Friday, February 18, 2011

Managing Content–Manage What?

There is a lot of talk on the web about Content Development and managing content for web sites. But what exactly are these people talking about?

It has been my experience working with clients building websites that detailed thinking about content is sort of an afterthought. Oh sure, they have some idea what they want to say and what they want the website to do, but they haven’t worked out any content management strategy in detail. Content Development is one of the latest buzzwords in the internet and web development community. Sounds mysterious and expensive doesn’t it? But there is really no voodoo involved. Simply put, the major work of creating a successful business web site has very little to do with programming or design work. Essential to the success of every web site is the task of organizing and presenting information – and then getting people to act on it. Organizing your content is very important, but it does not have to be complicated. As a matter of fact, the less complicated the better. If you take the time to outline your goals and the information you want to present, creating some basic content – then having a professional editor polish it up comes very reasonably. And being the expert on your own business you are the most qualified person to do it.

First off let us define content in this context. Content is what your website says – its message. This is composed of copy (text), graphics, photos, videos and downloadable documents.  In my last post Avoiding Spending More Than Necessary on a Web Site I talked about defining the goals for your website and also deciding on your target audience for your website. These will define the ideas that will drive content for your web site.  It is important that you give this consideration before moving forward.

Now, chances are if you own an existing business you already have content in the form of catalogs, price lists, brochures, flyers, business cards, signage and other printed collateral. You may also have photographs that you can use in promoting your business. You may even have video. Text that has been used in emails can also be helpful. The next step once you have defined your Key Message and Target Audience is to do an inventory of your existing content. Gather up samples and make a list. Catalog and evaluate photographs, video, audio and other media. Once you have an inventory you have something to build from. This will also help make sure that your message is consistent in all media as you move forward. If changes need to be made to fine hone your message you can make sure they are carried out across the board. Taking the time to do this step now will save time and frustration in the future and will help yield better results.

In developing content for a web site there are several considerations. Unlike other static media a website offers an opportunity for interaction with your visitors. This interaction can take many forms. By having goals defined for your website you have narrowed down the desired results of those interactions. You can now develop content to hold the visitor’s interest and guide them towards the desired result.

Another consideration is optimizing your content for Search Engines. The main point here is to make the content relevant to people who will be searching for businesses, products or services like yours. This will not only help people find your web site, but it will help the right people – people who will appreciate what you have to offer and act on it, find your website. Search engine optimization is a separate topic, but having good content is part of the basis.

People look at websites differently than they do printed material. Visitors don’t actually read on websites as much as they scan. So your information should be broken down in bite size chunks; short paragraphs, bulleted lists, calls to action. Keeping visual clutter down to a minimum on your web pages will help the visitor find information and act on it. As you can see, content development and design should go hand in hand on web sites. When you visit a web site that flows well and easily takes you to the things you need you can bet that some thought went in to the information that was being presented as an integral part of the design process.

How exactly does this work? Believe it or not the early stages of this process are decidedly low-tech.  There are different approaches, such as:
*Putting all of your information on cards and laying them out in groups on a table. This way you can move them around and develop a flow.
*Iterative sketches of page content laid out on a table or tacked to a wall. Start with just lists of what should be on each main page and as you refine your ideas break it down to subpages. Then make hand drawn sketches of each page’s visual layout. (examples below)
                                                               
pagesScan Bobshomepage1Scan BobshomeStep2Scan
All Pages – General
Page Detail
Home Page Visual Organization
(Pages start out very general and become more detailed as you move along incorporating content and features.)
As you move through this process you can refer to your content inventory and see where you can plug in bits of content you already have. These processes will also help you see how you will need to adapt your existing content for use on a web page. And, lastly you will be able to see what new content will have to be created.
This is a very general description of the process. It should give you an idea how a little bit of thought and effort can break the job of creating and using really good content for on website down to a manageable size. Hence – Content Management.

Using simple techniques and a little thought you can craft content for your website that will help people find you through search engines, get them the information they need and most importantly get them to act, bringing you the kind of conversions you need to add profit to your business.

In many cases these days the websites I do for my clients are built on a content management system (CMS) which makes it feasible for them to do most of the content maintenance on their own. The usual strategy is we develop a structure for the page hierarchy which gives the content a basic framework. As the build progresses the client gives us initial copy and photos to input and after the launch we train them to add content, consisting of copies and pictures, to the website. This approach works okay. By okay I mean very okay – mediocre. If we are replacing their old website they usually see a slight improvement in traffic and then hit a plateau. Generally speaking, if they are the least bit diligent in keeping the site updated they will see improved interaction and conversions. But almost without exception the results are limited. This is a real shame, considering the potential that having a website presents and the investment that my clients make in having a decent website. I think Content Management Systems are great, but unless you have a strategy for using them, for how you will manage your content, a CMS alone will not be a great help.


I go in to more detail on the process of DYI content development and design in my report  “Steps to Building a Successful Business Website”. This report is a good read even if you are planning to hire a professional designer or developer. It can help you prepare for their process and save you time and money. To receive information on getting the report when it is released in March you  can go here and sign up for a notification.

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