Paperwork is one of those dirty words that tends to be said with a wrinkled nose and a six year old’s idea of the taste of broccoli in people’s mouths. At best, people will say it’s a necessary evil and go to it with a kind of resigned sigh usually reserved for 1950s and 60s sitcom fathers. Now don’t get me wrong, if we’re talking about scanning a week’s worth of receipts for an expense report, I make those faces too, but documentation in general has too often been unfairly painted with the same brush. Documentation, if done poorly, can either be boring, overwhelming, or just flat not helpful, if not all three, but there’s no need for that to be the case, and in fact there are myriad reasons why documentation, especially for your marketing efforts, can save you time and money and help keep your team on the same page.

Documentation doesn’t have to be the enemy

Most companies are either over-documenters, who think EVERY SINGLE THING needs to be codified and set it stone, or under-documenters, where nothing is written down because “everyone just knows.” In either case, this leads to the documentation just flat not being helpful, either because there’s too much to dig through or because it does’t exist or exists in such a flimsy state that it doesn’t answer anyone’s questions. But as a marketer, documentation (at least what of it you feel comfortable sharing as a client) is huge. I can look at it and get a sense of what’s important to you and get a better understanding of how the business works without having to tie someone up to answer a bunch of questions or spend two weeks playing email tag. That saves me time and you money. Documentation is also a critical step in a marketing plan, whether the company has bought on to the idea of effective documentation across the organization or not. Because planning, creating, and managing marketing content typically means getting in-house talent, an agency, and freelancers all working together, it’s critical that there’s some kind of road map to reference as you go. Whether it’s well defined KPIs, buyer personas, a content strategy guide, a style guide for copywriting, a mission statement, whatever, this information being codified in some way so that it can be referenced is one of the keys to making disparate marketing channels and teams work together.

What to document and how to do it

Find a balance – Too much documentation is just overwhelming, resulting in things being too hard to find and nothing standing out as significant or of special importance. On the other end of the spectrum, not enough documentation doesn’t actually solve a problem because there are too many questions left answered, so people have to go find someone to figure something out anyway. In either case, people stop using the documentation because it’s not helpful or efficient. The things that you explicitly document should be the things that are the most central to your goal or the most critical to your business, and they should be documented only in as much detail as is necessary. Have some faith in your team that they can figure out how to get from point A to point B, as long as you clearly define where those points are. Maybe a style guide is really important because there’s going to be a lot of copy being written. Maybe you don’t have buyer personas yet and those are really necessary for your strategy. Every company may not need every conceivable type of strategy or planning or style documentation, in fact most won’t, so figure out what’s the most important and focus your energy on that.

Hammer it out ONCE – This advice holds true across business, but especially when attempting to craft a marketing strategy, early in the process get as many of the people involved as is feasible in a room and figure out a strategy guide, buyer personas, a style guide, whatever baseline information you can. Write it down. Put it on the company intranet, email copies out to everyone who might need it, make sure executives or team leads in other divisions know it exists, and then KEEP REFERRING TO IT. If you’re dealing with a team that hasn’t had a lot of documentation before, you may need to keep pointing people back to it for awhile before they get into the habit of checking it. Be kind, point out where the answer to what they’re trying to figure out is or remind them that that KPI/mission statement/what have you is ultimately what’s important, and direct them back to the documentation. Same as with a mission statement, it has to be lived and it has to become a part of your day to day process, which means referring to it, talking about it, and absolutely not signing off on or encouraging any content or behavior that contradicts it.

Respect the intelligence and individuality of your people – Don’t dumb down the documentation, don’t think that every little thing needs to be spelled out, and don’t treat every piece of marketing guidelines like a rule book. It’s a map, not a prep school code of conduct, and you are not a hall monitor. It’s likely not going to be feasible to have everyone involved in your marketing and content in every meeting devising this stuff, but once you’ve got a draft, ask at least a representative sampling of your team for feedback and then incorporate that into the final version.

Involve HR – This is the kind of thing that HR should know exists for their own information but also because these are things that can be incorporated into on-boarding materials. If these buyer personas and marketing strategy guides or style guides are the framework for what you’re doing, any new employee involved in marketing should get them immediately upon starting, so that from the very beginning of their experience as a part of your team, that’s the baseline that they’re operating from. Not only that, but this kind of documentation should be a window into what kind of skills and personality are the most critical to your team, something that will make HR’s efforts to recruit and hire for your team that much more effective.

Hopefully this inspires you to either streamline your documentation or kick it up a notch, depending on which side of the over/under-documenter divide you fall on. If there was one piece of documentation, one style guide or buyer persona breakdown or strategy map, that was the most critical in your organization, what would it be? We’re curious to hear in the comments!