Guest blog by Angus Gordon – content strategist with Weave Web Communications
Everyone seems to agree: there’s something wrong with the web content that most organisations publish.
Just do a Google search for a phrase like “most web content is…”, and here’s what comes up on the first page of results:
And my favourite:
People seem to agree that web content is pretty bad, but it’s harder to find useful insights about why it’s so bad. I don’t mean the superficial, obvious reasons: it’s fairly easy to look at a piece of web content and list all the things that are wrong with it. (“Too wordy”; “too much corporate-speak”; “doesn’t speak the audience’s language”; “organisation-centric not customer-centric”, and so on.)
The trouble is, fixing content problems isn’t just a matter of improving authors’ writing and editing skills, or teaching them to “write for the web”. Sure, these skills are important, but when you’re in charge of content for a whole organisation, your content problems are probably bigger than that.
As a content strategist who works with organisations large and small, I constantly come across certain kinds of challenges to improving web content — and they’re not simple challenges. You might have some of the same issues in your organisation. I want to spend some time talking about these challenges, but please don’t get depressed if this list looks familiar! There’s light at the end of the tunnel.
The biggest web content challenges
The first kind of challenge you might face comes from a lack of information — information about your content, and about the people it’s written for:
- Nobody has kept track of the web content you’ve already accumulated, so you can’t make decisions about what to do with it. I’ve even had clients who’ve forgotten the existence of entire websites!
- Because you don’t interact directly with your users or customers, you don’t know whether or not your web content is working for them – what they’re searching for, and whether they’re finding it or leaving in frustration.
The second set of challenges relates to your organisation’s systems and processes for creating and managing content:
- There’s content on your website that’s been written and published without a clear purpose.
- Most of your web content exists as big “blobs” of text that don’t adapt well to mobile devices, and don’t enable intelligent adaptation and re-use.
- There are bottlenecks in your content approval workflow, so content doesn’t get published in a timely way.
- Nobody “owns” your content once it’s published, so content quickly gets out of date and out of control, and is never reviewed or removed.
- Rather than enabling and streamlining content creation, your content management software fights you every step of the way, and your authors hate using it.
A third set of challenges relate to the fundamental culture of your organisation:
- Your home page becomes a pitched battle over real estate, rather than a place to help users find what they need as quickly as possible.
- Department X doesn’t see the website as a priority (they have “real work” to do), so you can never get content out of them.
- Your website is structured around your organisation’s internal categories (“information silos”), rather than the tasks your users want to complete.
- Your executive team wants the website to be plastered with mission statements and corporate fluff.
Finally, there’s the basic challenge of resourcing. This is a challenge even for organisations whose entire purpose is content creation (i.e., media companies), so it would be surprising if it wasn’t a challenge for you:
- You don’t have the time or the budget you need to create all the content you want for your website.
- Your organisation sees content as a cost rather than an asset.
- You feel like better content would generate a return on investment, but you don’t know how to prove it.
With so many potential organisational obstacles, it’s not surprising that so much web content is so bad. But as I said, the purpose of listing all these challenges wasn’t to make you lose hope! On the contrary, there’s good news: people like you who work in web content have started to realise that this set of problems has to be tackled at a strategic, organisational level. It’s not enough to say “we need to write better web content”; we need to plan for and enable better web content.
Content strategy: tools for big content challenges
The discipline known as content strategy comes out of that realisation. Content strategists have developed a set of tools for dealing with thorny content problems (some of them adapted from other disciplines). Content strategy doesn’t necessarily mean tackling everything at once – often, what the tools help you do is get the kind of quick win that demonstrates the value of content to your organisation.
You can find out about some of these tools at a workshop I’ll be giving for IABC Victoria on Wednesday 8 May.
If you can’t make it to the workshop, there’s a growing number of resources available to help you get started with content strategy. I’d recommend two books in particular: Erin Kissane’s The Elements of Content Strategy, which is a great introduction to the discipline, and Karen McGrane’s Content Strategy for Mobile, which deals with the particular challenges organisations face in adapting their content to the ever-growing proliferation of devices. Both books are quick, entertaining reads, and they’re available as a package from A Book Apart.
Web content problems in large organisations can seem intractable. But if you’re dealing with problems like the ones I’ve talked about, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. There’s a worldwide community of people with similar experiences, and they’re here to help.
Angus Gordon works as a content strategist with Weave Web Communications. Previously a lecturer in English at Melbourne University, Angus is a writer and editor who is obsessed with making content work better on the web, for both organisations and their customers.