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How to Create Functional SOPs (That Your Employees Actually Use)

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How to Create Functional SOPs (That Your Employees Actually Use)


Everybody tells you to make SOPs as an agency owner. It’s the only way to grow, right?

Yes…and no.

Your marketing agency needs SOPs. That’s a fact. But your agency doesn’t need to waste time creating documents that collect digital dust. If you make SOPs for every single task in your business, your hiring process will be a breeze. But, soon, you’ll find your employees and contractors aren’t even opening up those SOPs. They figured out their way to get the task done, and it’s more efficient. 

All the time you spent on those SOPs is wasted—and it could have been used in a better way. At this year’s Traffic and Conversion Summit, Ryan Deiss talked about the importance of creating SOPs and not creating SOPs.

That’s the secret of functional SOPs that your employees actually use. 

We’ll explain…

How to Create Functional SOPs

Functional SOPs are the brain of your business. We’re not saying that you don’t need SOPs. You definitely do. Standard operating procedures (SOPs) help you hire, move employees to different positions, and figure out where you’re inefficient. Especially as an agency owner, SOPs are your absolute best friend.

If you want to scale your agency from 5 clients to 10 and eventually 20+, SOPs are the way to do it. But only if you use them the right way. If you spend too much time on SOPs your employees don’t use, you wasted time that could have been spent on lead generation or deliverables

Here are the 3 steps to create functional SOPs your employees open, use, and share.

Step #1: Choose the top tasks you need SOPs for

The first step in creating functional SOPs is figuring out what tasks need them. It’s tempting to create an SOP for every single part of your business because it feels efficient. But, if your team doesn’t use them, then it was a waste of time. As Ryan talked about in his Traffic and Conversion Summit session, you only need SOPs for the most important tasks.

Everything else will collect digital dust on your employee’s desktops, never opened again. What’s an important task? This can range from running your meetings, uploading content to WordPress, or writing podcast show notes. The important tasks of your business are the ones that are moving the needle and are consistently on to-do lists.

  • Tasks outsourced to VAs (like writing podcast show notes)
  • Meeting templates (Gino Wickman shares meeting templates in Traction)
  • Tech instructions (like publishing a blog post to WordPress)

Here’s part of an old SOP we used to write the Perpetual Traffic Podcast show notes:

This was an important SOP for us because 1) we uploaded a new podcast every week (recurring task), and 2) we needed to create a consistent experience with our listeners (to move the needle on audience growth).

Once you’ve figured out the tasks that move the needle and are a consistent part of your agency, it’s time to write your SOPs. 

Step #2: Write down every step with an explanation

Each task that moves the needle and is done on a consistent basis has the green light for an SOP. In Step 2, don’t worry about anything but writing down every step of a task or process in as much detail as possible. Your goal is to be able to hand this document to someone one the street and have them be able to do that task or run that process.

Yep, your SOP needs to be that detailed. 

When we write SOPs, we divide them into sections. This makes it easy for the person doing the task or running the process to know what they need before getting started and moving on to the next step.

For example, here’s the Table of Contents from our Blog Post Uploading SOP:

Working with the Blog Document:

  • Section 1: Get Finalized Post
  • Section 2: Prep Post for Layout
  • Section 3: Process Images
  • Section 4: Uploading Post Copy into WordPress
  • Section 5: Fill out SEO and Sidebar info
  • Section 6: Publish Post

In each section is a detailed description of the standard operating procedure. Here’s what the two first sections of our Blog Post Uploading SOP look like:

At this stage, you’re just writing down everything involved in the task. The next step is giving your SOP the final polish.

Step #3: Delete as many words as possible

Each SOP should be as short as possible. The longer the SOP, the more complicated you’re making the task or procedure. Complicated tasks and procedures are the opposite of growth in a business. You don’t want your employees stuck on a single task all day because it takes them 30+ pages to get through the SOP.

Just reading that sounds unrealistic.

In step 3, you have one goal: delete as many words as possible from your SOP. Shorten your sentences. Tighten up your explanations. Use more images. Make your SOP a seamless experience instead of a cartography class. 

Our SOP for the Certified Partner Weekly Email is two pages long. It doesn’t need to be any longer for our email team to get it written and out the door. This SOP is broken up into two sections:

  1. Procedure
  2. Email Outline

At the top of the document is the schedule for ideating, drafting, reviewing, and submitting each week’s email. Below that is the email outline to follow. 

Could this SOP be 10+ pages long? Absolutely. If we added every detail possible to writing the email and uploading it to our email provider, it could probably be longer. But, we don’t need every detail for it to get done right. We just need our team to know the schedule (so the email gets written!), to understand who’s in charge of what part of the process, and to have the outline. 

That’s it.

Now, you have an SOP that your team will actually use because they genuinely need it! Ahh, the magic of functional SOPs. 🪄

Are Your Employees *Really* Using Your SOPs?

They might not be today…but they can be tomorrow. Just by simplifying how many SOPs you create and how you write them, your marketing agency can change overnight. You can go from putting out little fires all day long to knowing that any task/procedure moving the needle and happening consistently is getting taken care of. 

As the owner, executive, or manager of a marketing agency, this is a breath of fresh air. If you’re focused on putting out the (consistent) little fires that come with employees and freelancers not using SOPs because they’re too complicated, bulky, and time consuming, how can you captain your ship towards smoother waters?

There’s a hard way to grow your agency and an easy way. Part of the easy way is creating functional SOPs so your employees actually use them. The other part is the realization that you don’t know everything, and you’re not supposed to. There are marketing strategies, agency growth tactics, and marketing knowledge that you don’t have—that could help your agency reach your big goal this year.

And they’re all inside of DigitalMarketer Lab. Lab is our members-only platform where the top marketers give away their marketing expertise through Insider Trainings, Workshops, Playbooks, and our Toolkits. 

By becoming a Lab member, you get access to every past Training, Workshop, Playbook, and ToolKit—and our community of 10,000 marketers.

See what’s inside Lab here.



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MARKETING

How A Non-Marketing Content Approach Produced Award-Winning Results

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How A Non-Marketing Content Approach Produced Award-Winning Results

Matt Hartley is not a marketer.

And yet, he is a 2022 B2C Content Marketer of the Year finalist.

Though seemingly incongruous, it’s not. Companies don’t all approach content (or marketing) with the same organizational structure.

Matt leads editorial strategy for TD Bank Group as a senior manager in the corporate and public affairs department. Under his leadership, TD Stories took home top honors for Best Content Marketing Program in Financial Services and earned finalist mentions for Best Content Marketing Launch and Financial Services Publication in the 2022 Content Marketing Awards.

Those results prove that department, title, and reporting structure don’t matter if the content works.

“We tell stories aligned with (the company’s) communication goals. We’re not necessarily looking to sell something. It is about brand building, thought leadership, financial literacy,” Matt explains.

Here’s how a non-marketer finalist for Content Marketer of the Year built an award-winning program.

If the #Content works, details like reporting structure, title, and department don’t matter, says @AnnGynn via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Launching the newsroom

In 2018, Matt joined TD as a content strategist. He was hired partly because of his background in reporting and creating new content products. Matt had worked as a technology reporter at The Globe and Mail and the National Post. He also created the Financial Post Tech Desk, a home for Canadian and international tech news, and was the founding editor of the Post’s arcade video-game news site.

TD leadership had recognized the shifting media landscape. They saw fewer earned media opportunities and turned to Matt to help scale a TD-owned channel called TD Newsroom.

While TD Newsroom aligned with the external communications goals, it ended up with an internal audience – less than 10% of visitors came to the site from outside the bank.

Turning the content program inside out

TD Newsroom’s importance grew when the pandemic hit in 2020, making some forms of traditional customer outreach impossible. No longer just another tool in the communication toolbox, TD Newsroom became pivotal.

“Creating our own content and being able to distribute it became crucially important to us,” Matt says.

The TD Newsroom team focused on creating branded service journalism (content intended to help customers), and traffic to the site increased substantially. Topics such as banking tasks you can carry out online, budgeting for income impacted by COVID, and planning an emergency fund took center stage.

That was the beginning of the TD Newsroom evolution.

“We were rethinking how we did content and where the customer was in their journey,” Matt says. The team also doubled down on data-driven content and refined its content strategy.

In 2021, TD Stories debuted. “It places the customer at the center of the story. It tells stories that resonate with customers and colleagues,” Matt says.

The site’s tagline – “Enriching lives one story at a time” – reflects this mission.

TD Stories organizes content around five pillars (as shown in the site navigation in the screenshot above):

  • Your Money features financial tips and advice.
  • Innovation highlights new technologies to create more personalized banking experiences.
  • Community features stories about TD’s involvement in the communities where it operates and where its employees live.
  • Colleagues tells the stories of employees.
  • Insights features thought leadership from the bank’s executives.

TD Stories places the customer at the center of the story, says @thehartleyTO of @TDnews_Canada, via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Making everything count

“We’re a small but mighty team within corporate affairs. It’s a flat team – everyone brings ideas to the table. It really wouldn’t work if it wasn’t as cohesive as it is,” Matt says.

The digital content team also functions a little like an agency. In corporate affairs, they work with relationship managers for categories such as personal banking, insurance, US banking, etc., as well as product, partnership, and philanthropic managers.

“We work with them to create the stories. We may pitch to them, asking for a subject matter expert to help us tell a story, etc.,” Matt explains. “We could not exist in a vacuum.”

He oversees a digital content team that includes a data-driven strategy role that has been critical in the TD Stories evolution. That added focus has helped the team in its content development.

For example, the bank’s editorial calendar revolves around repeating deadlines and patterns. Deadlines for retirement plan contributions and income tax returns occur during the same period every year. And each spring, more people begin house hunting.

With TD’s digital content team amping up the content measurement strategy, Matt and team can analyze how well those yearly content pieces perform. They also can better understand what people are searching for, so they can refine and improve the next content iterations.

“We can take those moments and make those moments fresh,” Matt explains. “We can ensure the customer gets the best and most accurate information possible.”

The metrics reflect the team’s dedication to excellence. In 2021, traffic to TD Stories grew more than 125% year-over-year. Almost all the traffic (98%) comes from external sources, including 25% from organic Google searches.

Knowing the real goal

“At the end of the day, the content is not the end goal. The goal is to help educate the customer and help them feel more informed and financially confident. When you keep that in mind, the actual structure of a story or every sentence is a means to an end,” Matt says.

Educating the customer is the goal – story and sentence structure are the means to that end, says @thehartleyTO of @TDnews_Canada via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

That’s part of the secret science of brand journalism. As Matt explains: “Take the objectives of the business and marry them with stories that the customers find engaging and useful.”

And that’s an award-winning formula regardless of department name, title, or organizational structure.

Want more content marketing tips, insights, and examples? Subscribe to workday or weekly emails from CMI.

HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT: 

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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