Content operations is increasingly becoming a core function across organizations with a strong focus on customer experience. However, it’s still an evolving and maturing area of expertise. As such, it’s not surprising to find points of confusion or misperception that can benefit from a little discussion and clarification.

One of the most frequent areas of confusion I’ve run into lately sounds something like, “I don’t understand why that content marketing team needs another tool. We already have several project management tools in-house. Why can’t they just use those?”

Alternatively, I find myself in discussions trying to define requirements for integration between a project management tool and a content operations platform without having a clear picture of the true needs on either side of the equation.

Sometimes, understanding the difference between the two can be a great place to start. So, let’s start there.

Project Management

Project management is tied to (rocket science here) a project. By its nature, a project is temporary with a defined beginning and end, a defined scope, and (ideally) assigned resources.

If you go with a strict definition, a project is unique, it’s not part of a routine or standard operation. In fact, it’s likely a set of operations that are pulled together to accomplish a targeted goal.

Because by definition a project is “non-standard,” project teams often include people who don’t usually work together. Often, project resources come from different organizations. In global companies, they may cross multiple geographies as well.

What are examples that map well into a project requiring project management? Implementing new software to accomplish an improved business process. Constructing a building. Expanding a sales team to a new region. Each example requires careful management and coordination to get all the various threads of the project to weave together—resulting in the desired outcome—which is ideally on time and on budget.

What kinds of metrics and information are core to a project? Ideally, good project management offers some of the following:

  • Visibility to resource capacity and utilization
  • Costs and budget
  • Timeline and progress
  • Documentation of risks

There are multiple software systems and tools designed for project management, many of which are highly effective and fit for purpose. They do a great job keeping track of resources, capacity, timelines, etc. At Kapost, we use several different project management tools and adjust the tool to the project requirements.

For example, we might consider any of the following as we select our project management tool:

  • Do we need to share the project tools with customers, agencies, or others outside our team?
  • How much detail will we need in the planning tool?
  • What kind of reporting will we need for stakeholders?
  • Will we be working in an agile or waterfall format on this project?

At Kapost, even though we have ready access to a content operations platform, we use project management tools every day. We don’t, however, use them when we are developing a content strategy, submitting ideas, developing or publishing content. And we don’t often draw metrics from our project management tools for content. Instead, we use our content operations platform, Kapost.

Content Operations

Content operations is, ideally, part of a routine, repeatable operation. Rather than being a unique project, there are consistent approaches in place to support business needs. We define content operations as the set of processes, people, and technologies that support strategically planning, producing, distributing, and analyzing content in support of the full customer journey. (Note: A huge differentiator from content marketing is this full-funnel focus.)

When well established and running effectively, mature content operations unify the customer experience across all teams, regions, and channels while allowing marketers to focus on authentic, resonant messaging that drives revenue and growth.

Creating and publishing content, like many projects, often involves stakeholders from many teams across an organization. Effectively providing a way for teams to collaborate, share information, and streamline approaches is essential to success in this arena. Typically, however, the focus and priorities in content operations are quite different than those of a project.

Examples that map well to content operations? Aligning assets to campaigns and marketing strategy. Allowing appropriate teams to collaborate and provide input to a blog. Reviewing the editorial calendar to let sales teams know when specific information will be ready to share with customers. Each of these examples is all about producing the right content, for the right customer, at the right time, in support of an effective customer experience.

While project management metrics can often be tied to efficiency (and who doesn’t love efficiency?), it’s not the major focus of content operations. While no one wants an ineffective or inefficient team, the most important metrics for content operations are focused on the customer journey and its outcome. Some examples:

  • Are we producing less content than we did previously?
  • What percentage of our content is mapped and tagged so that our stakeholders can find it?
  • How often are we reusing content to support a consistent message?
  • How well does our existing content map to key personas and our customers’ journey?
  • What content do we expect to publish this month?

Just a note: If that first bullet seems counterintuitive to you, you’re not alone. But we’ve consistently seen that effective content operations are able to create less content, yet still make the same (or better) numbers through repurposing, better targeting, and strategic alignment to business priorities.

Based on these bullets, it makes sense that a project management tool isn’t fit to support or track the health of your content operation.

The Right Tool for the Right Job

Hopefully, with clarity around the difference between project management and content operations, it makes sense that a team might need to use different tools for different purposes. Choosing the right tool for the job at hand, however, is not always 100% clear. With differing maturity and sophistication—and a variety of goals and strategies across marketing—it can be helpful to consider which tool will serve your organization’s individual needs.

Spreadsheets

Don’t be too shocked at what I’m about to say. Sometimes, a spreadsheet may be the best technology for your content operation. I know, I’m not supposed to tell you there’s a free option. Fortunately, I’m more interested in educating you than selling to you. And let’s be honest: Spreadsheets are how many content operations first start to ramp up.

Early in a content team’s maturity, a variety of solutions may work to organize efforts. Some will be more sophisticated, and some much simpler. One of the most common tools we see teams managing content early in their maturity use is a spreadsheet. The pros? Inexpensive, easy to use, readily available across a team. The cons…well, there are quite a few.

As you might imagine, a spreadsheet is rarely ideal and not scaleable. Most notably, managing a spreadsheet requires a significant amount of manual effort just to keep current. In addition, given the goal of most content efforts is content, the fact that the key focus of your effort is relegated to an attachment (at best) can be challenging. When you add the complexity of keeping track of versions, coordinating various contributors and approvers…well, suffice to say once you have more than about seven marketers, managing complex content in even the most well-crafted spreadsheet is a headache.

For any of us who have spent hours editing and rewriting a piece only to find (almost always at the point of a deadline) that we are doing a final review on the wrong version (…deep breath…you’ve been there, and you know it!), you understand.

Project Management System

For teams who opt to step away from a spreadsheet, a project management tool can be a significant step forward. Particularly where efficiency is a top priority, project management tools can be a reasonable option. You already know a PMS isn’t my favorite solution, but there are some pros:

Unlike the basic spreadsheet, a project management system can help to identify tasks, such as who is responsible for each task and when that task is complete. Using a project management tool may allow some visibility into capacity, budget, costs, and the creation of a workflow that is clearly a step up from the spreadsheet. Early in content operations maturity, project management software can be extremely effective to help manage workflows.

That said, workflow is not the point of content—it’s a means to an end. Content is the point. It’s not that project management tools aren’t helpful, it’s that they are not sufficient for the content operations effort.

In addition, the tool used can often influence the approach itself, which can be challenging for content efforts. Project management tools tend to be relatively linear, while content creation tends to be highly creative. It’s not difficult to have a content effort move toward a production line approach, creating more and more content with increasing levels of efficiency, but without increased benefit.

The approach can begin to border on micromanagement, shifting the focus from content and creativity to workflow and timing. In reality, the goal of project management is the opposite of content operations. It’s not about being more efficient and creating more content, it’s about making less content that is more impactful.

Content Operations Platform

When a content operation becomes more advanced, and/or the teams involved become larger, particularly as the focus shifts from the quantity of content to the quality of the customer journey, a tool fit for purpose becomes increasingly essential. This is where a system designed to support end-to-end content operations can provide significant benefits and enhanced functionality.

Those in content operations need functionality that allows identification of key strategic messages and themes to support top business objectives and strategy. In addition, the team will want to be intentional about the types of content that will best support those themes, aligned to the specific messages at each point in the customer experience. The ideal tool for content operations can support all types of content, across the complete customer journey.

Think about common concerns central to content teams:

  • Who are our key customer personas?
  • Is our content well mapped to their journeys?
  • Do we have gaps? If so, where are they?
  • For all the different types of content we need across multiple journey maps, is there a way to systematically track the tasks associated with each content type and their publication?
  • Can we keep track of versions, optimize content, make edits, and complete approvals?
  • Is it easy to review the publication calendar?
  • Can we pull reports from the system to understand our content coverage? To quickly answer leadership questions? To plan for the next quarter?
  • How easily can our team search for content that may be reusable?

This is only a start to the needs inherent in content operations that begins to outline a list of core functionality.

Key Takeaways

There are a variety of options and tools that can support content teams as they grow toward a content operation. Here is a quick overview as you think about options.

  • Does your organization produce a relatively small volume of content via a small content team? Spreadsheets are great for small teams with limited amounts of complexity in their content effort. They will, however, undoubtedly find it hard to manage as volume or team size increases. Spreadsheets can be very challenging when managing across multiple teams.
  • Is your organization focused on defining workflows and processes while producing a limited quantity of content? Project management software can be great for managing projects and defining workflows. However, once you have defined a consistent and repeatable set of processes so that you are establishing a business function or operation as opposed to a project, project management software is less than ideal. It will tend to require manual workarounds and often result in version challenges. It is not ideal for significant content production.
  • Is your organization identifying content as core to the business of marketing? Are you building a content operation? Once the task at hand is managing a business operation, systems fit for purpose will save time and reduce repetitive low-value manual work. For those focused on content, it makes sense to use software designed to support content operations from strategy to production, to publication and analytics.

To be fair, even smaller content teams may opt to move to a content operations system that is fit for purpose. Supporting the complex functions inherent in content operations in a jury-rigged solution—like a spreadsheet or project management software—becomes close to impossible as your content operations team matures and/or increases in size. Working efficiently with limited manual efforts in this kind of approach is unlikely and a good user experience is not realistic. Recognizing where you are in your content team’s growth and the job at hand can help you select the best tool for your team’s needs.

There are a couple of next steps you can take. If you’d like to get in touch with our services team, reach out to us directly. In the meantime (or if you’re the kind of person who would rather do some homework before going to the class), check out these tools meant to help you evaluate and optimize your content operation—no credit card involved.

check out the content operations tools we're building at Kapost

Michelle Johnston

About Michelle Johnston

Michelle is SVP of Professional Services at Kapost, supporting leaders at the forefront of content operations. She has worked extensively on managing organizational change, leading through transformation, and mobilizing strategy. She also volunteers to help nonprofits and startups build intentional cultures that work in the real world. Michelle completed her Ph.D. in Psychology at Cornell University, with a focus in leadership and organizational development. When not deeply entrenched in content operations, she’s hiking and skiing in Colorado's Rocky Mountains.