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Book Review Part III: Content Strategy for the Web–Democratic content governance

April 5, 2010

In her book Content Strategy for the Web, Kristina Halvorson makes the following claim on page 12:

Your organization needs to have an empowered, informed individual who is The Person in Charge of All Thing Web Content

As the editor in chief (EIC) of, that person would be me, at least for external content. (We have an intranet EIC as well [Ethan McCarty]). On the public site, it would be me, but it’s not all me, not even close. I own the standards and I create and deliver education. But I have very little oversight over the content. There are several good reasons for this, three of which I will describe after the break:

  • No one person can hope to govern such a complex effort
  • No one person can own a multibillion dollar channel of thousands of offerings spanning dozens of brands and business units
  • No one person can hope to grasp the local and regional subtelties that affect content effectiveness

The best I can hope to do is create and deliver education, build tools and communities to help content owners help each other, and otherwise lead by example. That is more than enough work for one individual, with a lot of help from subject matter experts (SMEs) from around the company (like co-author Frank Donatone) and around the community (like co-author Cynthia Fishel and collaborators like Kristina).

It’s not just about volume, it’s about complexity

First, a company with the size, breath of offerings and global reach of IBM simply can’t have one bottle neck. We publish thousands of pieces of content per week in more than 100 countries and 80 languages. No one person can keep tabs on it all, let alone govern it.

Kristina suggests that we take a cue from the print publishing industry for a model of what ought to happen on the Web. It makes sense in newspapers and magazines to have an EIC who is the sole arbiter of content decision and standards bearer for the publication. I did that for six years for ComputerUser–a monthly tech magazine that published 2 million copies with regional versions in 35 markets at its peak. That was barely manageable. (To this day I call it the job that ate my brain.) Now multiply that by three orders of magnitude and you have the challenge of IBM–the largest publisher of original content on the Web.

To what extent is the top-down, hierarchical model feasible for smaller companies? ComputerUser had 100 employees at its peak. Wrangling local and regional content efforts from one centralized source was barely manageable. I had to make daily compromises with local publishers if I wanted their versions of the publication to stay in tune with the brand, let alone in harmony with our content standards.

You might say a publication was our only product, so a Web site that serves a company with other products is easier to manage. Not true, in my expereince. The less experienced people are in publishing, the harder it is to get them to do the right thing. Product managers and marketing managers typically are not writers or editors by trade. They don’t understand the importance of standards. They want differentiation. Convincing them to do the right thing can consume all your time. And you end up picking your battles because there’s just not enough time to get even a small corner of our enterprise on the same page.

No one would put the EIC in charge of the channel

Even if I had some tech magic to govern this massive operation, I couldn’t own pages that drive leads to the end game: sales. Those are technically owned by brand VPs who fund them and report up the chain on the revenue generated by them. It’s not the job of the editor to know all the ways in which we drive leads from the greater Web to our pages and ultimately through the channel. I know the theory, of course. I teach the theory. But I would not be very effective in the execution, because each brand has subtle differences in audience. It all comes down to this: They know their customers better than I do.

I’m glad it’s this way. I don’t want senior VPs calling me every day asking about why we’re not making our numbers. I’d much rather be the consultant who helps them make their numbers. So what I do is focus on publishing best practices and educating channel marketers to produce Web pages that work for their users. I also work closely with one part of the site and report on how we do it. How they use that information is up to them. It’s their money. It’s their results. I neither have the power nor the inclination to meddle in their affairs.

Local content efforts must be governed locally

It is the height of arrogance for me to dictate to my esteemed counterparts in other countries what they should do for their users. They know how to use the cultural and regional complexities to connect with their audiences. Even if I knew the language fluently, I don’t know their customs, nor do I know the historical context in which they must publish content. The best I can do is develop culturally neutral content and let them develop local content that fits into the global content. When they do that, they are a lot more effective than if they try to just publish the global content.

At IBM, we have Web managing editors in some 20 countries. And we are building out a network of more of them as markets emerge. I try to help them as much as possible. But the best way to do this, we have found, is to help them to help each other. They develop and deliver way more education than I do now. And their regionally focused education is often more effective than mine.

Democratic content governance

We have found at IBM, on both the brand level and the country level, a democratic, community model is the most effective. I suspect that is true no matter what size the company is. If you give people the opportunity to contribute to the building of standards and educational resources; if you let them test your tooling and make comments on it; if you give them a say in their own governance; they will be much more apt to adopt the standards. And the standards will be better because they take the complexities of multiple brands and countries into account.

The value of the Web is the ability to connect people to the information they need. That information has more value if it’s more distributed and less centrally controlled. Wikipedia is an example of how a community-drive site can become the best site on the Web. My job is to make more like Wikipedia in terms of how things are governed. That means less dictating and more and more democratic involvement as time goes on.

Democracy is messy. But it is still the most effective form of government the world has ever known. Dictatorship doesn’t work, not in government and not in corporate Web content. You need a leader. But the leader is only as effective as the people who help the leader govern.


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