One of the fun things about being a content strategy consultant is hearing about how different editorial/content/marketing teams around the country operate. From their structure to the many roles people are expected to play, I’m always fascinated to hear about successes, opportunities and challenges.

My mind is always operating under a classification system—can I find two things that are alike? And if so, can I find a third and fourth? And then once we get into the double digits, can we split that group again and find a new unifying characteristic? In thinking this way, I’ve found five toxic content cultures in our consulting work that I think are pretty common.

  1. The Hockey Puck Culture: They once asked Wayne Gretsky what made him such a successful hockey player. And he said, “I skate where the puck is going.” While a wonderful leadership meme, this can also be a tough position when you’re in a toxic content culture. Here’s how this looks—you are told one strategy and go back with your team to execute it. Then you come back to present your findings and they say, “Oh the hockey puck just went that way. Let’s follow it.” This is beyond frustrating for everyone involved, including the executives who are probably suffering from whiplash, they change their minds so often.
    How to fix it:
    This is a really tough one and I sympathize with everyone involved. The reason this happens is that people are insecure about their decisions, or they are choosing too many data inputs. One solution I’ve used with clients it to build a matrix—we’re going to move on a strategy if it fulfills these three conditions. Once all three conditions are met, everyone can get out on the rink and skate.
  2. Inmates Running the Asylum Culture: This one is my favorite and probably the one I encounter the most often of all. Here’s how it looks: There are subject matter experts who are far smarter than the idiots in marketing and they are going to tell you how to get it done. Or worse, they approve the strategy, they approve the execution but at the eleventh hour they start complaining that it’s not what they wanted.
    How to fix it:
    Subject matter experts need education about marketing—especially digital marketing. Walk into their offices from the very beginning with data and confidence. Then have them sign off at various checkpoints. You may have to trash all your hard work no matter what fail safes you implement, but at least you can prove you were doing your job.
  3. Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen Culture: Recently, I received a draft back from four different reviewers on a project that needed a rewrite. Each one had a stylistic point to make on almost every sentence on the page. It wasn’t like I could write back, “X is the best writer. We’re going with his style.”
    How to fix it:
    There should be one editor to make decisions about how to manage stylistic questions. “Ahava, you kray,” you are thinking. Perhaps I am. But we need to move toward helping our clients understand that content by committee is bad for everyone: the strategy, the committee and the content!
  4. Selfish Siloes Culture: I come across this often enough to dampen my faith in humanity. Too many departments, too many middle managers jockeying for position by not sharing information across the organization. So two, or three, or four departments end up building the same content, which doesn’t result in the best end result for the customer. This always looks like people confused about who is in charge of what, or trying to outdo each other in the content department.
    How to fix it:
    You need a high-level executive sponsor who rewards people for sharing information with each other. You probably also need a Content Officer, or Editor-in-Chief, or someone who is in charge of all the various content production efforts.
  5. Nice to Know/Need to Know Culture: This looks like people cannot make up their minds about what customers need to know to make decisions. That’s what content is for—to help our customers make important decisions. When we don’t know how to make the distinction about what is the priority to communicate, we endanger the lucidity and smoothness of our content.
    How to fix it:
    Create agreement about what the priorities are in terms of communication. Then when people try to overstuff information, go back to those priorities. Extra information isn’t necessarily bad—it’s just when and how and where you choose to display it.

So, did I miss a toxic content culture? Let me know in the comments below.

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