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Content First: A Quick Start Guide to Content Strategy

Content Strategy is a term that refers to a multi-disciplinary subsect of web marketing. It structures your on-going plan for content creation, implementation and management. It’s actually kind of a big deal. Working with professional content strategists and copywriters can yield the greatest ROI for your money, but they are not a cheap investment. If budget or time constraints prohibit hiring a strategist this guide is for you. Today, we’re going to set aside editorial calendars, social media distribution, and even SEO (mostly). We are just going to focus on creating and curating the key content to get a website up and running.

Why Content First?

Traditional web development processes often push content strategy to the back burner and elevate design to the top priority. In web agencies everywhere, this conversation is still happening:

Web Designer: I need content in order to start the design.

Account Manager: Just use placeholder text until we get the content.

Designer: There’s nothing to design without the content.

Account Manager: You’ve got all the branding assets and we know the sales goals. The  client is expecting to see a mock up.

Designer: *sigh* Fine. Okay.

If this sounds familiar you probably know the two most likely outcomes. You either have an approved design that sits on a development server with placeholder text and never launches, or you’re stuck trying to adapt the content to fit the design which means trimming more than you should or writing fluff to fill pages designed for more content than you actually have.

Remember, content is the thing and design is the presentation of the thing. As my friend Jay’s grandmother used to say, “what good is a beautiful plate with nothing on it.”

In a collaborative web build like the One Day Labs model, the content must be prepared ahead of time. Here is a quick start guide to getting content together before your web build and starting on the path to long term content strategy success.

Step 1: Start where you are.

If you have an existing website, you’ve got content already. If you are starting a brand new website, look at any marketing materials you might already have. If you have no marketing materials, refer back to your business plan.

Create a content inventory document that you can refer back to and update throughout your website’s life cycle. Note the content page (eg: Home, About Us, Services) the content source (eg: url from current website, marketing brochure), and the content type (eg: main-text, aside, image, video, etc). Your content must be unique to you, no stealing content from other sources.

Step 2: Consider content from your user's perspective.

Personas are a useful tool for gaining perspective into what your users need. Consider creating 2 - 3 personas that represent the broadest types of users you expect on your website. Give your personas each a name and a brief bio, and identify the key questions they have as they move through your sales funnel. How do you answer these questions?

Keep the following question in the back of your mind at all times when you work on content or any part of your website:

Who are my users and what do they need?

Step 3: Identify Gaps and Cruft

Are there gaps in your content strategy? By gaps I mean any information the user needs that you aren’t providing. Have you answered all the common questions your users have? Have you provided all the necessary background information on your company? Are there images or graphics you could add to better illustrate your information? Now’s the time to make note of missing items on your content inventory document (eg: Product Model C Spec-sheet needed).

Cruft is a term generally used in software and web development to describe bad, redundant or unnecessary code, but I’m using it here to refer to bad, redundant or unnecessary content. Is there any content from your current website that your users don’t need? If you’re not sure, check your analytic data. Strike through or otherwise make a note of content you are going to omit from the new site.

Step 3: Outline Page Hierarchy

Define your hierarchy so you have a clear connection between top level pages and subpages. If it helps, think of your website like a tree where the home page is the trunk and all the other pages extend off in logical branches. For this step, try to consider future content you’re planning as well.

Establish your hierarchy in a site map, a document that shows all your pages in relation to one another. This can be done in a simple spreadsheet or using a service like WriteMaps.

Once you have your site map nailed down, re-arrange your content strategy document to reflect your content hierarchy.

Step 4: Web Writing

How do you write text for the web? Like any good writing, a few basic rules still apply. Avoid grammar mistakes, passive voice, and double negatives. Check your spelling and read your text aloud before you publish to make sure it makes sense.

Your brand identity, subject matter, and audience should determine your tone. Is it more formal, or more casual? Consider the tone of a online scientific journal for college professors vs a blog reviewing video games. How do you usually speak directly to your clients or customers?

To make your writing for the web easier to consume, be concise but friendly. Use shorter paragraphs and shorter sentences. Break your ideas up into bite-sized pieces. Look for anything that stands out as a “wall of text.” It can be one long paragraph, or several shorter ones with nothing breaking them up.  You’ll know it when you see it because your eyes glaze over and scan down a page of text without reading any of it.

To break up a wall of text:

  • Use subheadings where appropriate.
  • Shorten your sentences.
  • Use bulleted lists 🙂

Step 5: Gather Non-text Content

Collect all your non-text content including images, graphics, videos and music. If any images or videos on your current website aren’t high enough quality for the modern web, get rid of them.  If you have graphics that need to be created or re-created, talk to your web designer beforehand to see how that can be handled before your website build begins.

Collect all your non-text assets in a place where you can easily share them with your web designer like dropbox or google drive. Your content inventory document should define where these items live in your website, so be sure to share your content document with your web designer as well.

That’s it, you should be ready for your web build. As your progress through your website's life cycle you'll continue to refine your content strategy. You will expand your content inventory document to include meta data information, and you'll create addition documents including an editorial calendar, editorial guidelines and social media guidelines which will make up your overall content strategy.

Liz Nix

Liz Nix

Liz is One Day Labs' superstar accounts manager. She lives in Puerto Vallarta with her family where she consumes many tacos.