Effective web managers tackle digital governance

photo of climber and a steep drop

Most organizations are taking huge digital risks.

“We need someone to help us with our content strategy.” That was the request
from a prospective client in the digital marketing department of a financial services group,
and after spending five minutes with their website I understood why.
Their business units were out of control: publishing endless content without a plan.
The symptom they wanted to fix was poor customer experience ratings: most customers
asked to be called back instead of attempting to use the website.

It was obvious to us that the real problem was digital governance. They had
no web strategy, no web standards or policies, and no
digital measurement practice beyond basic web analytics (hits and bounce rates). So when we met the team, I explained how content
strategy fits into web management, and shared our experience that
the root cause of content strategy problems is a lack of
digital governance. Everything was going well, until they realized that I was suggesting
that they sit down and talk to their colleagues in the business units: to find alignment on strategy, standards, and policies.

“No, no. We need you to go and improve the content. We can’t get involved in all that political stuff.”

Talk to their colleagues? From the look
on their faces, I might’ve suggested they murder their own grandmothers.
I explained that to improve the quality of web content—and consequently the customer experience—in a sustainable way, a simple rewrite wouldn’t help. Before we can agree on what quality content looks like,
we need a realistic web strategy that senior management have committed to,
and we also need to agree on standards and policies for ownership, decision making,
and resourcing. If the project didn’t tackle digital governance it would fail.

At this point, the most senior person in the room intervened. “This is a decentralized organization. We can’t tell the business units what to do!” And yet, they assured me that their customers—high net-worth individuals—perceive the whole organization as a single brand.


Web managers who stick to “business as usual”—and avoid tackling digital governance—are playing Russian roulette. If our digital initiatives aren’t helping to change the way our organizations operate, we’re helping executives take crazy risks with our future.

Let’s use this story to summarize the digital governance problem facing organizations:

  1. Organizations are structured in silos, based on pre-web assumptions and working practices. This has worked well for decades.
  2. The digital revolution has changed customers’ behavior and expectations so drastically that customers now expect organizations to behave in a coherent, co-ordinated, and convenient way across all touch-points, as if these silos didn’t exist.
  3. Executives are beginning to notice this change in customer expectations, but so far they haven’t understood its significance. So they acquiesced as individual silos added a facade of digital services—websites, apps, technology, content—to the existing pre-web organization.
  4. Web managers have done their best to negotiate this situation from within an organizational silo (typically marketing, communications, or IT.) But we’ve come to the point where tactics like website redesigns, marketing campaigns, creating new content,
    or buying new technology can’t distract us from the underlying problem any longer.
  5. If we’re going to bridge the gap between our customers’ expectations and our digital capabilities, web managers need to tackle digital governance.

Here are some practical steps we can take right now, to begin to deal with this problem:

  1. Stop talking about technology, redesigns, and campaigns, and start talking about risk and governance.
  2. Become a facilitator, a corporate therapist. Talking about the problem with stakeholders is the only way to resolve it.
  3. Insist that the organization tackles each area of web governance: strategy, governance, execution, and measurement.
  4. Embrace your role as an agent of change.

It’s time to help executives understand that when it comes to digital, “business as usual” is the most risky path they can take.


If you’d like to learn how to apply these ideas in practice, come to our workshop in London on 21 September 2012: Advocate, Adapt, Align: Using Content Strategy to Change Your Organisation featuring Sara Wachter-Boettcher, Kate Kenyon, and me.

Photo by Clint Koehler.

4 thoughts on “Effective web managers tackle digital governance

  1. Yes, agree with this post and your earlier one on A List Apart. One thing to add: as well as talking about organizational risks, I’ve found it useful to talk about organizational opportunities. For some people it’s a more persuasive message.

  2. Enjoyed this post. One thing to recognize is that change and adoption of governance will need to come at the executive level. Once you have an executive sponsor (IE – executive who owns the digital strategy), governance can become a corporate initiative that has credibility and a true champion.

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