The Role of Content Ops in Digital Product Development

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Jon Akland

Associate Director of Product Design

Jon Akland

Companies without a strategic plan don’t usually get too far—it’s hard to succeed without a definition of success your whole team can aim for, whether it’s revenue, growth, or customer engagement.

Similarly, a leadership team that doesn’t seriously consider the challenges of creating and managing product content will quickly find it difficult to deliver on its promises.

Content is a primary feature

Whether it’s an internal blog, on-screen messaging to hook new customers, or step-by-step instructions to guide users through your latest feature, content lies at the heart of many companies’ products.

Digital media companies like Axios and Quartz are obviously content-driven, but much more common are products that rely on messaging and shorter-form content to guide onboarding, encourage engagement, and communicate information central to the product experience. Think companies as varied as H&R Block, Mailchimp, and Instacart.

Too often, though, companies treat content as a secondary concern, a decorative exercise to hastily complete and apply when a product is nearly ready to ship. At DockYard, we don’t see it that way.

How and what you communicate to your users is core to how they experience your product. When you work with DockYard, we understand that your product deserves a plan for how you’ll create and manage content. That plan should include a content-specific strategy—aligned with and in service of your user-focused business goals—and a system to make that strategy operational.

Start with strategy

*Content strategy* focuses on delivering the right content to the right people at the right time. Aligning your creation and distribution efforts for written content with your overall product vision requires establishing a number of systems to guide content creation, including:
  • Voice and tone: What communication style best serves your product’s brand? H&R Block, for example, wants you to trust in their expertise as they guide you through completing your taxes. The manner in which they communicate seeks to meet your needs—confident, clear, and jargon-free.
  • Format and cadence: In which medium will your customers consume your content, and in what amount? How often will content be delivered to your customers?
  • Success metrics: What information will you use to determine whether your content is successfully serving your product strategy?

Once you have a thoughtful strategy in place, you need a plan to make it real.

Adopting an operations mindset

*Content operations* is how to turn your strategy into practice. To do so, a sustainable content operation plan takes people, process, tooling, and feedback.

The first step is putting people with the right skills in place to execute your content strategy, and ensuring they have sufficient support at the leadership level to achieve their goals.

Because content runs through products, across services and disciplines, informed advocates in a position of authority can be critical to preserving access and championing the value of the content team’s efforts.

Do these people—both those you entrust to execute and those who can advocate—exist in your organization currently? What would it take to put these team members in place, and do you have the resources to level up where necessary?

It helps a great deal when team leaders set the right tone, of course, but don’t underestimate the ambitious generalists—project managers, product folks, or writing-adjacents—who may be well positioned and ready to champion your content operation cause, even if it doesn’t exactly match their job description. (Don’t know of anyone who will fit the bill? DockYard knows where to help look when you’re ready.)

Whether it’s a team or an individual tasked with creating content in service of strategy, a reliable start-to-finish process removes guesswork and ensures the work meets established standards of quality.

There are two general schools of thought when it comes to establishing a formal workflow:

  1. Base your process on your team’s existing ways of working (including tools and other elements, covered below), or
  2. Introduce an aspirational process to guide your desired outcomes.

In either case, your team’s workflow should complement your production cycle with as little friction as possible.

Be honest with yourself—and your team—at this stage. You wouldn’t launch a physical product without a detailed, realistic plan for where you’d acquire and traffic raw materials, how you’d refine those resources, and what their final state should be—your content resources are no different.

I helped plan content operations for a media company that published digitally as well as in print. Their workflows were distinct enough that we recommended two parallel content production tracks, managed by two independent editors. Every business deserves its own unique content operation designed to serve its individual needs.

Just as consistency in your product is important to your customers, a consistent set of publishing expectations is vital to the success of your content team. Clearly defined editorial guidelines, procedural milestones, and transparent standards of review are the hallmarks of a sustainable content production framework.

Decisions on which tools and platforms to use in content production should be determined by your product’s unique needs and requirements, and should focus on marrying editorial intent with your product’s design system.

Content creators aren’t designers or engineers, and they shouldn’t be asked to produce layouts or write code to complete their assigned tasks. Choose technical constraints (a reduced-feature Notion template, maybe) that enable them to focus solely on content.

Above, I mentioned two schools of thought when formalizing a workflow. When it comes to tooling, I happen to be biased in favor of reality. Which is to say, unless your existing team has developed bad habits that materially threaten your business, building on existing ways of working stands a much better chance of taking hold with your team than adopting an ideal or untested process. Very few journalists I’ve worked with, for example, prefer to begin writing on a blank page in the CMS, despite how often an editor-in-chief might urge them to.

So start by taking stock of existing conditions. If your team is already producing quality work, then intentionally formalizing your workflow might mean minor adjustments rather than a complete overhaul.

From our vantage point outside your business, DockYard can uncover opportunities to make sound process improvements by auditing your current workflow, noticing gaps and weak points, and aligning your content production with your strategic goals.

Finally, it’s crucial to prepare an approach to integrating readership data and user feedback from the outset. Regular data collection and intentional user outreach is key to maintaining a user-focused product strategy. But so is a thoughtful method for drawing actionable insights from that feedback to share with your content team and company leadership.

Plan ahead with your team so you’re set up to collect the information you need, and know what you’re going to do with it when it arrives. As my high school social studies teacher used to say, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

How DockYard fits in

In addition to building wicked software, at DockYard we strive to leave our clients better equipped to succeed than they were when we met. It might take the form of technical upskilling an engineering team, or creating a UX research roadmap for an inhouse staff to carry forward and continue pursuing after our time together is done.

Since many of our clients’ products have content at their core, we’re particularly concerned with helping teams craft a content operation plan specifically geared for their business.

Starting with your big-picture product goals, we’ll help you map out a content strategy and assist in assembling the means to achieve it, including the people, technology, and mindset required to produce and maintain your product’s content—a core feature fundamental to success.

Doesn’t your product deserve it?


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