Indeed it is. Every interaction people have with your website is an opportunity for your organization to improve, hurt or confirm your credibility with them. When your content doesn’t support your business/organizational goals and provides zero value to your customers, you will end up with more unpleasant conversations and missed opportunities. You need a content strategy. So where to start? At the beginning, of course. But what is the beginning? You are in the day-to-day grind of maintaining your current site, fixing the most “urgent” issues rather than addressing the underlying problems that led to today’s real and perceived crises. The process of creating a content strategy was very rewarding, both for the Web team and the people we worked with internally. We discovered insights about how the website could support the goals of individual business units and the corporation. Stakeholders realized that there was value in creating content that people wanted to read, view or respond to. But you can’t to results without starting.
1. Realistically Assess Your Situation
Can you finish what you start?
At Cerner, we knew that there were problems with our content in the spring of 2010. We “knew” it in the sense that we got complaints about it, we noticed inconsistencies and inaccuracies in how we talked about our solutions and services, and our analytics told us visitors didn’t care to read, consume or react to what was on the site. But we really didn’t know what it would take to fix everything, or even what “everything” was. Before anything could be done to fix our site, there had to be a commitment to do so. This sounds simple, but it’s not. Is your company/organization willing to let someone (or several someones) spend the time necessary to dig into the underlying problems with the current content? Will your company let that person or persons create a plan for fixing it and then go do it? If not, is the company/organization willing to be influenced on the importance of content? If the answer is still no, then your default content strategy will be to have no strategy at all. For us, fortunately, the answer was yes. In 2010, we started a redesign of our entire site. The redesign was not limited to just the visual design and a new technical platform, although those were important considerations. We wanted to create an entirely new user experience, which would not be possible without completely re-thinking how users found our content, and what we actually chose to say (and not say) with our content. The content portion of the project was not just added on as an afterthought, but was included from the very beginning of the discussion of what we wanted the website to be.
2. Build Internal Support
Who cares about content—and can do something about it?
So great, you have permission to create a content strategy, whatever you decide that means. It’s one thing to have approval from your manager to do so, but what about the other areas of your company or organization? If people outside your team are involved in the content process (most likely creation or review/approval), you need them to support your efforts. To get their support, this group needs to care, or why they should care. We had about 30 people across the company responsible for providing or overseeing the content for their group of solutions and services. These people were not/are not writers or Web content experts, but implementing a content strategy would be impossible without their support. We targeted a small sub-set (three) of these people (we’ll call them content contributors) who we deemed as influential among their peer group. In individual meetings, we discussed the idea of putting a strategy behind our content. We didn’t use the phrase “content strategy” in the meetings; instead, we talked about their business goals, and shared ideas for how content could help them meet those goals. These people were not executives within their given organization, but rather those who would most care about content in that organization and who would be in a position to take action on it. What we discovered:
- Content contributors were desperate for guidance on how content could support their business goals;
- Governance had to be included in our content strategy. Governance by itself is not a strategy, but our content contributors needed a clearer process for governance of our content;
- This group would start to really care about their content when we gave them a reason to.
This sub-set of content owners served as advocates down the road when we shared our plan for content creation, maintenance and updating during the redesign process. By introducing the idea that content was important to an influential sub-set of this group, we faced no opposition to changing “how things had always been done” when meeting with the full group. With the internal support in place, then it’s possible to get the subsequent work done.
3. Define and Prioritize
How will you get the work done?
I listed this after building internal support, but in reality this step can and should occur in conjunction with creating internal support. While we were meeting with the sub-set of content contributors, we identified the key problems areas (both quantitative and qualitative) with our existing content. We took the time to catalog and inventory ALL of our content, which at the time numbered about 7,500 pages, including our nine global sites. Taking inventory of your content is time-consuming and hard work. But you have to do it in order to define the problems with your content and prioritize how to fix them. There are numerous examples on the Web of what your audit should include, from a spreadsheet to more sophisticated software tools. Devote some time looking at them (hint, a spreadsheet will probably work for you). Ask yourself how that approach would work for your website. Ask people who work on content strategy how they handled a content audit. We decided to capture the following information in our audit:
- Page Title;
- Metadata keywords;
- Last date page was updated;
- Who updated it?
- Did the page include an image? Video? Downloadable PDF?
- Was it any good?
- Is it written in appropriate tone and voice?
- Does it contradict content in other locations on our site?
- Is it just a regurgitation of a flyer or product spec sheet?
- Is it written to inform a visitor, or to please a product manager?
The last item (was it any good?) took the most time to complete on our audit. But you aren’t doing an audit without answering that question. Otherwise, you are just filling out a spreadsheet. Yes, quantitative data was essential to understanding our overall content issues, but ultimately you need to make judgments about your content. Our content issues immediately surfaced once we completed the audit. And we now knew exactly how bad the problem was (or wasn’t). For us, these issues were are biggest challenges:
- Lack of tone and voice – For example, we might talk about our radiology solutions in an informal, conversational way, with the content focused on how it might benefit the end-user or health care organization. But on our page for our pharmacy solutions, we would list 15 bullets of feature functionality, with no consideration of how this solution benefits the end-user or organization. So are we a company that wants to talk only about how great we are, or are we a company that is focused on helping our clients improve how they care for patients? Can visitors to our site believe what we say about our solutions? Are we credible? It was hard to tell;
- Bad metadata and information architecture – Incorrect metadata of course has the consequence of making your content harder to find by search engines. Beyond that, if you are sloppy with your metadata, page titles and naming of sections on your site, it can give the user (even subconsciously) the idea that you don’t take content seriously. If you won’t take the time to make sure that pages are named consistently, then should visitors to your site take seriously what you have to say? For many of you, this might be stating the obvious, but don’t farm out the metadata and naming conventions to your technical team (unless they are content champions). Take the time to understand how your content management system works and how to fix metadata issues;
- No standards – A user would have no reasonable expectation of what they would encounter on types of pages within our site. It became obvious that we needed a standard for what type of information a user should expect to see on a solution page vs. an event page vs. an executive biography. This includes the words, images and video, as well as the font types, sizes and color used on each of these sections. These things matter. Take the time to consider them and stick to them;
- Governance confusion – Some groups were allowed (more or less) to publish content on the site with little oversight, while others went through a semi-review process before publication. This issue was an underlying reason for all of the previous three issues.
There were other issues, of course, but these – if corrected – would most improve our content, support the website and business goals. Now it was time to find out if our plan would work.
4. Demonstrate Success
What results did you get?
To make content strategy an integral part of your company/organization, you’ll need to show it’s worth the time and effort. Here are a few examples of success we attribute to the content strategy work.
- Users more easily find our content – Prior to the redesign of our website (including a strategy for content), less than 20 percent of our visitors came to the site via search engines. Within a few months of redesigning the site, that number increased to 30 percent of our visitors, and today we are approaching 40 percent of visitors to the site from search engines. This represents new groups of people finding our content and interacting with us;
- We increased Cerner’s credibility online – Our content strategy included the creation of a corporate blog. We wanted to use the blog for our own industry experts, as well as selected clients, to talk about key issues in health care. The blog does not overtly tout our solutions, but focuses on sharing our perspective on key health care issues. Recently, Investors.com (part of Investor’s Business Daily) referenced a Cerner blog post in a story on ICD-10, a change to how diseases are classified by health care organizations. Providing credible, relevant content resulted in a third-party recognizing us as a source for information;
- Our content resonates with users – Six months after we redesigned our website and implemented our content strategy, we provided feedback to our content contributors on what types of content resonated with people. Product pages with video (and especially those with client testimonial videos) received more visitors than those that didn’t. And visitors – on average – spent significantly more time on the product pages with videos than those without videos. (See Figure 3) For us, more traffic + more time spent consuming content = win. For those of you who rely on other groups in your organization to supply content, you must give them guidance on what works. At the time I shared the video results with our content contributors, we had just 13 product pages with video. Today, that number is more than 30.
Get to Work
I came across a quote from Thomas Edison during this project.
The first requisite for success is to develop the ability to focus and apply your mental and physical energies to the problem at hand – without growing weary. Because such thinking is often difficult, there seems to be no limit to which some people will go to avoid the effort and labor that is associated with it.
Applying a content strategy to your website requires work. As you begin the process by building internal support and evaluating your content, the path toward a content strategy that will work for your organization will become clear. It’s likely you’ll realize additional benefits, too. In our case, the relationship between the Web team and content contributors – and the business units they represent – is much stronger due to the successes achieved. Discussions about content occur (more often, not always) during the planning stages of projects rather than the middle or end. This approach is one that worked for us. But none of it would have been possible without getting started.
A Few Resources That Helped…
- Kristina Halvorson, The Discipline of Content Strategy – A List Apart, Dec. 16, 2008;
- Colleen Jones, Content Analysis: A Practical Approach – UX Matters, Aug. 3, 2009;
- Erin Kissane, Content Templates to the Rescue – A List Apart, July 7, 2009;
- Kevin Nichols, Examples of Content Audit and Inventory Tools;
- Content Strategy Knol (Google)