The number one reason that website projects end up descending into chaos and ultimately, failing, is that they undervalue, or outright neglect, the importance of strategically planning for one thing: content.

Content—not flashy functionality and design—is what, in the end, decides the success of a website. Because what a website of any description actually is, is a publishing platform—an online, non-physical version of a printing press.

The perennial error we’ve been making in our approach to digital projects is this: we’ve focussed all our attention on how to build the printing press—but not on how to use it, once it’s in place.

The web has turned us all into publishers. But the reality is that many of us aren’t really that great at it (sorry). Rather, we treat digital as a product delivery service, building new tools and carving out online spaces for ourselves, in the hope that merely showing up on them and hoping for the best will be enough to satisfy our audiences and serve our business needs. The thing is: it won’t.

Online, you’re either adding value—or taking up space. The harsh truth is that, a bit like a drunken dad’s dancing at the family wedding—well-intentioned (endearing, even), yet ultimately, mildly embarrassing—many brands are merely taking up space online.

In order to cut through the white noise, to resonate with our audiences’ needs and interests, and actually add value to them, requires thinking beyond the basics of showing up. It requires planning for the creation, publication and management of content. Because it is content, not technology, that adds value.

Content value venn diagram

Content strategy is what helps to make sure our web projects hit that sweet spot. So whenever we’re planning a new web project, instead of jumping into functionality and design requirements, we need to be leading with content requirements. It’s what’s increasingly being referred to as a content-first approach.

A content strategy road map for a content-first approach

Here’s what a truly content-first approach looks like, in the form a content strategy road map:

Content strategy road map

Let’s break those stages down a little further…

Discovery stage

The discovery stage is all about figuring out where we currently stand with our content. The aim here is to uncover what’s working, what’s not, and establishing key trends, pain points and needs.

The key outcomes of the discovery stage:

  • Measuring scope and evaluating quality of content via a quantitative and qualitative content inventory and audit.
  • Uncovering genuine user needs and insights via user research and analysis work.
  • Investigating the internal culture—how content is thought about, treated, and how it generally “moves” through the organisation.
  • Analysing “content-readiness”—an evaluation of internal content capacity, skills and resources.
  • Identifying gaps and opportunities through competitor analysis.
  • Presenting summary “content health check report”, outlining findings and recommendations, to internal stakeholders and decision-makers.

Strategy-forming stage

The juicy bit! Using all the insights gathered from the discovery process, this is where we can actually start throwing down some markers for where we want to be. We start formalising how content is going to help us achieve our goals and meet user needs.

The key outcomes of the strategy-forming stage:

  • Formalising what we want our content to achieve via a content mission statement.
  • Establishing what our content needs to say via messaging hierarchy.
  • Knowing who our content is for via an audiences hierarchy.
  • Producing a content topics/types matrix, mapping content against various user-journey stages.
  • Establishing where content gets published via a channels map.
  • Designing the presentation and organisation of content via information architecture work.
  • Establishing where content is going to come from via a content sourcing plan.
  • Formalising who’s in charge of what via a content governance model.

Implementation stage

Making it all happen. The tools, tactics, and people that will deliver and manage our content. It’s all about making the goals and aspirations of the strategy a reality—improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the entire organisation, through its content output.

The key aims of the implementation stage:

  • Producing content, via copy decks and content worksheets.
  • Assigning the who’s,when’s and how’s of content production, publication and distribution via editorial calendars and editorial strategy.
  • Designing how content types will be structured and formatted via content templates.
  • Producing workflows for how content will move through the organisation, from planning to final approval and publishing.
  • Embedding consistency and quality-control, through web style guidance and internal training.
  • Designing wireframes and building digital products that have been 100% informed by a content-first, user-led approach.
  • Making sure content is supported technically and strategically, at all stages of its life cycle.

Using the road map to benchmark “content-readiness” and ensure a content-first approach

The above diagram and outcomes checklists can act as a perfect benchmarking tool within organisations, to help make the case for a content-first approach to web projects, and to keep them on track with that way of thinking as the project progresses.

For example, let’s say that an organisation has decided it needs a new website. A new information architecture has been produced, and it’s been decided that a key requirement of the new site’s design is to build in prominent spaces for “more interactive content”—images, audio, and video. Both of these requirements are due to be passed on to an external design agency for implementation.

But hang on… where did these “requirements” come from? Has the new information architecture and the request for the new site to have prominent spaces for multimedia content, been informed by a thorough discovery process? It turns out… no, not really.

Following the content strategy discovery stage checklist, you find out that as the discovery process goes, a quantitative content inventory and basic competitor analysis has been carried out. But that’s about it. No qualitative evaluation of the existing site via a content audit. No user research. And no internal analysis of the organisation’s “content readiness”, including its existing mindset, skills, and resources.

It turns out that the new information architecture was the work of one particular individual, who’s worked at the organisation for years, and “just knows” what’s needed for the new site. And the requirement for a more “interactive website”—that was the demand of senior management, having seen some “nice-looking websites” from competitors that they think we should look to replicate.

That new website is likely to be an absolute disaster. There’s every chance that however much sense the new IA makes to staff internally—it might not make any sense to their users’ needs, which haven’t been consulted.

And those lovely and engaging multimedia rich websites might have suited the needs and capabilities of our competitors—but they don’t suit their own needs. In fact, an internal resources analysis would reveal that their existing capacity, resources, and skills, would simply not be able to serve the needs of a fancy multimedia-rich website. Rather, embarrassingly empty multimedia spaces littered across the new site, await.

Things could be so different, if only people realised the value of approaching the project as a publishing (not technical) enterprise.

We need to stop uninformed, reactive decision-making from leading the way; we need to apply a content strategy road map to website projects.

Feel free to share this road map with colleagues and managers. Use it to make the case for change and to cultivate a genuine, content-first culture at your organisation that will transform you digital presence from slight embarrassment that takes up space, to a digital publishing success story that gets results and generally makes the organisation a brand that people actually value online.


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