I've spent a lot of time over my (agency and client-side) years trying to make sure content is put at the heart of website projects.
If you're building a site for a client these tried and tested tactics will help you to help them produce their own (quality) content, on time. Better for the user. Better for the client. Better for you.
1. Audit and archive as much content as possible before starting a site refresh
Don't skip the audit. Don't! I know it's deathly boring going through all that content (I've done 'em), but they're worth the effort:
- you can be confident about what you've actually got (an obvious point, but time and again something unexpected crops up)
- your client can immediately archive blatantly outdated or irrelevant content
Redesigning the sitemap is never an easy job, so do the project's information architect a favour and only deal with content that is worthy of being on the new site.
If there is no budget in the project, get the client to do it audit. Everyone benefits.
Send them my handy Content inventory template (Excel), so they have no excuses!
2. Have a content production plan
I tell clients to expect each page of content to take them 10 hours of combined effort to research, produce, and publish. That's a bit of a lie… it is usually a lot more, but 10 is any easy number for me to multiply by!
So a site with 50 pages (which is pretty typical) is going to take around… you can do the maths.
That's huge and clients understandably get scared when they really start to think about it.
They need a plan.
I recently wrote a blog post on designing a content production plan. Share it with them.
3. Auto-migrating old content to the new site is not the answer
Automated (script-run) migrations are the mermaids of web content, luring weary souls. But it's not the answer (IMHO!)
I like to bore clients with metaphors: "Would you move all the unused and tatty stuff hanging around in your garage into your new, architect designed house just because someone offered to move it for you?" Of course not, then don't do it with old and poor content (just because you can).
A new website is the perfect opportunity to have the much needed content spring-clean. Don't let your client miss that moment.
Some bright spark will have this brainwave: "We'll migrate it all in to the new CMS and then review, edit and archive it after we launch." But it never gets done as everyone goes back to their pre-project lives and it just clogs up your new site and CMS.
Caveat: there are some exceptions when it makes sense to auto-migrate content: old blog posts, news articles, events and other time-stamped, moment-in-time content. But even then you have to be careful it works in revised templates and content schemes.
4. Hire professional copywriters
If your clients are lucky enough to have in-house writers that know how to write for the web, great. If they don't, seriously consider finding the budget to hire some in for the project. De-scope a feature or two if they have to.
Explain to your client how a pro-writer will help them to produce high-quality, consistent content much faster than they could. That's their reason for existing! This frees the client back up to focus on the million other project responsibilities they're already struggling to get through.
5. Work on higher risk content first
One nasty page of content can bring a website project to its knees. Help your client to spot the risky pages before they bite you all.
What's a risky page? I encourage clients to ask these questions about each piece of content in their sitemap:
- Does it need a legal review?
- Does it have several owners, subject experts, or reviewers (sure indicator of potentially conflicting opinions)?
- Is it sensitive
- Is it mission critical?
- Does it have 'history' as a difficult piece?
I like to add a column in the sitemap sheet with the obvious title of 'High risk'. The project team can then mark risky pages (and other content assets). We work on these pages first to give us the most time in the project to play with, if (and when) they hit the rocks.
6. Run the content review stages with an iron fist
Review and sign off stages are when the wheels fall off the content production process. From my experience there are recurring reasons for this:
- Everyone thinks they can write (and like to start rewriting content)
- Writing is subjective with no right or wrong (so hard to resolve disputes)
- Ask someone for their opinion and they will find one!
- Content owners get twitchy and possessive about 'their' content (even if they've ignored it for years)
- Reviewers are often senior to writers in the business (and like to push the writers around)
- Unnecessary review points are naively added to satisfy a presumed need
If you don't help a client to stay on top of this hornets' nest, the project timelines are at risk.
Unfortunately, I don't think there is a magic bullet and each project is different. But I do think it is critical to set clear expectations (early) about the remit of each reviewer and then hold that line.
Here's an example: if my client says they need a subject expert review of the content, we add one to the process, but we set clear rules of engagement to communicate to all the experts.
- they are being asked to confirm the content is accurate, on message, and complete
- they are not being asked to feedback on style, tone, or structure (the senior editor will do that)
Tip: insist reviewers don't make direct edits to the copy. Tell them to only add comments inline or general comments at the end. Content by committee is a killer and rarely improves the final version.
I should write a full post just about this :-)
7. Prioritise content for launch
Not all content is equal and a row on a sitemap does not justify its eventual existence.
So get a bit Agile about it before production begins and encourage your client to start treating the draft IA sitemap as a backlog of content that needs prioritising.
Work with them to ask these questions when prioritising each piece of content:
- is this content business critical?
- is it directly supporting an important user task / goal?
- is it unique? (Why bother if someone else already offers this?)
- is it hard to produce?
- will it be hard to maintain?
I pretty much run my life with the MoSCoW prioritisation method (Must, Should, Could, Won't) and it works pretty nicely for content too. Go with any method that you and your client prefer.
And keep (re)prioritising content throughout the project. The project team will have new and better content ideas as you progress and learn.
Tip: clients that have developed a content production plan with time estimates will have a healthy respect for content and an appetite to prioritise.
8. Stagger content through the process
Encourage your client to think of content production as a factory assembly line, with digestible sized batches of content at different stages.
If the writer is ready to push a page's content forward for review, do it, don't wait for the other 50+ pages to catch up, only to give the senior editor a panic attack when they all thud on her desk.
Staggering will minimise bottlenecks, smooth the workload out over a longer period and let you all iterate (tweak) the process with improvements as you learn what's not working.
Well I think that's plenty for one blog post. Hopefully these tips will help you to help your clients through their content challenge. Let me know how they get on.
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If you really want to help your clients ask for our successful Content Production Planning service. We love to parachute into content projects and make everyone feel better.
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