Prevent content from being a project blocker

A common time for organisations to take a long, hard look at their content is during a ‘web refresh’ project. This is when an organisation wants to update the look and feel of its website. It’s usually prompted by a business need – new functionality, rebranding after an acquisition or merger, or a simple update to keep the brand fresh. 

Often now, the scope of such projects goes beyond the website – complexity grows as we see more mobile access, more personalised content delivery as part of omnichannel environments, and more connectivity between software systems. So the term ‘web refresh’ is showing its age – but that’s a whole different article.

 One of the common choke points during a web refresh project is content.  At the end of a conference presentation, it’s not uncommon to be approached by a developer, manager, or other project team member with tales of woe about the state of their content. These reveal common themes:

  • “It’s been two years since we finished our end of the work, but the site hasn’t launched yet because they don’t have the content for it.”
  • “We had our user experience guy do the information architecture, but migrating the content over from the old system is such a nightmare.”
  • “We wanted our bid to be competitive so we excluded content, and the client has no idea how to deal with it, and we’re not prepared to deal with it.”
  • “We did this great design, and now we have to make all these adjustments because the content doesn’t fit.”

The systemic bias against content

The industry adage is that ‘content is king’, yet experience shows that it more often gets treated like the court jester. This bias against content is real. On digital projects, the visual designers are asked to mock something up to show the client. They might even be asked to mock up some functionality – a slider or a carousel. The content that goes into that mockup is often some dummy Latin text as a placeholder. The assumption is that the client will be persuaded by the beauty of the container, no matter what goes inside.



To use a metaphor, let’s pretend that your company is a coffee chain, and you ask an agency to update your business presence. They obsess about the signage, the shop windows, the furniture, the fancy barista equipment, the colour of the coffee cups and the angle of the lids. But when it comes to the actual coffee? They’ve brought in a couple of teenagers, handed them a jar of instant and an electric kettle, and poured something brown into the cup.

This is too often the case with content.

Look inside the digital agencies that get the web refresh contracts, from the boutique micro-consultancy to the world’s largest and most reputable, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find qualified content professionals. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find content professionals at all. You will find developers and designers, because they are perceived as specialists and their work has therefore become valued.

Content, however, is perceived as ‘that stuff that anyone can do’. Agencies are happy to leave content to the client – hoping that the client can figure it out on their own.

Content development as a business skill

If the business adage is ‘content is king’, there’s an adage among content pros that goes something like ‘just because you can write, it doesn’t mean you can write professionally’. We all learned to write in primary school, but that writing bears little resemblance to the work that content professionals do. You might enjoy your Sunday bike rides, but that’s got nothing to do with the Tour de France.



So, writing is no longer ‘just’ writing; it’s no longer adequate to simply create copy. The craft has become content development – and it can get complicated.

To give you a few examples, the difference between writing for business communication and writing for digital delivery is like the difference between making a sandwich at home and running a restaurant. It’s not just the amount of content that is the difference. It’s the planning and scheduling; it’s understanding the differences of writing for desktop and writing for mobile; it’s the tagging and metadata to make sure the content can be processed properly and is findable by search engines. To quote a client, “this is what separates amateur speculators from professionals.”

Also, let’s not forget the external forces that content developers need to factor into their work. One example is organic search. A professional content developer pays attention to the changes to the algorithms that search engines, particularly Google, use to determine what is ‘good’ content. Content developers need to understand the implications so they can adjust their writing styles, metadata, and schema use, to help search engines find content.

Putting content to work

We have established that content is central to how you describe your products and services. It’s the articles that people read. It’s the instructions that people follow. It’s the photo and the description, the infographic or chart, the product specs, and the supporting material that persuades consumers to click the ‘Buy’ button. Copy is the content that consumers see, and metadata is the content that consumers don’t see. Together, the copy plus metadata comprise content that can be searched and found, delivered and viewed, understood, and acted on.

What goes into the making of digital content starts with a strategy and culminates in the content itself. Here are some of the basic considerations.

The content structure

The structure, codified in a content model, defines how content works within delivery systems, such as a CMS (content management system). The model is created by determining all the kinds of content that need to be created and work together to meet the business requirements. A content strategist would create a domain model, content types, content flows, and then consolidate them into a model. The developers or CMS integrators use this model to build rules about how content gets transported through the system, and delivered to a publishing system or shared with other software systems.

The semantics

There are various standards that technologies such as a CMS use to deliver content to other technologies. The content needs to conform to these standards. A content strategist would work with the technologists to determine which schemas are used, how the taxonomy is set up, which metadata fields are required and how they will be configured, how many channels the content needs to get published to, and so on.

The content

The copy must engage consumers, and fulfil their expectations in terms of user experience. A content professional also writes the adaptive copy that will be delivered to specific channels or outputs. They then add the metadata that allows systems to automatically process the content and provides search engines with the right information. The content also needs to be checked for editorial quality, factual accuracy, consistency, and technical integrity.

Remove the blockers from your project

Given the prominent role that content plays, and the complexity involved in dealing with the setup and management of content, it is time for organisations and their agencies step up their game. Rather than minimise the role of content in digital projects, and the role of the professionals who develop it, it is in the best interest to involve them throughout the project. 

Involve a content strategist while the vision and strategy are being formulated. Have the strategist work alongside the CMS integrators to develop the content model, or at least contribute to it. The content strategist will understand the vision for delivering content to meet business requirements, and their perspective will inform what the content model looks like.

Assign content strategists or content designers to work alongside the user experience team as they flesh out the presentation framework. Content takes time to develop, whether it’s new content or content rewritten to work in the new content model or on the new site, and this gives the content professional time to work on the launch-critical content.

Have a content professional work with the client-side writers to teach them how content will work in the new system, and what the expectations are around creating and maintaining the content. This is often a new experience for writers, who need some training around topics such as using formats and templates, semantic structures, metadata, and taxonomies. They may also need help with content governance, such as setting up and following workflow.

In the end, the best strategy toward removing blockers from content is to embrace the role of content and face the challenge head on: put content in the centre of your project. Getting your content in order is an integral part of the process – and integral suggests integrating content into the overall fabric of a project.

There is no magic bullet, but when done right, the result *is* magic.



How to produce quality content

We all want quality content. Nothing is more likely to lose an audience than badly designed, poorly written, uninformative content – and no-one sets out to produce that.

But what is quality? How do we know when we are getting it right? How can we measure it?

Content is the difference

What we do know is that content is king. In a multi-channel universe with millions of sites shouting for attention, there’s only one thing that differentiates your page from the rest – content.

Content is also all you have working for you at the crucial “zero moment of truth”, the period in a user’s decision-making process when the research is done before buying, according to Andrew Bredenkamp. He is the founder and CEO of Acrolinx, a linguistic analytics software platform, and he was a speaker at the recent Content, Seriously meetup.

Companies are slowly waking up to the reality that content matters for the bottom line. We’ve moved from a time when content was operating as little more than glorified placeholder on websites whose sole purpose was to carve out a corner of the web and bag a domain name.

Companies had to have content, but cared little about it, Dr Bredenkamp said. Now, they still have to have it but they want it, because they know content gives them a competitive advantage. Whether your aim is to get new customers or to retain existing ones, it’s content that’s going to do the job.

Who decides what quality is?

So, how do we make sure our content has the quality it needs to deliver? The problem is that quality is deeply subjective, meaning many things to many people. Ask copywriters and content designers what good quality is, and they’ll talk about the words, grammar, spelling, style and tone. They’ll want tight copy with a logical structure that’s clear and easy to read, in short sentences and paragraphs, free from typos and inconsistencies. They’ll also be concerned about the substance of the material: how engaging, interesting and informative it is.

They’d have an eye on what we might call its authorial quality too. Is the content coming from an expert or enthusiast who knows the subject inside out and wants to communicate that knowledge for others’ benefit? Does the content have authority, build a relationship of trust with the reader and genuinely put their interests first?

The content strategist’s view

The content strategist, meanwhile, would look at the bigger picture. They’d be thinking about content and its role in the sequence of steps users are likely to take fulfil their needs, and how content could create a consistently positive experience throughout the user journey regardless of the platform or device they’re using.

In larger organisations this could involve co-ordinating a number of content-producing teams who each have their particular agenda to push. If the sales team’s material sings in harmony with the after sales team, for instance, then customers are more likely to get a unified, integrated experience. Uneven content that pulls in opposite directions conjures up a chaotic vision of a brand. Disjointed, inconsistent content tracks with poor ratings for reputation, Dr Bredenkamp said.

Quality for marketing

Ask marketeers the same question about quality and you’d get a quite different answer. No doubt they’d be delighted if the content did everything the content strategist and content designer wanted – though this isn’t their primary concern.

They’re far more interested in the findability of the content. They need hits – and whether this is on the back of fancy prose is irrelevant. What use is well-written high-quality content if no one finds and reads it? Quality content for them scores highly on the search engine results page (SERP), and draws users towards their website and away from their competitors.

Don’t try to trick Google

Working out what Google wants has long been the preserve of the search-engine optimisation (SEO) experts, who have traditionally used every weapon in the armoury to give their content an edge. What is becoming clearer is that the old SEO techniques are not nearly as effective as they once were. As many people in SEO will tell you, the days of using content as a vehicle for keywords and backlinks to dupe Google’s algorithms are numbered.

Google is doing what it can to neutralise the tricks of the trade and people who game the system. After all, the search engine wants to offer content of high quality too – search results that provide good information to the people looking for it. It doesn’t want to give them a parade of keyword-bloated SEO-tweaked trickery that fools algorithms as much as it short-changes its users.

Searching for quality

A measure of how important this is to Google can be seen with the care it takes over perfecting its search processes. Every year it makes at least 500 changes to its search algorithm, occasionally adding to this with major overhauls, such as Google Penguin and Google Hummingbird, that can make significant differences to how it gathers results.

Google’s systems are further augmented with the input of real people – providing a human element to Google’s search iterations that is better able to evaluate content and detect true quality. Google search quality evaluators, as they’re known, scour pages looking for characteristics such as expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness, satisfying information and a positive website reputation – measures that are far more difficult for an algorithm to assess.

Make your own quality

As Google gets more interested in the question of content quality and how to measure it, where does this leave us? Should we just accept that quality is whatever Google says it is? Doing so would be to fall back into the old modes of second-guessing Google’s designs – and this contradicts what Google has been trying to tell us for the last few years. Their message is clear: think less about trying to please Google and more about delivering the best possible experience for users. Get that right, and, in theory at least, high search rankings will follow as a matter of course.

We are in a position, then, that the meaning of “quality” among those who have a stake in creating it, is becoming far more closely aligned than it has been previously. Quality for copywriters, content designers, marketeers, content strategists and search engine optimisers seems to be increasingly about responding closely to the needs of users and ensuring a positive experience for them across platforms.

It’s not just user needs

But there’s more – and this point can be painful to hear for people passionate about content.

It’s not all about the user. Our services to users are built upon the aims and objectives of our organisations. Quality requires time, thought, investment, planning – among the reasons that many companies have been slow to embrace it. There’s no reason to go to the trouble if your quality content is not achieving what you want it to.

High quality content does not automatically become highly effective content, as Lucie Hyde, Barclaycard’s Head of Content and Digital Channels, said in a later presentation at the meetup. A Bach cantata is of exquisite quality, but it’s not going to be a dancefloor hit in Ibiza.

Getting the conversion

Your content has to be effective. This could be commercial effectiveness, clinching the sale, or it could be non-commercial, fulfilling an obligation. It has to achieve what it sets out to – and make what Bredenkamp called the ‘conversion’. It’s not enough for content to be of a high standard – although it definitely helps. The more problems there are with the content, the lower the conversion rate tends to be, he said; the fewer style errors there are, the higher the rate.

You have to know the needs of your organisation to create a definition of quality. When you work out exactly what your business needs are, then you’re better able not only to recognise quality, but measure it too. Comparing the conversion rate of one page against another very quickly gives you an idea of what works and what doesn’t, he said. Your notion of quality can then be supported by something indisputable – data.

Quality is driven by data

There’s nothing like data to cut across disagreements in the meeting room about the direction content should be taking. Content producers may have style sheets and writing guides, they may be writing “on brand” and “on board”, they may be getting the top readability scores and high search rankings. But, as football commentators are so fond of saying, there’s only one statistic that really matters – and with content it’s the conversion rate, the ultimate measure of the effectiveness and quality of your content.

Quality is about context as much as standards. It’s about recognising user needs and mapping them to the objectives of your organisation – and it all has to be done with the right style, tone, accuracy and relevance to engage and entertain. It’s a lot to ask, but nothing worthwhile ever came easy.

Many thanks to Dr. Andrew Bredenkamp for his contribution to the Content, Seriously meetup.

Twitter @abredenkamp

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Content professionals spend a lot of time talking about the content creation and content management phases of the content lifecycle, but they seldom talk much about delivery. That’s because delivery is often misunderstood. And, it can be challenging. It requires a different skill set and specialized tools designed for the job.

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