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.
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.
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.