Content. It’s the red-headed stepchild of any website project. The thing that 9 times out of 10 blows the time-line out of the water. The task that only ever seems to get bigger, not smaller. Why is this?
Perhaps it’s because content development is often spread over a number of people, none of whom have it as their highest priority. Or perhaps the job is dropped on just one person, who does it on top of their regular duties. Perhaps it’s because content writing often sits outside the design and development process, or perhaps it’s because design and development both have clear and familiar processes, and these aren’t as well established for content writing, editing and loading.
Whatever the reason, there are some things you can do to get your content into line. Based on our experience, here are 7 steps and a couple of bonus pointers, designed to help you with your content project.
1. Get a content wrangler
Employ, assign or beg someone to take on the lead content role. They will:
- carry out the content audit, and use this to manage the development of content
- own the style guide, and make any style decisions
- create content templates, and train writers to use them
- decide when pieces of content are ‘finished’
- handle translations (if required)
- manage any sign-off procedure.
It may be that this person writes and edits all the content as well. It may just be that this person is you. In which case – congratulations! Having one person in charge of all the content is the ideal situation (even if it means you’ll be frantically typing for the entire duration of the project).
If you can’t achieve that, having a single content wrangler who is recognised as being in charge of all content-related decisions, and who has the authority to set deadlines for the provision of content, is the next best way of ensuring content is completed on time.
‘Content strategist’ is another word for content wrangler. A List Apart published a great series of articles on content strategy; some of my favourites:
2. Get a style guide
The point of a style guide is to improve the consistency of your content. They can be a godsend when you’re dealing with a group of writers.
There are a plethora of books out there that you can buy, and I’ve found that people are often happy to share their style guides. If you work in a larger organisation, there may already be a style guide for print publications which you can adapt for the web.
If you’re having to start from scratch, some points to cover:
- the tone you’re trying to achieve, and the audience you’re writing for
- formats for dates and times, phone numbers, addresses
- conventions for how you refer to your organisation
- conventions for the use of acronyms, abbreviations, and industry or sector specific jargon
- conventions for link text
- examples of good page titles, subheadings, image and table captions
- decisions on moot words (e-mail or E-mail or email? web site or website? home page or homepage?).
If your writers are unfamiliar with writing for the web, I’d suggest running up a workshop to introduce them to the main concepts and differences from writing for print. This has the bonus of bringing everyone together and ensuring a shared understanding of the content development process.
Something to bear in mind: style guides need regular updating to stay relevant. How about setting up an annual date with yours, just to make sure it’s in good shape?
3. Carry out a content audit
The content audit is probably the most tedious and most important part of your website project. After all, the whole point of this project is (or at least, it should be) to communicate with some people, and your content is how you do that. It comes wrapped in design and sits on top of technology, but at the end of the day, it’s the words that really matter.
A content audit for a website update has three stages. The first stage is a page by page analysis of all the existing content on your site. I usually find it easiest to do this in a spreadsheet. Each page gets a row, with columns for page title, URL, description, status (keep/edit/delete) and notes.
If you’re super-keen on details, you can
- include each news item and event
- note all external links and whether they’re still working
- keep a separate worksheet for all downloadable documents on the site (where they’re linked from, what format they’re in, what date they were written).
The next stage is to add in the new content you want to develop for the site. This is also a good stage to start assigning pages to writers, if you’re working with a team of people.
The final stage is where you turn the content audit into a tracking tool. Use it to record where the content is in the development process (started, drafted, copy-edited, sent for sign-off, signed off) whether the page is being translated and where it is in that process, and anything that’s blocking progress.
To be honest, this is usually the point where my spreadsheet sprouts a rainbow of colours, with a complicated key. You’re welcome to be more restrained, but sometimes, when you’re in the depths of the content mire, turning all the completed pages sunshine yellow can be a small but valuable psychological pick-me-up.
4. Get to grips with social media
While you’re auditing the content on your site, why not run a quick check over your social media presences? Have a look at:
- where you have accounts (Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, delicious, StumbleUpon, LinkedIn, MySpace, Bebo – you’ll be amazed how these things proliferate)
- when you last posted or updated
- whether you’ve become an active/valued part of the community
- whether these presences are doing what you hoped they would
- how you might want to incorporate these presences into your website.
If you haven’t set yourself up on any social media sites of services yet, this is a good time to think how this might complement your website.
5. Prioritise your content
Technically, this should happen between stages 2 and 3 in the content audit.
Once you’ve identified all the pages you need to update or create, prioritise them ruthlessly. What do you really need to launch with? What’s nice to have? What’s the most important new content you need to add? This is the way I usually approach prioritisation:
- existing content that requires updating to move over to the new site is first priority
- high-value new content is the second priority
- existing content that will benefit from cleaning up is third priority
- nice-to-have new content comes last.
6. Set up some templates
Templates that show writers how pages should be structured are very helpful. At the simplest level, they might lay out the essential elements for the page (title, summary, body copy, examples of how links should be written). Instructions on how to indicate heading and subheading levels are often useful, if people aren’t using set styles.
For an example of a highly structured content template, see Erin Kissane’s article on A List Apart.
7. Get ready to be interrupted
While you’re working away diligently, filling pout templates with your well-prioritised content, new items will creep in. Often this happens as part of the wireframing process, but sometimes it doesn’t occur until the technical build is underway. This is when you need to start providing pieces of content that are often small but urgent, things like the ‘remind me of my password’ screen, the ‘your form has been submitted’ screen, the ‘there are no results for your search terms’ page.
This is often off-the-cuff writing, and consistency will be improved if only one person provides this content.
Bonus: Common hiccups and stumbling blocks
Translation often causes a bump at the end of the writing process. If you’re working with an external company or translator, talk to them about the size of your project, and ask them how long they think it will take them to turn a given number of words around. Check whether they have recommendations on how you should provide your content, and incorporate this into your templates if necessary. Decide whether you will provide content in one batch or stagger it. Finally, hold off translating navigation elements for as long as possible, as these often change during the design and usability testing process.
Load your content at the end of the development process. Trying to load content into a site that’s still under development can often cause irritation and delays as developers and content loaders inadvertently get under each other’s feet. If you can, wait until the site is has been tested and the bugs worked out. You might feel like you’re losing time, but a concentrated push a week before launch is the most efficient way of getting all the content into a site.
Two tiny points that will save you grief when it comes to content loading. If writers are working in Word, discourage them from making hyperlinks in the document: instead, tell them to place the link text, followed by the desired URL, inside square brackets. And tell people to never, ever embed images in a document: set up a folder where images can be saved, and use a naming convention.
Thanks for reading!
Thanks for sticking around all the way to the end of this post. Next week, we’ll be posting about the actual writing of the content, asking whether anything has changed in the past few years.