Content behaving badly 
(what to do when the sh*t hits the fan)

Content behaving badly 
(what to do when the sh*t hits the fan)

4 minute read

Content behaving badly 
(what to do when the sh*t hits the fan)

4 minute read

Content behaving badly 
(what to do when the sh*t hits the fan)

Sally Bagshaw

Content Strategist

In Bridget Jones’s Diary, the bane of Bridget’s existence were what she called the ‘smug married’. Basically, the term meant a married couple who were so smug with their wedded bliss, they would harass their poor single friends with judgemental questions about their loves lives (or lack thereof). They placed themselves on a throne above everyone else, advocating that if you weren’t married—well you were clearly doing something really wrong.

There’s the equivalent of a smug married in the content world: the smug strategist. You know the one. He or she talks a lot about best practice (even though there’s really no such thing), gives you a look of shock that your project wasn’t purely content first (which is a great objective but often things aren’t as clean cut in the real world) and almost rub their hands with glee if you admit your governance model hasn’t been approved (hello, organisational change doesn’t happen with one project).

We all have had projects where—despite everyone’s best intentions—things don’t unfold exactly as planned. Applying one person’s ‘best practice’ doesn’t work, the project manager doesn’t schedule enough time for content planning, or stakeholders simply aren’t working with you. It’s stressful, messy, and keeps you awake at night.So what can you do? How do you handle a project emergency where the content is behaving badly and the sh*t is about to hit the fan? Here are some practical approaches to common scenarios.

Content emergency 1: The words don’t fit

Scenario: I think every content professional has had this experience. A website redesign project takes off at a furiously fast pace. So fast in fact, that the content, UX and design teams are all working in very close parallel.

Working this way means initial iterations have some lorem ipsum as placeholder content, but hey, it keeps the ball rolling.Then, finally some content is ready. You happily skip over to the UX lead or designer and hand over some ‘real’ content. The UX or design person looks pained. Nervous laughter ensues. THE CONTENT DOES NOT FIT THE DESIGN.

Likely cause: Blaming lorem ipsum in wireframes and mock-ups is like blaming the decorations on a threadbare Christmas tree. The real problem lies in the underlying foundation. What’s really happened is the site was designed without an understanding of the structure of the content. It’s OK to use lorem ipsum if you can give accurate parameters.

What to do about it: Take a day and model your main content types. Get to the point where you can say ‘this short teaser will be up to 200 characters, the product features are always 5 dot points, the call to action is x’, and so on. It means that designers can see clearly what they need to work with so when real content is available it nicely slots in.

Content emergency 2: The content won’t be ready in time

Scenario: Things had started off well. Everyone talked about content early in the project, expectations were set, and promises were made. Existing content would be reviewed and rewritten to be more useful and user friendly.

Then things slowed down. Reality set in. Words were not being produced.Content becomes the topic of heated project meetings and now threatens to derail the entire project. Everyone is stressed out and the site ends up being launched with the old content.

Likely cause: People struggle with content even when they know the ‘right’ thing to do. The enormity of the task at hand is simply overwhelming and they don’t know where to start. The job is so big they start chipping away at the ‘easy’ stuff, but what that means is the important content is left until last when there’s no time for quality. Or, there has been a big miscalculation in the level of effort required so the whole content track has been under resourced.

What to do about it: The main thing to do is re-focus on what should take priority. Confirm the critical content—what is supporting your key customer journeys? Try to get it down to about 10% of your total content (not saying the rest isn’t important, but if you’re dealing with a 1,000 page site, focusing on doing 100 core pages really well will likely give you more bang for buck than 500 pages done OK). Then, hire a professional copywriter who is happy to work with your team to get that content perfect.What about budget? Yes, this approach costs money. But take a step back and really assess the cost of the delays in the project waiting for the content to be ready and the price of internal resources doing the job. You might find that hiring a copywriter for a week or two is actually an economical solution.

Content emergency 3: The content impasse

Scenario: You thought everything and everyone was getting along really well. Prototypes were approved, content was signed off, and the site was built.

Then along came user acceptance testing. Suddenly, problems are cropping up everywhere and the issue register is being inundated with content fixes. Stakeholders won’t approve the site to go live until it’s sorted out.

Likely cause: Most of the time this scenario stems from a key (but not obvious) stakeholder being left out of the initial consultation process. So, when they finally see the site during testing they want their voice heard.

What to do about it: This is a tricky one because it often involves office politics, change management, and people’s feelings. You need to let this person have their say without jeopardising what’s already been done as part of the project. Give them some love and attention and listen to their concerns with an open mind.Take the time to walk them through the project and clearly explain decisions that have been made. If their concerns are valid, well you need to assess how you can incorporate them. Get the project sponsor and project manager involved, and decide the best way to handle things.

Content projects are fun, interesting, challenging, frustrating, and often stressful. Each one brings its own unique problems and solutions. As content professionals, we need to remember that while it’s great to have smart discussions about ‘best practice’, one person’s approach may not work for the next person.We are all doing the best we can. Don’t become a smug strategist and look down on others who do things differently. And when things don’t turn out quite right, there’s usually a way to get things back on track.

In Bridget Jones’s Diary, the bane of Bridget’s existence were what she called the ‘smug married’. Basically, the term meant a married couple who were so smug with their wedded bliss, they would harass their poor single friends with judgemental questions about their loves lives (or lack thereof). They placed themselves on a throne above everyone else, advocating that if you weren’t married—well you were clearly doing something really wrong.

There’s the equivalent of a smug married in the content world: the smug strategist. You know the one. He or she talks a lot about best practice (even though there’s really no such thing), gives you a look of shock that your project wasn’t purely content first (which is a great objective but often things aren’t as clean cut in the real world) and almost rub their hands with glee if you admit your governance model hasn’t been approved (hello, organisational change doesn’t happen with one project).

We all have had projects where—despite everyone’s best intentions—things don’t unfold exactly as planned. Applying one person’s ‘best practice’ doesn’t work, the project manager doesn’t schedule enough time for content planning, or stakeholders simply aren’t working with you. It’s stressful, messy, and keeps you awake at night.So what can you do? How do you handle a project emergency where the content is behaving badly and the sh*t is about to hit the fan? Here are some practical approaches to common scenarios.

Content emergency 1: The words don’t fit

Scenario: I think every content professional has had this experience. A website redesign project takes off at a furiously fast pace. So fast in fact, that the content, UX and design teams are all working in very close parallel.

Working this way means initial iterations have some lorem ipsum as placeholder content, but hey, it keeps the ball rolling.Then, finally some content is ready. You happily skip over to the UX lead or designer and hand over some ‘real’ content. The UX or design person looks pained. Nervous laughter ensues. THE CONTENT DOES NOT FIT THE DESIGN.

Likely cause: Blaming lorem ipsum in wireframes and mock-ups is like blaming the decorations on a threadbare Christmas tree. The real problem lies in the underlying foundation. What’s really happened is the site was designed without an understanding of the structure of the content. It’s OK to use lorem ipsum if you can give accurate parameters.

What to do about it: Take a day and model your main content types. Get to the point where you can say ‘this short teaser will be up to 200 characters, the product features are always 5 dot points, the call to action is x’, and so on. It means that designers can see clearly what they need to work with so when real content is available it nicely slots in.

Content emergency 2: The content won’t be ready in time

Scenario: Things had started off well. Everyone talked about content early in the project, expectations were set, and promises were made. Existing content would be reviewed and rewritten to be more useful and user friendly.

Then things slowed down. Reality set in. Words were not being produced.Content becomes the topic of heated project meetings and now threatens to derail the entire project. Everyone is stressed out and the site ends up being launched with the old content.

Likely cause: People struggle with content even when they know the ‘right’ thing to do. The enormity of the task at hand is simply overwhelming and they don’t know where to start. The job is so big they start chipping away at the ‘easy’ stuff, but what that means is the important content is left until last when there’s no time for quality. Or, there has been a big miscalculation in the level of effort required so the whole content track has been under resourced.

What to do about it: The main thing to do is re-focus on what should take priority. Confirm the critical content—what is supporting your key customer journeys? Try to get it down to about 10% of your total content (not saying the rest isn’t important, but if you’re dealing with a 1,000 page site, focusing on doing 100 core pages really well will likely give you more bang for buck than 500 pages done OK). Then, hire a professional copywriter who is happy to work with your team to get that content perfect.What about budget? Yes, this approach costs money. But take a step back and really assess the cost of the delays in the project waiting for the content to be ready and the price of internal resources doing the job. You might find that hiring a copywriter for a week or two is actually an economical solution.

Content emergency 3: The content impasse

Scenario: You thought everything and everyone was getting along really well. Prototypes were approved, content was signed off, and the site was built.

Then along came user acceptance testing. Suddenly, problems are cropping up everywhere and the issue register is being inundated with content fixes. Stakeholders won’t approve the site to go live until it’s sorted out.

Likely cause: Most of the time this scenario stems from a key (but not obvious) stakeholder being left out of the initial consultation process. So, when they finally see the site during testing they want their voice heard.

What to do about it: This is a tricky one because it often involves office politics, change management, and people’s feelings. You need to let this person have their say without jeopardising what’s already been done as part of the project. Give them some love and attention and listen to their concerns with an open mind.Take the time to walk them through the project and clearly explain decisions that have been made. If their concerns are valid, well you need to assess how you can incorporate them. Get the project sponsor and project manager involved, and decide the best way to handle things.

Content projects are fun, interesting, challenging, frustrating, and often stressful. Each one brings its own unique problems and solutions. As content professionals, we need to remember that while it’s great to have smart discussions about ‘best practice’, one person’s approach may not work for the next person.We are all doing the best we can. Don’t become a smug strategist and look down on others who do things differently. And when things don’t turn out quite right, there’s usually a way to get things back on track.

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About the author

Sally Bagshaw

Sally Bagshaw is a Brisbane-based content strategist who has been wrangling content since 2001. With a background in copywriting and business communication, she has helped big corporates, publishers, government, and a range of universities to plan for, create and manage useful and usable content. A bit of a geek at heart, she often works as an intermediary between technical teams and business stakeholders to make sure content requirements of both parties are fully understood. Sally loves big web redevelopment projects, workshops with lots of sticky notes, and advocating the use of sentence case. She's not scared of spreadsheets or metadata but hates the word migration. Known for saying “content is easy, people are the messy part”, she firmly believes that sometimes the best content strategy is to have less content.

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