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How a “Content First” Strategy Improves Website Projects

Posted by in Content Strategy, UX Design, Workshops

Graphic of vector birds migrating content from Gather Content to Wordpress

In the past, some of our projects hit snags when it came time to deal with content. Adopting a “content first” approach can smooth out wrinkles in the website redesign process.

Content can be a tricky sticking point on any web project. Everything seems to be on track when someone raises a red flag and the project schedule, or worse yet, the budget, are blown. Oftentimes, that red flag is driven by some content-related issue. Whether it’s because multiple stakeholders require approval and some aren’t available or through lack of resources to produce content on time, these issues often arise from not properly prioritizing content during the project. By putting content first, many of these pitfalls can be avoided.

Content First

According to Liam King of Lagom Strategy, an organization that focuses on “content first” web projects, this approach to a website redesign puts content at the heart of the entire process. This can be challenging for some project stakeholders to wrap their heads around. By educating everyone on the process, significant time can be saved and potential roadblocks averted.

Here are the signature components of a content first approach to digital products and services:

Communicate Content Priorities Up Front

Organizations put huge amounts of time and money into their content. Done right, content should tell a compelling story and serve as one of the organization’s most important business assets. We make sure our clients know we appreciate those efforts and respect the role good content plays in a project’s success. By properly prioritizing content from the get-go and communicating that to all stakeholders, we can manage expectations on how content is approached from beginning-to-end.

Perform a Content Audit

Auditing existing content will help you create a content plan that sets everyone up for success. Content audits answer critical questions about voice, grammar, and clarity as well as more technical aspects, such as keyword density or URL redirects. For more information on how we approach content audits at Mightybytes, see our post Why You Need a Content Audit (And How to Run One).

In some cases it might also be appropriate to audit the entire content ecosystem, including training materials, marketing brochures, and other places where content resides outside of the digital realm. This approached greatly improved our work with Chicago Children’s Choir.

Image of a whiteboard with sticky notes and icons representing an Ecosystem mapping exercise

This content ecosystem mapping exercise helped Chicago Children’s Choir better understand all the content assets available to them, not just those on their existing website.

Talk About Capacity

This is key. If an organization doesn’t have the proper resources to effectively use content creation and management tools, an agency shouldn’t push to implement them. Match the content workload to the resources available and execute accordingly. While this could adversely affect project timing, it won’t put undue pressure on those saddled with executing deliverables in a timely manner. It will also help stakeholders identify potential gaps that need to be filled moving forward.

Outline the Content Production Process in Detail

With all stakeholders at the table, walk through the steps needed to successfully produce and manage content not only for launch but also post-launch. With a clear understanding of the process, all parties can make better decisions when resource planning.

Graphic of the Content production process diagram using icons

The content production process always takes more steps than you think it will. Make sure you plan accordingly.

A typical process might go something like this:

  1. Write a page brief describing purpose of the page, conversion goals, etc.
  2. Research your topic as necessary.
  3. Write a first draft, maintaining your brand’s voice, tone, and clarity.
  4. Review the draft with your internal team.
  5. Revise content based on editorial feedback.
  6. Get final approval on revised copy.
  7. Upload content to your CMS.
  8. Review the user-facing page in a browser and tweak HTML as necessary.
  9. Publish the entry and promote as necessary.
  10. Maintain/update as needed.

Inexperienced content creators may not clearly understand that it can take up to ten lengthy steps just to get a blog post live. Walking project stakeholders through the entire content production process will help them get a clear understanding of what is expected during the project and after launch.

Use GatherContent

When clients approach us, they understand that their content may be outdated, inaccurate, or not serving users’ needs. They are also usually looking for better ways to create and manage their content. We have become big fans of a tool called GatherContent, which helps all parties manage the process of content migration, creation, and production on web projects.

GatherContent’s useful features provide clarity around the who, what, when, and how of content creation. Because it lives outside of your existing content management system yet can integrate with it when the time comes, content teams can get up and running quickly long before a project CMS is ready to accept content.

GatherContent interface showing how content for templates can be edited

GatherContent offers a CMS-like interface with lots of customizable features to ease the process of collecting, creating, and migrating content.

GatherContent provides customizable tools that help you defeat the fear of a blank page by breaking pages up into individual components that you define, such as title, main copy, product description, contact info, etc.

Some of its features include:

  • Custom fields
  • Character limits
  • Due dates and status changes
  • Commenting
  • Tooltips to provide direction
  • Customizable workflows
  • Export content to WordPress

Awesome feature list notwithstanding, GatherContent is only as effective as the rest of your content process. Take time to perform periodic content audits to ensure you’re working on what’s relevant, useful, and productive. Make sure writers understand your organization’s brand voice.

Design with Real Content

Dump the lorem ipsum. Start with real content. Even if it’s not final, real content can make a huge difference in UX and prototyping. Content informs architecture and drives design decisions. Show that you understand this by working with the real thing. This always provides better context for how the end solution will look, feel, and work. Nuff said.

Allocate Resources to Training

Make sure enough budget is reserved in a project to properly train the core team responsible for creating and maintaining project content. At the front end of a project, this could take the form of a content production workshop. As the site nears launch, the training will be more focused on the nuances of your content management system. This is especially critical if you have customized the CMS admin interface.

Speaking of which, things like tooltips and word count restrictions on content fields in your CMS can also be very useful to help with the content creation and management process. But it takes time to build these things into a project and train users on the customizations. It is important to prioritize this accordingly in your budget breakdown and timeline.

Create Governance Guidelines

Of course the real fun begins at launch. Once your digital product or service starts capturing real user data, you can use that data to inform decisions related to improving and optimizing the experience. This will often drive practices related to ongoing content governance, such as how to manage time and publishing schedules, content calendars, improving taxonomies, and so on.

For more information on this topic check out our blog posts on content governance.

Content First in Action

How does this all play out, you may ask? We took a content first approach in our work with Alliance for the Great Lakes, which resulted in significant performance improvements on the new site. For this project, content-related activities took up nearly one-third of the total project budget but the effort paid off in increased conversions and actions being taken on the new site that were directly tied to the organization’s larger goals. Read the AGL case study to learn more about how content first plays a critical role in a project’s success.

Tim Frick is the author of four books including, most recently, Designing for Sustainability: A Guide to Building Greener Digital Products and Services, from O'Reilly Media. He is @timfrick on Twitter. Mightybytes is a full-service creative firm for conscious companies and a certified B Corporation. Connect with us on Twitter or fill out our contact form.