I love content but I’m not sure it loves me. As Meatloaf once sang, some days it don’t come easy, some days it don’t come hard and some days it don’t come at all. OK, he wasn’t talking about content there (I doubt Mr Loaf is a closet web developer) but, nonetheless, it certainly is the hardest part of creating a great web site.
Ironically, the arrival of the now ubiquitous Content Management System hasn’t made matters any better. If anything, it’s made things worse by shifting the responsibility of creating content from the web agency to the client, often turning development into a series of template crafting exercises rather than actual design and content into a forgotten by-product. As the old saying goes, give a man a fish and you will feed himself for a day; give him a fishing net and he’ll get all tangled up in it.
I’ve ranted on this subject before so I’ll resist the urge to do so again so let’s just say that it’s easy to forget that even though a shiny new web site may run slicker than a greased up Usain Bolt, someone’s still got to populate that sucker with useful, meaningful and engaging content. And that’s not easy. Ultimately, content is either often overlooked by developers (see earlier jibe about CMS’) or something that’s simply underestimated. As I’ve learnt the hard way, writing reasonable amounts of good content is a lot more of an undertaking than one might think.
“Copy is a direct conversation with the consumer.”
Of course, in an ideal world every web project would have of a budget to pay for the time of an experienced copywriter or content strategist however, in any instance of penny-pinching, both these items are usually the first casualty of the budgetary axeman from either side of the fence. Content creation is, strangely enough, one of things that everyone thinks they can do simply because they can string a multisyllabic sentence together. Bah, I say.
Still, even without large budgets or full time literary geniuses on the payroll, there are ways any web company can help the content process along. Here’s a few ideas.
A little goes a long way
My first suggestion is simply the sensible option of including a reduced amount of copywriting time in the project costs, a strategy we employ quite regularly. Whilst it may not be possible to pay for a full copywriting solution, sometimes even a handful of days can go a long way towards breaking the back of the content problem by helping to write key areas whilst remaining cost effective. Plus, having dedicated time in the budget for copy, even if it’s not a lot, still means someone is getting paid to deal with it properly. Something is better than nothing, after all and a little goes a long way. OK, I’ll stop it with the clichés now.
Use some initiative
In the unfortunate absence of any paid content time being available, I’d still advocate some initiative being taken by the designers, developers and project managers working on the site. This does require having a degree of autonomy and authority, of course, but it’s our experience that most people welcome any suggestions when it comes to content and doing simple things like presenting designs with real copy in them – even if it’s just brainstormed up by the designer or PM – is better than using Latin or Bacon Ipsum. Plus, it will make getting design sign-off easier and tackle obvious issues (“our headlines need to be two sentences long and your design only caters to one!”) up front and head on.
I’m probably the least authoritarian person on the planet (well, in our office at least) but if you can’t create the content in-house, being strict with what the client provides is an important consideration. I’m not talking about enforcing writing styles or tones of voice or anything like that, simply that any generated copy really should be in-line with what the designs infer. For instance, there’s nothing worse than having a landing page that features only small area for explanatory text and receiving an entire essay to squeeze into it the night before launch. This is probably a project management responsibility and, although more work, setting words limits and creating a content guideline up-front is a good idea.
Regardless of the budget available, collaborating online is a great way to reduce the overall time overhead and make the whole process go a lot smoother and easier. Google Docs and it’s ability to share documents online is an excellent tool for working together on material with clients and bouncing ideas and revisions back and forth. Likewise the newly launched – and very fantastic – GatherContent is a great way of managing the content process as it allows you to easily set up predefined templates, with word restrictions and what not, for your clients to complete. This solves a lot of the problems faced by client copy creation and is a great way to manage the entire process, particularly on a tight budget.
I guess the moral of this blog post (if there is one) is don’t ignore content. It’s not something that’s going to solve itself and it’s not going to go away. After all, there’s a reason why agencies and developers alike are starting to advocate the highly sensible ‘Content First’ approach whilst client companies themselves are beginning to realise and appreciate the need for a proper content resource (note how I used the Microsoft Project definition of the word ‘person’ there).
Content isn’t easy, by any means, but by embracing it as an important aspect of the web, you’ll make the projects go a lot smoother and turn out a lot better. Don’t ignore content, make it your problem to deal with. Or some stirring maxim to that effect.
Image credit: The Giant Vermin (!)