The World Wide Web is turning 28 this year, which means companies, governments, and schools have had almost three decades to let their content grow out of control.
Increasingly, these organisations are asking for help, and they’re turning to content and industry professionals, like you and me, for answers. That means at some point, you may find yourself working on a big, messy, existing website.
But content on large websites isn’t the same as content for small sites. Existing content is not the same as new content. So how can content designers be successful, when they’re taking on massive projects?
Don’t throw away your tools, but do tweak them
President Dwight Eisenhower said, “in preparing for battle, I have found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
Figuring out the shape of existing content is crucial for project planning. But unless you have unlimited time and resources, a full-scale content audit for thousands of pages isn’t practical. Conduct a lighter-weight content inventory instead.
An inventory will shed light on existing content types, templates, and frameworks. Basically, it helps you figure out what exists (and where) without requiring an audit’s detailed assessments of quality.
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Additionally, use your content inventory to track progress throughout the project. Create a column where you can add a recommendation for each page (keep, edit, retire) and a column to record progress (not started, in progress, done). That way, when someone inevitably asks “What happened to my XYZ page,” you won’t be scrambling for an answer.
In past projects, this inventory template has been my saviour. Please steal it.
As you move from inventory to implementation, you’ll find that many of the tools you’ve relied on for smaller projects need adjustment. For example, you’ll likely want to tweak your approach to sitemapping, journey mapping, and editorial calendars for scale. Give yourself permission to fine-tune, adapt, and otherwise modify as you see fit.
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Organise a team to help you
Big websites tend to spring from big organisations, the kind that have competing interests and perspectives. If there’s any hope of creating a unified, maintainable voice, you can’t do it alone.
What you need:
- A diverse, organisationally representative team
- People who are empowered, but not so high up in the hierarchy that they lack time and attention
- People who can work together toward a common goal, who can maintain this work when the project is over
The last point is one you will influence. Set your team up for success with a kickoff workshop. These are best when done in person but can be held remotely. Use your time together to build a strategy statement and write content principles.
Strategy statements are scary to write from scratch. I use a version of consultant Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s content strategy Mad Lib, which works brilliantly. Have every team member fill one in. Talk about where people agree and disagree.
Next, write content principles collaboratively. Principles are your guiding light. When folks disagree about approaches, you’ll rely on usability testing and content principles to pick which is best. This sample set of content principles is adapted from one of my past projects.
A dedicated content kickoff may feel over the top, but it’s important tone setting. If you work carefully and build team excitement, they’ll spread it through the organisation for you. If you assemble the wrong group of folks and don’t start by working together, they can equally strangle your project with bickering and stubbornness. All content innovation starts here.
I’ve never been able to convince folks to change an enormous website by talking to them. I have only been able to change things by listening. Real humans have been working hard to maintain the content you’re about to hack apart. Acknowledge their efforts. Listen to their concerns.
Once you’ve listened, build trust by tackling something small together. Pick a low-risk, high-impact section of content to rework. Pro tip: Never start with department or bio pages. Those always seem easy, and they never are. Look for something real users need. Redesign the content, test it, and publish as soon as possible.
The content won’t be perfect, but that’s okay. As one of my colleagues always reminds me – if you aren’t a little embarrassed when you launch, you waited too long. Additionally, public reaction to new content will create a positive feedback loop, making it easier to get more writing approved.
Building the habit of small, fast releases is important for big websites. And though it may seem counterintuitive, little changes can be especially difficult for large organisations, ones that are steeped in history and tradition. When I encounter a particularly stodgy client, I finagle approvals by pointing to existing websites as precedent. Precedent is the closest thing I’ve found to a magic wand for content innovation. Seeing someone else doing the same things takes ideas out of the terror of abstraction.
Get to know your constraints
You’ll face all kinds of obstacles when working on a colossal content project, too many to write about in a single blog post. The most important thing you can do is invest time and energy into figuring out which are hard constraints and which are soft constraints.
A hard constraint is something you simply can’t move. A soft constraint is something you can. You can’t tell right away which is which, but once you do, focus all your social capital on soft constraints, not hard ones. Knowing the difference will save you wasted time and energy.
One of my clients had thousands of pages of content filled with legal terms. I was dying to plain language them away. But for the client, technical precision was non-negotiable; their website got cited in Supreme Court cases. No matter how hard I fought, they would never let me replace the word individual with person.
Knowing this, I focused on shortening sentences and adding context clues. And our design team built a glossary tool that defined unfamiliar terms for users. At the same time, we made our most radical changes to the website’s structure. We eradicated a series of organisationally beloved FAQs and built an entirely new user-centered information architecture.
Ensure your work can live on without you
Just like you can’t create the content alone, you can’t hand it off in a box, never to be touched again.
Build maintainable content styles. If everyone wants to capitalise University President except you, don’t deliver a website with a thousand pages of lowercase university president. It will become messy as soon as you walk away. Consistency is more important to users than any aesthetic preference. Build the best, tenable style that you can. The habits you want to change aren’t on the copyedit level. You want to retrain folks to talk to users, to conscientiously use readability indexes, to write clearly for the web.
I recently had a conversation with a coworker about working on big, messy projects. I was asking about her process, because the final product had turned out so well. I wish I had a version of this that was: I planned it perfectly and then executed it, she said. But that doesn’t exist.
It’s good to remember that perfectly planned and executed content projects aren’t real. Especially not for gigantic websites. I muddle through by reminding myself of one our office mantras: Show up, stay humble. Try again tomorrow.