Captain in a storm

What content editors really do

In Ideas by Peter Gearin

It’s often said that only good editors help deliver great content. But what type of editor is the right one for you?

Good editors can be evil and wise. They can be difficult, opinionated and frustrating. They can also be brilliant, hardworking and inspired. Editors can do your head in, but they can also be the difference between producing bad and great content.

Those who have little experience in publishing or large-scale content generation often misunderstand the editor role. Much of this confusion comes from the definition of the word itself, which can mean different things to different people.

Many blogs and articles have been written about “the importance of good editing” when brands produce content, and they generally talk about the need for accuracy and good punctuation. All of this is absolutely correct, of course. Good copy and video editors save blushes by picking up and fixing imperfections. They brush up poor spelling and grammar, eradicate redundant words, put things in house style and tighten up dull spots. They promise consistency.

But these technical editors, while important to the finished product, do not necessarily have the skills that will make a brand’s content marketing a business asset. They aren’t the type of editors who will make all the difference for brands embarking on a quality content program.

The best and rarest editors, in the old-fashioned newsroom sense, are key leaders and decision makers. They find the best people to produce content. They choose what stories are covered (and, more importantly, which ones aren’t) and decide how they are presented. They are involved at the start, the middle and the end. They are strategic, and demand control and restraint in the face of creative chaos.

Content management is not a job best left to “content generators” – writers, photographers or producers. As talented as they may be, generators specialise in producing material that looks good or reads well in their eyes. Some (OK, maybe most) find it difficult to have creative distance. They see their work as the most important thing in their work lives. They can’t look at the big picture. The last question you will hear from a content generator might be: “How does my work fit in with the overall strategy?”

It’s why disparaging old-school newspaper editors and subeditors liked calling reporters “the children”. Everything would be fine as long as the adults (editors) were making the important decisions and pushing the children in the right direction. It could be argued that this is one factor in the persistent decline in newspaper readership and influence, as financially pressured management have replaced match-hardened in-house editors, subeditors and reporters with younger (and cheaper) alternatives, and tried to outsource expertise and experience. Giving the children power and influence unfettered is like giving Ferris Bueller a day off and leaving a Ferrari in the garage … they don’t really know how to handle it.

The best news publications don’t survive a day without strong editorial leadership. Editors need to deal with strong characters with big egos while handling sometimes unreasonable pressure from management. Working with tight budgets, they need to hit monthly goals while allowing their teams to produce relevant, entertaining and useful stories. To do this they need to show leadership and instil discipline – virtues that are essential for leaders of a well-organised and successful content marketing program.

In the case of brand journalism, nothing kills a well-intentioned initiative faster than poor governance and compromised principles. Strategic brand editors – or “content managers”, if you prefer that term – bring control and balance.

It’s easy to spot a poorly edited website or publication. Here are just five of the danger signs:

  • Off-message blogs or videos. This is often a sign that editorial managers are “asleep at the wheel” or not strong enough to say no to ideas that aren’t suitable for the target audience.
  • Poor copy or imagery. Content that is inconsistent or incoherent may be a sign “the children” are winning the battle of wills, or the editorial manager is not up to the task and doesn’t have the right skills.
  • Bad ideas are published while good ideas are “undersold”. This is almost always the result of weak content managers being forced to pander to “influencers” – inside or outside the organisation – who insist on getting their way.
  • Scattergun designs. Weak content managers go for layouts – in digital or print – that try to cram in too much, so there are no “winners” or “losers”. By doing this, they fail to give prominence to the best ideas or executions and muddy the message.
  • Content that peddles the company line. This is where managers are sucked into eating the apple in content marketing’s Garden of Eden. The most effective content is relevant and useful to an audience – not trying to sell something. Is the content being produced just a trumped-up press release?

The editor’s role is not for someone without the experience, knowledge or heft to make firm decisions and stand up for what is right. Sure, many of the skills can be learned, but a good brand editor needs to have the confidence of management to make hard calls and run with their ideas. This can be tricky when opposition may come from someone sitting high in an org chart.

Here is a list of 11 things great brand editors need to do well:

  • Make decisions. Content plans won’t succeed if they are produced by committee. Although compromise is necessary at times, editorial leaders need to be able to stick to their principles and stand by their ideas, as long as the parameters are measured up first.
  • Determine what stories run (and what don’t). Editors need to have the scope to make decisions that fit within an agreed strategy. Just because the internet is effectively limitless doesn’t mean that every content idea should be executed. If time and effort is being spent on a concept that isn’t within the strategy, those resources could be better used elsewhere.
  • Find the best content providers, wherever they are. Editors need to be well connected and well read to ensure they know what people are saying – not only in their special subject but in the wider community. They need to identify people with good ideas and high value propositions for their audiences.
  • Plan content in advance on a transparent content planner. Editors need to be both reactive (dealing with what’s in front of them) and proactive (planning for the future). This means planning for what is expected to happen and always having a “plan b” if it doesn’t.
  • Respond quickly via an efficient approvals process. Sign-offs are a reality in corporate communications. Editors need to fight for an agreed sign-off procedure that allows important content decisions and changes of direction to be handled quickly and with limited stress. An editor who can get things pre-approved is even better off.
  • Determine style and design rules. Content consistency is vital. A good editor ensures that all commissioned ideas are in keeping with the corporate content strategy, and abide by an agreed “look and feel”.
  • Commission the best channel and platform for every story. The adage of the hammer wielder only ever seeing nails doesn’t apply to a good editor. Some stories are better told in a certain way – whether it be through video, long-form article or infographic – which is why an editor needs all possible tools at their disposal.
  • Listen to what the audience is saying. Good editors are good listeners, too. Not only do they need to act on feedback, perhaps through conversations on social media, they must be aware of what their audience will respond to. Good editors are masters of the “vibe”.
  • Understand data … but aren’t driven by the metrics alone. Good editors are able to analyse what the measurement tools are saying and use their experience to work out what that means for the content strategy.
  • Work with executives on strategy. Good editors don’t operate in a vacuum. They are involved in all strategic content discussions and aware of how their key measurement goals are tracking. They are good at managing up and down.
  • Have permission to be bold. This may be the trickiest part of a content manager’s role, and certainly has the potential for greatest conflict between editors (who should naturally support their team) and management (which wants to maximising results while minimising risk). Despite this, good editors will enjoy the challenge of trying to draw attention to their brand through innovative, creative content approaches.

Because that’s what good editors do best.

Links and references

Ferrari scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Grant Butler’s piece on How to Hire Effective Content Marketing Writers and Editors

Related reading

The real story behind brand newsrooms

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