Photo from Shutterstock : Sharron Day

The great content divide

Making the definition of “content” whole again.

At the heart of everything we do online these days is the story. The stories we tell, the stories we share, the stories we hope will carry our message to our audiences. We all love a good story. Increasingly, we are readily sharing those that we value with the tap of a thumb.

I have been giving a lot of thought lately to the content on the websites I build for clients, or rather, the lack of that content. All too often we are waiting late into the 11th hour of the process for Cinderella to show up so we can get the ball started and launch a website.

The real problem, I think, stems from how we have been defining “content”. We think about it as simply a noun. It is just the subject matter, the words or the images. It’s far more than that. If you don’t believe me, check a dictionary. It’s a verb,and an adjective too.

Content is more than subject matter and ideas. It also means fulfilled, satisfied, and captivated.

Over my career I’ve worked with hundreds of clients, big and small with varying requirements from the simple to the overly complicated enterprise solution. What I’ve learned from all that experience comes down to this:

Your website (or social media) will have no value to anyone that matters if you don’t have meaningful and appropriate content. It must fulfil a user’s reason for being there in the first place.

[Spoiler alert: things that are important to your client’s organization are NOT necessarily relevant or meaningful to their actual target audience and also, crappy product images will make your site look unprofessional]

I can hear you saying, “duh!” This is so obvious right? Wrong. In fact, all the hub-bub of social media has made it more painfully obvious that we have not been paying content the attention it deserves. We’ve been thinking about content in terms of only one definition of the word. We have neglected to view the totality of what content can mean.

Digital strategies now include whole sections on social media engagement. Some clients are even forgoing the traditional website in favour of pages on Facebook or Twitter feeds. If people were putting their content first, if we were getting this right, @garyvee wouldn’t need to write posts describing social media like marriages that need work.

Okay, so you’re with me, right? You’re reading Medium… You’ve already drank the Kool-Aid, chosen the red pill, now what? All you have to do is make sure you don’t put the cart before the horse… or in other words:

Never build a site architecture without getting a look at the real final (or close to it) content. Including all copy and images to be supplied by the client.
Never comp out a UX without already knowing what that user is going to get at the end of those clicks.
If you are lucky enough to be in charge of writing all of the content on behalf of your client, write it FIRST. I mean 95 % of the final pages to a final draft with client input and revisions.

That is tough medicine. THAT is an even tougher sell. Clients want to see how it will look, they want to be wooed by the pretty, shiny pictures before they even sign off on an estimate. And we, of course, want our clients to feel excited about their project. But here’s the rub:

You cannot possibly build a great online presence for yourself or anyone else if you don’t have a realistic picture of what building materials you have to begin with.

Think of it like planning to build a log cabin, and then trying to build that same structure out of bricks (or worse, toothpicks). Sure, you’d have something built, but it wouldn’t be a sound structure, or an appealing one. The fundamentals of building with those two materials are clearly distinct, and more obviously, not interchangeable. The tools, the approach, the resources you need to be successful all hinge on knowing what the building materials are, up front, not at the end.

One of the beautiful things about web 2.0 has always been embracing the separation of content and form. It means we can separate the words and images from the layout of the site and work on those items independently. It means we can be device agnostic and all kinds of other wonderful things. But separation of these things should only exist in the coding. Working independently on them is only good practice if the form and function are ultimately compatible. And one without the other, well that is not going to be useful for anyone.

If you have unlimited time, or budget, then a design-build approach could, hypothetically, work. But when is the last time any of us had either of those? In a world that is demanding of high value for dollar, doesn't it make sense to start with the words and pictures that will be our story online as the base collateral for all decision making and planning of our digital presences? Aren't those of us who “get it” obligated to educate our clients and help them SUCCEED with a web presence that not only looks good, but has high value, high payoff content that will be loved and shared by their customers?

We’re moving into an entirely new digital era. It is mobile, it is social, it is sharing. It is not your Gen Xer’s html site anymore folks. Heck, it’s not even a Gen Y’s video blog!

It is compelling content and stories that are at the heart of this renaissance. They are the driver of those posts of words, pictures, and videos, which have become the true focus of our digital interactions.

My plea is simple. Stop thinking of “content” as a chore you have to finish before a website can launch. Stop letting your clients put it on a list of “things to do when someone has time” or worse, lulling them with a false sense that content not as important as the branding or the comps.

You need to teach them why it cannot not just be the repurposed copy and stock images you dump on-line at the end of a web build any more. Well, it can, if you want to live in the past or have a website that no one ever looks at (except staff).

Instead, I suggest you bridge the divide. Climb the mountain and check out the view from the top, where these definitions of content meet. It will be hard work, but the results will be worth it.

Oh yah, and drag others with you, kicking and screaming if necessary.

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