So here are seven key skills, habits, and processes that pure-play editorial operations have built up over decades (if not centuries) and which content teams need to nail if they want to practically deliver on their content strategies and content marketing programmes.
Learning On The Job
Successful editorial operations usually make a strong feedback loop an essential part of the process. After an issue or release, the team will meet to review what worked and what didn’t, and what can be learnt for the future. A strong team will often demonstrate an instinctive consensus about these things and have lots of ideas about how to do better next time. Nor are these meetings bitter blamestorms, but rather structured and constructive analysis sessions.
Of course, with digital, you’ll ideally have a whole dashboard of inputs to help you assess the effectiveness of what you’re doing, from click-throughs to conversion analytics to social shares. But here, again, editorial intuition is vital to make the most of these insights. If a particular post scored unusually high cut-through on Facebook, why was that? Because of the topic? Because of the context? Because it had a more daring tone of voice? Timing?
Simply repeating things because they worked the first time is rarely an adequate editorial response. (“Grease 2” anyone?)
The Ability To Let Go
Get it right and get it away, as editors say. There’s sometimes a misconception that “we could really nail this if we had another week,” but often it’s the case that if the content is taking a very long time to get right, it probably needs canning. (See also Respect for the deadline, below.)
Letting go is also about putting the right content people in place and letting them get on with it. “The key is to hire the right people and trust them to do the job well,” said Graham Charlton, editor-in-chief at ClickZ.
Respect For The Deadline
Deadlines in traditional editorial operations are sacrosanct. The ones that matter simply cannot be broken, otherwise terrible things happen, like missing your slot with the printer or your title failing to hit the newsstand on time.
In digital, it’s easy for deadlines to slide and warp, to turn into provisional agreements or moveable feasts. And even after you’ve published, you can alter what you’ve done. But this is to miss out on the value that deadline respect brings to a content operation.
Deadlines, like death, concentrate the mind wonderfully. They force you to prioritise, to try harder, to make decisions, to decide what to leave out and what to lead on. They also bring your team together, uniting your efforts around a shared constraint.
Editorial operations are always brainstorming. Every day there are conferences where people pool ideas, those ideas spur other ideas, and only after much heated debate do the best ones survive and thrive in the light of publication. Done well, this is a surprisingly ego-free activity—the ideas that best suit your aims and match your readership get rewarded, not the ones that happen to have been suggested by the most senior person in the room.
Through practice and experience, editors and journalists get a honed sense for what makes a good story. Good ideas are easily written; bad ones take ages and never quite come together. And, of course, there can be no story without an angle or a clear message. Unless you have some exclusive assets (such as video footage), then successful stories need strong angles, or you just have the same as everyone else. That often means having a point of view. If that can’t happen on hard subjects, find soft ones where it can.
In editorial, logistics are your problem. No one can make the impossible happen. All ideas have to be workable and affordable before anyone wastes any time on them. If you can’t afford the talent, get the access, or find the right image, then don’t get caught up chasing storytelling windmills. Park it till you can and move on to the next thing.
The structure of editorial teams is similarly pragmatic. In the shadow of the deadline, sign-off processes and responsibilities are slickly devolved—there’s no need to escalate everything to the editor-in-chief, and where one approver is unavailable, another immediately arises in her place by an agreed process.
A Ruthless Streak
Weaker content is always cut by publishers when something stronger emerges. Just because you’ve got something done doesn’t mean you should run it anyway—especially if your available spend to promote it is limited. Equally, if your planned story has been overtaken by events (or by someone else’s story), be prepared to spike it. Traditional media publishers always over-commission and resource-plan for just these contingencies.
Similarly, the best editors aren’t scary, but they are blunt. You can’t drive up the quality of your content if you can’t articulate how you want it to be and why—both at the briefing stage and at the review stage.
Sometimes, editing takes guts. Decisions need to be made quickly if you’re going to be timely and relevant, and making an impact sometimes means risking ruffling a few feathers. So editors need the courage of their convictions—or their strategy—and a sharp eye for instant risk assessment.
Within brand structures, this sort of decision-making is often assigned to a junior role, leading to overly cautious and bland content, or to a board or stakeholder escalation process, which can lead to diluted, garbled, committee-style content, but also delays and so limited timeliness.
Ultimately, a good editor learns the confidence to make an editorial call—and live with it.