August 16, 2013
The Washington National Opera performs in the Kennedy Center Opera House. But it must rehearse its operas outside of the facility. Why? Because the designers had no clue the Kennedy Center would produce its own art, so it was designed with inadequate rehearsal space.
Building a website is a lot like building a performing arts center. It’s imperative that you develop a long-term plan—a content strategy—before you focus on design.
Just like a performing arts center uses its content (programming, events, education) to fulfill its vision and attract visitors, you must use your website content to meet your business objectives and attract visitors.
Focusing on your website design before content is inefficient and likely ineffective. Instead of initially building the website you and your users need, you’ll go through multiple revisions—which quickly eat through your budget—or you’ll face expensive redesigns down the road.
Build a solid foundation with content strategy
Visitors don’t come to your website to see pretty pictures and technical wizardry. They come to get valuable information or be entertained. They come to your site for content, and they expect a certain experience.
Content may include text, images, video, interactive tools, PDFs and anything else that’s needed to convey your brand story, engage your audience and meet your objectives. (Content can encompass much more, but we’re talking specifically about websites here.)
To build an effective website, you must start with a content strategy that defines how you’ll use content to meet your business objectives and users’ needs.
In Content Strategy for the Web, Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach refer to this as your core content strategy. The core strategy then informs other critical components of content strategy:
- Substance: What the content will be
- Structure: How the content will be structured
- Workflow and Governance: How people will drive the content lifecycle
Content strategy is a team effort
Content strategy has been used to guide traditional marketing communications forever. So why is it often ignored in web projects when it’s needed the most?
Building a website can be overwhelming. It involves lots of moving parts, fast-changing technologies and invested parties. Many times we feel pressured to deliver, to keep up with competitors or to implement the latest-and-greatest technology. We rush past strategy into execution and then wonder why our website is over budget and underwhelming.
Content strategy requires a team effort that may include a content strategist, key stakeholders, strategic decision makers, subject matter experts, writers, designers, content requesters and reviewers, publishers and more.
“Content strategy connects real content to real people,” Halvorson and Rach say. Everyone involved in the project needs to know their role and “what processes, tools and human resources are required for content initiatives to launch successfully and maintain ongoing quality.”
The team also needs to know how key decisions about content and content strategy are made, initiated and communicated.
Done well, content strategy means aligning your people, auditing your existing content, analyzing internal and external factors and communicating effectively.
The benefits of a content strategy
A content strategy helps inform every decision your organization and agency make throughout the web development process. This helps you stay on budget and use your resources more effectively.
A content strategy:
- Defines your audience(s) and their needs as well as your business goals: This helps you determine your content needs and figure out what existing content can be repurposed, what content needs to be created and what content can be retired. It also helps you decide which content requests should be rejected. Remember, less content costs less to create and is easier to manage.
- Defines messaging: This helps you prioritize content and effectively tell your story. It also helps you keep messaging consistent and complementary across media channels.
- Defines voice and tone: This informs how the site is designed and how content is presented, written and edited. It influences the style and words a writer uses as well as the colors, fonts and design techniques the designer chooses.
- Helps determine structure: Your strategy helps you determine how to get the right content, to the right person, at the right time—what platforms and formats you should use. Do you need a content management system? A responsive site or a separate mobile site? Should you use video? How will you use images? It also guides navigation, what content goes where and how it’s linked. These recommendations often come in the form of sitemaps, wireframes and page tables.
- Helps you design and document workflow and governance: Your content strategy outlines the process for developing, maintaining and evaluating your content. It defines what roles and tools are needed for implementation and who’s “in charge” of content. This prevents bottlenecks, increases productivity and gives your organization an accurate picture of what it’s realistically capable of doing.
Content strategy done right means not only considering content first, but considering content always.
“Content—its impact factors, goals and lifecycle…must be considered throughout and beyond any design and development project no matter what the plan or platform is.” –Content Strategy for the Web
When you think “content always,” you’re well on your way to building and maintaining a beautiful and effective website.