5 Ways to Harness Time and Data in Your Content Process

5 Ways to Harness Time and Data in Your Content Process

“The theory of relativity put an end to the idea of absolute time,” wrote Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time. “It appeared that each observer might have his own measure of time, as recorded by a clock carried with him, and that identical clocks carried by different observers would not necessarily agree.”

Do you ever feel, in your workplace, like different members of your team are operating from a different perception of time? You say it will take two weeks to get a project done; your colleague says three weeks. You’re both experienced content creators, relying on the same historical experiences in the same workplace. How can you determine who’s right? Or should you just split the difference and get going on the work, figuring a few days doesn’t really matter?

In recent years, content marketing has become increasingly data-driven, at least when it comes to analytics and results. The efficacy of our work is something we can and do measure and manage. But there’s a tendency to avoid content creation data—how much time and resources the work really takes—which can make it difficult to:

  • Meet deadlines
  • Accurately forecast future work
  • Tap into our team’s full potential
  • Justify new resources
  • Prove the ROI of our time
  • Push back against unrealistic requests

Clearly, there are significant downsides to ignoring this front-end data, but it’s something content marketers are almost universally guilty of.

“As content creators, we are very results-focused,” said Todd Patton, content marketing manager at Branch Metrics in Palo Alto. “I’d much rather go to my boss and report that we acquired 100 MQLs from a certain ebook than how long it took me to put that ebook together.”

I think this is partly because not every executive appreciates how much effort it takes to write, design, concept, and create high-quality, original material. We’ve all seen the suspicious looks and heard the disbelieving questions throughout our careers. “It takes how long to produce a blog post? Hmm . . . I can write a 1,000-word email in 10 minutes.”

But pretending to others (and to ourselves) that we churn out the work more quickly than we really can, while still meeting the necessary quality standards, will only hurt us in the long run. It’s time to stop hiding from the truth of our content processes. Here are five ways for any content marketer to be more transparent and successful with project planning for both recurring work and one-off initiatives.

1. Involve the Team Throughout the Content Process

In a recent speech about project planning and forecasting, PMO Manager Eric Lucas of Crowley Maritime Corporation said:

“There’s something I call Mighty Mouse syndrome: There are people who love hiding things and then giving a ‘big reveal’; they love the grandeur of saving the day at the last possible moment. But that’s not how humans are successful. You have to work as teams.”

He offered seven tips for how project managers can improve the accuracy of their forecasts:

  1. Humans learn in iterations—getting better at forecasting is a repetitive process.
  2. Involve all the right people.
  3. Adjust the forecast often.
  4. Ensure the forecast reflects reality, not desire.
  5. Communicate the forecast often—and through multiple channels.
  6. Conduct a “lessons learned” meeting at the end of projects to codify what everyone has learned.
  7. Accept that forecasts are approximations of the future; forecasts have to be “good enough.”

2. Guesstimate Granularly

“When I worked in-house and had limited resources, it always surprised me how long a project would take,” says Megan Maybee, a content marketing strategist at ThomasARTS in Salt Lake City. “Something simple like creating a social contest had so many elements, from design and writing to compliance and legal review. There were a couple times I didn’t give myself enough time, and then it was a huge scramble.”

I, too, am often surprised at how long certain projects take, even those I complete over and over again. It’s because it’s human nature to gloss over the difficulty of the journey mentally and only remember the destination. This tendency to forget accounts for people going through childbirth more than one time (or so I’m told), running more than one marathon, agreeing to more than one dental procedure.

No content marketing project can be predicted or controlled with 100 percent accuracy from the outset, no matter how much experience we have cranking out similar projects. There are always variables, and we must always rely on guesstimation to one degree or another. The key is to get as granular as possible with your project and resource guesstimations—to leave nothing out.

Start by meticulously documenting your workflow, including each little step it takes to execute each content type. Account for every brainstorm meeting, every interview, every individual contribution, every outline, every draft, every proofreading session, and every round of review and approval. Get input from every person who has a role in the production process. Ask questions to understand every aspect.

What I’ve just described is called Bottom-Up Estimating in project management circles. You can also try Analogous Estimating or Parametric Modeling, as described here. But whatever approach you take, be aware of the temptation to underestimate your time in order to appear faster or more competent. It’s always better to under-promise and over-deliver than to do the opposite.

3. Expect Everyone to Track Their Time

Once you have your repeatable processes granularly documented, start tracking the hours and minutes spent on each project phase (brainstorming, researching, writing, illustration, design, etc.) to make your future guesstimations even more reliable. When you add up all the time you tracked and build in some buffer time, that’s how you’ll know whether the next project is likely to take two weeks or three—whether you or your colleague was right all along.

If you use a work-management software solution like Workfront, the “adding up” is done for you. Individuals can just navigate to the task and use built-in time-tracking tools—or add in their hours manually. Just don’t fall prey to the temptation to assume you’ll always be able to beat your fastest time on each step. Rely on a padded average instead. Not everyone will be thrilled about tracking their time on projects (see tip 5), but it’s an excellent way to reveal which steps are taking more time than you assumed or expected, where time is being wasted, and how you can work more efficiently.

“When I proactively track my time, it helps me focus more immediately and intensely,” says freelance content marketer Angie Lucas (no relation to Eric). “Any time I’m under the gun, the first thing I do when I sit down at my desk is to open my Paymo time-tracking widget and hit Start. I know every minute I spend from that time forward will be billed to a client, which keeps me laser focused on the task at hand.”

4. Rely on a Single Source of Truth

Even if you use nothing but a spreadsheet, it’s relatively easy to keep track of the quantitative data from your project—things like hours, dates, and hard costs. But your qualitative data—emails, shared documents, instant messaging activity, etc.—can be just as important, revealing how smoothly (or bumpily) the project progressed, what roadblocks you encountered, and more.

But who has time to track all of that? Am I seriously expecting you to file away every email into project-specific folders and copy-and-paste relevant IMs into a post-mortem document? Heck no.

There are work management solutions available that enable all of this communication to happen in the space surrounding the quantitative data. These allow you to visit one online location to not only see how long the last project took and how the schedule played out, but also view the finished assets and deliverables—and you’ll be reminded that design asked for two deadline extensions on the layout phase because they weren’t given enough time in the first place.

A single tool, or at least fewer tools, from which to draw data will give you more power to speak with confidence about what you’re working on, how long it will take, and whether you have the bandwidth for that next upcoming project.

5. Understand Polychronic versus Monochronic Time

Remember when I asked if it ever seems you and your team members are operating from different perceptions of time? The truth is, you probably are. Understanding this can open up windows of insight into how you (and others) approach your work.

We live in a monochronic culture, which sees time as “being divided into fixed elements that can be organized, quantified and scheduled.” Time is linear. Time can and should be organized into a daily routine. “Obviously,” you’re thinking. “Doesn’t everyone think that?”

Actually, no. Not only are there entire polychronic cultures (parts of Latin America, sub-Sahara Africa, and the Middle East), there are polychrons even within monochronic cultures who view time as “a never-ending river, flowing from the infinite past, through the present, into the infinite future.” That’s not just highfalutin nonsense. Those with polychronic tendencies actually see time as circular. They prefer task-switching and thrive in environments without a fixed schedule. (Incidentally, these preferences are also exhibited in a growing number of digital natives.) They’re often late because, to them, time is truly relative.

If you and your team members can understand your own natural perception of time, you can harness each individual’s strengths for a stronger, more balanced team. For example, you might not want to put one of your polychrons in charge of project scheduling and forecasting (and they’ll probably thank you for it). But you can and should expect them to track their time and meet deadlines just like their monochronic counterparts, recognizing that some employees will produce their most brilliant work with a little less structure.

Those with polychronic tendencies actually see time as circular. Click To Tweet

It Takes Time to Make Time

If there’s one thing content marketers are constantly running short on, it’s time. At any given moment, each person on your team might have dozens of projects in the pipeline—all in different stages of planning, ideation, and creation. With so many moving parts, it’s not easy to pause long enough to collect and analyze the up-front data about your content production process. But unless you do—and remember, much of these metrics are available via automated tools—you’ll always be left guessing how long things take, how much bandwidth your team has, and whether you have the resources you need to meet your goals, now and in the future.

This post is part of a paid sponsorship between Workfront and Convince & Convert.

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