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Making my life easier with content strategy

Last week I was lucky enough to spend a day in London learning about content strategy and design with Sarah Richards of the Content Design Centre. In this post I’ll be talking about some of the key principles of both practices and hope to convince you of the value of taking a fresh look at your online content to see if it’s serving the needs of your users as well as it might be.

Sarah Richards

I first came across Sarah at the Agile Content Conference in February, where she presented on how to use user stories as part of your content creation process. You can read more about this conference in my earlier blog post about it:

Getting agile with content creation at the Agile Content conference

As the first Head of Content with the Government Digital Service, Sarah, who now owns the Content Design Centre, has a wealth of knowledge and experience to share on the challenges of not only implementing content design and strategy principles in the context of digital transformation within a government setting, but also as part of a team setting the agenda in this field. So, in terms of a learning and development opportunity that was focused on the needs of my role, I leapt at the chance.

Content Design Centre

Managing your website – no, really managing it…

My role focuses on helping our customers around the University make the most of their online content, ensuring it’s focused, measurable and meets user needs. Sounds straightforward enough, but tricky to achieve when the website exists in a bubble where there’s no agreement on what it’s there to do and nobody taking care of it.

Sadly this is too often the case, but by taking a step back from your site and taking the time to apply a strategic approach to how it supports your School or unit’s business objectives, you’ll find the waters clear and you’ll hopefully end up with a decluttered and therefore easier to manage site that delivers a better return against the time and energy you devote to it.

I’m not going to cover everything we talked about in this blog post – you’d need to attend one of Sarah’s courses yourself for that – but I am going to highlight here a few of the key points that resonated with me when thinking about how we work with Schools and units around the University to create and improve web content.

Aligned to your business objectives

Your website doesn’t exist in isolation. It’s an extension of your business and as such, it needs to work hard to deliver whatever it is you want it to do. What you want it to do, should be closely aligned to your business objectives and the needs of your users. Too often we still work with clients around the University who come to us having seen a shiny competitor’s or other website that they like the look of and decide that’s what’s needed – without knowing why or what it will achieve for them or for their users.

Understanding what your business goals are, what you want to tell your people about yourself and how you want them to perceive your organisation, as well us knowing (really knowing, not guessing) what your users want to know about you and achieve when engaging with you, is the fundamental first step in successful content strategy. We spend a lot of time trying to get this message across in this blog, the Web Publishers Community sessions and when we are working individually with teams around the University, but it bears saying again, and again…

“When we practice content strategy, we ensure that our web content is treated as a valuable business asset, not an afterthought.

Kristina Halvorson, Content Strategy for the Web

Refine with clarity

Content strategy combines content elements with process and people, to achieve a cohesive whole, where web content, structure, governance and workflow hangs together around your core strategy. In the model Sarah talked about, the core strategy is a concise, agreed, statement of purpose, which we should return to frequently and which provides a useful framework in which content that doesn’t match up with the core strategy can be rejected. How often do we allow content to get on to our sites because an un-evidenced need or stakeholder view has gone unchallenged – ‘Why?’ is a great answer to that one!

Know what you own

Before we can improve our websites we need to know what is in them. Content inventory and audits are a tool that every website manager has at their disposal and one that should be part of every content strategy. A content inventory will literally list every page or piece of content within a website while a content audit will help you to assess the quality and success of that content in meeting its purpose.

In our recent work with the Student Experience Services Communications (SES Comms) project, we used Google Analytics to produce top content reports for all the 11 service areas involved. While not strictly content inventories, what these reports provide is a quick way for service staff to see a list of all pages in their site, that with a quick bit of manipulation in Excel shows the distribution of traffic across these pages, producing a ‘long neck’ of popular pages within the site.

As we know, the long neck, long tail process is especially relevant to websites and can be applied equally to pages, search terms, top tasks etc and so on – find out more about this simple and useful process and how it can help you to focus your website management activity in Neil’s blog post on the subject below.

Optimising what’s important – Get to know your long neck

In the SES Comms project these reports provided an insight into what pages within the site were receiving the most or any interest from the majority of users. This can be quite revealing and sometimes a bit of a shock for site owners when, for example they discover that in a 200 page site, the top 7 pages account for over 50% of traffic, while the bottom 166 pages in the same site received only 10%. Getting this insight gives us the opportunity to both address redundant content and reduce our content management overhead, while identifying whether there is key content languishing away undiscovered that needs to be addressed to become more visible.

User needs drive content requirements

Using user needs to drive your content is another fundamental to successful content strategy. This was something Sarah and I discussed at the training and is already a consistent component of how we approach working with colleagues around the University on site build projects. It has been a key element in our work on the SES Comms project where we did extensive user research via a top task survey and user story workshop, to focus and prioritise new and updated content for the Personal Tutor and Student Support Teams website. You can read about how we approached this with student support staff in my post below:

Straight from the horse’s mouth – focusing student support web content

As a result we’ve created new content relating to mental health support and specific academic procedures for students that we are confident supports the needs of the staff using it, and hope that this focus on user needs will become a consistent feature in the future management of the site.

personal tutors website homepage screengrab

The new Personal Tutors and Student Support Team homepage with panels prioritised according to top user topics.

Get started

If you’re feeling inspired to take a fresh look at your website or alternatively, you’re looking for some help with the key things to bear in mind if you’ve been saddled with managing one, there’s lots of help and resources available around the University to help you get started:

  • Read Neil’s post on his Web Publishers Community session from December about where to start and how we can help:

How to get a grip of your website (and then keep hold)

  • Join the Web Publishers’ Community mailing list and monthly sessions to stay in touch with new ideas and developments and share experiences with fellow web publishers around the University.

Web Publishers’ Community

  • If you’re looking for something to read to help you with your content strategy, Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web is a clear and simple to follow handbook.

Content Strategy for the Web

  • If you need a bit more help or with your plans or updates, contact us to discuss what you need:

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