Content Roadmaps

Workshops are rosy places: people chatter in small groups. Ideas pour onto whiteboards. Sticky notes cover every surface. And that's great—workshops can be an excellent way to get people talking, thinking, and working differently. But they're also a bit of a fantasyland—a respite from a real world that's still filled with practicalities and deadlines and meetings and politics.

Too often, the "big ideas" that seemed so perfect during a workshop get soggy faster than that tray of leftover deli sandwiches. As a result, many workshops leave teams without a clear idea of what they should actually do when they get back to their desks.

At the same time, workshops need those big ideas. It's not every day you can get a whole team together to talk about the future, explore potential directions, and align around priorities. If we spent that time immersed in implementation details, we'd never get out of the tactical and into unrealized potential and unexamined challenges.

So where's the magical middle ground between the warm-fuzzies of vision and the mundane details of the day-to-day?

Enter: the content roadmap.

I've found a roadmapping session to be a powerful way to "close" a content strategy workshop–to focus everyone's ideas and enthusiasm, and wrap the day up with clarity about what's next.

A bit about roadmaps

You might be familiar with the idea of a product roadmap already—an outline of which features and improvements a team is planning for upcoming releases of a site, app, or piece of software. See this product roadmap walkthrough from gov.uk for a great example.

Near-term projects are typically documented with detail, including specific tasks, owners, and other information on timing and progress. Meanwhile, longer-term goals—things that are still a few months out—include just high-level focal areas.

Today, I'll show you how to apply this approach to content projects using hands-on activities in a workshop setting. There are two approaches I've taken for this process, depending on the type of content challenge.

1. The content project roadmap

This approach works well when you have a specific project in mind—say, you're working toward a website relaunch or CMS migration, and there are a million areas of content work that need to happen. While you may have a project plan that outlines when editorial guidelines will be delivered or when content entry can begin, chances are you could stand to break down those milestones a bit more.

For example, let's say you're doing a major content overhaul as part of a move to responsive design and refresh of the brand. In this case, you might find it helpful to:

  • Identify the different content initiatives that need to happen to get you to the project's launch.
  • Break content deliveries into batches, and prioritize those batches.
  • Identify which team members will be responsible for which content areas, and approximate the effort it'll take to get the work done.
  • Document who needs to be involved in content reviews and approvals—from leadership to legal to everyone in between—and how long that process is likely to take.
  • Find the flow that will keep things moving most efficiently.

For example, on one project in higher ed, when we knew leadership review would be slow, and that we might get pushback on some changes. To gauge that process, we sent a small, initial batch of content for key pages up the chain as early as possible. This helped us identify snags that would have held up the larger content batches coming later, as well as helped us see just how long the whole process would take.

On a project like this, you might map this out in a workshop and end up with something like this:

Pretty? Nope. Helpful? You bet.

2. The content product roadmap

The other kind of roadmap I've found helpful is one that's not tied to any specific project, but is instead tied to the overall direction your organization is taking.

We recently did this at A List Apart, where I'm the editor in chief. We'd spent the day generating dozens of ideas for improving our content in a number of key ways—such as increasing the diversity of the authors we publish, improving our workflow from acquisitions to editing, and improving readers' experience as they flow through our site.

We had no shortage of ideas—creating whole new sections of content around specific topics, overhauling how we relate and cross-promote content, creating new author outreach programs, and many, many more. But with a limited staff working on the magazine as a side project, we knew we couldn't do them all. We needed to:

  • Prioritize which ones to pursue, based on how much work they would be to implement, and how far they'd move us toward our goals.
  • Organize them over the coming year.
  • Identify meaningful next steps for the ones that were nearest at hand.
  • Assign owners to each project, so our project manager had a point person to turn toward to further define, set timelines, and get started.

So that became our roadmap. We used dot voting to select top projects (with some extra, differently colored dots for the magazine's leadership to make sure truly mission critical items didn't get lost in the excitement), and then pulled those ideas off the brainstorm wall and stuck them onto the roadmap. Here's me doing just that:

ALA workshop by Jeffrey Zeldman (CC-BY 2.0).

Once we had a manageable number of projects in mind, we started organizing them according to priority, complexity, and people involved—until we had a clear vision of what to do first, and a rough map of loose ideas (like "offer special content for people just entering the industry") for items we're not actually ready to move forward on yet.

It's not perfect. We might not accomplish everything we intend to this year. New issues will crop up that we didn't plan for. But that's okay, because we're already doing a hell of a lot more than we would have without our roadmap—and even better, everyone has a much clearer idea of why we're doing it in the first place.

Why it works

When you're a content strategist, you're often the only one—there's rarely a legion of us on any given project. But content is still a team responsibility.

Roadmaps help teams take ownership, and turn you from the "doer" into a facilitator. They help you stop scrambling to manage all the content problems yourself, and start coaching others instead. That shared ownership will help you:

  • Take sustainable steps. It's easy for strategic documents to turn into nothing more than file-cabinet fodder, because they feel too big and scary to do at once. A content roadmap turns those strategies and visions into manageable, measurable actions.
  • Track progress. When you've turned something big into smaller parts, it's a lot easier to keep track of whether things are actually getting done—and to remove bottlenecks faster.
  • Learn as you go. A roadmap can turn content projects into a series of experiments, with lots of room for adjustment along the way because not everything is defined.

And you don't have to get elaborate, either—some simple sticky notes and index cards are all you need to get started, and make it easy to move things around as you go. Try it out—you might be surprised how much it helps you move closer to your content goals.