By Dan Williamson
The age old mantra ‘content is king’ still applies when attracting big audiences. So why is content still an afterthought in many web development projects?
Granted, the content production process has become more complex over the years as audience expectations and preferences develop and shift. Many of the websites originally set up with a traditional ‘one-to-many’ approach to publishing web content are adopting a more ‘read-write’ participative approach, where user generated content complements a site’s dedicated editorial output.
But even with the added challenge of catering for audiences that demand the right to re-write, re-package and share content, site owners dedicate far too little time or resource to content strategy development. This error, if left unchecked, can lead to severe delays in a site’s launch.
So, In a bid to dispel some of the common misconceptions about the content production process, we thought it worthwhile to outline some of the core components required to ensure its smooth running.
When talking about what the content production process consists of, it’s often helpful to compare it to other more well known elements of a site’s development – like technical development. As teams can often find themselves dealing with complex legacy materials, the same principles often apply.
As with technical development, content production can be vastly improved if a number of measures are in place before build even begins. Obviously, these measures don’t have to apply to every web development project, but more often than not they should include:
• Content strategy or content specific brief
• Sitemap and wireframes
• Content outline specification
• Sufficient lead in time
• Keep your site relevant
Content strategy or content brief
A pretty obvious one this, but when it comes to defining a website’s content elements – namely what content will be required for the site’s functionality and features – things can sometimes get a little sketchy.
Many site owners still assume (or should that be ‘hope’?) that the content part of the job will only involve some form of cut-and-paste – whether from an old website, Word document or an entire content database table. If only this were the case.
A content audit is a document which benchmarks the effectiveness of existing editorial against organisational objectives or key audience requirements and expectations. Clearly, the findings of this document can help vastly improve the quality and effectiveness of a website’s editorial. Document included in this audit normally also include a spreadsheet which transcribes the current sitemap to a tabular format and gives each page a description, status rating and so on.
For example, if the full picture of a site’s editorial content is unknown – particularly after years of amendments or neglect by marketing departments – key stakeholders may run into problems when it comes to identifying which content areas need updating before integration into the site’s shiny new architecture. Put simply, without a content audit, organisations are in danger of focusing the majority of effort on technical features and the look of a new site, only to fill it with out of date or off-key editorial.
Sadly, it’s this eventual realisation – often near the end of the production cycle – that causes many sites to be delayed. Granted, it may only be words, but the reality of hurriedly re-writing an entire website’s copy (the average site hosting around 20,000 words) is not something your internal stakeholders will thank you for.
Avoid under estimating your content needs by producing a dedicated content strategy – preferably one which answers difficult questions. Briefing documents should provide guidance on tone, language, audience and timings, but why not try to apply some rigorous journalistic questioning to your brief’s content approach, namely: what, where, by when, how, why and – perhaps the least most asked question – by whom in which department?
Sitemap and wireframes
A sitemap is required reading for technical teams when estimating resourcing requirements and / or developing a functional specification document. The same should apply to the content production team. A sitemap allows for improved scoping, which helps with all aspects of planning and resourcing during the content production or content migration process.
This can also help to identify typical functional pages that need content, such as terms and conditions, a privacy statement or instructional text for any uploading functionality. As pages like this often fall outside the ‘subject matter’ of a site, they are often left to the last minute or forgotten completely.
Content outline specification
If you really want to help your copywriter, editor or internal marketing team produce editorial that’s on brand, on message and on budget, go beyond a simple sitemap and set aside time to produce a content outline document.
Like a functional specification document, this document provides a detailed walkthrough of the site’s copy section by section (and page by page if necessary). Minimising any confusion about tone and detailing all assumptions about content sources, length expectations and topic focus, this walkthrough document should provide any external suppliers or internal stakeholders with a rock solid blueprint of all content requirements.
Sufficient lead-in time
Like a technical team needs sufficient lead in time to produce effective code, editors need time in order to develop best practice editorial copy. As with rushed code, rushed content will not work. Avoid leaving content until the last minute, even for migration work.
Deadlines help focus everyone’s efforts, none more so than copywriters and site editors who require a minimum period of production time to produce targeted, call-to-action, SEO compliant editorial content. Help editorial teams even further by informing them of final copy deadlines – they will then be able to estimate backwards.
So, now you’ve provided your editorial teams with all of the above, only one more task remains – post launch maintenance.
Keep your site relevant
Why spend time and money developing branded, targeted content your users will thank you for, only to let it go out of date? Content can become outdated very quickly, particularly if you’re dealing with information and guidance materials which refer to timely services and offers.
Users judge your site’s content by its breadth and usefulness, but they also decide whether to trust its information by its date stamp (no date stamp at all is even less assuring). Don’t give users reason to doubt the usefulness of your site’s content – set aside resources to update content on a regular basis and they’ll be more inclined to return to your website.