Anyone in marketing knows there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen at any time, which can make moving through an approval process a real pain.
Because any marketing asset reflects how consumers or buyers will perceive your brand, approving marketing content can be a complex process that covers almost every aspect of marketing production and many different business areas.
What is a marketing approval process?
The approval of marketing content is a critical step in getting your company or client’s branding and messaging right across every communication channel you use.
While the methods and people involved in approval marketing assets and activities are unique to each organization, a creative team’s marketing approval process encompasses all of the mechanics of coordination between content creators (writers, graphic designers, videographers, digital marketers), executive staff, (marketing managers, creative directors), and external stakeholders (clients, brand partners, suppliers, and so on).
Moreover, a marketing approval process delineates a complete history of modifications and sign-offs as content creation moves through various review stages and includes all of the feedback, comments, change requests, versions, and actions taken around marketing assets.
Marketing approval process
A marketing approval process is an oversight of all creative and marketing assets from initial conception to campaign launch.
Marketing approval covers the mechanics of coordination and collaboration between content creators, stakeholders, and executive staff, clients, and brand partners. A strong marketing approval process includes a complete history of modification, feedback, comments, change requests, content versions, and sign-offs as content creation moves from start to end.
Elements of a marketing approval process
Structuring when and how fast marketing content is reviewed and approved depends on many factors, including:
- The size of your organization
- Who is creating the content
- The types of content you’re producing
- Who needs to have a final “sign-off” on campaign assets before they go live
- Any project launch deadlines
That said, it requires a strong structure to keep the content flowing. Typically, a strong cadence for approving content includes key elements such as:
- Essential steps in marketing content production
- Pre-defined stages of internal creative/marketing review
- Pre-defined stages of non-creative stakeholder approval
- Preset deadlines, status updates, and approval checklists
Steps in marketing content production
The most important component of facilitating a marketing approval process is outlining which content stages define your content production flow. It’s important that everyone stays on the same page about which steps move content forward and what counts as a new version for review.
Key steps in creating marketing content include:
- Creative brief. Before creative work begins, marketing teams can benefit from combining project planning documents that outline a campaign or an asset’s intention and concept. Typically, this lives in a creative, campaign, client brief, or simply a project overview document. While not a creative asset itself, getting everyone to sign off on any marketing project planning document is critical to maintaining the project scope after beginning creative work.
- First draft. Once a creative brief has been established and approved, marketing teams should decide what constitutes the first draft of a marketing asset. The first draft can be something as simple as a proof of concept or initial sketch, or as fully-developed as a complete design or an asset. Regardless of the format, it’s critical to establish when and in what form an asset is ready for initial review and feedback.
- Versions. These include all other draft versions- or revisions that change as feedback is given. Having a strategy to label, store, track, and compare all the versions created as modifications can help streamline the approval process.
- Final version. A final version of a marketing asset is one that has been approved for use by all stakeholders and is ready to “go live.” As many content creators know, final may have a different meaning for different people involved in the approval process. In a robust marketing approval process, everyone’s on the same page about when work’s done, approved, and launched.
These content stages may be defined differently based on the type of asset your marketing team is creating or the kind of campaign you’re launching. They may even include multiple related content types in a campaign, such as a bundle of ad variations that’ll go live as one project across many channels.
Pre-defined stages of internal creative/marketing review
Closely tied to content stages and versions are the steps of internal content review within only your creative team, without any outside feedback. This is often a more informal process as writers, designers, and other content creators collaborate to develop marketing content. Depending on the size of your marketing team, your content may flow through these stages:
- Concept approval. Is each marketing team member aligned with a project’s creative vision and goal? Can each unit within marketing feasibly execute that plan, and what’s the timeline for content creation? What is the necessary breakdown and assignment of content creation tasks?
- Copy approval. Whether it’s a video script, an ad copy, or a social media post, copywriters are often the first content creators to kick-off content production. Copywriters require approval on their drafts before starting additional work on an asset.
- Design approval. This stage may occur at the same time as copy approval, but it can also be informed by approved copy.
- Digital marketing approval. Once designs have been approved, a similar asset often needs to be transformed for use across different social and digital channels. This can be a separate workstream that requires added collaboration and approval.
- Tech approval. Finally, how assets are set up, leveraged, and targeted to an audience in an ad, email, or social media technology also requires approval. Approving and tracking how assets will live across your martech systems is the final step of an internal review in your creative team.
Because your creative team knows a campaign’s needs and creative choices better than other stakeholders, we recommend considering the internal sign-off procedure for your team before sharing any work externally.
Pre-defined stages of non-creative stakeholder approval
Creative work doesn’t stay within a creative team for long. When it comes to marketing and branding, many other business areas often need to input the message, design, and use of marketing assets, which can include:
- Subject matter expert and executive review. In certain industries, internal or external subject matter experts may need to approve marketing content for accuracy. They should be involved with project launch and planning. Consulting subject matter experts throughout the review process reduces rework and ensures content stays on track during the development phase.
- Legal review. Often, launching marketing assets need a sign-off from legal counsel or a compliance officer. Typically, this occurs as a final step in the approval process to ensure marketing content is compliant with any industry regulations. Still, it’s also wise to loop in legal experts when creating standard design elements like project labels, disclaimers, and more.
- Client management or sales review. Before marketed or branded content goes out to your clients, your client management or client sales team needs to be involved in the approval process. It provides a secondary check that aligns content with a client’s requirements or project scope. The client management or sales review team is the mediator between a marketing team and its clients.
- Client review. If you produce content for clients at an agency, don’t send the content early for client approval. Building good client relationships require a constant, iterative approach to keep them informed about how and when the work’s taking place. Versioning and approving are closely tied to your client’s project budget and your agency’s billing agreements.
When marketing content goes through many reviews and experts for input and approval, marketing teams need to define a cadence and a sequence to interact with all of these stakeholders.
Pre-set set deadlines, status updates, and approval checklists
High-quality marketing approval processes use a framework of internal and external approval stages and action items that standardize these stages across projects:
- Pre-set deadlines. Provide time limits on different stages of work based on a project’s needs. For example, marketing teams can set the timeline for the first draft review at three days for each group of people that need to review that draft, and so on.
- Status updates. Indicate a marketing process’ stage, not started, not approved, opened, approved, and more.
- Approval checklists. Provide approvers with reasons for their decisions and action items based on a provider’s feedback.
Within a marketing approval process, the goal is to create a throughline of all marketing content changes, actions, and sign-offs related to a marketing campaign or asset. Standardizing and automating manual follow-up can help your marketing team get to that through line faster.
Impediments in a typical marketing approval process
Marketing teams know that there’s always some level of chaos and change within a marketing approval process. This can include a new asset coming in late, a collaborator forwarding a campaign asset to someone outside of the campaign team with feedback, or a logo or color requiring a last-minute change.
Without approved limits, getting marketing content approved and finished can seem like fighting one marketing emergency after another. Here are the top reasons for approval delays within marketing teams:
Reliance on email to track feedback and approvals
Despite abundant marketing technology, email remains superior when it comes to sharing marketing assets for review and approval.
of marketers said they still rely on email to facilitate a creative review.
However, even the most reactive email threads lack transparency, creating delays in marketing campaigns. With email, it’s easy to exclude people from email replies and forwarding is a logistical communications nightmare, leaving the full team in the dark about who has seen and approved content and project communications.
Feedback, even if itemized, isn’t tied to the creative asset itself, leading to confusing or non-actionable feedback. This can create a lot of guesswork for your creative team when making revisions for approval, requiring follow-up that slows down the process even more.
Facilitating marketing approval through your team’s inboxes can be never-ending. Critical feedback often comes in an email response well after everyone else has approved an asset.
Different workstreams for different file formats
One of the biggest delays in marketing approval is ensuring everyone in the team has the right assets to the project files and then centralizing all collaboration around those files. When project assets live across systems, marketing teams spend valuable time simply exporting and transforming files to get them in the right place for approval.
Video, digital, email, copy, and design assets may all be related to the same campaign and use the same elements, but originate in different content systems. Your designers may use Illustrator to generate design comps, your copywriters Google Docs to share work, and your video team might make revisions in Premiere Pro.
When other team members need to holistically review these assets, it’s time-consuming to share them and configure access. Meanwhile when content is exported for sharing, it may be pushed to Slack for discussion, uploaded to Vimeo for review, or emailed to external collaborators.
All of this content sharing can create disjointed workstreams and collaboration spaces throughout the marketing campaign cycle, making it easy to miss key comments and feedback and raise questions about where content is in the review process. When feedback isn’t centralized, the marketing approval process falls into chaos.
Lack of team-wide status updates
Even the most organized share drives and team chat threads often lack the transparency for clear status updates of the campaign assets, which leads to the following issues:
- No easy way to indicate who approved an asset, leaving room for surprise feedback or changes that derail the scope and schedule of a marketing campaign.
- Unclear tracking of markups, annotations, and file versions, creating confusion among collaborators about current or approved versions..
- Inefficient project management systems that track tasks and deadlines, but rely on attachments, emails, and shared folders to share, comment, and version files in a separate system or method.
- A disorganized marketing team that spends as much time chasing feedback and confirming approvals as it does creating and iterating campaign assets.
Without a comprehensive method for tracking the status of marketing projects, changes, and approvals, marketing teams keep waiting for feedback. This feedback may have already been approved, and any rework here would only impact team performance. Not seeing a status update before you end your day at work could slow down your project timeline, causing unnecessary delays in the approval process.
Status tracking isn’t simply a project management issue. With the massive amount of content and projects being handled by creative teams today, marketing teams need a way to systematically track the work and approval status across all campaigns.
4 steps for creating an efficient marketing approval process
The progression of a marketing approval process depends highly on your marketing team’s size and the project types. An efficient approval process can be built by structuring these core areas.
Identify key review stages and stakeholders
The first step to improve a marketing approval process is mapping out who’s involved in each part of your marketing campaign and who’s approving content before launching it for your customers.. Identify which internal departments should have a final say in marketing materials, and if any external partners need to review campaign assets before publishing.
The creative brief or project plan should be the first piece of approved content. It’s important to have a process that indicates that all team members and stakeholders have signed the marketing plans and any design comps prior to starting any creative work.
To ensure clarity in the process, seperate your internal review steps from the external ones. This allows your creative team to efficiently collaborate, and shield that internal work from clients or high-level stakeholders who only need to see certain versions.
You’re often met with questions like who should be involved in an approval or project and what defines it. Regardless of the type of organization, emphasize on project visibility and structure that clearly explains every review stage and the tasks involved. Ask the following:
- When you overview multiple projects, what project or approval details do you want to quickly spot? What’ll help your creative team move projects along faster?
- What content should be segmented? Which comments or versions of marketing content should be private, public, or both?
It’s crucial for marketing teams to challenge the notion that all stages (and collaborators) are needed for each version of creative under review, especially when involving external stakeholders.
Configuring approval stages isn’t necessarily about reducing the number of versions, comments, or people involved in the approval process. It’s about making sure reviewers receive content at the correct time with context, so they’re adding appropriate comments and feedback based on what other people have contributed.
Configuring project access at the right time allows more people to contribute to the project and helps your creative team get through the approval cycle faster.
Align content sharing and access with key approval stages
Not all team members need access to all versions of a marketing asset or need to be involved in all stages of marketing approval. In fact, when too many people work together on something, it leads to conflicting feedback and slows down the approval process.
It’s helpful to think in collaboration streams and align notifications, tasks, versions, and project spaces around these streams. For instance, not everyone needs to be informed when every version of a new design comp is available. Still, a specific group of people may need to know when the entire design review process has started or the final design content has been approved.
Decision checklists can also help delineate who has approved which pieces of content, at which time in the approval process, and their reasoning for approval or non-approval. It’s necessary to indicate when something has been approved and useful to note if it hasn’t for quick revisions.
This can be automated through your marketing workflow system, online proofing system, or simply a portion of your project management software that someone manually updates. Tracking the status and reasoning of decision-making helps align all stakeholders throughout the creative production process.
Instead of waiting for everyone’s input, it can be helpful to weigh your approvals when there are many people involved. Would an input from your digital marketing manager supersede your design choices? If your CMO has signed a content piece, would it need a further review from those who haven’t seen the piece yet?
Deciding which approvals have more value and the ones required to move content to the next stage lays the foundation of a smooth marketing approval process.
Determining the answer to these questions can help inform your marketing content versioning strategy and how different versions affect content sharing for approval. You can ask:
- What should your external colleagues see or not see?
- Who manages client relationships, and how far should the contact go while sharing content for approval?
- Does your current process make it easy to identify access, roles, and contributions?
Answering these questions can help you decide how your marketing files, data, and systems are configured for efficient and transparent marketing approvals. Identifying which team members and collaborators should have access to which versions of a content piece helps build a more actionable and controlled marketing approval process.
Implement guardrails to prevent feedback creep
Once you’ve outlined all key review decision points and content access, it’s critical to secure them with guardrails throughout your marketing approval process. Adding checkpoints into the process can help stop work from progressing if full approval and review hasn’t occurred, avoiding time-consuming rework and project delays.
This can be a daunting task to implement and enforce. It’s easy to think, “we don’t use deadlines because they don’t work, or “‘we can’t enforce deadlines on our clients” or that we move too fast for deadlines.
However, over 80% of marketers have said they encounter issues getting feedback and that approval times become even longer when external reviewers are added to the mix.
While reducing feedback delays, the confusion starts when you implement tools to keep everyone on the same page and engaged with your collaboration efforts on content. Features like decision checklists, approval deadline reminder, and marketing workflow automation can help codify and standardize these key oversight markers into your marketing approval process.
The following can help expedite approval timelines:
- Enforcing deadlines at each stage or version. Deadlines keep your marketing review and approval on track. When used consistently, deadlines can also help identify bottlenecks over time, which can help you refine your approval workflows. Using relative deadlines can give your team flexibility and context on when and how approval decisions should be made.
- Backing up deadlines with automated reminders. A lot of time is often spent waiting for team members to engage or comment on marketing assets. Using reminders, ideally automated or triggered by approval decisions or new versions, is key to reducing turnaround time.
- Creating more actionable comments and feedback. Lots of confusion in the marketing approval process comes from not knowing if comments or markups on a marketing asset are actionable or not for final sign-off. The key to project iteration is a method for team members to indicate what comments and markups need to be made and then check off or track if those changes have been made. This distinguishes comments that’re more exploratory and not critical to approve.
- Tracking approvals with decision checklists and status updates. Tracking the actions and decisions on marketing content feedback is the final step to maintaining approval needs. Decision checklists and status tied to content pieces help indicate why and when approvals were made.
Determining who made those approvals help marketing project owners with deeper visibility to make decisions on project timelines and the next steps. Seeing if a stakeholder has viewed a marketing content piece but hasn’t commented, marketing teams can decide if that lack of action is a bottleneck in the process or if work can progress without that view. Also, discussions (and meetings) can focus on substantive topics and not updates.
Implementing these guardrails doesn’t just help keep everyone up-to-date throughout the creative process. It can also significantly reduce approval and project timelines, mostly when they are automated through something like a marketing workflow or task management system.
Consider a project example in which a marketing team created 73 versions from the beginning of a project to final approval. Across these 73 versions, the creative team recorded over 700 review and approval decision points, and about 10 comments per version. Despite this huge volume of content along the way, the average approval turnaround per version for this project was about four days, which is incredibly fast given the project’s size and scope.
Without guardrails in place, manually tracking all of those versions, comments, and approval decisions would be quite difficult. However, because the team was tracking actionable comments, capturing those comments on content, and submitting their decisions across the full approval cycle, they could get the content to the production team for launch and make changes much more quickly.
In short, more reviewers, contributors, and stakeholders don’t necessarily have to correlate with longer project cycles. Implementing approval guardrails such as decision checklists, automated reminders, and more, can help shorten marketing project approval timelines even when many people and versions are involved in getting to the final copy of an asset or campaign.
Create an audit trail of approval activity
One of the biggest advantages of a standardized marketing approval process is having an auditable history of activity for your records and marketing compliance. When steps in the approval process are automated and traced, your entire team has greater transparency of how marketing campaigns were conducted.
Here are some helpful areas to trace the marketing project lifecycle:
- File access. Who has access to your marketing files, who opened those files, and at what time? When and how were files exported and shared?
- File modification. Who added comments, annotations, and markups to the file, and what were the contents of those markups?
- Versions. When were new versions created, and by whom? When did changes occur across versions, and what constitutes a new version?
- Approval history. Who said “yes” or “no” and why across the team?
Tracking these actions reduces any uncertainty about who approved a creative piece that represents your brand or client. Monitoring this information also enables you to identify the standard workflow or any common delays in your approval process.
This post-mortem process analysis can provide valuable insights that save your team’s time and money as you look to optimize the amount of time and effort spent on marketing content creation.
Creating an audit trail throughout your marketing content production and approval process also helps scale regulatory review. Being able to trace marketing approval across files, systems, and projects provides oversight that all brand guidelines are followed or reviewed, that brand assets are used correctly, and disclaimers are properly applied, and so on.
This not only reduces the risk for your brand but also makes it much easier to generate project files and provide assets to auditors, if needed.
What software helps to streamline a marketing approval process?
Depending on your marketing team’s size and scope, your marketing approval process may require structure and integration across a wide range of marketing tools. All of these systems help marketing teams move away from email to facilitate marketing projects. These systems include:
File storage and sharing systems
The file storage and file sharing systems you use to house marketing content all impact how marketing approval is facilitated internally. You may use an internal folder structure to manage project files, rely on Google Drive to store various types of content, or keep all in-flight files in a system like Hubspot, Asana, or Trello when it is being developed and used.
No matter what you’re using, you should be able to quickly access and transform these files for viewing, access, and use by all team members. Your file storage systems and file numbering strategy should also easily indicate which file is the final or approved version of a piece of content for clear reference.
Project management software
Each organization and marketing team may rely on a different project management software system to track individual and team-wide tasks and deadlines. Project management systems can all help break down and assign tasks throughout the marketing project lifecycle. They also provide visibility into the work in progress and on hold, and outline roles and responsibilities.
One downside to these systems is that the structure of project tasks often masks file sharing and storage. While it may be easy to navigate to different tasks and deadlines, finding the collaboration on the actual files of marketing assets can be more difficult in a project management system.
Marketing teams should look into the best way to connect their file sharing, storage, and proofing systems with project management structures for absolute project transparency and accessibility.
Content management systems
Once marketing assets are created and approved, the final version typically lives in some content management system. These systems can vary based on the format or the marketing asset, like web hosting sites, video hosting sites, or email and marketing systems. Many companies also have internal CMS tools to host brand and marketing content for internal access or client use.
To connect the dots between approved content and launching that content for use in marketing campaigns and reducing duplicates, marketing teams can often automate the file sharing between systems used in the internal review and approval process and their CMS tool.
Client management software
If you’re working on the agency side, you may have a separate system or space you use to share work with your clients that differs from your internal content and project management software. This can range from an FTP file transfer site, a client space within a project management system like Monday.com, or a folder in your online proofing system.
No matter what you’re using, the software you use to facilitate your client management and client approval process should be easy to use for your clients. They should be able to quickly navigate to the latest version of a content piece, see a history of revisions and changes, check deadlines, and add their comments and approvals. The system should also be easy for your clients to access without requiring many new logins or user accounts.
Online proofing software
Online proofing software facilitates the markup, review, and approval of marketing content across all stakeholders. It can also be used to implement many of the guardrails we discussed throughout the creative approval process. The upside of online proofing is that it centralizes feedback and approvals across many different content types, so creative teams can work and track approvals for websites, design files, email blasts, print work, and more in one location.
Online proofing provides many of the task and project management capabilities needed for marketing approval. It should ideally be combined with project management, task management, file sharing, and client management system for full automation.
Having a consistent system and process for reviewing and approving marketing assets is incredibly beneficial for marketing teams. Project timelines are directly impacted by format, medium, and systems used to produce marketing content and the work’s done in between content versions by reviewers, approvers, and creative teams.
An efficient marketing approval process includes the coordination of many overlapping content types, steps, and stakeholders. To maintain efficiency and keep projects moving, marketing teams should delineate each stage of content creation, define clear roles for each stage of internal and external approval actions. Automating those decision points with staged triggers, notifications, and reminders can help create actionable approval steps combined with precise feedback.
Reducing email communication, disjointed file sharing, and soiled collaboration spaces also helps eliminate some of the chaos and delays in creating marketing content. When marketing teams can centralize files and collaborate on those in a way that all team members can access and use at various stages of the review process, marketing projects benefit from greater visibility and efficiency across the board.