The Content Workshop: A Collaborative First-step to Publishing Great Content

Great content is invisible. Allow me to explain. Great content does a lot of things: informs, solves, reflects, rallies, seduces, entertains, but what it never does is call attention to its own existence. It’s invisible. As consumers, we know when we’re not finding the right stuff. We also know when content is and isn’t helpful and we ignore the kind that feels sub-par or disingenuous.

It’s a big deal.

Over the last several months, our team has been analyzing our process for creating and editing great content with and for our clients. The analysis had a lot to do with understanding how we could make the process more collaborative, but was also helpful for solidifying what we as strategists, designers and developers think about content.

We hoped to answer two major questions:

  1. How do we communicate content’s importance to our clients?
  2. How do we empower them to create content that achieves their goals?

The answers to both of these were important because first, we believe that the best designs and user experiences are driven by great, goal-oriented, strategic content; and second, we feel that our clients have the knowledge and ability to actively join in the process of creating this type of content -given some guidance about writing for the web.

The answers led us to develop a process called a “Content Workshop,” a meeting that kicks off content development and helps our clients create, gather and organize their content to make the most powerful web experience possible. The workshop is discussed in more detail in just a bit. First, I need to share how we came to develop this in the first place (bear with me, it’s important).

How do we communicate content’s importance?

Challenge #1: Our team needs to take the lead

In order to guide the content process, the first challenge was to step back and discover what we believed about content, as a team. We know it’s important, sure. We have internal documents, proposals, and pitches that describe what we believe. We also have years of experience under our belts when it comes to preparing content for the web. But the internet has changed drastically -even in the last year. Given the global acceptance of responsive design, Google’s push for faster and faster mobile experiences, and the wealth of user studies that all talk about content. We needed to be on the same page.

To do this, we started by defining what exactly we mean by “content.” Here’s what we decided.

On a philosophical level, content is the substance of a web property. It’s what people search for, interact with and is what shapes the experience they will have with a brand. In practice, content takes several forms: text, graphics, photography, icons, and video.

The practical forms, as well as mashups and iterations, are the basis for content on the web. For example, Youtube focuses on Video and comments, Buzzfeed on all of the above, most websites (especially in the corporate space) rely on images and text. Regardless of how many forms, a web experience is created using these elements.

Challenge #2: Clients expect a design-first approach

The second challenge was to find the best way to communicate this importance to our clients. It’s not enough to say, “it’s important.” We all know that, but acting on it is another story. After all, we’ve become conditioned to expect visual aspects of a project to be one of the first deliverables.

And why not? The design-trumps-content thought is a prevalent one that begins and ends with traditional media. In a print magazine for example, you have an exact amount of space for each article, and writers spend a good amount of time tweaking their pieces to fit that space. In advertising, designers often go off a concept and the copywriter develops a headline with a specific number of words to match.

The web doesn’t work like traditional media, though. It’s unique because it allows you, especially at the concept stage of a custom web project, to craft something that moves a person directly from one stage in the engagement process to another.

A common misconception when it comes to the web is that the beauty of a custom-built site has everything to do with design, functionality, or the CMS for managing the site. All great things, but not the real benefit. The real beauty of a custom website is the ability to shape a person’s entire experience with a brand using strategy-driven messaging, design, UX and functionality that encourages them toward a desired response.

We found that to properly communicate this to our clients, we had to change a few things about the way we start our engagements. Maybe not so far as to completely adopt a content-first philosophy, but to the point where we’re properly demonstrating a web property’s reliance on great content. Our proposals, pitches, sales calls, and kick off meetings and first-steps needed to communicate these things. We analyzed the language we use and started making the appropriate changes.

How do we empower clients to create this great content?

Making a few changes to language is only one of the pieces, though. We can talk about content’s importance all day. It’s one thing to convince someone that content is important, but giving a clear roadmap for how content should be created is another thing altogether.

There are a few reasons for this.

  1. Creating it seems simple. Unlike a lot of the elements in a web property -design, front-end code, functionality, even SEO- content seems like a fairly simple matter that almost anyone can do. Everyone knows how to write, right? If new content needs to be created or photography needs to be gathered, that doesn’t require as much attention as design and functionality, right?
  2. It’s been created already. In the majority of cases, a brand or organization’s messaging and/or language already exists somewhere before they come to us. The copy was written and/or the photography shot, they were both reviewed and approved already, so moving it over to the new site seems like the easy answer for everyone.
  3. The creation process is vague. The process for creating, gathering and organizing content for the web is ambiguous at best, which gives everyone the feeling that “it shouldn’t take too long,” or just begs for procrastination (under the principle that clearly defined tasks and deadline get taken care of first).

These content “pitfalls” as we’ll call them hit a grey area in a project where no one person is at fault if it goes badly, but no one is responsible for its success, either. And this isn’t just on the client-side. As an agency, we have the same tendencies to look at content as something that the client will deliver by a deadline that will coincide with a simple entry and launch of the site. I’ll tell you from experience, though, that this rarely -if ever- works out for either party.

The Content Workshop

When it comes to empowering clients to create great content, collaboration can’t be overstated. It takes both the agency and the client to produce great content. The analysis of our process showed some flaws when it comes to content where we ask the client for a lot, but provide only a small amount of guidance.

A List Apart, a blog about design and development, introduces the content editor as a solution to this:

“If we introduce editorial skills into every project at the scoping stage, we can achieve better final products and avoid the typical and unnecessary delays around content delivery. Furthermore, because it’s understood that editors work with existing words, they can be an easier and more logical sell to clients who “don’t need a writer.” — A List Apart

This is exactly what we’re looking to solve with the creation of the content workshop. It’s not content development with a copywriter, but a collaborative workshop led by a content strategist or editor that guides the project-long content process.

Here’s how it works

The workshop is a single meeting that takes place early in the engagement. It assembles the content creators from the agency and client to map out the site and create high-level content “concepts” for each page. It answers questions like, “how should the site be structured to fit needs?” or “what need does this page satisfy?” or even, “what high-level functionality is required to make this content work?”

The way we see it, putting a content workshop early on in an engagement does three things:

  1. It jump starts a project-long collaboration between the client and our content team.
  2. It provides us with crucial information that informs IA (information architecture), UX and other site functionality.
  3. It provides clear expectations for the creation and delivery of content (whether it’ll be created in house by our team, or on the client’s end).

The output from all of this is a working site narrative and content concepts for each page of the site. The goal being that either the client or the in house content team can take the documents and have what they need to start crafting or gathering the content they’ll need.

A secondary, but important output is the information gleaned by the creative team and developers who will use it to build wireframes, content schematics, functionality requirements and begin designing a truly customized, and powerful site.

Final thoughts

Of course, the overall goal for building better processes around content is simple: to build a web property that solves business problems for our clients. That’s it. We find that the better we can make the experience for clients, the better the collaboration, the better the outcome.

Jared Rypkema is Station Four’s lead content strategist and copywriter.


Originally published at blog.stationfour.com