How to create great collaborative content with distributed teams
The ultimate guide to remote and collaborative content design when your team’s working from home
We talk a lot about the importance of designing great content. Implementing best practices for everything from your layout to your typography choices affects how easily the reader is able to interact with and understand your work – and in turn lead to better ROI for your content marketing.
But did you know that your process matters just as much as your final product, when you're creating amazing content? The way that your team is collaborating (or not) undoubtedly affects how well everything comes together to tell a complete and compelling story. Read on to understand why it’s important, ways to start getting your team to work together, and how to adapt this to our new world of remote work.
What is collaborative content design?
In too many organizations, each stage of designing and building a content page, still lives in a bubble. The engineers build the framework for publishing content, and pass it off to the designers – essentially defining the limits and potentially boxing them in. The designers build in general styles, like fonts and colors for the publication, and general page structure – and pass it off to the content creators to fill. If you’re in an especially advanced organization, maybe the content creators write their articles and then pass it off to a designer to finalize the look – or maybe they just upload it themselves onto a generic-looking page and call it a day.
It’s like the assembly line of content production. Sure, the content is going to get done – perhaps quite efficiently – but it’s going to end up looking like everything else you churn out (and probably a lot like what everyone else is churning out as well).
You want your content to shine. You want each piece to be the best it can be, to create a reader experience that draws them in and really shows off the information at hand. And that’s where collaborative content experience design comes into play.
“You’ve got to invest more in making sure that all the elements going into a piece of content – the words, the images, the illustrations, the video – really work together. Because as content marketers, you need to make sure you stand out from the crowd. And a lot of people still make the mistake of thinking of imagery last, even though it’s the first thing a reader sees.
Director of Content, Intercom
Collaborative content design involves an agile process where everyone chips in their ideas and expertise throughout the entire content creation process.
Largely, it requires a deep relationship between designers and writers or editors from the start, where they’re working together from the inception of an idea to determine the best way to show and tell a story. But it could also mean that developers are more on hand to weigh in on how a design might impact SEO, or whether a certain idea could be built in the time necessary. It could mean having someone from marketing in discussions from the start about how the company’s CTAs might be integrated into this particular piece, or to suggest design collateral that they may need to market the story effectively.
There are so many different forms that collaborative content design can take depending on your organizational structure, but it comes down to this: everyone sitting around the same (metaphorical or literal) table building something together, rather than handing it off step by step. Doing that then leads to a piece of content where all the elements work together and it creates a user experience that draws them in, keeps them reading, and ensures they won’t quickly forget your brand.
Those opportunities to collaborate as writers and designers are definitely a way to bring the work to life and make it start to sing. When design is happening at its absolute best, the words and visuals are very consciously put together, both aiming to create the same feel and experience, so that everything’s telling the same story.
Creative Director, The Writer
Why does collaborative content design matter?
Okay, this all sounds great, but do you really need to be implementing a new system? Yes, it may be tempting to stick to the status quo and get your content up using the easiest means possible. But we’d argue that it’s always the right (and best) time to make sure your team is working together to create streamlined and standout reader experiences.
Jill Nicholson, Head of Product Education at Chartbeat, explained how they did research on reader habits during the global pandemic, and found “Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19), audiences are engaged with the media in ways we have not seen before. According to the Chartbeat analysis getting readers to your site is not the issue right now. Instead, it’s maintaining a high level of engagement with those audiences over time. I think it’s a great moment for digital publishers, media companies, and content creators to work on building a better reading experience for their users.”
Creating collaboratively to make sure every piece of your content works together creates a better reader experience.
For one, well-designed content leads to higher reader engagement. According to Adobe, when given only 15 minutes to consume content, 66% of users would rather look at something beautifully designed than simple and plain. And it’s not just about looking good, it’s about using visuals to support the content at hand – according to Demand Gen Report, 91% of consumers now prefer interactive and visual content over traditional, text-based or static media, and 37% said it would improve the quality of their content experience if it wasn’t overloaded with copy (meaning it would be a great idea to use visuals to tell some of your story).
It’s really about trying to make content different and make it your own, while ensuring that you’re leading people down the path you want them to go on. They need to understand the story and get those scroll depths and completion rates.
Head of Visual Storytelling, USA Today Network
But it goes deeper than that. How well content design and copy work together can help a reader better understand the information – or cause discord that makes it hard to digest. As researcher Charles Kostelnick explains, “Visual elements of a document affect readers’ attitudes toward that document, shape the way in which readers process the information from the document, and affect the value that readers assign to the information. Thus, a document designed in a way consistent with its purpose should enhance the communication value of that document, whereas a poorly designed document may misdirect readers, creating dissonance that counters the author’s intent.” This ties back to the classic idea of visual rhetoric, which asserts that humans are persuaded by the things they see, and therefore our visual choices play into what we’re trying to say. It’s up to you whether you use that power intentionally or not.
People have five senses, so if you’re just having them look at the words on a screen, you’re missing a trick. There’s visual, there’s video – there are so many elements you can bring into play.
Director of Content, Intercom
When you do the work and make sure all the elements of your content experience design work together, it leads to positive business results. According to Design Management Institute, design-driven companies have outperformed the S&P Index by 228% over 10 years. Similarly, a study from market research company Forrester found that “companies that embed design thinking in digital CX strategy – those that we classified as design led – achieve tangible business benefits.”
While much of the research has focused on design-led companies, we advocate for collaborative content design since the story itself needs to play a big part here, too. As John Maeda said in his 2019 Design in Tech Report, “Design is all too often used as an attractive costume for a so-so idea.” Collaborative design lets everyone bring their strengths to a project to create something truly special. It also solves the industry-wide debate about which should come first – content or design – and instead allows them to be created together.
Who needs to be involved in creating great content?
While who you involve in your collaborative content design process will depend on who you have on your team and your organizational structure, here are some of the people who probably have valuable input, and what they might bring to the conversations.
What story is being told, an outline of the different sections a piece may have or ideas for how it might be organized, the general mood or feeling that needs to come across.
Thoughts on how a piece could be organized, suggestions for visuals and custom graphic elements, ideas for other sections that might be added to make the piece more engaging.
Suggestions for how to optimize multimedia elements, expertise on making sure SEO best practices are followed, insights into timeline needed to build new features.
Art / Creative directors
High-level suggestions for visuals and custom graphic elements, insight into how this piece might fit across the whole visual style of the brand, advice on the resources or budget available.
Content editors or leaders
High-level input on how the story aligns with the brand, suggestions on ways to push the story and make it more compelling, advice on resources or budget available.
Timelines for new features that need to be built, ideas for how the product team could help streamline the content process, explanation of new product capabilities.
Suggestions for CTAs or other brand plays that could be integrated into the story, expertise on SEO and other best practices to help the article succeed, ideas for growth experiments they may be able to tie into this story.
Social media managers
Suggestions for visual assets that could help them promote the article, ideas for the most click-worthy title or angle, insight into how users have been responding to different stories.
Insight into stories that have been doing well and what you can learn from them to apply to future posts, ideas for telling interesting data stores within the content.
Freelancers or agencies
If you work with external parties for any of these job functions, find a way to integrate their ideas and expertise into this process as well so they can better do their job for your organization. After all, that’s what you’re paying them for!
If you want to build a strong content team, you have to make sure everyone is working well together and that they know how their contribution fits into the process.
former Content Director, Upwork
What do collaborative design processes look like?
Again, exactly what the collaborative design process looks like is going to depend on your organization, how your current content process works, as well as what turnaround times need to look like. But there are a few tenets that apply to all the best collaborative processes, that you can start integrating into your company today:
Regular cross-team touchpoints (and times of isolated work)
The easiest way to start integrating more collaboration into your content process, is to simply have meetings where you invite representatives from more teams to the table! For instance, if your content team is used to having weekly meetings where you touch base on stories in progress, maybe start inviting the designers or other teams involved in the content creation process to that meeting so they can be more involved throughout the process. Or, have an all-team kickoff meeting before starting any large content project, so that everyone can understand the project and provide input from the start.
This also might mean having more regular touch points with particular parties that need to collaborate more deeply throughout the project. You could have a mid-way meeting between writers and designers; update everyone on what content sections they think the story will have: get thoughts from the designer on the layout, and how that may need to change the wording and structure.
It’s important that these meetings are interspersed with regular times of isolated work. Not everyone can be involved at every step of the process, and it’s important to let your talented team take the feedback from everyone and then go off and do what they’re best at doing.
Collaboration is about building momentum. However, there are a few people you’ll want involved in the design process early on, so that you don’t get any last minute feedback that could stall the project. Eventually, you’ll need to whittle down your contributors because not everyone has to participate at every step of the way. Mastering this balance is crucial and it enables you to design collaboratively on any project.
Ryan Thomas Riddle
Director of Marketing, UXPin
Clear understanding of how each person fits in
As part of the collaborative content design process, you’ll want to make sure everyone has a clear understanding of how they fit into the puzzle. What feedback are you looking for from each party? What particular piece of creating this content do they own? What expertise are you looking for them to bring to the table?
Being clear about roles and responsibilities does a few things. First, it helps prevent discord and disagreement within your team. While ideas from all avenues should be encouraged, understanding the lane each person is working in will give you a clear answer as to who makes the final call in that arena. If a writer doesn’t like the layout for their story, they should be able to voice that and have a discussion with the designer about why, but ultimately it’s up to the designer what to do with those thoughts.
But understanding exactly what everyone contributes can also help motivate your team, making them feel like they all have a critical role to play in creating an incredible piece of content. As Lisa Oda, former Content Director at Upwork, explained of her process, “People have to feel responsible in order for things not to fall apart. That’s why we have a short, full-team meeting once a week to go through tasks and look through the calendar so everyone can give an update on what’s going on. It’s critical to establish the plan so people feel like they are a part of something and not just floating on their own.”
Setka allows you to assign roles and permissions right within your content management system – giving everyone involved the access they need to provide the right amount of input. You can determine who on your team has the right to view, comment, edit, or develop posts so they can hop in and play their part as posts are being built.
Creators collaborating directly with creators
In creating an effective collaborative content design process, it’s important to be sure that the right people are collaborating directly, instead of through a third party. Usually, this means having the people creating each individual element working together directly, instead of coordinating through a project manager or the leadership of their team. For instance, a writer might become the point of contact for a freelance illustrator creating work for their story, rather than having the editor or art director manage the process – or at least be included in the conversation to answer any questions that they have particular expertise in.
This moves the collaboration process along faster, let’s people deeply ingrained in the process bring their ideas to the table, and ensures ideas or messages don’t get jumbled when going through the communication grapevine.
One of the things we do, which is a design tactic that’s part of our content growth strategy, is commission a standalone illustration for each piece of content we post. We send the content over to the creative team the week before, they read it, they ask questions, we tell them the keywords people are using to get there, we talk about the concepts, and then they create an illustration that’s unique to that piece of content and unique to SAP.
Former Global Head of Content and Editorial, SAP
Opportunities for hands-off input
Not everyone needs to be actively involved at every step in order to provide expertise. A smart collaborative process looks for opportunities to streamline the process of providing input and make it hands-off when you can (because not everything has to be a meeting).
For instance, instead of needing the Creative Director to be actively involved in every project, they may create a style guide that designers can access whenever they need input on how to make sure a piece fits within a publication’s vibe. A Social Media Manager might create a guide for creating click-worthy titles that writers and editors can use when finalizing pieces, without having to get their eyes on every single one.
Setka helps you to create multiple, easy-to-access styles for varying content formats and posts – defining everything from the fonts and colors that should be used to designs for specific elements, like pull quotes, side notes, and icons. This is incredibly useful for Creative Directors to provide parameters to designers, without having to directly give input on every single project – or can even allow designers to provide parameters to content creators so they can actually build some of their own posts!
How can you foster collaborative content work remotely?
If you’re implementing collaborative content design with a distributed team, all the above tips still apply – but you might need a few extra tricks up your sleeve to ensure that your team is able to work together smoothly. Here are a few ideas to help:
Maximize your online meetings
While we’re not sure virtual collaboration and brainstorming meetings will ever have quite the same energy as in-person, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do everything you can to make them just as effective. That means it’s time to develop tools and systems to mimic these meetings as best as possible.
Do you usually find a big whiteboard helpful in collaborating ideas for your content? Perhaps now is the time to invest in a virtual whiteboard, like Miro. Are you having trouble taking notes and assigning tasks remotely? Perhaps a shared Google Doc or a tool like Notion could help.
Find more ways to work together without meeting
There’s no time like when your whole team is working remotely to embrace the idea that not everything has to be a meeting. With teammates on different time zones, working different schedules in order to care for their families, and the like, it can sometimes be hard to get everyone on the screen and focused at the same time to collaborate.
So look for more ways to facilitate asynchronous collaboration and communication. Maybe you create a Slack channel for each project you’re working on, where the people involved can drop in what they’re working on and start a thread for ideas from anyone on the team. Maybe it’s using the Google Doc you created for notes above for continued updates and collaboration throughout the whole project.
Setka lets you add comments directly within the backend of a post, making it easy to provide feedback and have a discussion about a piece of in-progress content – without having to sit next to each other looking at the draft.
Designate a facilitator
Remote collaboration can feel a little awkward and it can be easy for things to get lost with everyone working from different places. It’s valuable to designate a facilitator or project manager for each piece you’re working on, even if this is a role you don’t traditionally have when you’re all working from the same place.
This person can ensure project timelines are moving forward at the right pace, can help run meetings to be sure everyone gets a chance to speak up, can check that everyone understands the new tools and processes available to them for collaboration, and so much more. Maybe this is a role that your leadership steps up and takes over, or perhaps you rotate responsibility from project to project.
Get a little extra feedback than usual
Now is the time to be a little extra communicative than usual. When you’re not in the office together, you miss out on little moments of collaboration, like grabbing your coworker to look at a sample design and give quick feedback, or sharing a work in progress for a quick gut check.
So look for ways to create more opportunities for regular, small collaborations. Maybe now is the time where you start having daily standups with everyone involved in content projects, to quickly give updates and look for areas where folks are being held up. Maybe it’s just getting comfortable bugging your colleagues for ten minute Zoom meetings to go over an idea. Whatever it is, ask for input even more often than you might normally to avoid missing out on the idea that could really make this content spectacular.
Setka’s Design Cloud includes a feature that makes it easy to create a live preview link for anyone to see. This could be a great way to share an updated article design and get quick feedback, even from someone who doesn’t have access to your backend.
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