Who Is Your “Arbiter of Good?”

An article caught my eye this week because it speaks to a dilemma I often face when talking with clients. The Inc.com piece quotes author Malcolm Gladwell talking about the talent of one of his editors:

“My editor at the New Yorker magazine, David Remnick, is a better writer than 95% of the people who work for him. He’s constantly … having to accept articles that are not as good as the ones he would write himself. If he were to be completely honest and say, ‘I can’t accept this,’ he wouldn’t have a magazine.”

I see two challenges for marketers. The first is exactly as presented by Gladwell. As editorial content becomes a more pronounced strategy in the business and talented people start leading those functions, the focus on quality can become a huge bottleneck.

I often see content marketers struggling with material from subject matter experts deep in the organization. Acting as “arbiters of good,” they want to edit it or punch it up to (at least) a satisfactory condition. But when it comes to that desire to improve quality, sometimes – and this is the tricky part – we have to (to quote Elsa from Frozen) let it go.

It’s a balance, for sure.

Sometimes content marketers have to allow what they consider substandard content to exist within the business, if only to maintain some semblance of sanity. To paraphrase Gladwell, if you’re completely honest every time you want to say, “I can’t accept this content,” you’ll scale content only to what you yourself can produce.

The second challenge is the opposite: being prohibited from being the “arbiter of good.” These practitioners are not allowed to say, “I can’t accept this content.”

I worked with one university content team that was proud of its new content management system and the process to go with it. Subject matter experts from all over the organization could now submit content for publication across multiple web properties.

I asked, “Who’s the arbiter of quality? Who gets to say ‘No’ or ‘This isn’t any good’?” They laughed and said, “No one. These are professors and senior staff. We have to publish anything they provide, as is.” For all the potential of their talent, these folks were simply a filter to control the rate of flow of water over the dam.

As leaders in content, we need our “arbiters of good.” And we need to know how and when to use that power. To paraphrase the old prayer, we need the serenity to accept some content we cannot love, the courage to reject the content we must, and the wisdom to know the difference.

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