Sign-off paralysis and how to cure it

Tony Hallett

Tony Hallett

Managing Director

May 27, 2015 8:18 am

Sign-offs are the biggest threat to the average company trying to market with content. Not ideas, not finding creators of quality content, not even budgets or legal – though all of these, especially legal concerns, are linked to the sign-off bottleneck.

That’s a pretty big claim, so why do I say this? I’ve seen it hundreds of times. You don’t hear about it much in those content marketing case studies that get shared, even by us. That’s because it’s quite often depressing and not part of best practice. But it happens. And, as I said, this is about your average company, not the high-achievers or the no-hopers.
In more than one case, we have also seen content – really high-quality content, in this writer’s humble opinion – that never sees the light of day because of sign-off paralysis.

Signing off

At those companies, the person who has been told to “do some content” and worked with colleagues and external content experts is not being judged on the basis of those materials ever being actually used. Or on them being effective once used. Rather they can very much say: “You asked me to get some content created. I did.”

That almost makes me cry.

This post came about when speaking to someone from a large IT vendor that has invested heavily in a content team. For all the creative excellence now working at that company and the bosses who have made this commitment, there are still cold feet and politics when it comes to giving items the green light and signing them off.

At other companies, I have seen a topical piece of content not signed off until weeks or even months after an event to which it refers. How would you react if your favourite news site or social media feed worked that way?
What was interesting about my recent conversation was that the person I was talking to works in PR. With the sign-off conundrum, your in-house PR team can be your secret weapon.

My mind goes back to a big example of content marketing success in recent years, Cisco’s The Network. That publication and its contributors have a lot of freedom but there still has to be an arbiter of what makes it in or not. The company handled that by making the PR department responsible for sign-offs.

Now I don’t know if that’s still the case but it makes sense. PRs are often reactive, fast working, familiar with how decisions are taken in media-land – which ultimately this all has to ape – and know what content is good, bad, risky and so on.

The key is ultimately to have a single decision-maker. Just like the editor at a traditional publication, this person doesn’t have to be involved in every sign-off. But for the trickier calls, the big bets, they make the call.
In reality, when most companies say they have a decision-maker, this person still checks with half a dozen colleagues at the eleventh hour. These people often have no idea about the goals of a content programme or item and have their own preferences, large or small, that are often pulling in different directions. That isn’t a decision-maker. But it is in line with how most corporate decision-making is done.

I mentioned legal earlier. How do you – as a newspaper editor or someone in a company responsible for signing off content in a timely way – operate without falling foul of watchdogs, lawsuits and so on?

The answer is that you accept that, some of the time, you won’t get it right. That is acceptable in a way it wouldn’t be for other areas in a business because it allows you to operate a quality, topical content operation, if that’s what’s appropriate for your business. We admit, some businesses have a much longer arc with their content but most of us can do with being more agile.

So the bottom line for companies producing content?

  • Don’t let the sign-off process throttle your content, some of which will have consumed a lot of time and money.
  • Identify the decision-maker and stay true to him or her. Don’t make final sign-offs by committee, especially not at the eleventh hour with people who don’t know the context of what you’re producing and why.
  • Be prepared to make some mistakes. Part of this is about embracing a learning curve but be aware that even the biggest, oldest content institutions in the world screw up sometimes. Call it experimentation or just part of the game you’re now in.

*photo credit: Journal via photopin (license)

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