Part 1 – The client side

I’ve heard this question hundreds of times over the past 15 years. It’s a standard-yet-reasonable request that all web developers make of their clients at several points during website design and development. Does it result in content being handed over? Probably not. Does it cause major grief and sad puppy-dog eyes for clients and web agencies? Absolutely. So why don’t we think about the content first, over and above everything else? Well, there are two sides to this story:

  • Clients – “the web developers are the experts, so they’ll help me design and build an awesome website and I can just write the copy after its built, right?”
  • Web agencies – “we can’t design a website unless we know exactly what content needs to be displayed, which components are reusable, whether it needs to be editable by non-technical users in the CMS, what format the content will be in, etc. Clients know exactly what content they have and should be able to send everything through when we ask for it, right?”

Wrong. Things couldn’t be further from the truth. Having recently spent the better part of a year managing a large website development project, on the client-side of the fence, ‘the content’ was the single most challenging aspect of the project. As an experienced agency-side web project manager, there were many pitfalls encountered along the way which made it difficult to respond in the positive when the web agency said ‘can you please send us your content’. We wanted to, we knew we needed to, but we simply didn’t have it all ready in time. I think this highlights some timing flaws in the current web design process; there needs to be more alignment and focus on the content in the early stages, but that’s a subject to be discussed in a post of it’s own!

In this post, I’ll outline some key things clients can do to make sure they put content front and centre of their website development project. I talk about the web agency perspective in my next post – Can you send us your content? #2

Why all the fuss about content?

“Delivering great content requires some kind of investment: user research, strategic planning, meaningful metadata, web writing skills, and editorial oversight. It requires real people and real resources to get it right, and it’s not easy.” Content Strategy for the Web, 2nd Edition, Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach

Website content is pivotal to a website. Without content, the website doesn’t exist. To use a familiar analogy, your website is like a restaurant – the food is your website content, the décor and ambience is your website design and the staff are your web user experience. You need all three aspects to work in harmony for people to keep coming back to your restaurant; but if the food is crap, you’ll lose customers. People always seem to focus on how the website will look and what it will do, rather than the content it will deliver to people. If you want people to come back to your restaurant, you have to focus on the food – what type of food you’ll serve, what quality of meal you’ll aim to deliver, how you’ll cater for all tastes, whether you’ll have special meals to appeal to families and kids, whether you’ll offer takeaway, and finally, what’s on the menu.

The same principles apply to your website and its content. As the person investing in the redevelopment of your organisation’s website, you need to focus your attention on the content first, gathering all of the content before the website is designed, so that the design can completely cater for every piece of content – text, image, video, audio, downloads, microcopy – and its specific requirements. Here’s 7 content lessons learned on a large website development project…

#1. Strategy first, tactics later

The purpose of website content is to fulfil users’ expectations whilst meeting business needs. In most cases, the project owner or sponsor has a vision for the website and may have articulated this vision in a website or content strategy document. If this hasn’t been done, you need to make sure it gets done before the project is scoped and quoted.

You need a clear and succinct document which outlines the vision, business drivers, objectives, scope and long term strategy for the website content, from which a detailed content plan and business requirements list (and other tactics) can be developed. Website content strategy:

  • Defines how you plan to use content to fulfil users’ expectations and meet your business needs
  • Guides decisions you need to make about content throughout its lifecycle
  • Sets benchmarks against which you can measure the success of your content
  • Guides your plans for the creation, delivery and governance of content from inception to deletion

#2. Identify & engage the right stakeholders early

Work out who the key players are very early in the project, engage them, and ask them to be champions throughout the project. Use these champions to drive decision-making and increase their sense of ownership.

At a minimum, have at least one person from each business area represented in your key stakeholder group; have more people from specialist areas where you plan to delve much deeper into the content; and make sure you also involve strategic decision-makers, advocates, showstoppers and interested others.

If the website has functional components (like forms, shopping carts, events) surround yourself with business subject matter experts to help you specify and design the functionality. You cannot expect to rely solely on the web developers; you need to know what you want, both now and in the future, so they can make it happen for you.

#3. Start the content development process early, before you estimate your budget

The nature and extent of the content work needed for your website can have a huge impact on your project budget, so you need to start considering content as early as possible – before you estimate your budget and definitely before you try to engage web developers.

Do a content audit of your existing website. Have someone who is very detail-minded map out every page on the site, identifying the type of content displayed, whether it can be reused (or needs to be rewritten, or shelved) and identify if there are any gaps. Specialist web agencies offer services to do this type of audit for you, but its not a bad idea to have a crack at it yourself first so you get a good sense of the amount of work to be done.

You also need to answer questions such as:

  • Who are the audiences for the content?
  • Where are those audiences?
  • What do they want from the content?
  • How much do you know about them and if not much, you need to do some research
  • What existing material do you have that can be leveraged?
  • What formats do you want to publish content in – text, images, audio, video, animations, sliders, links, forms etc
  • Do the audiences have differing uses for the content? For example, some may read online, others may want to print and read offline
  • What level of accessibility do you want? Be prepared to back down on some whizz-bang elements at the expense of a highly accessible site.
  • Do you have the resources in house to produce the content and are they experienced in writing/producing for the web?

#4. Consider how content will be re-used

What content needs to be maintained constantly or displayed on multiple pages? These include things like news items, contact details, price lists, opening times. You need to be very clear about what these reusable content chunks are, where you want to display them on the website and the level of maintenance you want to be able to do yourself (without expert technical input).

Start capturing this data in a spreadsheet to force you think about the data and how it can be best structured; this makes it much easier to articulate requirements to website developers later on.

Think about the type of downloadable files you’ll have. Are they in multiple languages or just English? Are they in PDF format? Is the content of the PDFs able to be searched? What metadata needs to be captured about each file to enhance findability?

Many people assume PDFs are the only file types downloaded, but that’s not always the case. There’s many more – .rtf, .zip, .csv – just to name a few. Ask your stakeholders to tell you all the different file types they have, or better still, have them collect all the files so you can check to make sure there are no surprises (like zip files, which aren’t always acceptable in certain content management systems).

#5. Bring your stakeholders along the journey

Start by educating them (if you need to) about what the website will be for, who will use it, what they’ll use it for, what types of content will be available – it’s not all just about copy and images. Show them sites from similar organisations and how their content is organised.

Teach them about the web design process, so they understand what will happen at each stage, and most importantly, how their content will drive design decisions which they may later regret if they don’t provide insights along the way.

Keep them motivated by involving them in the web design process as it tracks along. Invite them to key presentations so they see the site evolve over time, whilst being mindful that they won’t have much time – so don’t give them too much homework!

#6. Enable stakeholders to ‘see’ how their content will look

Run some whiteboarding sessions to create rough mockups of what their pages could look like and how people will interact with the content. Ask them to go away and start trying to work out what content will go where (at a high level). Run some card sorting sessions with post-it notes to help them see how the information might be structured.

Use mindmapping tools to draw rough sitemaps after your card sorting sessions. Engage with stakeholders to move items around as much as you need to, so that by the time you engage the web designers, you’ll be very clear about why the website needs to be structured in a particular way. The website designers will challenge your structure, but that’s great – you need all the expert input you can get at this early stage, particularly from people outside your organisation.

Use tools to create mockups or wireframes, and ask your stakeholders to create real text for every area on the pages. Putting placeholder text in to fill a gap or show where content will go causes many content-related problems downstream. You cannot anticipate issues unless you have the real content in place. Don’t fall into this trap – fill all areas of your mockups with real content.

#7. Produce your content before you start website design

This may seem like an obvious thing to do, but no-one does it. They don’t do it because its difficult and time-consuming, and because they’re generally looking for expert input from the web developers about how to best tackle certain types of content. Will something rank better on Google if we write our content like this? Should we produce an animation or a video to convey this message? Should we provide foreign language versions of this content? Who are we pitching the messages to?

These are just some of the many questions that crop up. Clearly the web agency can bring much to the table to enhance the way your content is presented, but at the end of the day, as the client, you are the expert for your content, and therefore you need to strive to produce as much content as possible before the web design process commences. This will ensure that the new website is designed to suit the specific requirements of the content as well as taking into account the target audience and business needs. And that means it is more likely to be a successful website that delivers against your content strategy, as well as being completed on time and to budget. Content delay is one of the main causes of website project budget and timeline overruns.

Some tasks you need to complete before website design commences are:

  • Define content substance (what content is needed and why). Write rough outlines of each content type, its purpose and any notes about what you need to do/think about to produce the content.
  • Define messaging for each group (what do you want them to remember)
  • Consider how content can be reused across the website (ie links, images, contact details). This will be a key input into CMS development.
  • Define naming & navigation (are there best practice labels you want to use, what are your competitors doing, do you need to do some user testing)
  • Define content structure (how will it be prioritised, organised, formatted and displayed)
  • Develop page outline templates (create a document template with standard headings, structure, links to downloadable content, links to other websites etc) and organise to have the content entered into the templates
  • Define voice and tone (how you want copy written, tone of voice, what reading level are you aiming for)
  • Determine content sources (original, co-created, aggregated, curated, licenced, user-generated)
  • Define content delivery approach (channels, platforms, format)
  • Consider metadata and tagging requirements (how is content grouped/tagged, what information do you need to capture about the content to aid search)
  • Define link strategy (how/where links will be used/re-used, how to handle persistent calls to action, whether links need to be created as assets for ease of maintenance)
  • Develop a content development process…then get people cracking on producing the content!

A final word

Content strategy and development is a complex activity and not something which can be adequately summed up in one blog post. For more information about content strategy and how you can make sure your website content development project is successful: