Content has been a talking point on the agenda for the digital community for years. It’s also something we still struggle with. It is impossible to design a great user experience without great content. Yet, in many projects, content is either forgotten about entirely or included as a last minute consideration.
Producing great content comes with many challenges. This is especially true when you aren’t the author of the content. In an ideal world content would be written by copywriters. However, in a world of tightening budgets this isn’t always an option.
How do you engage an entire organisation to write great content?
A few years back I was working as a UX team of one, in a digital team of five, in an organisation of almost 8,000. We faced this exact challenge. 48 product owners, all being made responsible for the digital content for their own product ranges.
In this post I’ll cover the approach and methods we used to engage our content owners and start a change in culture.
The first step in our process was to audit what already existed. I won’t pretend this was fun, or didn’t take long, but it was well worth the effort.
A major benefit is that it didn’t require input from content owners. Your fellow employees are busy and you’d better have done your preparation work before you start asking for their time.
Having the data about all of our content allowed us to:
This is a topic for its own blog post and many people have written about them in depth (here, here, here, here and on the GatherContent blog here).
The short answer is you list all the pages on your site and collect data about each one. At a very high level:
Your content audit will arm you with interesting facts and findings that you can use in your mission to transform your website’s content. You’ll be able to draw conclusions about how engaging your content it, how optimised it is for search engines and how up to (or out of) date it is. You’ll be able to identify pages to remove and those that require a rewrite. Best of all, you’ll have the information you need to form a plan.
Now it’s time to start the internal campaigning. Building some momentum around your mission and gaining organisational buy-in is key to longer term success.
Content owners who oppose your plan can stop it in its tracks.
If your organisation is anything like ours was then you’ll have a small population of stakeholders that love digital and want to work with you. Start talking to these people. Explain the findings of the content audit and subtly stress the importance of good content. Talk to them in the kitchen, on lunch breaks, after meetings.
You want to get them engaged in your process and get them on your team. Once you share your plan more widely there will be stakeholders that oppose. Your champions will help talk them round on your behalf.
The other major threat to your plan succeeding is management. You need support from your senior team. Firstly, you need the green light to spend your time on this project. Secondly, and more importantly, you need senior members of the organisation to encourage their teams to engage.
In our organisation our boss worked closely with the senior Product Management team to ensure they were bought into the plan and that the message cascaded down through their teams.
Your approach for the senior team needs to be slightly different. You need to tailor your message to be of interest to them. Grab some of the key analysis from your audit and distill it into something that is evidence backed, easy to understand and important to the bottom line. You can use stats, competitors and internal competition to really drive the message home. For example:
This is a bit of a digression but a point worth making. One of the tasks we had to undertake early on (and separate to content quality) was getting content owners to review their content for compliance with industry regulations. We’d tried this previously in a number of different ways and failed.
I spoke to a sample of the content owners about what we needed to achieve. What I learned is that as Product Managers travelled a lot to different countries, they spent a lot of time flying without access to the internet.
It sounds crazy, but we printed out every product page on the website. We then created neat bundles of products for each Product Manager with a cover sheet that had three checkboxes for each product; up-to-date, edits required and delete page.
We requested that they review the print outs and mark them up with any edits that were required to make the pages compliant and then tick the front sheet with the relevant status. Within three weeks we had a full compliance audit complete.
The moral of the story here is that if you want someone to engage with your plan, understand how they work and make it easy for them to do so.
You’ve now built a small army of like-minded content champions, both within your content owners and in the senior team. Now you just need a plan.
Your approach will need to be tailored to your own organisation and your content governance structure but I will explain how we did it.
Firstly, we decided on how we wanted to govern content within the CMS. We were a small team with limited resources and we couldn’t afford to police all content. We also decided that giving the Product Managers full autonomy over their content would empower them. So we removed ourselves from the content approval process.
We then built a few examples as evidence for why we needed improvement. This included:
This played a really important role in educating our content owners. It was important for them to see real examples of the improvements that could be made with the application of some good practice.
In the example below we simply edited an existing page using the browser development tools to create a quick and easy example of applying good content practices.
We got a lot of push back from content owners so we started talking to them and digging into why there was so much resistance. In our case, it turned out that our content owners weren’t trained copywriters. So they lacked confidence, found writing difficult and the reaction was push back.
After learning this we created a toolkit to help them write content. This included some worksheets, a page template, audience personas, tone and voice guidelines and a copywriting cheat sheet. By providing them with a step-by-step toolkit it reduced the anxiety and substituted a blank page with a set of questions and an approach for them to follow to get started.
We designed a three hour training course and trained 48 Product Managers over eight sessions in Boston, Minnesota and London.
The session took them through a journey in understanding content on the web. We covered:
There had been some communication about the project, via email, before this and in team meetings, but this was the first time our content owners were really exposed to the task at hand. Naturally, we were quite nervous about the reaction it would bring but thankfully it went well.
Here is some of the feedback we received:
“Very relevant for marketing our products going forward, not just for digital.”
“It made me think about my products in ways that I hadn’t before”
“Very happy to see change in content perspective in the organisation.”
Providing training as part of your program is a great opportunity to educate your content owners and give them a platform to air their concerns. It tells them that you aren’t simply making a request for them to do something. Instead you’ve put in a lot of time and effort into helping them and this is part of a bigger plan of which they are integral.
On reflection the training sessions were one of the keys to a successful culture change.
You’ve put a lot of work in to get to this point. Now you’ve made your ask to your content owners your job is that of support and consultancy. You need to offer encouragement and cheerlead your content owners. Talk about the great work that is being done and champion individuals. Offer support to those who are struggling.
As I mentioned previously we took ourselves out of the approval flow. However, we did offer reviews on request. We also offered individual or group workshops for teams that wanted some extra guidance. At this stage it’s really important not to buckle and write the content for people but you can certainly advise.
You wouldn’t purchase a beautiful, newly built house and fill it with old, tatty furniture. So why would you build a new website and fill it with old, tatty content?
If you look at this as an overall project it looks scary, but if you break it down into a step-by-step approach it is far less daunting.
Here are some questions to start asking yourself and your team:
Changing a culture isn’t easy but with the right approach, a lot of hard work and the support of key individuals, it can be achieved.
Mike Jongbloet is a user experience designer who has worked in the digital industry for over a decade. In that time he’s worked both client and agency side. He currently leads the user experience team at Deeson, a 40-person digital agency who specialise in delivering open source technology solutions.
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