This essay originally was published on September 21, 2023, with the email subject line "CT No. 185: Fermenting culture for better content."
Whether you know it or not, your next big campaign hinges on the technical concepts behind culture-making: organizational design.
Applied to content strategy, organizational design means fertilizing your media asset garden, preparing it for growth, and slowing down to care for the people and processes that keep that garden thriving. Without it, your content loses the elements that enrich your appeals and and sharpen your brand's image.
Rather than pining for unavailable resources, organizational design orchestrates the dance between what you have on hand and the strategic feedback mechanisms your team builds to put those materials to their fullest use. In other words, it draws its strength from the optimistic, communicative, and experimental thinking that arises from trusting a tested system.
Whether you're in-house or consulting with clients, organizational change won’t always go as planned, but healthy friction is where you can make the biggest impact. Chances are, among the resources you lack, there are still processes and relationships that you can leverage, like internal operating systems and strong brand partnerships. Organizational design teaches us to lean on those advantages.
There are many ways organizational transformation can take place, but we'll focus on three time-tested cultural tenets that guarantee content that actually hits:
- Strong editorial processes invite ownership
- Healthy feedback cultures draw on rationale
- Content success depends on cross-functional advocacy
Building up a taste for content: Culture is fermented
Creative operations comprise more than process; they're about culture.
Think of kombucha, fermented tea made with sugar and a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). SCOBYs are literal bacterial cultures with the viscosity of human mucus and the sliminess of human relationships. Icky as they sound, SCOBYs are the crucial ingredient that led to a $2B market for kombucha, a transformed drink that's sweet, sour, and everything in between.
Like SCOBYs, you're designing the environment for something really wonderful or edgy to emerge from your base ingredients. Small interactions add up. Extra spices thrown into your fermentation bring richness and complexity to your final product — they just take time to work their magic.
Existing company culture will likely not be designed for content success from the day you walk in. Like fermenting, you use what you have to produce something new and unusual. Yes, cultivating a healthy culture is a slow process. But as fermentation and its SCOBY mascot show, the transformation that occurs after a long-term investment bears fruit is worth the wait.
Strong editorial processes invite ownership
What does ownership mean in organizations where everyone, everywhere is expected to step up? Well, it depends on seniority. Ownership for executives looks like buy-in. For cross-functional collaborators, it's about advocacy. For content contributors and direct reports, it's concrete, meaningful ownership of the development and production processes.
Specific to this last point, I want to stress that our job is not to be a quality-control gatekeeper — at least not during ideation. As my friend Behzod Sirjani said about his time running research at orgs like Facebook and Slack, "Our job is not to be product police; it's to build a practice of learning." With organizational design, I like to think about it as building a practice of collective writing.
Define progress expectations when setting up editorial processes
Ultimately, your team's growth is your growth. As a team leader, I offer a clear sense of long-term goals so others can envision their own professional development. With organizational design, development is not about the output of a particular piece of content. It's about becoming a better content strategist so you can deliver results consistently and quickly in the future. To communicate these expectations, I use a handful of mental scripts to keep things as unambiguous as possible.
- "Expect two to three rounds of revisions in your first three months of submitting writing. At the six-month mark, those will consolidate into one round of revision. As you approach one year of working on the team, you should be a semi-autonomous writer who can ship thoughtful, on-brand projects with minimal editorial oversight."
- "Expect both strategic feedback (positioning, brand tone of voice, etc) and tactical (flow, clarity, etc). Take at least two passes before you pass creative to me for review. Please double-check grammar and formatting, as I shouldn't be proofing for foundational components. Self-editing saves time for all of us."
When your colleagues have skin in the game — oh, I see how this makes me more valuable to the company — they're bound to care more. You may have heavy, high volume reviews at the beginning of the process, but those will give way to true-to-brand projects shipping smoothly with minimal oversight in the future.
Healthy feedback cultures draw on rationale
When educating up, show examples and evidence. Use logic! Source authority outside yourself! Link a reputable publication that makes your point. Say you're advocating for a bigger creative budget. If you need a resource, reference that McKinsey's proven the thesis that design-driven companies increase their revenues and shareholder returns at nearly twice the rate of their industry counterparts. They did the research so your job is to gather the data for your story: Good creative enables efficiency.
Sure, there are also moments where you don't have data or need data that's custom to your business. Or, you're starting a new relationship with a company and don't yet know the context to interpret historical data. In those cases, I conduct my own research and rely on analyst-minded growth marketing teammates so I have data to point back to.
Bring it back to the money. Whether advocating for an idea or giving notes on a piece of content, lead your feedback with the business rationale. Link back to documented strategy. Remind your colleagues that you’re thinking from the lens of what brings your target audience the most value. That pressure tests the validity of your own feedback as well.
For me, business-forward communication validates the larger, ongoing pursuit to document strategy, audience, tactics, and how they’ve evolved. Keeping a documented content and brand strategy is crucial for those moments when c-suite comes to me with an idea that we didn't allocate resources to. In those situations, I can say, “Hey, here's what we have going on. Here's the strategy that we've aligned on. Here’s how we expect it to perform and on what timeline. And here’s all the motions we've outlined to get there.” From there, I propose that if we plan to add something new to the mix, we should try a pilot version so we work within the margins of our available bandwidth before going all in.
Content success depends on cross-functional advocacy
If this article is about soft skills, then these are the extra squishy ones. And extra necessary for the business.
The last thing I assume is that colleagues intuit the value of content and brand. On the same day, I've received these two very different sentiments from colleagues in engineering and operations teams:
- "I used to think brand was a dumb investment, but now I think it's the best investment we've ever made."
- "What does brand even contribute to growth? We need growth more than we need brand."
I use two core methods to increase understanding when presented with the latter statement.
Make it easy for stakeholders to contribute to or benefit from content.
Think of your favorite episode of a TV show, or feature in a magazine. There's repartee between characters, and it's often most interesting when you pair characters coming from different worlds.
When we created a recent research report on a highly technical topic at my company, I knew I wanted to quote our Head of Engineering. He wasn't what we’d normally consider a top contender — normally we host more external-facing executives. Given that he works on sensitive internal initiatives, this wasn't the easiest idea to pursue. Yet after a briefing and a 30-minute interview, we honed into exactly the right quote to illustrate our organizational ethos. It marked the first time in 7 years of company history that a technical leader contributed to external thought leadership.
He had no edits and shared the final output to his personal network. As a highly respected leader in our organization, the side effect of his advocacy was a boost to my own credibility. I can't underscore enough — as a content person, you know when you've done good. You know what it feels like to be proud.
This happens in small ways, too. I've had an engineering manager reach out for support on crafting a team-wide message to promote our remote gaming nights. A sales director might ask me to look at a standardized OOO message for the sales team.
I also think of my friend Jason Talwar, who spent time helping stakeholders internalize research data while building a research practice at data visualization software Tableau. Whether the insights were relevant or not, the goal was to get them engaged with the research. Once engaged, those stakeholders are primed to ask, “Hey, Jason, I’ve got some ideas for research. How can we partner up?"
Host bullpens to surface new ideas and refine thinking. My next favorite concept to use when collectively sharpening ideas is the bullpen. I discovered this ritual through YouTube's Shishir Mehrotra: "[The bullpen was] a creative experiment that turned into a hallmark of our process. The time was intentionally unstructured… Many of these discussions would have naturally become ad-hoc meetings, and instead got handled in a timely manner."
I host a monthly bullpen between the creatives of product and marketing. At the most basic level, it's a way to get like-minded people from different worlds into a room together and see what happens from the collisions. It's a chance to understand how creative decisions get made in another area of the org and get functional expert input (or just moral support) outside our own team. Some days it's show and tell, with a fallback bank of questions like "What are you excited about or experiencing challenges with?"
In our first meeting, our product writer brought up an SEO idea related to image search from his journalism days. It bumped up an idea that had been collecting dust for months but was worth revisiting now that our SEO strategy was ready for more creative execution.
In the next meeting, we walked through a new feature the product team was working on — and also the challenges of adoption. It's an age-old conundrum: spend months to ship a new feature or campaign, just for your stakeholders to... not even use it. I had recently gone through a similar exercise with a new marketing campaign, and working more closely with the sales team on content training to prepare for launch.
It led to me sharing my experience: I reached out to a core sales leader at key brainstorm and pre-launch points of the content process. The goal was to give him an exclusive preview and get his take on how he'd use it, to both optimize the content for impact and utilize his stories as examples for his peers. It led to the highest engagement we'd ever seen from the collective sales team.
That created an aha moment for the product team to think of creative ways to involve their internal stakeholders in dialogues beyond user feedback, pushing the conversation toward the bigger goal: user adoption.
Your content is only as good as the culture you build around it
If stakeholders are uncertain about why editorial systems matter, start seeding ideas and quietly influencing around the edges. Explain your creative decisions with the language of business impact. Do this again and again until the analysis becomes intuition, for both you and your stakeholders.
Congratulations, you have reached organizational content culture nirvana!
Vicky Gu is an editor and strategist based in Brooklyn, with roots in Dallas, Washington DC, and Shanghai. She's led brand and editorial strategy at Fortune 500 companies, Michelin hospitality leaders, DTC products, and B2B services —touching everything from the venture-backed to bootstrapped. In 2018, she founded Currant, an independent food media collective featured by Intuit/Mailchimp and Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab.