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Content Strategy

How to project manage a content-first website launch

Becky Taylor • 3 minutes

When you’re managing a content-first website design project there’s a chance it will be the first content-first website project for at least a portion of the people involved.

It’s your job as the project manager to get everybody on board with the process and keep the project on track. This can be a tough job, but these rules I learnt as a digital project manager helped our team launch websites with content that drove measurable results. I hope they can help you too.

What do we mean by content-first?

Liam King says it best in Content Strategy: A project guide. ‘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?’ Treating content as an afterthought limits the ability to make informed (and good) design decisions.

Going ‘content-first’ doesn’t mean waiting until you have all final content from your team or client before you do anything else. Rather, considering and thinking about content at each stage of a project steers us to appropriate design decisions, which delivers better websites.

Talk content-first from day one

Working in a small design agency, naturally we were focused on winning clients but it was a pleasant surprise to find that talking content-first in our pitches actually helped differentiate us from the competition and secure more exciting projects. Going ‘content-first’ isn’t a new approach but when you use this as the reason why working with you will lead to stronger results for your client, that’s what can draw them in.

Gone are the days of pitching creative ideas before you’ve been signed up to a project. (Note: if this still happening for you and you want out, learn how to say no to spec work at NO!Spec). Your client may know they need a new website but as the agency you cannot know what that website needs to do, say or how it should look without understanding details about the business, its objectives, their customers and the marketplace. To get all these answers you really need a full discovery phase and to work content-first. This was the biggest motivator for me, but the benefits of content-first go don’t end there.

Going content-first allows you to:

  • Deliver a website with substance and style – Rather than content being plugged in to fit a design, when content leads design, your website won’t just look attractive but will have the substance to engage visitors and guide them in their user journey.
  • Design for user needs – Make your designers dreams come true when they can say goodbye to Lorem Ipsum and instead have real content to design with.
  • Develop based on facts – You can keep your developers happy too when they know how much and what format the website content will be in, reducing assumptions and ambiguity.
  • Save time and money – When your designers and developers have content upfront, this answers questions they previously would need to make educated guesses upon leading to less work needing to be changed when content arrives – saving time and money. Win, win.
  • Deliver stronger results – When content is up first on the agenda it forces you think about what you really need to say on a website to serve your user needs and elicit the actions you want to support your business goals.

Need more convincing? Read Liam King’s article on Designing Content-First for a Better UX to help get content onto the agenda as early as possible and get stakeholders on board.

Communicate what your content-first process will look like

The earlier the better when it comes to effectively communicating what your content-first project process will involve. Include a top-level summary at proposal stage to help set expectations and keep your project on track.

Decide and communicate:

  • What “content-first” means for your project – At what stage will content production begin? Will you be producing proto-content? Is there existing content to work with? What is your brief for the content? Will design dictate content at all?
  • Who is responsible for what – This sounds so obvious but all too often assumptions are made that cause big issues down the line when content is not delivered because one party thought the other was producing it. In order to budget and plan accurately, you need to know who is responsible for planning, producing, reviewing and approving content. This is likely to involve a variety of stakeholders.
  • What the schedule looks like – When you know what your content-first process will look like and who is responsible for each element, it’s time to develop and get agreement to your project plan. Tools like TeamGantt are really good for visually planning out a work schedule and highlighting responsibility and dependencies. It’s wise to make dependencies clear so that if X isn’t delivered by X date, all parties know that the remaining schedule needs to be adjusted. In an agency/client relationship there can be pressure to just squeeze and stick to your launch date but if you get everyone to sign off on your project schedule and responsibilities in the beginning then you’re far more likely to get what you need on time without having to burn the midnight oil.
  • What content tools you will use – Even the smallest of sites will involve some level of collaboration when it comes to content. So decide what tools will be best for your team to plan, produce and review content in. Provide training if needs be! Of course, I can’t not mention GatherContent at this point – we’re built for this exact case! In GatherContent you can create templates for content to be provided within, write content and supply assets with familiar authoring functionality and layer a custom workflow on top of this to communicate if content is for example in draft, ready for review or approved. I was a customer before I worked here, and I would never want to run another web project without it!
  • How progress will be reported – If you are using GatherContent then your project dashboard will show you at a snapshot what stage each of your content is in. Any project manager worth their salt will disseminate this information in regular and relevant website progress reports to the team, making sure everybody knows where the project is at and who needs to do what. Crack that whip!

This probably sounds like your project will be front-loaded with work but the payoff is worth it because by setting expectations from the beginning of your project, it will run smoother as a result. Energy levels are highest at the beginning of a project – work this to your advantage and get everybody on board with your process from the get-go. Believe me, it’s much harder to persuade somebody that quality content is critical when a deadline is looming.

Accept that some work will need to be redone

One of the major attractions of a content-first approach for agencies is that less work (be it the design or development) needs to be redone. Without a content-first approach, content typically arrives in a different size/format than expected meaning the design or development need to be adjusted.

In my experience it’s not realistic to believe that any project can truly receive all final content up-front. For instance, let’s say you plan to provide a thorough content brief alongside wireframes to help guide your client in providing content. When the client comes to writing the content they may well find that the user needs are different and then the wireframes will need to be reworked. That’s OK! The best laid plans are really just that – plans. Don’t feel too disappointed or that you’re breaking the content-first “rules” if content arrives and you need to re-work any stage of your project. You can be sure that by bringing content forward in the project you’re significantly reducing the margin for error by basing your design and development decisions on real content.

And if you ever need to feel better, just remember the pain of projects that weren’t content-first with Lorem Ipsum plastered all over your beautiful website!

I hope these simple rules help you deliver successful content-first website projects.

How to project manage a content-first website launch

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About the Author

Becky Taylor

Marketing Manager, GatherContent

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