4 Web project problems content strategy can solve

How do content strategists work with IAs/designers/writers?

Content Strategy

This series of articles explores content strategy and interaction design. Curated by Colleen Jones of Content Science, each article highlights a new voice, a new way of doing content strategy, or applying tried-and-true content principles to new situations.

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I get this question a lot: How do content strategists work with IAs/designers/writers? Truthfully, they often don’t. But, they can and they should.

Not only should they work together, they should do away with the typical web project process that leaves content until last, resulting in a mad scramble. People don’t muck up web projects. Bad processes do.

Right? We define the problems, design something we think will fix them, and start building what we designed. Just before we launch the sucker, we populate the CMS with one of three types of content:

  • Existing content from brochures and fact sheets haphazardly mapped to pages and components;
  • Existing content from the old website that hasn’t been reviewed or edited;
  • Brand new content from a copywriter who doesn’t know the purpose of the site, the audience, or whether the source content is reliable.

Boo. At that point it’s too late. And that’s when the wheels come off. But, a process that includes content strategy can help.

Here’s how:

PROBLEM #1: Great ideas, no content

I think it’s fair to say those of us who work on websites are idealistic types. We want to create the best websites ever known to the internet-using public. But, that trips us up sometimes.

As a former web writer, this scenario happened to me more than once: I got a site map and a link to the old website and an in-box full of brochures, fact sheets, and PowerPoint presentations, and was asked to write all the pages on the site. Everything was dandy, for a while. I wasn’t quite sure what source content applied to what pages, but I could deal with that.

But then, I got to some pages with no existing source content. I called my client, who said, “Oh, well, yeah, we don’t have anything for that. So, just do some research, and come up with something.”

Wrong answer. For a couple reasons:

  • It takes longer and costs more to research and write content from scratch.  Most project budgets don’t make room for the additional time or cost.
  • Writers can’t be expected to know which random online sources they find are credible, current, or appropriate.

A Content Strategy Solution
We’re fortunate at Brain Traffic. Our IAs are content strategists. So, we think about IA a little differently, perhaps. Here are a few content strategeristic solutions that can help with problem no. 1:

  • Think hard about whether the pages you include on your site map contribute to meeting user and business goals. One way is to create a core purpose statement that guides your content choices.
  • Once you’ve determined that the pages you want to include actually do “fit”, make sure writers have the source content they need to create new content. If they don’t, make sure the people who control the budget know that no source content means more time and money.
  • Help your writers out by telling them what source content applies to what pages. If there’s no source content , provide possible sources they can use to write content that supports the site strategy (Those sources might be people).

PROBLEM #2: The content broke my design

I can imagine few things more frustrating than designing the perfect business-goal-driven, user-need-focused, aesthetically pleasing website and having the content make it look like crap. Yet, that kind of thing happens all the time.

Why? Because designers don’t usually know what kind and how much content their design needs to support. So, they have to guess. Or, they ask their client, who says, “We’ll plug the content in once you finish the design.”

That approach leads to oohs and ahs when the design is presented, and hisses and moans when the content is “plugged in” a day or so before launch. One of two things happen next:

  • The site launches with crappy content that makes an awesome design look like vomit
  • The launch is delayed to re-work the design to support the content or re-work the content to fit the design

A Content Strategy Solution
During the time I was writing this article, a client’s website launched. Client websites launch all the time. But on this particular website, the designer and content strategist worked nose-to-nose. And, the site was awesome. Here’s how it went down:

  1. At the very beginning, when asking the really important questions—like what are the business objectives, who is this site for, what do those people need, and what political landmines should we be aware of—we were both in the room. Listening. Asking. Conferring. Together.
  2. As my colleagues and I worked together to organize the content and surface the repeatable patterns that would make up the site, we kept the designer in the loop and asked her what she thought.
  3. Before the designer started concepting, we asked our client to sign off on the information architecture, wireframes, and page outlines, to make sure all content had been accounted for and all design template needs were documented
  4. While the designer was concepting based on wireframes, with specific content priorities noted and estimates of content length, the content strategist and writer wrote copy to show in the designs.
  5. The designer presented concepts with content that realistically represented how the site would look live.
  6. Not once did the client come back to me and say anything resembling, “This page kinda broke the design.”

PROBLEM #3: We thought you were creating the content

A few weeks ago, I was having drinks with a fellow content strategy enthusiast who works for an agency that specializes in web development. She told me about a project that had raised some red flags related to the content. When she’d brought up her concern—that the client thought the agency was creating the content—the project team brushed her aside, saying “Why would the client think we create the content? That’s their job.”

I’ll tell you why. Denial. No one wants to take responsibility for the content. People don’t know how much time writing content will take, so they have no idea how to plan accordingly.

So, what happened next? To be honest, I’m not sure. I bought her a drink and we changed the subject. But, there was probably a long discussion about why “content is not my job,” followed by a scrambling for resources, a revised project plan that pushed the launch out weeks, if not months, and a resulting website that looked and functioned great, but contained content that didn’t meet user needs or support business goals.

A Content Strategy Solution
I won’t comment on the fact that a website was being built before anyone knew what content it needed to support. What I will comment on is the simple idea that no matter whose job it is to create the content, all of us who work on the interwebs bear some responsibility for it.

Here are some things a content strategy does to help:

  • Tells you how many people and how long it will take to create content to launch your website—based on things like page counts, a content creation workflow, and staff time.
  • Helps you prioritize your content efforts so you focus resources on the stuff that will influence your most important audiences and help you achieve your business goals
  • Gives you a plan for maintaining your content after launch so your website doesn’t become an overgrown graveyard of irrelevant content.

And here are some things developers and programmers can do. Okay. It’s only one thing: Demand actual content before you start building a website. Tell your clients that’s your process. It’ll force them to get granular about content early on. If they look scared, send them to a content strategist.

PROBLEM 4: Underpants on the outside

I like to say underpants in a professional setting. It makes me giggle. Ok, back to business. I tend to use the underpants analogy to talk about two scenarios:

  1. A company’s website is organized the way the company is organized, but not the way the site’s users think about the content.
  2. It’s apparent from a quick glance at a homepage that departments and executives are fighting with the web team for prime space on the home page, without considering users’ needs or what will drive business results.

Imma talk about the second one. When that happens, you end up with a lot of junk nobody cares about—or, if they do care about it, they’ll never know because they don’t know it’s for them. That’s when they hit the back button and make their way to the next link in Google’s search results. Lost opportunities abound—sales not made, relationships not built, brand not recognized. Dang.

A Content Strategy Solution
Here’s the cool thing about content strategy. It doesn’t just tell you what content should go on your site, but it answers a whole bunch of other important questions:

  • Why should it go there? Or, how will it help you achieve your business goals?
  • Where should it go? Or, how should it be organized so people can find it?
  • What format should it be in? Or, what’s the most effective way to communicate it?
  • How will it get there? Or, what are the people resources, tools, and workflow needed to make it all happen?
  • How much should there be? Or, what can we realistically produce and maintain?
  • How do we decide? Or, who is involved in content decisions and what are the guidelines we use to make them?

These questions get answered through a bunch of combinations of content strategy deliverables—ranging from editorial specifications and calendars to sitemaps and wireframes to web content style guidelines to messaging hierarchies to full blown governance plans and policies.

Why do you need them? So that you can direct content efforts rather than take orders from whomever thinks their content is most important that week. They give you the power to say no.

The moral of the story: if it’s broken, fix it

Have you heard of my friend Jonathan Kahn’s blog Lucid Plot? It’s  smart. One of my favorite smart things it has said is this:

“If your lack of content strategy is hurting the user experience, it’s time to throw out your design process and start over.”
(From Embrace Content Strategy: Throw Out Your Design Process)

It’s nobody’s fault that the people building websites back in the 1990s borrowed from the only processes they were familiar with. Print. Advertising. Software Development. But, it is our responsibility to acknowledge that those processes don’t work and come up with something better.

In almost every situation, a good process starts with content.

Meghan Casey

Meghan Casey is a content strategist at Brain Traffic, the world’s leading agency devoted exclusively to content. She helps a wide variety of clients - start-ups, non-profits, colleges and universities, Fortune 50 companies, and everything in between - solve messy content problems every day. A regular trainer and speaker on content strategy topics, she once inspired participants to spontaneously do the wave in a workshop setting. Yep, that really happened.

24 comments on this article

  1. Margot Bloomstein on

    Terrific article, Meghan. One bit really struck a chord with me. You write, “a website was being built before anyone knew what content should support it.” Isn’t that the fundamental problem underlying many of the issues you describe? If we attempt to do it right, we figure out what content should support the website, and thus perpetuate the problem of so many horses nosing into carts. Shouldn’t we reframe the process and turn it around? Rather than determining what content will support a website, we should figure out the ideal web experience to support the content we forecast to meet the communication needs of the brand and its audience. If that’s why people come to the site, it’s time we let it drive our decisions.

  2. Psy on

    Great reading and, of course, I’ve found a couple of familiar situations.
    Another example about the necessity of a fluid communication could be the level of customization you are willing to give to the client or content creator on, say, a CMS system: if you embed a rich text editor with many options, they can be abused and kill the design; less options and the client will complain; wrong options and a copy/paste from a text editor will end in a mess. The best solution is to educate the client about the content creation guidelines.

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  4. Alan on

    Underpants on the outside is one of my biggest pet peeves. And I mean that in the figurative sense you illustrate here. When I see a web site where the products are organized under “small cap verticals” I know that company didn’t think of me, or other potential customers, once during the design process. Then it’s up to me to decipher their “code” to find what I want. Lost opportunities indeed. Great article.

  5. Jdoubleya on

    Wonderful article Meghan! You crystallize everything I preach on a daily basis. Sweet. Except for one thing. A good process doesn’t start exclusively with content. Why? Because content is a part of the process, not the driver, along with all of the other tactical elements (UX, IA, copy, design, development, etc.) that are required to come together to achieve the business goals of the site and deliver a successful experience that drives desired results.

    In addition, a website can have the most spectacular content strategy on the web, but the site will fail with poor UX, bad design & broken links which is why one discipline can’t drive the other. They need to be integrated. A good process does this while at the same time, ensuring that content doesn’t become an “afterthought” or someone else’s problem to solve as you have so perfectly stated in this article.

  6. Heli Rajasalo on

    Excellent article, made me smile 🙂 I would add to the benefits of having a content strategy that it also tells you WHY your content, if created according to the strategy, WILL work to engage the target audience and result in interest/action/sales.

    I find that this is one of the most difficult things to help the client communicate internally, but when done thoroughly, is an incredibly powerful argument in driving the change needed in internal processes and attitude.

  7. What resonated most with me was the difference between how an organization arranges content and how the readers will look for content. The whole user-centered design process is overlooked as an extension of content development.

    I am also hoping that the series covers the need to have a basic understanding of technology as part of a content strategy. You can have the best content, but if you don’t know how to optimize its use through metadata and standards for manipulating content, then leveraging it becomes difficult. And that is a joint UX-design-content issue.

  8. I want to give a shout out to Tamara Aldin for the underpants analogy. She started it. I just use it ALL THE TIME.

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  10. Please.

    Your tone, subject matter intelligence and wit carried your point and is a refreshing break from most articles on this subject.

  11. Spot on. The whole article. As a writer/content designer I am constantly dismayed as to how late I’m brought into the process, typically after design wireframes are approved by clients. I (mostly) blame the designers, who in their rush to accrue billable hours, sell clients “form as user experience” and reinforce the notion that content is secondary. How people can sell IA without a content strategy is an perennial mystery to me. Isn’t I (information) = C (content)? Great call to arms Meg.

  12. Ahava Leibtag on

    Hi Meghan,
    Great post. I agree with Margot–that sentence about support really stuck with me. I think that websites support content–not the other way around. I’ve compared it to many things, but a website is simply a container, or a stacked set of containers that holds content.
    In terms of content breaking design, I just wrote a blog post about how a page spec can help designers and CS’s alike avoid this–I’m interested to hear what you think of that idea.

  13. So, this whole support thing was bugging me because I thought I wrote it the other way around. Turns out, I did. But, it got mis-translated in the edit. The original sentence:

    I won’t even comment on the fact that a website was being built before anyone knew what content it needed to support.

  14. Ahava, I love the page specs post!

    Also, I wanted to mention that my sentence about content supporting the site got a little mixed up in the edit, and I didn’t notice it.

    The original sentence was: I won’t even comment on the fact that a website was being built before anyone knew what content it needed to support.

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  18. burkanov on

    Great article, thanks a lot!
    Acc. to PROBLEM #2: “The content broke my design” – it is crucial, that designers should stop using “lorem ipsum” everywhere. It just turned to be a bad habit first to create some design filled up with nothing saying text blocks and labels and then start thinking trying to populate some conscious into those pre-made blocks. I’m a Front-End developer and it’s been already 1000 times, when I get a .PSD from designer with small button labeled “Lorem” and a text file from copyrighter telling me that the label should be “Akzeptanzkriterien von Arbeitskündigungsbedingungen” or something in the size of 10X the “lorem”-Button was.

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