Five Questions You Are Afraid to Ask About Web Content Strategy

March 10, 2011 | John Berndt

5 Questions you are afraid to ask about web strategy

Anyone who has been involved in a large website redesign probably shudders when they hear the word “content.” You’ve heard the expression “Content is King,” but that isn’t really how it went down last time. Content was more like the janitor, or perhaps an eccentric uncle you didn’t know very well.

Your pulse quickens as you remember what you said in that early January meeting: “We can probably address the content ourselves, maybe in August or September.” It wasn’t so. Mapping, editing, rewriting, and migrating your content took more than four months and was much harder than anyone expected. You had to awkwardly launch the site in phases to make the big product release or annual conference, and no one higher up could quite understand why. You remember having to write in the middle of the night, and you remember wondering if you were still writing in English.

So now you have switched jobs and you are managing the website redesign project for your new organization. You already have decided that in this, the well-planned, best-practices-ready, bullet-proof web redesign project you are running at your new job, it has to all be done radically differently. You’ve already audited all of the content in a spreadsheet and you’ve planned out how it is all going to go: months to write and edit the content, months to migrate, and even a month to get the migration plan together before you start. It all sounds very good on paper. So why that nauseas-nervous-nagging (NNN) feeling?

You think back to the last one, and you remember working with that small team on all of that content. The biggest pain wasn’t that everything took longer than it was supposed to. It was the fact that all of you agreed, as you were doing it, that it wasn’t very good. Not that the writing and editing weren’t up to snuff; it just wasn’t clear exactly what you were supposed to be doing—“rewrite the content,” that sounded very clear, until you started doing it, and it became a rolling improvisation. On top of that, you had four people working on it with little time to compare notes, so the results were, as they say… rather mixed.

Well, my friend, the problem was, you simply had no formal content strategy. This time, with the massive rebranding effort that is driving the redesign and the very high stakes, you feel even more out in the cold. Every other aspect of the site has been thought through to the fine details, aligning to a global strategy for world domination, or at least 15% improved conversions, whatever happens first. Somehow you never got around to talking about content. It’s time to stop the train and insert a week of heads down, heavy thinking with everyone appropriate on the team and your knowledgeable web vendor, and produce a detailed content strategy that can drive the effort.

What should it contain? Well, I’m glad you asked. The following are the minimum five components that you need to focus on:

  1. Create an analytic breakdown of the major cuts of content. You need, from the very start, to differentiate between, for instance, the high level content of the website that positions and markets the organization, from the massive library of PDF “cut sheets” that define the bottom of the site. Further, both of these need to be differentiated from the sub-branded microsites that sell this or that product or program with a very specific audience. (The details of your situation may vary wildly, but the principle is the same). If you don’t start with that understanding, nothing that follows can really be appropriately applied.

  2. Define the functions of content. In these areas and on a more detailed level throughout the site, you need to create a detailed list of the most important things that the content needs to do, for your organization, and for the user. This will illuminate missing areas of content that you and your team will need to rewrite, as much as it will reveal content that you need to remove because it is serving no purpose. Most importantly, as you are working on the content, it will reduce the chances that anything crucial gets missed.

  3. Align Content Tone and Approach to the Brand Strategy and Marketing. This is a big one, but it must be addressed not in a one-size-fits-all manner. Looking at the major content areas, make thoughtful decisions about how the content should address the user, keeping in mind the creative opportunities for the brand. Should content be conversational, slightly funny, purely factual, imaginatively journalistic, or some careful mix? Remember, the tone and approach may be wildly different between, say, the marketing and positioning content at the top of the website, and the page that gives you the details on the ASP8700 Series 4, which might need to not crack so many jokes.

  4. Break Up the Content with the Help of IA. There is a major sense in which Information Architecture (IA) (wireframes, sites maps, and flow diagrams) is inseparable from Content Strategy. Content Strategy needs to address and integrate some crucial IA concepts about how content will be refactored in the new site. In most cases we recommend that basic content strategy occur before IA if possible, but if you’ve already completed the IA, don’t stress—you can probably retrofit most of your content strategy with a few tweaks.Key in this area are two factors:

    1. Delivering the right level of content at the right time. Maybe just a paragraph or sentence is needed so early in the experience, not that whole page. See how short this one was?

    2. Break Up your content, like I just did. You need to strategically plan bulleted lists, sidebars, feature areas, and everything else that will make your content more accessible and more amenable to human perception. If you don’t do that, you risk that the user will “white out” and perfectly good, entertaining content just won’t get read.

  5. Figure out how you will add value, interest, and pleasure to the mix. It’s easy to look at your existing site and think, “We just need to make it a little better.” Probably, you need to make it a lot better—even if it is pretty OK—because the competition for the world’s attention will only get direr. So, part of your content strategy needs to include that extra 10-20% of special sauce that you will add to your content to spice it up, make it more vivid, attract attention, and then create a fun experience. This is as true if you are selling power tools as if you are teaching people to sing in Esperanto… there is always value in thinking about how you can push content slightly farther in a creative direction.That’s the core. It seems simple, but a lot is at stake in those decisions, and even more in not making them. Of course, content strategy can get a lot more complicated if you want, including licensing content from other sources, integrating user-supplied content, and many other factors. However, all of that comes after you’ve got a good handle on the core issues.

Remember people only use websites and mobile applications when they have a good experience; the best experience captures the prize. Content may be complicated, but it is a central part of that experience. You are already being strategic on so many other levels… why leave your content out in the cold?It may be a little scary, and in large organizations people might need some help in getting their heads around it, but at the end of the day, Content IS King, at least sort of (maybe it is a constitutional monarchy). And serious content strategy is an opportunity to make the big content effort that is already part of your redesign more meaningful and valuable to your organization. You won’t regret it!

Oh yeah, one last thing. If you need help, we, TBG (The Berndt Group), can also make it go faster, easier, and better.

About the Author

John Berndt

I'm CEO of TBG and I've been thinking about the Web in creative ways since the year it began.

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