process, creative control. In fact, actually, just a quick brief before that is every job and company I've worked for, I've used a litmus test to help make the decision as to whether this is a place that's right for me. These are in a very particular order. One of them speaks to this very clearly. It is collaboration, connection, creative control, and then compensation—four Cs as I say.
Creative control is a big part of that for me. I understand what it's like when other people try to impose how they want to do things without really truly understanding how things get done. Being on the other side of it and being (I would say) an over-prescriptive control freak where I then in my 360 reviews as a manager have received some very critical feedback on how I show up. I've been on both sides of the equation. That self-reflection and experience really allow me to look at the word process not as a dirty word, but as a way to align teams.
The need for workflows is very similar to—imagine two cities in the world. One of those cities has lanes, five-lane highways, let's just call it Florida I-95—flow and going speedway. Let's think of another city in the world. Let's call it Bangalore, India. There are no streets, no traffic lights, everybody's going all over the place. But in both cases, you've got people trying to go from A to B. They're trying to get to a destination.
In one of those circumstances, you've got some observe best practices on how to move down the highway, and then you have 100,000 best practices on how to move down the highway. Really, the difference is, when you have a system that everyone implicitly agrees to and creates, you get a sense of flow. For me, a sense of flow, workflow—work and flowing—is really also tied to that psychological principle of flow by the psychologist [...] who talks about being in flow states.
Flow state is, I think, the ultimate outcome of teams working together towards a common goal and feeling that sense of higher purpose. For me, whether it's content, sports, or sales, when you have a team, the ultimate goal, like they say, focus on (there's that dirty word again) process. Focus on the process and the results will show up.
When you can get people to have that clarity as to how we want this work to flow, you then step-by-step, iteratively—some people call it agility, agile on the process—process as a product. If you treat the process like a product, trying to create better versions of it, and it's not just one person's dictation of it, then you get alignment around process not being some sort of dirty word where you have one person over-controlling or other people feeling like they don't want to handle this at all.
For me, the highest level of goal in the world of workflow is to align teams that feel like they're coming together for a higher purpose. You can map this neurologically. You can break down serotonin and you can bust out all those neurochemicals. For me, it's a state of enjoying my work and the people that I'm working with because you got three places you live in the world. You got work, you got home, and you've got inside yourself.
Some people, home life isn't great. Some people, work life isn't great. Some people, internal life. When all three of those are terrible, you're not living in a great state. You're living in a world of pain as they said in The Big Lebowski. I got the chance to throw that in.
For me, one of my goals for my teams was to identify and help create at least one area in the world where people that I work with could have a solid, great stable bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, clarity alignment. For me, workflow is where all that comes together.
Ben: That is an excellent answer to that question. I would defy anybody listening to try to refute any of that. That's awesome. You've touched on this a little bit there. Let's dive deeper into, what are some of the potential pitfalls that content teams might face as a result of lacking sound processes? What's the pain you're going to experience if you think you can get away with blowing this off?
Justin: I've been there. I've got a concept called the start right. It's exactly what it sounds like. It's in opposition or in contrast (is a better way) to the concept of a kickoff. I think words matter because they give an indication of the actions that follow them. A lot of companies would have a kickoff meeting. You've heard it before. Where does the word kickoff come from? Sounds like football to me—American football, if you're listening to this internationally.
What happens when you have a kickoff? You got one team on one side, you got another team on the other side, and you kick the ball, and the ball is oblong. When you kick it in and it bounces, it goes doink, doink, doink, doink. It's all over the place, it's a big old scramble, and you don't really know what's going to happen. That's okay when you're doing new things for the very first time. It is a kickoff.
You don't really know what's going to happen. You don't have a process in place. You've never been down this road. You don't have anything documented on how it's going to go. By the nature of it, anything new is essentially a kickoff. But once you've done your first blog post, your first webinar, your force co-promotion with another company, or whatever that project or campaign is, the first time you've done something like that, then you shouldn't have to relearn those lessons over and over again.
For me, not having workflow and process in place or at least the mindset of let's go create this and make that a product as part of this outcome—because you're never just creating campaigns. You're never just creating blog posts, you're actually creating the structure in which how work gets done. If you think about it that way, you reduce the pain associated with this is what happens when you don't have a workflow in place. You don't make that a top priority that's part of the creation of whatever is the campaign, the product, the program, the department, you name it, the deliverable is lessons learned.
How many people after a meeting, after a quarter, after a project—you go have a meeting and talk about lessons learned. That's another very common term. And I'm going to put some contrast to lessons learned and kickoffs in a second. Lessons learned, oh, we did this wrong, that happened, that happened again, this happened again. Then what happens? You go through another iteration and cycle, you have the same lessons learned, the same pain, and the same missed opportunities.
By having kickoffs and not having a great way to manage the lessons learned, you continue to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. People know that, they can feel that. If you're a manager and you're not listening to these things and not helping them do something about that, your team is going to start doubting your ability to be an effective manager or helping them see that.
In fact, actually, I can't get into it right here, but I met with IBM's chief agile strategist and trainer. He showed me one of the most beautiful from top to bottom examples of how to pass this information along, these lessons learned, part of the process of getting smarter, better, and more aligned. Really, there are three areas in which he showed it to me. He was like, there's the individual who learns the lesson, there's the management and the team manager who learns the lesson, and there are the lessons that needed to be sent up to the upper levels. It's just a beautiful thing and it's all super confidential. I can't show it, but it’s just fantastic stuff.
Without workflow and that being implicit in this is what we need to create, you create an environment where you're learning the same lessons over and over again. People start to doubt the management's ability to either empower them to help create the change or to do something about it themselves.
In contrast to lessons learned or to do some of the lessons learned that don't result in common kickoffs over and over again, I've got this concept called the start right. The start right really is for anything. For the beginning of a blog or for the beginning of a campaign that's going to go out on a specific customer-type, landing pages—all the collection of assets.
Start right is exactly as it says. You go through one iteration of a particular rollout or project, you capture all the things that you would ask and want to collect again at the beginning, and you document that in that little task called the start right. Then before you begin, instead of kicking off and everybody's just running around, you have a meeting and it's part of the project, it's part of the workflow. You don't complete the project, you don't start the project until you have the start right.
As you run more and more and more of these blog posts or these campaign types, you learn more and more lessons to the point where you get to pretty much you don't have to keep learning those lessons over and over again. In fact, it's allowed me to scale out of my job, out of departments, and even into out of businesses because I've progressively and iteratively just captured those little lessons learned, put them as a little bullet point inside of the start right doc or inside the blog, and then been able to pass that off to teams. Then the teams started doing it.
In fact, I went back to my most recent company a couple of days ago because they had a big reopening party. They invited me to come back, I'm not an employee anymore. I'm currently at Salesmsg, a new employee—SMS, SMS for businesses. They're like, you know what, we're still running your system. We're still running that approach, which means that people are happy at work.
They're not going home at night wondering, did this get done or did that get done? Does my boss know what's visible or what's not? Am I being valued? It just gives a sense of alignment between objectives, the day-to-day, and then the long-term because you have the opportunity to continually improve. That essentially is what people want. You can't have a sense of progress without a sense of process.
Workflow is the way that connects where we are today with the progress and results that we want. CoSchedule, Wrike, your project management system, however you do it, making sure that you make that a priority is a way that you ensure you and your team are happy iteratively in microdoses for ever how long you run that.
Ben: Sometimes creatives and marketers will claim that process puts undue constraints on their ability to get their work done. But in reality, the opposite is much more often true. When implemented correctly, a defined content creation process will make it clear exactly who will do what and when so creative marketers can focus all their mental energy on what it is they do best rather than worrying about managing handoffs for projects or orders. Any of the other things can just get to be more difficult than what they should be when there is no actual process in place.
If you run into any pushback, anytime you try to change anything, there's going to be some resistance. It's just human nature. Just point to the results that you're able to get after you implement a small change and compare that to what life was like before that process was in place. If you can do that, odds are, your team won't want to go back to doing things the way they were before. Because if you're working without clearly defined processes or workflows, odds are, your team has probably just gotten used to dealing with chaos without necessarily realizing how painful that can make the act of content creation really feel. Now, back to Justin.
We've established why this all matters. Why are we even having this conversation? Let's say they're sold on the idea that they need to begin developing editorial workflows and they need to be building processes into their content marketing operation. These aren't necessarily job titles, but more like functionalities or job functions. Ideally, what roles should the content team have in order to be successful?
Justin: You told me earlier you have a good audience here of teams and companies between 20 and 200. I'm going to just make the assumption that everyone listening right now is in a company of at least that size. Because if you're smaller than that, then it might not work for you. Depending on agile and whether you're following any of those approaches or not, at a very minimum, you need three people.
You need a writer, someone who understands the production of written, visual, and spoken content. You need a designer. These are table stakes. The missing piece, I call it the Haleys. You got to find your Haleys or your Hannahs. Having a project manager or in the world of agile, having the product manager who owns the backlog—if you're listening to this through the lens of that—who owns the marketing backlog and will handle the grooming of the tasks, will handle the inputs coming to them from stakeholders outside of the department, that's a big missing piece.
When you have air traffic control feeding your creatives and your creatives are not necessarily inclined to want to do that project management nitty-gritty stuff, that's a super important role. If you can find that person who understands marketing and understands content, typically has some secretarial or admin background, but also has a penchant for writing—we found our last Haley, who was her real name right out of college. We helped groom her literally into being an admin, project manager, agile backlog owner. It took a little while.
You can probably find these people may be more well-trained now than maybe five years ago. That's a key role because if you have creatives who are like, I don't want to touch the project management, I don't want to know about how to name the tasks, the order, the workflows, and the tagging. All that stuff is sometimes just too cumbersome and I get it. Just tell me what to do, tell me the order of what needs to be done. Don't tell me how to do it because that's another big thing.
Don't tell me how to do it, but make sure I understand the priorities, when they're due, the scope, and what's expected, and that frees up the creative side of the department to run. Again, if you are an agile-minded person using Scrum, there's a reason why they call them sprints. Think about it. You run, you can go at it, but you can't run if you're not clear. That's the start right process essentially for maybe the beginning of a weekly, bi-weekly, quarterly, however, you do your planning.
That becomes the lens that that person who has that key role that's interfacing with stakeholders, interfacing with executives, interfacing with the priorities. All the nuances that come up from the day-to-day can help protect the team from distraction, helping them focus on the most important things, and be the negotiator when things come up that cause that conflict. The worst thing is the context switching.
Having that guard and having a system in place and a person who's going to manage that for the creatives, that's an unlock of any bottleneck that will keep content flowing and results flowing. For me, that's a key thing I think that a lot of teams don't talk about, a lot of companies don't even know what to look for. A tool like CoSchedule sits right at the middle of that right there. It is the tool that separates chaos from clarity.
Ben: Yeah, love it, 100%. Obviously, I'm biased as the Inbound Marketing Director at CoSchedule, but this is exactly the thing that we use our own software to achieve. I'm not just a marketer, I'm also a client of the product. You've got a believer right here in terms of that really being, I think ideally, what the core structure of your team should look like and how you support them effectively.
Justin: You're having me reflect right now on what am I trying to accomplish in this conversation with you and the people listening? If I can break through in any way, I think it is a mindset adoption and shift. If you can't see the value of having someone own the marketing process, the marketing backlog, or the marketing tasks, and being that firewall between all the distractions between the outside world and your team, that's a big thing to get. It's hard to understand the value of it until you actually have experienced it. Because you're experiencing the pain.
You know what it's like to miss deadlines, to have rework. Again, going back to the kickoff, someone ran off with the ball, and then they did half of this with the headlines missing. They didn't interview the right customer and then it comes back, now you've got to do it over 50%, and now you're missing the deadline. The person who did the work is now frustrated because they didn't have all the pieces of information. No one's happy. No one's happy, so start right.
Having that person at the helm—and it doesn't have to be the director of marketing, it doesn't have to be the CMO. There are really great talented people who have just raw skills that if you give them a chance to own this and give them some direction, they can take this on. Because if you're thinking, oh my God, I've got to do all this work, I'm the director. Just because your title has chief, director, or manager in it doesn't necessarily mean it's your job to do this work. It's your job to make sure this work gets done, it doesn’t mean you have to do it.
Ben: I think that's an extremely, extremely important point. I think that sometimes, at least from something I've gleaned from conversations I've had with other marketers, is that when their teams are struggling to control chaos, I think one of the first places people point toward is, well, we need a project manager. We need an operations person, which maybe you do, maybe.
Particularly in agency settings where there are just more inputs and outputs that need to be directed. I think it's particularly on in-house teams and maybe run some agency teams too. I think you're absolutely right. You probably have the people on the team
Justin: There's somebody right now in your company and on your team who wants this job and they love this stuff. There's just a certain personality type who loves this type of work and is willing to take it on and flourish. I've seen people who want to quit their job and go somewhere else. Then given the opportunity to run this type of stuff, they are just happier than a pig in mud.
Ben: Yeah, totally. That’s another important thing to maybe keep in mind too. If you've got someone on your team who's hungry to take something that's a mess and to just give it order, would you rather have that person just do that, be happy, and stay, or would you rather that person leaves, then you hire another person to do your project management, and then you also have to fill the position of the person who left, which is really just going to add more dysfunction?
Justin: It doesn't have to be a complete role. Depending on the size of your team in your company, you can find someone who’s part of their responsibilities is now this. They're still producing content. They're not like, well, I need a dedicated FTE for project management. No, you don't have to. If you're in the position where you can, fantastic. Project manager, product manager, backlog owner, marketing owner, you can look all these terms up and see which one makes sense for you. But it can be a part of their CoSchedule.
Ben: Nice. I see what you did there and I enjoyed that.
Justin: Something came up for me. I don't know if a lot of companies face this, but I know some do. Sometimes bosses, all they care about are the results. If they're looking at the results and not seeing what they want, they go right to the person. But they don't understand that there are—and I have another alliteration I use all the time, it's the four Ps. It's purpose, people, process, and product. The product being the outcome, 5 times 5 is 25, which is product of—it's mathematical there.
If your boss is wondering where the results are or if you're wondering where the results are, you want to diagnose the situation, and you're like, why is it so hard to work here? Why can't we get things done? Why is it always a jumbled mess and chaos every time we try to do a project? If you're thinking to yourself, I want to go work somewhere else because of these things, as a boss, you're going to lose somebody. Or as an employee you're like, I got to go change my whole world because I can't be here.
When I dial it back to, how do you diagnose and you work your way up? If you look at the end result and you're like, oh, we're not getting what we want, let's take one step up the chain. Is it the process? Is that the workflow? Is it the clarity? Do we have too many priorities? Are there not enough resources to execute this?
Then you go up or then is it the person? Are they able to do the work? Is it their qualifications? Is it their skills? Then move up one more level. Is it clear on the purpose? Are we sure we're attracting and working with the right people? It's not just, no results, bad results, Hey, you, what's going on? As a manager or someone who manages up, workflow is a key part of diagnosing and creating a better work environment and results.
It's not just one thing, it's everything. A workflow tool sits right in the middle between people and results. That is a very clear place to look. In fact, I've said before, if you want to know how clear a company's thinking is around their strategy, open up their project management tool and you'll see. If you see a bunch of garbage in there, it's probably a bunch of garbage going on up here. But if you see clean and clear and well-defined tasks and projects, you've got a clean and clear, well-defined company, and it's a mirror.
Ben: Yeah, 100%. If a content team right now doesn't have clear workflows established, if they don't even have the rudiments of a workflow in place, and it's just maybe one person's assigning stuff out and then from there you've got projects, you've got a deadline, have at it. What's the first thing that you would recommend they do to put a workflow in place and to start turning things around a bit?
Justin: My first reaction to that question was—and let me know if this is something you've seen too—but without a workflow and a tool in place, bosses, co-workers, and peers will use the nearest notification tool to tell you what's next about that thing. Sometimes you'll get an email about this part of the project, but then sometimes you'll get an invite to a Google Doc, then sometimes you'll get a Slack notification, and maybe sometimes in all the other places that pop up. And then you've got 16 channels inside of your Slack. Some of them have these.
One of the first things that I think anybody who feels and faces the overwhelming sense of being lost, and every time a new project or task kicks off, is to come together with the people who you're working with or they're being assigned to. And come up with just a basic saying, hey, this is the type of information we're going to communicate here and this is the type of information we're going to communicate here. That way, when Slack pops off, you don't have to think.
The whole point of a marketer is a book called, Don't Make Me Think. It's a great book. Let's use that in our process. Don't make your team think. The less thinking they have to do around is this the right place, I got to build this piece and put it together, the more energy that's going to be spent trying to put the puzzle together versus doing the work.
I'd first say and I still deal with this, if you have a project management system or three project management systems—I'm sorry for you if that's your world—you've got your notification systems in there. Step one of taming the chaos in a workflow is to get clear on what type of work is going to go into, what type of system, and what type of communication is going to be in there.
In that way, everybody on the team has a reasonable expectation to know that when I get a Jira notification about something that I know that it's not going to show up in Slack, and now I've got to go find that Jira task, take that link, take that thing. Just go use the comments section or paste the link in there. Do the work for your teammates or your employees and do that context, like, hey, I've got a great idea for a new ad. I found these screenshots. Don't go Slack them in the middle of the day, as an example, to like, oh, hey, I found this. Oh, yeah, I was doing something else—context switch.
Go find the task that's relevant to where those screenshots might be, go put them in there, and tag them for that person. That way, you're cementing where that attention goes for that particular reason. For me, that's the example of getting clear on just taming the noise and chaos around where people's attention is going to eliminate the distraction, to free up the mental energy, to get the work done.
Then you can get into workflows, naming tasks, and what folders mean this. There's a whole bunch of other stuff. But I would say, it's really hard to get clear inside of a system when you have 10 systems that are instructing you to do it 10 different ways in other ways.
Ben: Yes, absolutely. Once they've gotten that far, what's the next step? We've got the basic elements of maybe what you could call the beginnings of a workflow or some sort of work management process.
Justin: People overcomplicate things and I used to be that person. I've come to realize that any more than three levels, you lose people and it becomes difficult to manage. No matter what system you're using, there is typically (in any project management system) a root folder, whether it's a department or a project, and then you have tasks and subtasks. Each one of those, you need to decide, okay, if we're going more than three levels deep on how we organize our work, you're making it too complicated for people to follow. In Jira, for instance, you've got projects.
In our case, we use a project as a department. We use Epics, which are essentially just folders to be our projects. I might have an Epic-named podcast, CoSchedule. I might have another Epic-named Webinar CoSchedule. I just make it really super simple and then that way, I have that bar. Then I have one other level down, not another one. Those are the individual tasks. It's like email invite, recording.
That way, I've got the main context. This is all about partnerships. Then I have the product that we're trying to create, which are podcasts and webinars. Then I have the tasks or as I think about them as the deliverables it takes to create in order to then achieve the results of what that podcast needs. Then you just apply workflow on top of that.
The very simplest one is like, not started, started, done. There are definitely better ways than that. That's as complicated as you really need to get. Then you're saying, well, this podcast, this Epic, now or next sprint? Then you're really just playing with a minimum number of variables.
You got your department, you got your projects, you got your tasks inside those projects, and then you've got a workflow that's like started, not started, done. Then you're just really deciding, do we do this now? Do we do this next sprint or next cycle—however you work—or let's keep it in the backlog for later? It's not any more complicated than that. If you make it more complicated than that, you'll lose people.
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. I think that this has been a lot of information to digest. I love just being able to leave this on the thought that you don't need to make things any more complicated than what they need to be just to get stuff done. Very often, simpler is better.
Justin: W.E. Deming, grandfather of modern industrial post World War II, helped rebuild Japan, and helped them get their economy back. I think he said, “If you can't describe what you're doing as a process, you have no idea what you're doing.”
Ben: It's absolutely true. Justin, this is awesome stuff. This went way, way, way deeper, I think, philosophically and practically the process and the benefits that workflows really offer us as marketers and content creators. I really appreciate your time coming to the show. Before I let you go, do you have any parting thoughts or anything that you would like to leave our listeners with that we maybe haven't touched on yet?
Justin: Yeah, start small. My success with making changes always started with finding one person who's vibing with the idea. Like I said, treat the process like a product. If you've got CoSchedule and you're trying to think about I want to try this new idea out, iterate or do something new, two things. One, don't ask for permission, just go do it. But then once you get clear on what you want to do, find one other person in a side project or a side task to iterate how that works, get clear on its success, and then start to apply that to other places.
Because the mistake I think people make is they get a new tool, they change everything, everyone's on different pages, and it's not a good start right. It creates a bad experience for people. Change takes steps. Workflows are change and require change management. When you find inspiration, if you're listening to this, and want to make some changes in how your workflows because honestly, if you're not the type of person who likes workflows, everything I said to you right now is not really as exciting for those who are like, oh, I love process, I love management.
If you love process, you love management, just make sure you take it slow. Find your ally, find that one person, treat the process like a product, do it one step at a time, and then iteratively, in small doses roll that out. In fact, actually use that person who's your ally as the person who deploys it. I actually would take a step back and not try to be the one who came up with the ideas. Give the other people credit, even if you came up with the idea. Give them credit, step back, and watch people succeed.
Ben: Love it. Yeah, I think that's a great thought to leave this conversation on. Thanks once again, Justin, for taking the time. I feel like we could probably talk about this stuff all day.
Justin: Yeah, if we have visuals. I had to describe everything verbally. I was trying to imagine all my stuff. The visual side of this obviously delivers a lot more.
Ben: Yeah, it's a good thought. We'll definitely have to schedule a part two and keep this conversation going in the future.
Justin: Thank you for having me and allowing me just to unpack a bunch of stuff. Hopefully, everyone got a little something out of this, if not just feeling better about the world we live in.
Ben was the Inbound Marketing Director at CoSchedule. His specialties include content strategy, SEO, copywriting, and more. When he's not hard at work helping people do better marketing, he can be found cross-country skiing with his wife and their dog.