Getting Your Clients To Go Content First

by , Content Strategist, GatherContent

The spotlight has been shining on content for quite some time now: content strategy, content audits, content first, content in context. As a studio manager working with clients on their content, and as a content creator myself, this emphasis is exciting. That’s not to say it’s a straightforward process though. Managing content development can be brutal at the best of times.

The first hurdle is always going to be getting clients to understand the importance of content, and why it’s best to a develop a clear plan for content before any design work is created. A lot of clients find this frustrating as they usually want to hop and skip straight to the shiny visuals, but as a manager of a small design agency, we’ve successfully made the transition to ‘content first’ and not only have our clients been on board, they have praised the process when the project has been completed and launched.

Selling content first

So how did we get our clients on board with this new process? Well, maybe I had it easy, and maybe it sounds too simple, but after a straightforward chat explaining the benefits of getting content first, they understood, they embraced this process, and they delivered.

If you need to have this chat with clients, then the benefits of this ‘content first’ approach can include:

It’s also worth explaining the potential pitfalls if you storm ahead with design work before any real content has been defined, these might include:

These troubles of course lead to spiralling timescales and budgets, mention the latter, and a client will start to listen. This isn’t to say that you can’t design an effective solution without any content, especially if you have been through some sort of user research phase prior to doing anything, but there are likely to be more stumbling blocks and changes if you use placeholder content.

Empathy for the authors

One thing to be sympathetic of, depending on the client, is that the person who is supplying the content may have a different full time role, with content creation being thrown at them out of the blue.

In this case you could suggest bringing in a copywriter or content strategist, or perhaps you have someone in-house who can help (just make sure their time is charged for).

The key here is to set realistic milestones and to manage expectations, as well as to teach the client about producing the content they have been asked for. You have to empathise with the fact that they might not have any experience writing (not to mention writing for the web). Hosting writing workshops, working with the client to produce style guides, and using content templates can be a good way to smooth this process (and end up with better content).

The time needed to get the content will be determined by the number of people involved, and other client side commitments, whether they are starting from scratch or working with existing content. If any additional tasks needs to take place regarding content such as audits, training workshops, technical reviews or legal approval processes, then these should also be taken into account.

All of this information needs to be gathered at the beginning of a project so a project schedule can be determined. When things kick-off, it’s important that communication between both parties is clear and frequent. The client must let you know if they are going to miss a deadline and vice versa. The impact this will have on overall budget and schedule will then need to be agreed.

Keep the client in the process

Clients can often be scared for the finality of agreeing to produce the content first and then follow with the design. So you need to let them know that follow-up changes can be made (within reason!). Tweaks here and there are fine, and expected, and there may well be parts of their site that will need to be updated regularly. With this in mind, providing 50 words and then once design is all signed off, stating that you actually need 500 words, that’s not going to work (without the aforementioned budget implications).

Projects I have worked on in the above way have resulted in great feedback from the client. Having to create all the content at the start really got them thinking about what they wanted to say and who they wanted to say it too. This information was often a total revelation and they realised that there was content on their existing site that was totally irrelevant and similarly, realised that they had nothing on their current site about one of their key services, or audiences.

The closer you can work with the client on their content, the better your understanding of the user journeys and purpose of the content too. You may be able to fill in some gaps when it comes to the attention to detail such as button labels and calls to action but nobody knows your client’s business and audience better than they do.

Once you have the content and begin to design your solution, there should be fewer amends and iterations as every decision you make will be informed and everything you show the client will be in context, in a context they understand. It’s unlikely that you’ll get everything signed off first time, but working with actual content is likely to make the design and development stage of the project more efficient. This is important to tell the client because they can be put off by the fact that there may be several weeks between committing to the project and seeing any design work. Just keep reminding them that the latter stages of the project will move much quicker.

You did it!

The client worked hard on providing relevant and accurate content, you then used this from day one of the design, made a few tweaks along the way and launched a well considered and targeted website!

Job done?

Not quite. There should be regular intervals where the client or project team review the content. This might involve an auditing or timeline, or putting someone client-side in charge of updating content on schedule. What is right at the time of launch may not (and it’s very unlikely it will) be right several months later as the business, market, or customer segments have evolved. Changes that need to be made could be minor text amends or a shift in tone but reviewing content regularly will ensure the website remains relevant, and useful.

We all know that there are no two projects the same, so it is hard to apply one complete process to all, however, I’ve found that nearly all projects could adopt a content first approach, and strongly benefit from doing so.

Explain the benefits to your clients and the risks of storming ahead with design. Set clear milestones for both sides and keep communication channels open during the whole project duration and confirm an auditing and update workflow once the project is complete. As long as expectations are managed, any issues that arise should be able to be dealt with effectively, keeping the project on track.

Have you tried a content first approach? Share your thoughts in the comments.

This is a guest post by Rob Mills. Rob is Studio Manager at creative agency, Bluegg. He’s also a freelance copywriter and author of Designing the Invisible from publisher, Five Simple Steps. He prefers words to numbers and coffee to tea. You can find him on Twitter.

About the Author

Content Strategist, GatherContent

Rob is Content Strategist 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 at leading industry events.

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