Prioritisation for content teams: a guide

A guide to prioritising tasks as a content team. The homework you need to do first, prioritisation frameworks to use, and pitfalls to avoid.
An minimal digital illustration of a team sitting around a boardroom table, trying to prioritise lots of post-it notes

Prioritisation can be a big pain point for content teams. Content is often seen as a service and it’s part of everything an organisation does, so there can be lots of requests coming in from different stakeholders and teams. Content needs maintenance — you can’t just publish and walk away. And then there’s the meta work that you need to do to produce the content itself: the research, the strategy, the planning, the measurement, the communication, the stakeholder wrangling…

Many of the teams I speak to feel like they’re up to their necks in all the things they could do. And that they’re being pulled in too many different directions when it comes to priorities. When we dig into it, prioritisation is often one of the big underlying challenges: How do we decide what to do? How do we manage competing priorities? How do we know that we’re doing the right things? How to stop doing things and say no?

I’ve distilled some of those conversations into this guide to prioritisation. It will:

  • Help you understand where your team should focus its time
  • Explain what information you need to be able to prioritise effectively
  • Give you some frameworks for prioritisation
  • List some common pitfalls to avoid

You can use the ideas to prioritise your overall workload and strategic focus, or to decide what to do in a specific sprint.

It won’t tell you exactly what to spend your time on. There’s no one-size-fits-all best thing to focus on as a content team: it depends on your organisation, your users, and your goals.

“You get to decide if the narrative is “I have too much work” or “I have so many valid requests for work that I triage and support them in several different, equally effective and appropriate ways.”

In this guide

Understand your context and remit

Before you decide what tasks and projects to focus on, you might need to clarify the context and remit for your team.

This might be clear to you already — if so, skip this step. But a lot of the time, I think it isn’t. Contexts change, remits get blurry, and things can end up muddled.

For this, I like to use the model of Control, Influence, and Concern, which comes from Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The idea is to list all the things you want to do, could do, are asked to do, the challenges, the opportunities. Then you sort them into three categories:

  • Control: Things you are in control of. This is your lane, and it’s where you should focus most of your effort and energy.
  • Influence: Things you have influence over. This is a good place to spend some time, because you can have an impact through collaboration.
  • Concern: Things that concern you, but that you can’t do much about. These are the things you need to try not to focus time, energy, or worry on, because what’s the point?

Doing this exercise will give you a good steer on what to say ‘no’ to and that shouldn’t make it to prioritisation. It can also help you reframe the bigger issues or projects, by isolating the parts of them that you can have an impact on.

This opportunity can also give you a chance to think about what you’re going to let other people do. Depending on your organisation, there might be people out there who are going to create content with or without you. Instead of trying to block them, you can move to a model of providing tools, templates, and advice to support them. (Cultivating Content Design by Beth Dunn is an amazing read on how to do this.)

The things in your circles of influence and control should form your backlog: the list of tasks you’re going to take through to prioritisation. A big thing to come to terms with at this stage of prioritisation is that you can’t do everything, and not everything can be perfect. Sometimes you have to serenely (or not so serenely‌) accept that things won’t happen or even ‘let shit ship’ in the words of Relly Annett-Baker.

Gather insights and data

Now you have a list of things you could do where you have a chance of being successful. The next step is to find data and insight. Without that, you’re relying on gut feeling, which has its place, but needs to be tempered with something more objective. This step is crucial. If you don’t have a good understanding of the task, and if you’re not using data and insight, your prioritisation won’t be effective. Garbage in equals garbage out.

I like to start with clarity on three main things:

  • Strategic goals and priorities: your work should always align with, and ladder up to, the strategic goals and priorities of the organisation you work for
  • User research and insight: your work also should always align with insights about users and their needs
  • Content performance/feedback: looking at data on content performance is another important set of insights to consider

If you want to be really organised, you can even document how all the tasks on your backlog map to these things.

Prioritise using a prioritisation framework

With clarity on your context and remit, and a foundation of data and insight, you’re ready to prioritise.

Using a prioritisation framework will give you a consistent method to help you compare tasks in an objective way. It helps you look at the task from different angles and work out which will be the best use of time and resources.

There are many, many different prioritisation methods out there. Here are three I like (and one I don’t):

Impact vs effort matrix

You’ve almost certainly come across this prioritisation framework at some point. It’s the one I use the most, because it’s a simple way to find the tasks that are most worth your time.

The matrix is a two-dimensional grid, with impact on the vertical axis and effort on the horizontal axis.

An impact effort matrix, as described in the text.

You plot each task on the grid, based on the effort it will take and the impact it will have.

Once you’ve done that, you can look at the tasks in four rough quadrants:

  1. High impact, Low effort: These tasks are the tasks you should do – they’re quick wins that can deliver substantial results.
  2. High impact, High effort: These tasks are important, but need more resources and time. Evaluate them carefully to check that the potential impact justifies the effort. You can also look for easier ways to do them (see the section on MVPs below).
  3. Low impact, Low effort: These tasks are low priority as they offer limited value, even through they’re low effort. They can be deprioritised or addressed when you have time (which may be never).
  4. Low impact, High effort: These tasks should be avoided like the plague or reconsidered, as they take up significant resources without delivering substantial value.

There are some issues with this approach, though: we tend to overestimate impact, and underestimate time. Project manager ​​Itamar Gilad has proposed a slight change to make it more realistic. In their version, the parameters for what’s worth doing are much tighter:

An impact effort matrix by Itamar Gilad, where the categories are 'projects you want to consider', 'projects you don't want to do' and 'projects you really don't want to do'.

Think about the MVP

Important tasks can slip down the priority list because we’re thinking too big. We prioritise based on the 8K Full Ultra HD, when plain old HD would get the job done.

Sometimes this is about perfectionism: we want to do the best we‌ can. But an important part of prioritisation is thinking about how much effort it’s worth putting into something. You could spend two weeks making a full guide with video content and interviews. But if the potential audience is only 100 people, maybe a one-page approach would be better?

Think about the minimum viable product (MVP). What’s the most basic version you could do while still being useful, usable, and accessible?

Think about implementing workstreams

To surface tasks that have merits but don’t make it to the top of the prioritisation list, you could implement different workstreams.

This can be a good approach if you find that you’re constantly bogged down in BAU and never have time for new projects, strategic work, experimentation, etc. For example, you could introduce a set of workstreams like this:

  • BAU: 60 % of time on BAU – like project work and stakeholder requests.
  • Strategic content projects: 30% of time on strategic content projects – like implementing a content model and developing guidelines. 
  • Experiments: 5% of time on experiments – like testing out a new content format.
  • Learning: 5% of time dedicated to learning. A bit of reading every week, a lunch and learn session once a month, a conference once a year.

MoSCoW

The MoSCoW prioritisation framework is a good way to reach clarity and consensus on priorities. It’s usually used for prioritising product features, but can work for content too. The acronym stands for Must have, Should have, Could have, and Won’t have.

The framework categorises tasks into four priority levels:

  1. Must have: These are the essential tasks, the non-negotiables. They have to be done for the success of a wider project, to mitigate a risk, meet an important goal, or avoid disaster. (Sounds dramatic, but sometimes it’s the truth!)  
  2. Should have: These are important tasks that are not as critical as the must-have tasks. They contribute to the overall success of a project and should be prioritised after the must have tasks. Including these tasks will boost the quality and impact.
  3. Could have: These are tasks that would add value to the project, but are not essential for its core objectives. Including these tasks would enhance the user experience and engagement with the content, but not having them won’t hinder the project’s overall success. They can wait for future phases or iterations.
  4. Won’t have: These are tasks that are explicitly excluded from the current scope or roadmap, because they’re unnecessary or not possible at the moment. You might revisit them in the future, but for now, they’re not a priority.

This is a good method to use at the start of projects, or if you’ve found that a framework like RICE is too complex or deprioritising things that are crucial.

One important thing to know about this framework is that it’s heavily reliant on discussion and being able to reach a consensus. Sometimes that’s a good thing. But if you have a lot of disagreement or communication issues, it can be unproductive.

RICE

RICE is the more sophisticated cousin of the impact effort matrix, and I learnt about it from Intercom. It’s quite structured and data-driven, so it should lead to less biased and more accurate outcomes. It’s based on four factors: 

  1. Reach: how many people it will affect in a set period. 
  2. Impact: how much of an impact it is likely to have on those people or events (Massive = 3x, High = 2x, Medium = 1x, Low = 0.5x, Minimal = 0.25x)
  3. Confidence: how certain you are or how much evidence you have for your guess on the Reach, Impact, and Effort. High = 100%, Medium = 80%, Low = 50%.)
  4. Effort: how much time and resource is needed to complete the task (hours, days, weeks, months — depending on the kind of task)

Once you have a number for each of the four factors, you use this formula to calculate a score for each task: (Reach x Impact x Confidence) ÷ Effort

 

The resulting number represents total impact per time worked. The higher the score, the better.

 Sticky dot and spending

Democratic methods like voting with sticky dots, or giving participants a ‘budget’ to ‘spend’ on tasks are appealing and popular. But in my experience, they’re not a great way to decide what to do.

I’ve found that ‌results can end up being wishy-washy. Sometimes the vote gets spread too wide, or people focus on their pet projects, and overall, there’s a lack of consensus and clarity on what really matters. 

Who to include in prioritisation 

Who to invite along to prioritise depends a lot on what you’re prioritising and the size and makeup of your team. 

If you’re thinking about the overall strategic-level focus, there’s an argument for getting on with this task on your own. If you’re prioritising the day-to-day work, anyone who’s going to be working on the content should ideally be at your prioritisation meeting. No one likes to feel like decisions have been made for them. And the people who actually do the work will have a good perspective on the effort involved.

You also need to consider whether you want to invite stakeholders and collaborators, like product, marketing, sales, UX, design, and subject matter experts. There are pros and cons to this:

Pros of inviting stakeholders

Cons of inviting stakeholders

Before sending out any invites, weigh up the pros and cons. If you’re not inviting stakeholders along, think about how you will keep them informed about what’s going on.

Perpetual prioritisation pitfalls

To wrap things up, here’s a list of perpetual prioritisation pitfalls to be on the lookout for:

  1. Doing what’s urgent, not what’s important: It’s easy to get caught up in seemingly urgent tasks that demand immediate attention but may not contribute significantly to overall goals. Prioritising based solely on urgency can lead to neglecting important long-term initiatives
  2. Listening to the hippo: By hippo, I mean the highest paid person’s opinion. Allowing the opinions of the most influential (or the loudest) voices in the room to drive prioritisation can result in skewed decision-making. It’s important to consider diverse perspectives and objective criteria rather than relying solely on subjective opinions.
  3. Following competitors/comparators: Focusing too much on what competitors are doing or comparing against industry benchmarks can lead to a lack of innovation and differentiation. Prioritisation should be based on the unique needs and goals of your own product or content.
  4. Forgetting data and insight: Making prioritisation decisions without enough data and insight can be risky. It’s crucial to gather relevant information, conduct user research, and analyse metrics to make informed decisions about what tasks or initiatives to prioritise.
  5. Focusing only on the new: It’s easy to focus on new content over maintaining existing content, or attracting new customers over retaining and supporting existing ones. But neglecting maintenance or favouring one over the other can have negative consequences for the overall success of the product or content strategy.
  6. Not keeping track: Failing to maintain a comprehensive list of potential tasks or ideas can result in missed opportunities.
  7. Doing too much: Overloading the roadmap with too many tasks can lead to resource constraints and decreased quality. It’s important to prioritise realistically and focus on a manageable number of tasks to promote successful execution.
  8. Not doing retrospectives: Before you do another prioritisation, do a retrospective. Have a meeting to look back on your last round: did you pick the right things? How accurate were your effort estimates? What did you learn?

Stuck with prioritisation? Want some help choosing a framework? I can help, whether you just want a one-off call or a fully-fledged project. Get in touch.

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