Content strategy for the rest of us: Tools for smaller websites

Just because you don’t have a big website, that doesn’t mean you don’t need content strategy.

Content strategy has been around for years, but it seems to have hit critical mass recently. People who build and maintain websites have started to realise that, for all our progress in making websites more usable and awesome, most of the written content on those websites is still really, really bad. Content strategy is a discipline that tries to fix this. It’s important because, after all, content is the main reason why people visit websites.

(You can find out more about content strategy here.)

When you start reading about content strategy, you quickly realise that the discipline has mostly been developed by people who work on big websites - government sites, university sites, and large multinational corporate sites. After all, that’s where the content problems tend to be most severe.

But that doesn’t mean content strategy isn’t relevant to small and medium-sized websites too. I like to think of content strategy as a toolkit - a series of tools for solving particular problems to do with content. Not every tool is relevant for every website.

Depending on how big your site is content-wise - how much content you have, how many people are writing it, whether someone has to approve it, how often it needs to change - you may not need a particular content strategy tool at all. Or you may need a simplified version. Where a big corporate site might need a powder activated nail gun, a smaller site might make do with a simple hammer and nails.

Here are some examples of what I mean.

You might not need a 300 page style guide, but you still need some agreed guidelines on language.

Weave Web’s client Coffea Coffee was launching a new website into a crowded market selling coffee beans onlne. One of the ways Coffea stand out from their competitors is by using down-to-earth language to describe their coffee, rather than the exotic flights of fancy favoured by “third wave” coffee outlets.

So we put together some style guidelines to make sure the website had a vocabulary and tone of voice that was really “theirs”. “Medium acidity” was in; “overtones of pink grapefruit” was out. Having those guidelines written down will make it much easier for Coffea to maintain a consistent voice over time.

You might not need detailed editorial workflow diagrams, but you do need easier ways to get information out of your head and onto your website.

Some kinds of web content need to be written over and over again using the same basic structure. Depending on your business, this “structured content” might be product or service descriptions, case studies, or educational content like “how tos”.

When you have to write structured content, it helps enormously if you’re given some guidance about how to structure it. (This becomes even more important when more than one person is writing the same kind of content.) For example, we’re currently working with an IT company who are using case studies as a vital part of their new website. We’re working with them to develop a template for these case studies. The template gives clear instructions about exactly what components are needed for each case study: paragraphs, headings and subheadings, and supporting content like images, menu labels, SEO metadata, and summaries.

Having a template means that when someone comes to write a case study in the future, they won’t be confronted by a blank screen. Instead, they’ll basically be filling in boxes. Writing a case study will be more like filling in a form than writing an essay. (IT types aren’t scared of forms!)

Even better, the templates will be “baked in” to the content management system, so formatting these pages for the web will be a no-brainer.

Some content strategy tools are relevant to every website, no matter how small.

A content audit (or inventory) is a spreadsheet that tells you what content you already have, whether it needs to be revised, rewritten or thrown away, and where (if anywhere) it should go on your new website. Unless you have no existing content at all (i.e. you’re a new business), a content audit is always a useful starting point.

A content matrix (we’ve also been known to call it a content tracker, content plan, or the giant spreadsheet of doom) is another spreadsheet, this time about planning the content for your new site. The content matrix tells you what content you need, who is responsible for it, when it’s due, and where the information will come from.

It’s hard to overstate how useful a content matrix is for all but the very smallest sites. By having a process for tracking the progress of every single piece of required content, you prevent what one content strategist memorably called the “11th hour sh*tstorm”. This is the crisis that typically happens when a website is all ready to go, but there are big bits of content missing, seemingly because everyone on the project just expects content to magically appear.

That all sounds great, so how do I get some content strategy?

Well, there’s bad news and good news on that front. The bad news is that at the moment, most web firms that specialise in smaller websites aren’t all that interested in content strategy. Either they don’t know much about it, or they don’t know how to sell it, or they just don’t think it’s sexy.

I expect that will change over time. In the meantime, there are exceptions (hello! Over here!). You can also look around for a copywriter who knows something about content strategy. Just make sure you get them involved as part of your web team as early as possible. If your website design is already finalised and waiting for content to be “plugged in”, it’s too late.

There’s also plenty you can do yourself. If you’re looking for inspiration, Erin Kissane’s book The Elements of Content Strategy is a great place to start. Meanwhile, make sure you subscribe to this blog.

We’ll be posting a lot more about content strategy, and other ways to make your website great.

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