Less Chaos, Better ROI: The Content Marketer's Guide to ContentOps

Tyler Wade
Content Marketer
Published11 Jan, 2022
What is Content Operations? Content Ops 2024 Guide - Superside

Every content marketing manager knows this job can get chaotic quickly.

Your to-do list is at constant risk of overflowing, between managing writers, corralling designs, and keeping up with edits—which can result in hitting deadlines by the skin of your teeth and skipping over distribution because “social doesn’t convert”.

Then, you're left holding the bag to prove content marketing's return on investment to leadership.

The solution? Taking a step back to assess your content operations.

Investing in ContentOps as you scale your content marketing is like reinvesting your high-performing dividend stocks and continuing your bull run.

We asked around to see how content marketers in various contexts approach content operations—from workflows to team structures to tool stacks. The result is this resource to help you get better content out the door, distributed widely, with wisely allocated resources.

This guide covers:

BONUS: Take our ContentOps assessment

What Is Content Operations vs. Content Management vs. Content Marketing

Content marketing, as you know, is the strategy you use to plan, create, and distribute high-quality content to your target audience and achieve business objectives.

Content management, on the other hand, refers to the tools and systems you use to gather, manage, and publish content. A content management system (CMS) is where your content lives. Popular options include WordPress, Ghost, and Squarespace.

Content operations (or ContentOps) is what ties your strategy and management together, so your team can produce and leverage more effective content, more efficiently and get the most out of your content marketing investment.

In a nutshell: Content operations is the necessary foundation of people, processes, and technology used to create, manage, publish, distribute, and govern content as you scale.

The Three Pillars of Content Operations: People, Process, and Technology

There are many moving parts to a well-thought-out digital content operations system, but they fall into three buckets: People, Process, and Tech.

Set them up to work together and content marketing runs like a well-oiled machine.

1. People

While artificial intelligence (AI) threatens to take over the content space, the truth is the technology is a long way off. Real people have real experiences and emotions—both of which matter for making content that resonates.

According to Angus Edwardson, co-founder of content operations platform GatherContent:

The most important thing for good ContentOps to actually sustain in any organization—as cliché as it is to say—is people.

“Specifically, I see loads of companies, or people, with such great intentions, but if they don’t have buy-in from the rest of their team, or their leadership, then it will fall apart after a few months, or just progress really slowly,” Edwardson continues. “Having the people to be able to support your plans is the most essential thing.”

It’s why content teams are growing. Some 31% of B2B companies surveyed by Content Marketing Institute said their team size increased in 2021. Almost half rely on outsourced help from external contributors (like freelancers or agencies) to produce credible and great content at scale.

Hailey Ho, Content Marketing Lead at Shopify Plus saw her team grow from a 4-person to a 16-person operation and says documentation is critical, "Documenting ensures our learnings over the years don't get lost as new members join. It can be a big upfront investment but has paid off for us in terms of how quickly a new teammate can onboard and figure things out on their own, within the framework or roadmap we follow.

Regardless of your team structure, clear job descriptions and minimal role overlap ensure smooth content operations. Each team member must know the who, what, when, where, and why of your content process.

Content marketing requires consistent output to produce results, and consistent output requires repeatable processes built with speed and scale in mind.

Your processes define each task within a larger project, including the person responsible, their dependencies, and the next person in the workflow. Strategically planning these elements is key to success.

“I didn’t start on this because I thought 'they' handled it” is a sentence you never want to hear from your content team. High-quality content comes out of your marketing team’s harmonious efforts. Without collaboration, you’ll hit bottlenecks.

To build a sustainable content process, answer questions like:

  • Which tasks need priority and why?
  • What is today’s top priority to crush this week and win the quarter?
  • Do other team members need support on their projects?

But don’t stop there.

Create easy-to-access guides, documents, and templates that other team members can follow. Store them all in a content team repository alongside:

  • Style guides: Include finer content details about grammar, language, word choice, and formatting.
  • Branding assets : Outline your brand identity guidelines, including your color palette, logo, tone of voice, and company story.
  • Templates: Create blog post, social media, graphic design, and other briefing templates to save everyone time.
  • Content guides: Include details for how to create optimized blog posts, eBooks, social media posts, and other content items.

Ensure your content team is using these resources. Make them living documents that you update and reference often. Nothing is worse than documents for document’s sake. We’re creating a content process, not busy work.

Back to Hailey: “One thing I like to do is have a "master" doc with quick links to all the other side documents that inevitably are created throughout the course of a project."

"Staying organized is incredibly important — you don't want to end up with 20 different Slack groups or folders for one project; things get lost."

- Hailey Ho, Content Marketing Lead at Shopify Plus

With the right people and processes in place, you can empower execution with a carefully curated stack of tools to bring about efficiencies throughout the content lifecycle.

3. Technology

There are hundreds of tools, apps, and platforms to help you build out your content operations. So many that Dennis Shirshikov, a Content Strategist at Awning, expects “content teams to look more like technology teams over time.”

Content operations require a "central hub"—a project management dashboard to manage workflow—for the tech-enabled content teams of the future.

Many dev and product teams are using project management tools already. Tap into their expertise and run your maturing content operations process on an intelligent platform.

But, choose wisely.

Pick one big ops tool and go all in. There are significant switching costs to trying a workflow management tool and moving on. You lose your team's trust, and you don't make progress in the interim periods where you're switching.

- Nikhil Venkatesa, Content Marketing Lead, Convictional

Choosing a central hub for your ContentOps

There are dozens of project management tools you can set up as your central hub. What works best for you will depend on your team size, the scale of operation, your technology stack, budget, and preferences.

Here are some of the tools that are crowd-favorites among content marketers.

Google Workspace: Where most small-scale operations start

If you’re using Gmail, you have access to Google Workspace, a free and flexible solution for early content operations.

Freelance SEO strategist Jake Sheridan uses checkboxes in a Google Sheet to track the production of new content. Notice how each stage of the process links to a standard operating procedure (SOP) doc so collaborators, whether ongoing or new, always know the specs and expectations.

You can even use Google Calendar to manage your content calendar with naming conventions on like:

  • A for assigned
  • W for written
  • P for published

At a glance, you'll know how each piece is progressing, who’s responsible, and their due dates. (TIP: Use all-day events for each piece of content to drag and drop at will)

You can use Google Sheets for brainstorming and tracking metrics, Google Slides for presenting the data to leadership, and Apps Script to automate workflows between various Google Workspace apps and beyond (if you're comfortable with a bit of JavaScript).

Google wasn’t purposely built for project management, though.

The following project management tools cost between $5-$25 per user per month, and give you access to out-of-the-box features like file storage, automations, and templates for a more powerful content operations engine. However, they all have free plans so try them on, see which wardrobe fits your style.

Asana: Rich in capabilities and integrations with other tools

Asana is a popular project management tool that lets you create projects (e.g. Blog, Video, Social) and assign individual team members to those projects with kanban, calendar, timeline and other views.

Customizable task templates make it easy to create repeatable processes—just set the title, assignee, due date, and pre-populated subtasks (like "Edit draft" and "Design blog header") that rely on specific team members.

Asana is recommended for operations that involve many moving parts and multiple dependencies, making it a popular choice for scale-ups and larger enterprises.

Asana content calendar template

Trello: Simplicity that gets you up and running fast

Trello is an agile project management tool that helps you visualize your work and manage capacity. You can get a kanban board and calendar overview of what’s on your to-do list, what’s in progress, and recently completed tasks.

The workflow is displayed visually where columns represent an activity (e.g. ideas, assigned, written, edited, and published). One cool feature you can set up is work-in-progress limits. So, whenever one column gets overloaded, you can't add any more until cards are moved out of the column (i.e. the tasks are completed).

Trello content calendar template

Notion: A customizable workspace for your content operation

Notion is an all-in-one workspace tool that's gained popularity due to its flexibility. Unlike most project management tools, you can truly make it your own by mixing and matching tables, databases, spreadsheets, documents, calendars and more to support your ideal workflow.

Notion doesn't just allow you to manage a content calendar, but your entire workflow: setting deadlines for each stage of the process, centralizing content guidelines and research, and even writing blog posts from customizable templates.

Notion content calendar template

Here's one last piece of advice to help you decide which platform is best for you and your team.

The most important thing to consider when implementing a content management tool is how to set it up as a source of truth.

—Diana Kolesarova, Content Marketing Manager at Superside

Diana recommends asking all the questions: "What do you need to track? The current status of your content? What about after publishing—do you need to know where the content has been promoted? Set it up to answer these questions to create more alignment between content and the rest of your org."

Incorporating DesignOps into your ContentOps

A project management tool is essential for producing high-quality content that is consistently on schedule. But, if you're only creating text-centric articles and landing pages, you're limiting the reach and impact of your content.

Content operations that include design operations (or DesignOps) are in a better position to compete for attention and distribute content through more channels and formats.

A scalable DesignOps setup gives you the ability to quickly:
  • Create in-line graphics for blog posts that you can repurpose for Pinterest, kickstart conversations on LinkedIn, and attract links back to your site.
  • Take one-liners and create golden threads on Twitter, schedule tweets or summarize key takeaways to make an image carousel for Instagram or LinkedIn.
  • Adapt top-converting articles into YouTube videos.
  • Ditch stock photos and stand out from competitors with custom graphics and illustrated blog headers

To do so, you can secure an internal designer's time, outsource to a freelancer, or set up DIY design tools, like Canva for Instagram Stories and Adobe Spark for simple motion graphics.

However, if, much like your design team, you’re already at capacity, consider a subscription DesignOps solution like Superside.

Superside is a fully-managed partner in design that gives your entire organization access to the type of design they need when they need it. Get started with a dedicated team made of the top 1% of global design talent— for less than the cost of a full-time junior designer.

Continue building a stack of tools to scale with your content marketing strategy

Your central project management hub likely won't be the only tool you employ.

You'll need specialized software to execute your strategy. When picking tools, consider how they: work together, empower your team, contribute to your strategy, and scale over time.

Avoid redundancy and adding tools without a purpose. When in doubt, remember Gall’s law:

Any complex system that works evolved from a simple system that works.

At the very least, a solid content operations stack should cover the following use cases:

  • Writing environment: A collaborative writing and editing tool like Google Docs or Notion.
  • Editing: Grammarly offers guardrails for spelling and grammar, and with the business plan you can store and enforce brand voice and style guidelines, too. Hemingway is a free alternative for ensuring clean copy.
  • SEO: Semrush or Ahrefs for keyword research, rank tracking, and competitor analysis. If you're heavily invested in SEO, consider Clearscope for your workflow to check and improve on-page SEO.
  • Content Calendar: A calendar that acts as a source of truth for scheduling and tracking the stage of a piece of content (ideally your project management tool covers this).
  • Design: Even the best-written article will lose readers without visuals. Consider DIY design tools like Canva or a fully-managed design solution like Superside. Adding an image compressor like Squoosh to your workflow ensures slow-loading pages don't negatively impact SEO.
  • Reporting and Analytics: Use tools like Google Analytics and Google Data Studio, or alternative dashboard tools, to track metrics and build dashboards to report up to leadership.
  • Social Media: Tools like SproutSocial, Hootsuite can be set up for double-duty, saving time by scheduling content distribution and monitoring relevant conversations on the various channels where your audience spends time.
  • Outreach: Partnerships and networking can be managed using Google, email. and spreadsheets, but you can take outreach further with a tool like SparkToro to find what your audience reads, listens to, watches, follows and talks about.Another important step is to verify the email addresses before doing the outreach.
  • Asset Library: Choose one centralized home for all your assets, such as Google Drive or Dropbox so everyone has easy access. Consider Airtable if you need to label, navigate, filter, and organize assets for specific purposes, such as sales enablement or social media promotion.
  • Automation: Many of the tools above have built-in integrations and automation features to save time on repetitive tasks. But for almost everything else, you can use Zapier or IFTTT to connect your tools and save time.

The Ideal Content Team Structure

Every organization will have its own content team structure with different roles and KPIs. But your main priority is to find subject matter experts within your budget who can empathize with your audience. Then, start to fill gaps where capacity meets constraints.

Depending on the size of your company, budget, and skills on the team, here are some examples of how you can set up your content team for;

The lean (yet ambitious) startup

Bootstrapped start-ups often have a “lean” budget, limited resources, and fewer internal team members to execute all the ideas with scale and quality.

To keep your content strategy on point, make sure you (or your content manager) focus on managing briefs, deadlines, and publication. Outsource time-consuming tasks like writing and editing. Use an outsourced design service like Superside to substitute or augment in-house design.

According to the Content Marketing Institute, content creation is the most commonly outsourced task for B2B content marketers.

Outsourcing keeps your budget lean and flexible and allows you to scale up (or down) when needed.

Here's an example of what this type of content team might look like at a tech startup:

The scale-up in need of process and clean-up

Often, a mix of in-house and outsourced production gets you the best of both worlds. For example, if you’re a mid-sized company, you can have a core internal content team with external freelancers acting as an extension.

Your in-house team should be in charge of decision-making and strategy-based tasks. An external team executes on them.

A popular option is to hire an in-house content strategist, content manager, and lead designer.

  • Content strategist: Develops content strategy to hit company objectives. Creates personas, matches them to buyer journeys, plans content for repurposing and builds repeatable content models. Your content strategist governs the content workflow.
  • Content manager: Sometimes seen as the traffic cop or managing editor because they're managing briefs, deadlines, edits, submissions, and publishing. They may also develop style guides and set the tone of voice. They may also distribute content, being intimate with the subject matter, but consider a social media strategist to gain real traction.
  • Lead designer: They’ll coordinate between the overall design and content team to produce assets that will live on the website and external platforms like social media. Be mindful of their capacity and look for outsourced design solutions (e.g. agencies, freelancers, Superside) who can help your lead focus on big design projects.

Your internal team acts as gatekeepers. It’s their job to approve, review, and share feedback without getting into the trenches themselves. Parts of your content development—like writing and graphic design—can be outsourced to external contributors.

For graphic design, be aware of your designer’s capacity. If they’re getting pulled into other projects to support growth marketing or product design, look for a solution where they can own content design at arm’s length.

Managing your content operations like this gives you one key advantage: The ability to scale up and increase your production without putting a burden on your team members.

“Outsourcing the development of the content is the best path. By working with the right content studio, your studio partner can leverage more experts in a particular niche and scale the content production team to facilitate the deadlines.”

—Chris Reid, CEO at Stretch Creative.

The enterprise relying on content operations for continuous success

Companies with hundreds or thousands of employees will likely have a more defined content team and may follow a more traditional structure likened to a newspaper (depending on their business goals).

Some brands prefer to keep content in-house instead of outsourcing different elements at this stage. It gives you subject-matter expertise with loads of collaboration opportunities for new media.

John Collins, Senior Content Architect and Content Engineer at Atlassian, in his piece The Maturing Content Discipline, sees four prominent content roles:

  • Content designers who focus on understanding the user's needs and creating or curating written content, images, video, audio, or even code to meet them where they are.
  • Content strategists look at the user’s needs through the lens of business goals. They answer the ‘who, what, when, where and why’ of content assets.
  • Content operations are less about content and more about the people and processes and workflows.
  • Content engineers organize the shape, structure, and application of content. Content engineering works with content strategists to solve for ‘how’ (e.g. content can be omnipurpose).

Collins says that not all content roles are “writing” anymore. In large enterprises, Content begins to involve many disciplines and skillsets. That means streamlined content workflows become even more critical. Everyone needs to know which part of the process they own.

3 Content Operations Best Practices to Maximize Results

With processes, tools, and people in place, your content operation looks perfect—on paper.

The reality is that well-thought-out content operations can still struggle if you don't protect your time and focus. Here's how.

1. Automate or outsource repetitive tasks to save time

Every repetitive task you automate, however small, is time you reclaim for your team and high-impact activities.

To determine what you can automate, Alex Birkett, Senior Manager at Experimentation, advises to “Document what you're doing and what you're repeating and then ask, 'Am I the best person to do [this job]?' If not, determine first if you can automate it.”

Automation means you can eliminate deadweight processes and focus on what matters: research creating 10x content, and promoting it.

Alex says his biggest challenge is to enforce quality standards, processes, and automation without crushing the creativity of talented writers.

For this reason, Alex likes to stick with a good production cadence, use checklists for publishing and promoting, and create explicit content brief templates (and potentially a style guide). “But then I like to get out of the way and let the writer do their thing,” he adds.

A tightly integrated tech stack (and solutions like Zapier, Automate.io, or IFTTT) make automation easy so your team can avoid context switching between platforms and 43 open browser tabs. For example, you could use automation to:

  • Create new Airtable tasks to kick off a pre-made workflow template when a new content idea is submitted.
  • Notify an editor on Slack when the content status changes from “writing” to “editing” in Asana.
  • Generate a monthly content performance report for key metrics and updates using Google Data Studio.

2. Hire and source subject matter experts to add credibility

Outsourcing content writing as part of your overall workflow comes with a unique set of challenges.

Almost 70% of B2B content managers say their biggest struggle is finding subject matter expertise. The third greatest challenge (only after the typical budget dilemmas) is finding partners who can empathize with their audience, aligning with the need for subject matter experts.

In a word: It's hard to find people who "get" your audience and can create content that actually resonates.

Herbert Lui, Editorial Director at WonderShuttle, avoids this sizeable problem with deep research, conducting pre-interviews until finally recording and transcribing long-form interviews with experts.

"With or without a clear topic, there’s usually relevant material (speeches, decks, docs, etc.) that sparked the idea to write. Do your best to absorb all of this, before conducting a 15-minute pre-interview with the expert (I like a conversation to explore unknown unknowns), though usually asynchronously over Slack or email."

I like a conversation to explore unknown unknowns.

Herbert Lui, Editorial Director at WonderShuttle

Lui adds, "Ideally the content marketer, editor, or writer should review the material at least for an hour before the interview, and compile a list of questions through an existing template as well as what they learn from the relevant material."

For the big interview, Lui recommends using podcast software. He uses Zencastr for recording, GarageBand for editing, and Rev.com for transcription. If you're you're tight on time or budget, check out automated transcription tools like Descript or Otter.ai. Lui will then use the transcription to enrich the story he tells. His best advice on saving time: "Don't lose the recording! "

Regardless of whether your subject matter experts are in-house, freelancers, or credible third parties, get them involved throughout the process.

  • Ask for their input at the briefing stage so crucial points are woven into the piece by a non-expert writer.
  • Run the final draft by them to prevent gaping holes that may discredit your content.
  • Credit their contribution or offer them the byline, and ask them to distribute the published piece in places fellow experts hang out (also known as "baking in your distribution strategy"—just don't ask them to eat your brownies if they're allergic to chocolate).
  • If you don't have internal experts, use the search features of Twitter and LinkedIn to source experts who are already posting about your topic.

3. Prioritize effectively to prove content’s value to leadership

It’s harder to stay on task without defined objectives and key results (OKRs).

If your objectives include growing organic traffic: you’re measuring organic sessions, keyword position, and performance of individual content pieces. The business leader sets those metrics, and you should be able to prove your worth at the end of the quarter.

But, if your sales team steps in asking for assets to handle objections, or your growth team wants more gated eBooks because paid content is performing so well, you can easily find yourself astray of your objectives.

“While it might be difficult for anyone to decline requests for their team's expertise, overbooking a creative team is a surefire way to kill inspiration and quality while falling short of deadlines.”

—Edward Mellett, founder of Wikijob.uk.

“Effective prioritization requires striking a balance between saying no and collaborating with requesters to refine their marketing ideas into outstanding content, [while] keeping the content team focused on their objectives,” Edward summarizes.

Do your best to explain the reason behind your boundary-setting process and OKRs to leadership. They can back you up when the inevitable requests come in. Let your requester plead with leadership for changes to your OKRs or additional capacity requirements (you can help by providing insight into what you’d need to accomplish the demand).

System Check: Taking Stock of Your Content Operations

Now you’ve got an idea of how to set up content operations in your business, it’s time to evaluate your current systems.

When you reflect on your current setup, take time to think about what’s currently working for your business, what needs improvement, and what's missing altogether.

How does your current content operation score out of 10?

Click the checkboxes as you go through the list. Once you finish, share it with your team and leadership to spark a conversation about budgeting for ContentOps.

1. Do you have a documented content strategy?
Outline your overall strategy and organize it by content program, associated goal, or time frame (monthly, quarterly, or yearly). Document your objectives for each asset—how it contributes, the metrics you’ll use to identify success, and the resources you'll need to complete it.
2. Does your team understand everyone's role?
Define each team member’s role in the process. Whether internal or external, write down their skillset, years of experience, responsibilities, and deliverables. Consider creating a responsibility assignment matrix (RACI chart) that allows everyone to see areas of ownership and dependencies.
3. Have you developed an easy-to-reference style guide?
Create a detailed document laying out common grammar, language, and tone of voice guidelines to help internal and, especially, external contributors maintain your brand.
4. Do you have a detailed content brief template?
Standardize your workflows with external contributors with a brief sharing the type of content, where/when it will be published, its target audience, relevant keywords, distribution plan, outline, and calls to action.
5. Is your tech stack designed for your strategy?
Invest in project management, SEO, design, reporting, and any other tools your strategy requires. Integrate and automate where you can to save time.
6. Do you have a content refreshing program?
Content goes out of date and requires regular maintenance and optimization. Create policies for vetting and refreshing content to align with company standards, including new expert interviews, CTAs, visuals, and SEO improvements.
7. Do you have onboarding resources for new team members?
New in-house hires or external contributors may not be be familiar with your tools, context, or processes. Training documents help everyone get up to speed quickly and efficiently.
8. Are there clear definitions for all key metrics?
Outline the different metrics and tools you’ll use to measure the success of content and campaigns. Reference this document when you plan and after you publish content to encourage goal-oriented content marketing and inform changes to your content strategy.
9. Does your company have a centralized content library?Make your content and assets easy for everyone to access through a centralized library. Organize, label, add notes, and link to assets to service various needs, such as content repurposing, sales enablement, or customer success.
10. Can your team get the design they need when they need it?
Set up your workflow to quickly turn around design assets, like blog headers, data visualizations, and motion graphics without bottlenecks. A scalable design process can unlock more tactics, from lead magnets to "backlink bait".

Bring Calm to the Chaos Through Content Operations

A robust content operations system can boost the output, ROI, and quality of your content marketing. It's the difference between a content team that improvises and scrambles and a content team that executes and achieves.

There will always be room for improvement, but juggling multiple pieces, deadlines, platforms, and team members are all much less chaotic with the proper ContentOps in place.

Tyler Wade
Tyler WadeContent Marketer

Tyler is a content marketer with a passion for writing, mental wealth, and fatherhood.

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