A Quick and Dirty Guide to Staffing a Content Team and Creating Approval Workflows

By Joe Lazauskas February 4th, 2016

The idea of staffing a content team and building a “brand newsroom” is enough to give some marketers a panic attack. But it’s less complex than you think.

First, evaluate what internal resources you already have. That’s going to be the biggest factor that determines the mix of in-house employees and freelancers you need to deliver based on the strategy you’ve outlined.

Most successful brand publishers take a hybrid approach to their newsrooms. A core in-house team serves as the protector of the brand voice, distributes and measures content, and optimizes editorial strategy; freelancers add subject matter expertise and storytelling firepower to the mix.

“I think that brands are using freelancers a lot more simply because it’s a lot easier for them to scale based on what their content needs and requirements are,” Michele Linn, the Content Marketing Institute’s director of content, told The Content Strategist.

Coca-Cola, for instance, has a small core team of editors and designers, complementing them with a staff of freelance storytellers through Contently to scale their content operation. They publish 12–15 pieces per week on Coca-Cola Journey.

“We’ve really tried to carve out a beat system with our Contently writers,” said Jay Moye, Coca-Cola Journey’s managing editor. “It’s nice to know who we can go to for certain stories.”

Those writers can also supply fresh story ideas, voices, and perspectives that spice up your storytelling. One of Coca-Cola Journey’s most popular posts, for example, was a story about Coke-themed weddings—a phenomenon unearthed by a freelancer named Laura Randall. The feature story told the tale of a few happy couples and their Coke nuptials.

“That was not an idea that we can take credit for. That was Laura’s idea,” Moye said. “And there are many more where that came from.”

But while freelance resources can be a great help, it’s important to have at least one in-house employee devoted to guiding your content marketing operation—ideally someone with a wealth of editorial experience.

At GE Reports, that person is Tomas Kellner, a veteran reporter from Forbes who writes most of the magazine’s feature stories, directs editorial strategy, and teaches storytelling workshops to GE employees around the world. Kellner also relies on a small squad of internal writers and freelancers from content marketing agency Group SJR.

To visualize this hybrid model, let’s look at how we structured our own editorial team at Contently—and how it’s evolved as we’ve proven the business value of our content efforts and grown our team.

Here’s what our editorial org chart looked like in December 2013, when we hired our first full-time editor (me!) and started investing serious resources into our own content marketing:

And here’s how we structure things today:

As our content efforts have grown more ambitious (telling better stories, launching a second magazine, etc.) our team has gotten bigger. Simultaneously, the pool of freelancers we use through our own network has allowed us to easily scale our efforts.

Ultimately, growing your team gradually is the safest and smartest way to go. As much as I would have loved to have today’s team two years ago, we had to figure out what worked with a small operation before taking that leap.

Another note: If you don’t have the power to hire people to full-time editorial positions, you can still build a core staff with freelancers. When you’re starting small, hiring a freelance managing editor for 10 hours a week, a photo editor/designer for another five, and a half-dozen freelance writers can be sufficient to get the job done—as long as everyone is good enough. At Contently, we supply our clients with freelance managing editors, and it’s proven to be a highly successful model. All those editors are rigorously vetted and usually have at least 10 years of experience.

Regardless, the point is you can start small—from crawling, to walking, to running. (For a more detailed guide that dives even deeper into that metaphor, see this piece by Sam Slaughter, our VP of content.)

Creating approval workflows

In sports, there’s a common cliché about everyone knowing their role and sticking to it. The same can be said for publishing.

Whose job is it to generate story ideas? Who turns those story ideas into assignments so you don’t blow your entire budget on 50 cat listicles? Who edits those stories? Who presses “Publish”?

Below is the basic approval workflow our editorial team uses for The Content Strategist for a typical text article. As you’ll see, anyone can come up with a story idea, but as the captain of our content strategy, I’m the one who assigns every story on the calendar. And though members of our team are responsible for edits, photo treatments, and copy edits, each story comes back to me for approval before it goes live. That way, if there are any mistakes—or anything that doesn’t fit our style or standard of quality—I catch it before it goes live (or, if not, I take the blame).


This process changes slightly for multimedia posts, or if I’m the author of the article, but the system works the same: I assign, approve, and deal with the consequences, both good and bad.

Our system happens to be relatively simple because we work at a small company without a lot of bureaucracy and don’t cover a highly regulated industry like finance or pharmaceuticals. And if you do work at a fairly large company, or in one of those industries, you might be shaking your head because you know there’s one big challenge you’ll have to overcome: brand and legal approvals. You’ve heard the horror stories about organizations that take months to approve simple social media updates. It’s something that can completely derail a content operation and needs to be avoided at all costs.

The key—as Contently VP of Enterprise Services John Hazard wrote in an excellent guide for content approvals—is to get lawyers and superfluous brand managers out of the approval process as much as possible by setting and documenting clear guidelines that ensure your content is compliant with legal and brand style standards. To streamline your publishing infrastructure, you need to make sure everyone is aware of those standards. How do you do that? Conveniently enough, it’s the same way you ensure editorial quality—by placing one key stakeholder in charge of final decisions.

GE Reports publishes at a quick, steady cadence even though a lot of its stories report on the company’s emerging technologies in highly regulated areas like healthcare, where non-compliant content can have serious legal consequences. But because of the infrastructure, the editorial team has the power and flexibility to publish at the speed of news without fear of penalty.

Managing Editor Tomas Kellner ensures that every story is fact-checked with internal sources, a practice he perfected during his journalism career. And when a story actually does need to go through legal approval, he knows when to send it up the chain of command based on his editorial instincts.

“With health care, for example, you could not publish a story without legal approval,” he said. “Often, when you talk about a device, it actually has to go through two sets of lawyers. It has to go through the regular legal department, but then it also has to go through the regulatory lawyers that make sure that what you’re saying actually describes fairly what the machine is doing.”

However, the process doesn’t bog down GE’s publishing schedule, because of the clear understanding and close relationship that Kellner has built with his legal department over time. “In the beginning, it was a difficult practice for me to learn,” he explained. “I didn’t know who these people were and how to get the copy through efficiently. It often got stuck. It’s like building a house. You have to put in the plumbing. Once you know who these people are, you don’t have to go through the various gatekeepers—you can go directly to them and check on your story and see how it’s moving.”

And since Kellner serves as the keeper of GE Reports’ editorial standards, the company has a system of checks and balances that allows it to stand out as a stellar publisher without getting sued.

“When it comes to a company publication and your stories get noticed by the top-level publications, you are under a special degree of scrutiny,” Kellner said.

If a 130-year-old behemoth like GE can get its content approvals in order, so can you.

This post is an excerpt from “The Ultimate Content Strategist Playbook No. 3: Staffing and Launching Your Content Marketing Program.” Read the full version by filling out the form below.

Image by Olivier Le Moal