Road crews survey before they start laying blacktop. Doctors run a battery of tests before prescribing treatments. Coaches study game videos and pore over stats and records before heading onto the field. Due diligence is a widely accepted practice in just about every field, yet it still isn't generally acknowledged as the first crucial step when it comes to dealing with content for website redesigns.
I've been part of several website builds and redesigns over the years, and there's a metaphor I like to use whenever I find a client is more focused on design and functionality than the site content: the empty champagne bucket. The way I see it, you can have a gorgeous champagne bucket made of the highest quality material, but it doesn't matter if you don't have the thing that people want most to fill it. The bucket (no matter how nice it looks or how well it works) is just the container that elevates the experience of consuming the actual content it was designed to hold - the champagne.
The same thing can be said about websites and other digital content experiences. Too much emphasis placed on user experience or interface design as a first step often means the most important part of the experience - the content people are coming to see - gets overlooked until the last minute. And that's where the trouble begins.
Without an accurate account of how much content exists, where it lives, whether duplicate information exists, whether it needs to be rewritten, who needs to approve it, and how it should be used to support an overarching digital strategy, development teams run the risk of delaying site launches or (possibly even worse) launching without crucial content that makes the experience worthwhile for the audience.
How many times have you been to a local business' site and not been able to find simple, useful details like their hours of operation or their phone number? How many times have you decided to spend your money with another business that had the information you needed instead? It doesn't matter how cool or innovative your site technology is. If you're not using technology to deliver useful content to people when they need it, you're putting your brand's relevance and your business' revenue at risk.
Don't get me wrong: functionality matters. But most people aren't coming to your site to see your Ajax page refreshes or your dynamic jQuery animations. They have questions and they want answers that are relevant to their specific needs. Needs also vary by audience and change over time as customers' experiences with your brand deepen. If you and I have met several times before, wouldn't it be odd if I always introduced myself like it was the first time every time we saw each other? That's exactly how I feel every time I go to a site that should know me, but serves up content that assumes I'm visiting for the first time.
The discipline (and I don't use that word lightly) of content strategy can provide a more structured, measurable, and manageable way to fill your website with the stuff people really want. While content strategy is an umbrella term that covers lots of different processes and deliverables, the starting point for most strategies is always the same: a comprehensive content audit.
Audits allow strategists or information architects to survey the content landscape before making decisions about form, function, or usability. They provide a clearer picture of how any content assets exist in an experience, how they're organized, and whether they're any good to enable better information architectures throughout an experience. The architecture not only determines how navigation is structured and how users access information, but also what content gets prioritized on each page or screen view and what related content it needs to guide users to the outcomes or answers they're looking for.
The beauty of the content audit is that it gives you a lot of bang for very few bucks. Audits allow more streamlined and informed decision-making upfront that saves time and money over the course of a development project by not having to extend project timelines and scope because of unforeseen, content-related issues. Since audits normally occur during the planning phase for digital experiences, whether it's a new experience or an upgrade to an existing experience, they typically require minimal resources (sometimes just one well-trained person who knows what to look for) and can be as simple as a spreadsheet. They also provide a simple, lightweight, easily updated tool to use as the foundation for site maps and user flows, which become the wireframes, design comps, and working code created by more expensive resources like graphic designers and programmers.
Making good champagne takes time. If you don't give it the time, care, and craft it needs, it turns to swill. The bucket can hold either one. You decide which one you want your customers and prospects to consume.
Champagne Bucket image on home page via Shutterstock.
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McNeal Maddox is a senior strategist, brand development, Digital, at Siegel+Gale, based in Los Angeles. His first experience with brand development came in junior high, when, not content to remain mere consumers of comic books, he and his brother formed their own comic book company. The brand name, logo, and signature style they created were so strong that one of their books is a permanent part of the Lynn R. Hansen Underground Comics Collection of Washington State University Library's special collections archive - and they even sold a few.
Since joining Siegel+Gale, McNeal has worked for several clients including Microsoft, Dow AgroSciences, McAfee, Genworth Financial, Yahoo, United Talent Agency, Activision, and PayPal. McNeal previously served as a project manager at FoxSports.com, where he managed the design, development, and implementation of customized promotional campaigns for major advertisers. He also worked as a web developer at ING Advisors Network.
McNeal graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a BFA in graphic design, and received his MBA from the University of Southern California.
March 19, 2014