Content-first: the what, why and how

3 minute read

Audiences need useful, accessible and high-quality content across multiple channels, and organisations need to create, publish and distribute that content efficiently and effectively. Going content-first can help organisations deliver the right content, in the right place, at the right time.

But what exactly do we mean when we talk about ‘content-first’?

In this article, we will break down what content-first is, what it’s not and why you should start working content-first in your organisation or with your clients.

What is content-first?

Content-first means considering content early on in projects and discussing things properly to deliver content on time and on budget. This allows organisations to reduce project rollout delays caused by misunderstanding the content creation process.

Further, content-first is thinking about five core elements:

1. The user experience

Instead of thinking about content in terms of individual pages or elements, try to think about it in terms of the deliverable as a whole and the user experience. Content and UX go hand-in-hand so considering the content early in your process can only yield a better end experience.

2. Considering all channels and formats upfront.

You, your clients and your audience want unified and consistent content, so thinking about all of your channels and what content you need to distribute across them will help you to spot opportunities and problems early on.

3. The use of content to define the layout and design elements.

Content-first is about understanding how content can inform design, rather than creating templates you won’t use. Less time will be spent iterating content if the team have already discussed issues together with design while working on content creation. Focus on problem-solving for your audience in your content, and you’ll be amazed what comes to light in your design discussions.

4. Proto-content.

Going content-first means focusing on getting the writing done, and this gives you a prototype to work with, which means you can spot opportunities and problems or challenges early on in the content creation process. If you’ve got clients you can also produce sample content easily with this. This part of the process is like 'sketching with words'. Start with bullet-points and simple language to outline a framework for your content, planning what you’re going to say and then build on it from there. It’s best to start with low-fi content like this, and just get words on a page. Design and where you place your content are of course important elements of the content production process. But getting a handle on the actual messaging you're sending out is a great foot forward.

Proto-content replaces any instance of non-contextual placeholder content such as Lorem Ipsum. It could be existing content, draft content, or commissioned sample content.

5. Understanding content and CMS requirements early.

Content-first is about getting discussions going early, across different disciplines and teams such as content, UX, design and development. This can include discussions around technology to deliver content, such as your content management system (CMS), or the tools you'll use to create your content, such as GatherContent. Your CMS may need to be modified and set up to accommodate the content. Or, the content could be designed with the limitations of your CMS in mind.

What content-first is not

As we’ve said, design is still important. This isn’t about forgetting design, or getting all of your content done before you’ve gotten started on design. It’s about content and design working together.

Content-first is needed because there’s a tendency for businesses to let content quality fall by the wayside at the expense of design focus. Lorem Ipsum is a result of fear. Fear to put words on the page.

Leading with content is about lending your focus more to content, slowing down and thinking from a design perspective about the actual words on the page. It’s about thinking about how the way you craft your content can make a difference for your stakeholders and customers.

Why do you need to be content-first?

To build the business case for a content-first strategy, think: storytelling.

This is another content creation buzzword, but it’s actually an important one. Storytelling and building narrative structure is the only way you’re going to get people to engage with your content on a regular basis, both with stakeholders early on in the production process, and also your audience with the finished product.

It’s not about cramming important messages into small boxes or filling space with placeholder content. Content creators do themselves a disservice in not focusing on the messaging. Here’s why you need content-first production:

  • Educating and informing audiences. Good design is great, but you need to educate and inform your audience with content if you want to engage them enough to care. If your blogs, brochures, infographics and social media posts don’t provide your audience with the valuable information they need, they won’t make it through your sales funnel or user journey.
  • Repurposing and reusability. If you focus on content, and getting proto-content down, then you can get a good bank of work built up fairly quickly. Existing content, or even drafts you have saved, can then be combined, reworked and remixed as needed. In this way, you can get more, better content out to audiences faster.
  • Collaborate better across teams. Content-first ensures consistency and gets everyone on the same page. When you know that your key focuses are aligned, you’ll know which direction to go in with collaborating with subject matter experts, or editors, CMS editors, web designers and strategists. Make sure you define roles properly to ensure a smooth process.
  • Keep projects on track for budgets and timing. Going content-first can also help you keep projects on track. Time isn't wasted creating the wrong content, content doesn't have to be amended to suit the CMS, designs don't have to be altered to accommodate the content, and teams aren't waiting for that elusive content to be delivered in order to complete the project. Timing is a delicate balance with content creation; while allowing time for endless revisions is not a good idea, you need to allow enough time so that you’re not making last-minute edits or chasing sign-offs.

How do you introduce content-first to your organisation?

When it comes to implementing content-first design, if you already have an established process for your content creation, then be prepared for some growing pains. You need to build a business case for it, and also introduce it to teams and clients with minimal pushback and maximum adoption. Here’s how to start:

  • Make people aware of changes and challenges. One of the best things you can do when introducing a new process is to communicate the changes and content priorities that will be coming early on. Project timing may need to shift to accommodate earlier content discussions across multiple teams. Prepare your teams and clients for this.
  • Focus on the value of content-first. As well as addressing teething problems, remember to show people the value of the approach. What will it add to content creators' lives? How will it make things easier? Call a meeting and/or do a presentation. Be patient and be persistent.
  • Start with a content audit. A good place to start when preparing for a new content process is with a content audit. Auditing your existing content will help you get a clear space and your ducks in a row to get the most out of your new content strategy.
  • Get the right content-first toolkit. If you’re going to focus on creating content, you need a system that can keep track of design elements and multiple, fragmented pieces of content across various teams. GatherContent can help you create structured templates, embed your style guide, define a workflow and bring all content creation into one place with live collaboration.

Content-first will future proof your organisation

Leading with content sets you up for future success because it forces you to get a clear, birds-eye view of all of your content, and then work forwards, quickly and efficiently from there. Organisations that can then create a content creation model to deliver information at the right time and the right place for their customers and stakeholders are the ones that will come up top, now and in the future.

Cheat Sheet

Convince Your Clients

A handy one-sheet to share with your clients to convince them to put content first.

About the author

Paige Toomes

Paige is an English Literature and Media graduate from Newcastle University, and over the last three years has built up a career in SEO-driven copywriting for tech companies. She has written for Microsoft, Symantec and LinkedIn, as well as other SaaS companies and IT consulting firms. With an audience-focused approach to content, Paige handles the lifecycle from creation through to measurement, supporting businesses with their content operations.

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