Whenever you launch a digital content operation alongside an existing print title, you’ll end up having a conversation with your publisher about how many editors, writers, or content creators you need – and can afford.

You may not be running a print title, but the publishing experience may be a good map for the growth of your own digital content team. The good news is that there are some predictable milestones in how these teams evolve, so with this cut-out-and-keep guide you’ve got everything you need to know to scale your team. 

First up: How big a team do you need before the digital operation is viable in its own right?

Stage One: ‘Oh, the editorial assistant does the Web site’

Even today, many Web sites are run as afterthought. Ignore the lip service: how many people are producing content for your brand? I was once working on a new media launch, and was asked by the print editor a few weeks before launch, as I was the digital guy, “Now: what about this Web shit?”

That was a few years ago, but even today some print teams are remarkably offhand with their digital plans. You can’t entirely blame them: for a lot of magazines, the digital offering has yet to bring in big money. Digital content is hard to do well, it’s very competitive, and involves a bunch of new digital skills that many magazine people don’t have and which only some are actually sincere about acquiring.

When you’re working with a brand at this stage, you’re really just beginning: the Web site may have been set up half-heartedly, run as an obligation rather than an opportunity. It might be updated pretty infrequently, with no original content, and is often seen as just as a marketing site for the print edition.

A site like this usually isn’t going anywhere – except in one case. Sometimes the editorial assistant is a tireless genius who starts to pull together great content through sheer talent and hard work, and the brand starts to pop. Either way, someone is going to notice and there will be pressure To Do More Online.

Stage Two: ‘We have a great Web person”

The next important stage is the day that one person on the brand starts producing content full time for the site, without competing responsibilities. The editorial assistant stops doing admin and focuses full-time on digital, or you actually hire a dedicated person.

This does two important things. First of all, you’re getting a step-change in the focus, volume and quality of what you can do. One brilliant performer can put you on the map online: what’s a great blogger but a single content producer who’s killing it with daily posts? The second important change is that one person is seen as responsible for the site: if it does well, they do well, and if it tanks, there’s someone to take the heat.

Moving from generic – and therefore inconsequential – to specific real responsibility is a big deal. With one dedicated type, you’re in the game. However, if this only the editorial assistant, even if they start to drive a bit of traffic, you’ve capped your ambition. Giving the Web site to the most junior member of the team, or an intern, or the office admin, someone who has the least political capital, makes it much harder to change the rest of the team’s behaviour.

It’s very hard for the junior, internally promoted candidate who still has to buy the editor coffee to really drive change. Many magazines bumble along here for ages, but let’s say traffic starts to move and the investment argument starts to make sense: now the argument is to bring in someone with more experience.

Stage Three: ‘We have a great editor, and the editorial assistant helps out too!’

Now we’re serious. The loyal editorial assistant’s patience is rewarded with the hire of player: a real live digital editor. If you bring in an experienced digital editor, who has some clout from outside the organisation, they can and should use their brief to push for change.

It’s also a big political shift, as you now have a senior editor on the digital side, working closely with the editor of the magazine side of the business. If the magazine editor is politically astute enough, they’ll try to ensure the digital editor reports to them, but leave them well alone. If they’re not, the publisher needs to step in and ensure that the new digital offering gets the support and the space it needs to find its feet.

Either way, there’s some real scope for the site to start to find its own voice, develop its own rhythm, and begin to establish its own identity as a peer to the main brand. The key here is that you’ve got parallel teams, ideally working together, or at the very least not getting in each other’s ways. You can now start to have a higher-level dialogue about what digital means for your brand, and you can show, not tell, what great digital work looks like.

Stage Four: ‘We have a brilliant Web team, and they’re killing it!’

I can’t exactly tell you why, but for some reason three really is the magic number when it comes to digital content. Once you have a player manager who’s writing good stuff, and editing and raising the game of the other two content producers, the volume of ideas, the vibe, and the energy is there to really do some damage editorially.

I’ve seen lots of digital teams do brilliant work with this resource. You have enough people not to completely lose momentum when someone’s out on holiday: until now, you’ve not really had a robust operation that can be effective all year round. You’ve also got enough variety of ideas, enough variance in tone in your three writers, and the beginnings of the evolution of a shared tone of voice that is the essence of a great digital brand. Two people in a room is a chat. Three people in a room can be a story conference, a brainstorm, hell, even an editorial summit.

You have enough brains to produce great daily content, to articulate and share a real editorial vision, and a certain amount of budgetary muscle to throw your weight about with the magazine team. You’ve got a whole bench of desks, or a decent corner of the office. You can get ironic t-shirts. You can have in-jokes. You can take over the world…

Image courtesy of Graham Campbell via Flickr used under a Creative Commons license.