Convince your clients to go content-first (and grow your agency in the process)

3 minute read

If websites are primarily a vehicle for content delivery, why do so many web projects still disproportionately focus on visual design and functionality, at the expense of the content?When we treat content as an afterthought we limit our ability to make good design decisions and our sites fail to achieve their goals.It is a constant challenge we’ve been wrestling with for years, as we try to push content to the heart of the design process and the users’ experience.

What we don’t mean by ‘content-first’

To be clear, we are not saying: wait until your client has finished writing all their website content first before you start designing and building. That approach doesn’t work and just creates a different set of problems.We believe that considering and thinking about content at each stage of a project steers us to appropriate design decisions, which delivers better websites.

The business case for a content-first agency

Have these common issues impacted the projects you work on?

  • Has late content delayed the launch of a client’s website (and your final payment!)?
  • Have you over-designed sites your client was unable to sustain after launch? Be honest.
  • Have your carefully designed templates struggled once the client added their final content? Was it too late to change things?
  • Have you relied on designing templates with Lorem Ipsum because you didn’t have real content to work with?
  • Have last minute requirements caught everyone out?
  • Have you wasted hours piecing together content from various sources to upload to the CMS?

What’s the ‘BIG’ problem?

We design and build websites with a controlled set of page templates to give clients scalable and consistent sites they can quickly add to. Makes sense.

But we’ve fallen into a bad habit of designing and building the template layouts first, and only then populating them with real content. Usually when time and budgets are already too exhausted to iterate and improve them.If you take the time to understand your content’s goals, target audience, format, source, structure, volume, frequency, quality, ownership ...... you will make smarter strategic, functional, user experience, visual design, and business decisions.

Example scenario: Balmain University’s international student website

The client tells you they must have a dedicated Latest News section on the new homepage (the boss wants it!).

Rather than simply complying, you take five minutes to count the news items they published on the current site over the year. They only published six news items - hardly latest news.So you then ask the client: “Why do you expect to be able to produce more news items on the new site? Will there be more staff resources to maintain it?”

They can’t guarantee an increased frequency of news, so you propose a flexible module on the homepage template that can feature different types of content including latest news items (if and when available).With a little retrospection and common sense you have stopped your client from unwittingly providing a poor(er) experience to their users, and damaging their goals by failing to sustain their content.

Make the internal case for putting content first

These points will help you to explain the benefits and convince your agency colleagues and bosses:

  • Reduce project rollout delays caused by underestimating the content production challenge (by thinking about content in good time)
  • Don’t waste time and budget designing and building functionality and templates that fail to handle real content
  • Make smarter, content focussed design decisions for a better user experience
  • Delivering great sites your clients can actually sustain increases longer term success, builds trust, and wins repeat business
  • Clients are increasingly aware and expecting agencies to emphasise content during a web project (no longer just about a new look and feel!)

It’s time to sell in your content-first approach with a prospective client. Some clients will expect nothing less and you’ve got an easy sell, but others may take some convincing.

Spot clients that will value a content-first approach

Look out for these tell-tale signs during early conversations and project documents:

  • The client will have already identified content as an issue on their existing site
  • Key content people are part of the initial project team and procurement process
  • They will have already detailed content specific objectives for the new site
  • They have a content heavy site that may have sprawled out of control
  • Their site has multiple sources of content
  • They have been burnt by content in previous web projects

Clients making these noises will be highly receptive to this approach.

But my clients don’t seem interested...

Not all clients will care about their content as much as you would like. Probably best to focus on the cold, hard business case that will resonate:

  • Your staff won’t be demoralised by struggling to produce all of the site’s content in a big rush at the end of the project - you can spread the effort over a longer period
  • Go live on time - working on the content early greatly reduces the risk of a delayed site launch and the implications of missing the target
  • Prioritising content that delivers your business goals and user needs means you don’t waste time and money on unnecessary content
  • Get a site you can realistically sustain so you don’t risk reputation damage with outdated and irrelevant content

Emphasise your content-first pedigree

Don’t leave a prospective client in any doubt that you will put their valuable content centre stage if you win the work. Try to make these points during your early engagements, proposals and pitches to stand out from the competition:“At our agency we...”

  • Respect the effort and commitment for a client to produce and sustain good content
  • Audit your current content to discover insights that will help us to design a site that better meets your business goals and user needs
  • Design templates around real or proto-content, rather than waiting until the end to see how well they handle real content
  • Only design sites with ongoing content demands you can sustain beyond launch with your available resources and skills
  • Guide you through the demanding content production stages to greatly reduce the risk of late content delaying the launch
  • Ask you to start producing content earlier in the project to give you more time

Of course, the more case studies and client testimonials you have to back up your claims, the better!

Take action with these next steps

Asking simple questions, at the right time, will ensure content is at the heart of the design process and the eventual user experience.Clients who truly value content will want to work with you and all of your agency’s projects will benefit from the approach.So, good luck closing and delivering plenty of content-first projects.

Cheat Sheet

Convince Your Clients

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

About the author

Robert Mills

Rob is Head of Content at GatherContent. He is a journalism graduate and has previously worked as Studio Manager and Head of Content for a design agency and as an Audience Research Executive for the BBC. He’s a published author and regular contributor to industry publications including Net Magazine, Smashing Magazine, 24 Ways,WebTuts+, UX Matters , UX Booth and Content Marketing Institute. On occasion Rob speaks about content strategy and ContentOps at leading industry events.

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