Content Maintenance: Keeping up appearances
Unlike its functionality and design, the content of a website can be changed quickly and easily. Anyone with a CMS login and an idea has the keys to the castle. When web content is developed and maintained effectively, it’s a huge asset to the user experience, but poor content maintenance is the quickest way to wreck the whole thing.
We’ve all been there. You launch something big—a website or a ground-breaking app. The business is happy. The users are happy. You sit back and look at your work; it’s pristine, perfect. Or, at least it’s the best it could be considering the ridiculous timeline, budget, and requirements.
Fast-forward six months, and things have changed. A bunch of new content has been added in awkward places. Other things are exactly how you left them, but they were supposed to be updated regularly. You ask yourself, “Why did they add an entirely new category of information just six months after launch? Why is the ‘help’ text different? What’s the deal with the strange graphic on the home page?"
Establishing content maintenance processes and practices can help you ensure the user experience is great at launch and remains happy ever after. Even if you don’t consider content to be part of your job, there are few content-related things that can help your projects succeed long term.
Launch with Good Content
As the adage says, “Start as you mean to go on." When a site is launched with a good baseline of content, it’s easier to avoid unpleasant content messes later. Sounds like common sense, right? Unfortunately, content work takes longer than most people expect. As a result, there’s often a big rush to create content right before launch, which leads to irritated stakeholders, sub-par content, and a promise to “fix it all later." (Hint: It almost never gets fixed.) Avoid falling into this trap.
Think about content early and strategically
Content needs to be considered during the strategy phase of the project. Someone needs to think about:
- Substance (what content topics and messages will be covered)
- Structure (how content will be formatted, organized, and accessed)
- Workflow (who will create and maintain content, what processes will be followed)
- Governance (how content will be managed over time)
This work can be done by a content strategist, another member of the team, or collectively as a group. It just needs to get done.
Be realistic about content development time
Even when you don’t count content strategy and planning, content creation is a mammoth effort. For a traditional website, creating one page of content takes an average of 6-8 hours (with approvals and revisions). Some pages take less time and some take much, much longer. So, for example, if you have 75 pages to create, you can estimate around 525 hours of work.
Short on time? In many cases, it’s better to launch with less quantity and more quality. Prioritize the content that is most important, and see how it goes. That will help everyone understand the complexity of the content process and develop realistic timelines for the rest of the content.
Educate the Internal Content Team
The majority of people who make web content are neither web nor content professionals. They may not understand what kind of content is appropriate for the Web. So you can’t expect them to know exactly what to do; you need to give them some guidance.
First, they likely need to get some information about the web property itself: its business goals, user research, and the concepts behind the overall UX design. They also need to know what their role on the content team is and how to perform it. For example, if they have to create content, they may need a workshop on web writing. Or if they will be reviewing content before it is published, give them guidelines about what they should be looking for. It helps to do some practice exercises, too.
Create some how-to tools
Take the time to provide the team with guidelines and tools that make content tasks easier. Develop a content style guide that includes things such as preferred word choices, grammar choices, or copyright requirements. It can also help to create content examples that demonstrate tone, voice, and content best practices.
With the right training and tools, the internal content team will have a much better chance of creating user-targeted and user-friendly content.
Prepare for Change
Things move quickly online, and content needs to change frequently to stay relevant. If there is no plan in place for maintenance, content updates become a free-for-all or they don’t happen at all. Pre-defined change management processes protect the integrity of the content and the sanity of the content team.
Plan for routine maintenance and updates
Many websites or applications are designed to have content that changes constantly. Other web properties simply need annual maintenance checks. Either way, an editorial calendar can keep the content update process running smoothly.
An editorial calendar is simply a schedule (usually a spreadsheet) that details what content needs to change, when it needs to change, and who needs to change it. In addition to regular content updates, editorial calendars can include known events that might influence content (e.g., the results of ongoing usability tests or pending government legislation), ensuring the content team ready is for action.
Plan for the unpredictable
There are times when something happens that nobody expected—natural disasters, a social media uproar, or a new mind-blowing product from a competitor. In these cases, the organization needs to react quickly. Although it’s not useful to plan for every contingency, it is important to have an emergency action plan that details what to do when major content changes need to happen fast. Someone needs to define:
- What constitutes an emergency?
- What steps can be skipped in the normal content workflow?
- Who creates and approves emergency content?
Sloppy, inaccurate content can make a bad situation even worse. An emergency action plan ensures the content quality doesn’t suffer, even during unforeseen circumstances.
Get User Opinions about Content Specifically
Of course, the user has an important role in defining what good content actually is. And they have the right to change their minds as the web property matures. So someone needs to ask the users what they think about the content before launch, immediately after launch, and regularly over time.
Without user input, it’s hard for stakeholders to choose and prioritize what content updates need to be made. (That’s how the CEO’s awkward blog post gets prioritized over something the user actually wants to see.) To get user feedback about content, start by designing research and tests around three areas of focus:
1. Interest: What kind of content do users want and why?
- What content do users say they want? What content do they actually use? If there is a difference, why is that?
- If users can select which content they view, what topics or pieces of content do they gravitate toward?
- When presented with a piece of content, does it capture users’ attention or keep them engaged?
- Do factors such as voice, tone, author, or context increase or decrease interest?
2. Comprehension: Can users understand and use a piece of content?
- How much can target users be expected to understand? What is their reading level or native language? Do they have prior knowledge of the topic?
- Do the users understand the content? Can they repeat or paraphrase key facts or messages?
- After reviewing a piece of content, do they know what to do (or where to go) next?
3. Influence: Is the content helping achieve the business goals?
- Does the content help users make decisions or take action? If so, are the decisions or actions ones the organization wants to encourage?
- Does the content change users’ opinions about an organization, its products, or its competitors? Are the changes in opinion positive or negative?
- Would users share the information with their friends or colleagues? Why or why not?
For more information, start with a podcast (mp3) by Colleen Jones and Kevin O’Connor available on Boxes and Arrows called Testing Content: Early, Often and Well, as well as Angela Colter’s article on A List Apart called “Testing Content."
Keep Up on Content and Keep Things Consistently Great
It’s a fact of life: things change, and web content is no exception. But proactively planning your content maintenance initiatives will help your user experience—and your content team—survive whatever comes next. And keep your users coming back for more.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Melissa Rach is co-founder of the content consultancy Dialog Studios and co-author of Content Strategy for the Web (Second Edition). She has been helping clients solve messy content problems for nearly 20 years. Her methodologies have been taught at several universities and her work has been recognized in books regularly throughout her career. Although she’s worked on all types of enterprise content projects, online content is secretly her favorite.