Six Tips for Effective Editorial Advisory Boards

In an article published last Monday, Joe Pulizzi advocated the use of editorial advisory boards for content marketers. In keeping with his July 4th publication date, Pulizzi made his case with revolutionary zeal.

Having worked for many years with editorial boards, I share his appreciation for them. But while I second his advice, I do so with a few words of caution. Advisory boards only work well when you put sufficient energy and thought into forming and maintaining them. So before you leap in, consider the following six tips for ensuring their effectiveness.

1. Ask yourself if you really need or want a formal board. An advisory board is most useful when you cover a fairly narrow range of technical or complex issues. If your topics are too diverse, a small group of niche experts won’t help much of the time. You should also make sure you have the time and resources to maintain a formal editorial board. If you do it right, it’s a lot of work. Many advisory boards wither on the vine. Don’t let it happen to you.

2. Know your board members. Resist inviting people onto a formal board until you’ve worked with them enough to be certain that they are genuine experts and that they truly want to help. If you keep your board small—Pulizzi wisely suggests limiting it to six members—you’ll want to make sure every one of those members is an active, insightful contributor.

3. Beware editorial board disenchantment. Even when editorial board members start out as enthusiastic participants, they may well start to lose interest or become too busy to offer meaningful help.  When that happens, you have to be ruthless (in a nice way, of course) and ask them to step down. Unless your board is just for show, you should expect every member to be an active participant. One way to deal with this problem is to make appointments to the board for a clearly stated period of time, such as a year. If a board member doesn’t work out, you simply don’t renew the appointment.

4. Be conscious of potential conflicts of interest. Even the most objective board members will have blind spots, particularly when their business interests are involved. Keep that in mind when you ask their advice, and avoid putting them on the spot. Concern about conflicts of interest goes both ways, of course. Board members will want to make sure your own business interests won’t compromise them. This is not a problem for most independent publishers, but for content marketers, the potential for editorial bias is much higher. Assure your board members that you want them to counteract your bias, not to provide a cover for it.

5. Think about compensation. Though Pulizzi didn’t mention this sensitive topic, it’s bound to come up sooner or later. I don’t recommend honoraria or other payment for services—it complicates and limits your relationship with your board members.  But there are benefits you can and should offer. In the trade magazine world, for instance, publishers give board members perks like VIP passes to conferences they sponsor and free copies of special publications. At the very least, send your board members an annual gift.

6. Don’t ask for too much. It may be slightly optimistic to suggest, as Pulizzi does with Independence-Day spirit, that an “advisory board will completely revolutionize your content marketing.” That is an unrealistic expectation for most boards. You can avoid disappointment by defining in advance what goals you have for your board and sharing them with board members. When it comes time to measure the results, you’ll likely be pleased.

Though my passion for them falls slightly short of Pulizzi’s revolutionary fervor, I think we would agree on this: well-managed editorial advisory boards can make the difference between good publications and great ones.