Gregory Ciotti

Writing / Content Strategy

Editorial values cannot be an afterthought

Values are a codified way to operate in spite of reasonable alternatives. They describe in no uncertain terms what behavior you need to win and why.

Editorial values are not your style guide. While there may be some overlap between the two regarding how you plan to communicate, the purpose of having values is to choose the actions that will drive your strategy and enable it to succeed.

If there are no “reasonable alternatives” to a specific way to perform, you’re not communicating a value, you’re reciting a platitude. For example, there are many ways for a successful publication to set their personal bar for “koala-tea” content, but no company blog on earth has it as their mission statement to produce absolute shit (sometimes they still do, but villains are the heroes of their own stories).

As such, “write things people like” is not a value; you need to dig deeper.

Values determine your value

Editorial values help determine the value your publication delivers to readers, prospects, and customers.

When a reader judges a publication it’s never in isolation. Your content will be deemed fresh and useful or tired and useless in comparison to what already exists. As such, readers tend to ask themselves “What am I getting here that I can’t get elsewhere?” This includes usefulness, but it also includes what you stand for and how you present yourself. If you can’t answer the question of what makes your publication unique and worthwhile, how can you expect other people to answer it?

You need a code of conduct that connects to your core strategies, that helps you stay focused when distractions crop up, and that gives your team a higher purpose to champion. Enter: your values.

1. Values connect behavior to strategy

Publishing is a discipline that requires you to climb hill after hill; what got you here certainly won’t get you there. But there’s a fine line between opportunity and distraction. When all methodologies are viable, you’ll end up with a poorly stitched Franken-strategy consisting of elements that are strong individually, but that don’t fit together as a whole.

Dr. Russell Ackoff made this point, albeit in a much grander context, when he described why a car with all of the best individual parts can’t successfully do what a car is supposed to if the parts don’t fit together. There will be aspects of your publication that you’ll have to make hard stances on — and options you’ll have to completely eliminate — in order to form a proper working system.

One contested issue I find interesting is choosing between a company-led or community-focused publishing strategy. Because they are both viable approaches, either could be the basis for a key internal value: “showcase our team’s best work to the world” or the equally useful “empower our community with a platform to share their thoughts.”

An example of the former might be Facebook Design, which was established to highlight the work of Facebook’s product and design teams. An example of the latter might be the InVision blog, which sources ~70% of their content (my estimation) from the design community and their large customer base.

Both have decidedly different means to find and share good ideas. At Help Scout, we started out life by publishing material from people inside the company. As we grew our customer base, however, it became obvious our small (but incredibly talented) support team just hadn’t seen all of the things there were to see at the later stages. Managing a department of 100 people is categorically different than optimizing for five people.

Because we drew article ideas from our team it also became obvious that company-led was not enough to provide exhaustive coverage on customer support. The current content team at Help Scout has recently focused on community contributions and written versions of presentations to give a more complete look at support as a discipline, which I think is really smart.1

But this isn’t the only important reason this strategy makes sense. Customer support is currently at the cusp of a new era thanks to the proliferation of business models like SaaS; the teams providing it simply don’t resemble the customer service call-centers of old. Help Scout wants to be a part of this shift and one of their core values is to bolster the community behind it, so publishing more from said community is the move to make.

2. Values help you stay the course

When you’re the gatekeeper of editorial quality, it’s your responsibility to not only reach the bar you’ve set for everything published, but to ensure the publication doesn’t veer off course in search of ways to appease the gods of growth. The most tragic way a publication falls from glory is by diluting its focus and losing sight of its competitive advantage.

Exaggerating the point in order to make it, Steve Forbes once wrote, “your brand is the single most important investment you can make in your business.” Yet over the years the site that bears his name has violated this belief with fairly blatant disregard. The credibility Forbes.com used to have has been soured by its pursuit of new reach through putting freelance (free-for-all?) contributors on equal footing with its own reporters. Now that they’re thoroughly saturated with articles on “10 Top Tips from Elon Musk on How to Be Insanely Productive,” what’s the point in wading through the drudge to find the gems? What’s the point in visiting the site at all? Those who trade trust for traffic lose both and deserve neither.

But hold on — while throwing cheap shots at an industry punching bag is all fun and games, we really shouldn’t be so quick to judge.

Forbes, and those like it, are huge operations that employ editorial teams bigger than your entire company. They felt the squeeze in the transition to digital, and at the time it was pitched, I’m sure “open contributions” sounded like a brand-friendly way to grow the site while keeping staff reporters employed and working on the good stuff. And to this day, Forbes still publishes great in-house reporting.

People are smart. Whenever you feel like asking “Why can’t they see how bad this is?“, remember it’s usually because they’ve been swayed, for better or worse, by information you don’t have, or because something was clouding their vision. It’s rarely fair to say it’s due to the accused being somehow dumber than the rest of us. You may someday find yourself pressured to exponentially grow your publication. When that day comes, will you be able to hold firm to your values?

The key takeaway is to never forget that values help you guard the unique utility your content holds in the marketplace. Your flagship pieces aren’t just defined by quality of execution, but by where your brand sits in reader’s heads. If you lose your space there, you’ve lost their attention.

3. Values give your team a higher purpose

Work goes from ordinary to engaging when we find it emotionally interesting and personally meaningful. Everyone on a team is a volunteer, regardless of experience, position, or compensation; if you want to draw out a person’s very best, or kindle a group’s esprit de corps, you can’t rely on mandates. You have to strengthen their existing enthusiasm.

Editorial values help form the higher purpose your team is pursuing, and they don’t have to be realized through some grandiose manifesto. When I think about my work on this blog, for example, I can’t help but be excited at the idea of helping companies build customer-driven publishing strategies. I’ll admit, on bad days I sometimes feel the meta nature of my writing puts me squarely in this obnoxious category:

Comic by Tom Fishburne

But what puts my ass in the chair is the confidence that I’m helping my audience help their audience. Believing what I’ve written has created a small yet net positive impact on our tiny slice of the internet is all I’ve ever needed to justify its existence.

If you want your content team to churn and burn faster than you can write the job postings, then have your driving mission be “create content.” That won’t motivate people for long. Instead, rally around the result of the work you’re doing: who you’re helping, how you’ve helped, and why you must continue.

Stay timely, but aim for timeless

Editorial values are hard to refine because they merge your personal principles with how you plan to best serve your readers.

Since they incorporate how you want to operate, values might seem immutable once written. But because they’re intrinsically connected to what you know about your audience and their needs you shouldn’t be surprised if your initial assumptions evolve over time. Aim for values that are timeless, but use what you learn to keep them timely.


  1. Posts and presentations by Erin McCaul of Moz and Lance Conzett of Raven Tools serve as nice examples.

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