Are your projects really content first?

4 minute read

You don't need to hire a dedicated content strategist to be a "content-first" digital agency, you don’t even need to be the ones writing or producing the content for the sites you’re designing.Some simple, common-sense thinking and techniques from your team will make web content planning easier and push content to the heart of your work.This simple checklist will give you a benchmark to gauge how content-first you are:

1. Are you asking your clients about content from the start?

It's sort of obvious, but being content-first means talking about content, first. The earlier you do, the earlier you can start to make smarter strategic and design decisions.

Asking your next client this one simple question at the start of your engagement should set a content-focussed tone for the entire website project: "How many people will be resourced to regularly update the content on your new site?"

They may confidently tell you: "Well we have ongoing funding for a dedicated digital comms team of five people."

Great, you know you have the freedom to design a site with higher content maintenance demands.

But they may pull a troubled face and answer: "To be honest we don't really have any funding beyond this project to pay for someone to make updates."

OK, so now you are going to need to reign things in and probably set your client’s expectations about what they actually need. Perhaps a whole new website is not that answer!

2. Are you auditing (and learning from) your clients’ existing content?

You ain't content-first if you don't bother to find out what content is already there.

I've just finished a 30+ hour content audit on behalf of an agency. It was boring. It dragged on. Strong coffee was definitely needed...But the client and agency project team now have 40+ insights and recommendations to help them make smarter and better informed decisions about a whole range of areas, inc. content migration and production, content modelling, CMS requirements, navigation patterns, functional requirements, style guide inclusions, bigger strategic objectives, ongoing content governance, the list goes on…The afterglow of that content audit and analysis will be felt throughout the entire project.

Don't skip this step. Take the budget out of the design and build phase if you have to. It is a false economy if you don’t because new site always benefits from that learning experience.

3. Are you designing around real content?

The reign of Lorem Ipsum is over in content-first agencies.You don't need to wait for content to be signed off before uniting it with the interface design to (inevitably) discover it doesn't quite work.

Learn valuable lessons early in a website project by substituting in existing site content, competitor content, mocked up content, or pre-signed off project content into your wireframes, mockups and prototypes.In a previous post about designing content first for a better UX, I explored how UX designers can work with imperfect “proto” content during the design process to make smarter, content-led design decisions.

4. Are you helping clients to plan their content production work?

Late and poor quality content is the frequent cause of website project delays.The temptation for agencies not engaged to write or produce the content for a new site is to just let the client get on with it. You have enough to worry about just building the damn thing right?

But most in-house clients don't run website projects for a living and surprise, surprise, they get caught out. They underestimate the effort, over reach, lose focus, get nervous, rush, panic, throw their hands up, push back launch, the project starts to churn, your margins start to suffer, you can’t send your final invoice.

So be proactive and help your clients to start web content planning nice and early. If the content is ready on time, the site can launch without delays, users enjoy good quality content, the client is happy, and you get paid on time! Everyone wins.You should read our guide on Content Production Planning for Agencies, you’ll learn how to design a web content planning process for your next project.

5. Are you designing sustainable sites for your clients?

How healthy are your clients’ sites 6, 12 ,18 months after you launch them? Check on a few now.

Are all the content types you included being well used? Has that elaborate events calendar interface they asked for got many events in it? Has the blog you encouraged them to adopt got many recent posts?

In the heat of a web project, features are often discussed (and prioritised) in terms of effort to design and build, rather than effort to update and maintain beyond launch.

The result is over ambitious (and expensive) sites that feel empty and poorly maintained, potentially damaging the user experience and affecting the goals of the site.

A true content-first agency constantly asks that inconvenient, kill-joy question: "Will they [our client] really be able to sustain the content for this feature / content type / interface?"If that client who insisted on a fancy events calendar was hardly producing any events before the project, is a shiny new events calendar really going to mean events flood forth?

Push your client for assurances. And explain the implications of an empty looking site.

Content first is nothing special - it is just common sense

I think it is a safe argument to say that websites are primarily a vehicle for the delivery and effective communication of content. And for my money, going content-first and putting the time into web content planning is simply a common sense approach to achieving that objective.

After all, it’s hardly a new concept - print has always been a content-first medium.If designers, developers, producers, UX architects and Co. can let a little voice in their heads keep saying: “Hang on, let’s think about this from a content perspective for a second”, then we can design sites that effectively communicate their content at launch and well beyond.

About the author

Liam King

Liam is Founder of Lagom Strategy, a UK consultancy specialising in digital user research and sustainable content strategy.

With over a decade of content production and strategy experience in the UK and Australia, Liam has built up a wealth of practical knowledge on how to put content back at the heart of web projects.

He has led content strategy work for many organisations including the Royal Air Force, UK Department of Health, the Australian Royal Flying Doctor Service and Vodafone Australia.

Liam was previously Senior UX Architect / Content Strategist with Sydney agency, Digital Eskimo, where he introduced and led the agency’s successful content strategy services. Before heading to Australia in 2009, Liam was a Web Producer at the UK Parliament and the Senior Web Editor at the UK Foreign Office.

Liam also has a Masters degree in Web Journalism.

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