So who is actually going to do the work?

When faced by a problem with their site most website owners turn to a web designer for the solution. However, in many cases they should be looking closer to home.

After 16 years in web design you would think I have the solutions to most website problems. However, I cannot solve the biggest reason most websites fail.

Sure I can make a website more usable, accessible or visually appealing. With the help of Relly I can also establish a good policy for the production of content. By working with Dave, Craig and their team I can ensure the site can be easily updated and integrates tightly with other business processes.

However, the one thing I cannot do is ensure the website is adequately resourced and updated regularly. That falls to you the website owner.

Cartoon showing a web designer frustrated by lack of content

Next time you redesign your website don’t think it is enough just to employ a web design agency. You also need to consider your own responsibilities.

A relaunch requires new content

Ask any web designer and they will tell you that the single biggest point of weakness in any redesign project is late delivery of content. As a website owner it is easy to forget that although your web designer can create you a new website they cannot populate it with content.

Rewriting all of the content on your existing site is a major undertaking and without adequate resources it will simply not happen. What happens instead is that content is copied and pasted from your website, printed material or any other ad hoc source that can be found. This not only leads to a horrible Frankenstein mix of content, it also makes relaunching the website pointless.

Frankenstein monster website

Without new content essentially all you are doing is re-skinning the old site. This does nothing to reposition your organisation or provide any kind of tangible return on investment. Design in isolation is worthless. It needs to be accompanied by a review of the sites content.

Ask yourself who is going to be involved in writing the new content for your website? It is a big job and you’re going to probably need several people. Who are those people going to be and do they have time to do the job? Questions like this need answering before you undertake any significant rebuild of your website.

But these questions do not end once you have relaunched website. You also need to consider your ongoing content production requirements.

Ongoing editorial resource

Unless you are happy for your website to stagnate it is going to need somebody constantly updating the content. Do you have a clear idea of who is going to do this job?

Many organisations think that a content management system is the answer. However that is not the case. A content management system is not going to write the content for you! Although it does allow for the work load of ongoing content production to be spread across the organisation that does not mean people will embrace that additional work.

I think it is also important to be realistic about just how much people can take on. I often hear website owners say “so and so can be responsible for that section of the site” without considering whether they really have the time or the inclination to do the job. Do not take people’s participation for granted but instead ensure you have their buy in before listing them as a content provider.

Employee being overwhelmed by the boss

Unfortunately in many situations all a content management system will do is ensure that nobody feels fully responsible for the content production. Instead content production is tagged on to existing roles and responsibilities. This means it is often the bottom of people’s priority list, well below their “proper job”.

If you want people to take content updating seriously you need to ensure that it is written into their job description and expectations are set about their responsibility. It needs to be seen as just as important as other aspects of their role.

Editorial oversight

Another solution to this problem of who is responsible for the site’s content, is to appoint a website editor. Because this individual would be ultimately responsible for the content on the website they will take responsibility for chasing content providers and ensuring that they regularly update the site.

Another benefit of a website editor is that they can bring a single voice to the website. One of the problems of having multiple content providers is that it can lead to contradictory information and radically different writing styles. This can give any website a slightly schizophrenic feel. However having an editor who can issue style guidelines and check peoples work will help prevent this from happening.

The web team worries about the different writing styles of contributors

Of course the question is: “who is going to do this job?” This is a significant role and not something that can be easily tagged onto somebody’s job. It either needs to be a full-time position or taken on by a passionate individual who is given adequate time to work on the site. What is more this time should be ring fenced to ensure the website does not stagnate.

Can you honestly say you know who this person should be? If you do not then I would warn against biting off more than you can chew with a website that requires constant updating. Instead you are better creating a small, self-contained website that does the minimum required rather than having something larger than is obviously neglected.

Other solutions

The issue of creating and maintaining content is massively challenging and I would be interested to hear how others have solved this problem. Do you have a full-time web editor? How do you ensure your content providers actually take time to update the site? Does anybody have website content production as part of their job description? Let me know in the comments below.

  • Paul, I agree. 100%. We have made a big deal lately of pushing the Content angle on clients, telling them we are selling them a “Publishing Platform” first and foremost and repeating that they should focus on good content creation because – like it or not – they’re in the publishing business. It is why people come the their site.

    But for large companies, it tends to go in one ear and out the other. And like you describe, the creation and editing of the website is hoisted onto some poor soul without even a tweak to his job description.

    We have had some success – in the unlikeliest of places – a large drainage company relayed some highly entertaining anecdotes that we are currently turning into content. It really takes the right person in the organisation, because to an extent it is a matter of vision – and not all people have that.

  • An article about website content with not one mention of the word ‘copywriter’? I am bound to be biased, being a writer and all that, but, in my opinion, the best way to approach a relaunch or indeed a brand new website, is to crack the message first. Who knows, maybe even have a concept behind the site, or a constant theme running throughout it?

    OK, it’s not the end of the world when someone comes to me and says “I’ve had a site designed, can you write the content?”, but it is a bit of a fait accompli – i.e. the imagery is already in place, just leaving some blank templates to be filled in. In an ideal world I prefer the challenge of someone wanting me to come up with the copy BEFORE they let a designer decide on the imagery and colour scheme. It is surely easier for the designer too if they are matching images to words rather than just using imagery alone?

  • Esinkuma

    Great post Paul.
    Personally one of the FIRST questions I ask a client nowadays is who is going to update the content. This normally gets them into the frame of mind.

  • Ryan

    You hit the nail on the head Paul. My institution has been dealing with this issue more and more since our recent switch to a content management system. At first we had our Communications group work with each department as we rolled out their website within our new unified design, then, unfortunately, we ran out of time and did the good old copy-paste of content. Now I’m finding that our departments are choosing the wrong people to update their website (no web experience, no commitment, log in once every other month, etc.) and, with our recent budget issues, are hiring more student workers to “update their websites”.

    Since my institution’s web structure is split between IT and Communications, me being on the IT side, I am struggling to find that all important buy-in that everyone talks about. What do you do if you are unable to sell the importance of revamping content vs. slapping a fresh coat of paint on bloated, out-of-date content?

  • Charlieb

    This is spot on, but very often the only person in the organisation who understands the need for ongoing content creation is the editor or website manager – and they’re rarely in a position to make the changes to job descriptions and so on needed to turn people across the organisation into content providers.

    The upshot of having to manage a CMS in a large organisation is normally zero commitment from three quarters of participants and then a ludicrous overkill from the remainder, who have dreams of being writers or web designers or similar. Except they’re not. So they spew out pages and pages of information, come to you with new ‘designs’ for their pages (“I want the words to be in green! Because it’s about the environment!”)

    Effectively you’re right about clients being in the publishing business. All organisations are now publishers, but with little clue as to what that means.

    This is made worse because at home anyone can be a blogger/photo publisher and so on, so people assume the same goes for work. But the vast majority of blogs are read by no one because they’re rubbish. At work we should demand our website is essential reading (at least to its limited audience) so we shouldn’t be settling for hopeless writing and images.

    Feels marginally better to get that off my chest. Now off to badger people about content.

  • Nick

    Paul, this post couldn’t be more timely from my perspective. I am a partner in a recently formed small web design and digital strategy outfit. A key aspect of our approach is the importance we attach to site content (one of the other partners is a former advertising copywriter and daily broadsheet sub-editor).

    One of our first projects was due to be finished nearly two months ago, but because of the client’s failure to deliver the copy it is still to be completed, and the delay has now impacted our other projects. At the first proper stake-holder meeting I offered the client the opportunity for a content editor to work with their sales and marketing people to create new content. They declined due to the additional cost, and are now frustrated that their new site is not up and running. Consequently, we have decided that for all future projects we are including the involvement of a content editor/copywriter in the proposal and budget. The client will be able to choose between having our content guy guide their in-house teams in generating new content, or having him create the content on his own through research and interviews, but if they want us to do their site, that aspect will be an integral part of the process. Furthermore, we seek to maintain involvement with a company after the site has gone live through a support package which includes content management and marketing/PR strategy, along with the usual maintenance and tech support elements.

    We figure that, given our recent experiences, the risk of a client passing up working with us because of the additional content editor costs is no greater than the losses we incur through overrun (due to the client’s inability to provide content in a timely manner) preventing us taking on new work.

    A large part of our thinking resulted from hearing the frequent discussions on the issue of content on Boagworld – Paul, Relly and others all hammered home how important content is, and so before we even started out, it became a central plank of our methodology. Thanks for your insight and inspiration guys.

  • This rings so true. In many organisations it’s easier to rip a site down and start again than it is to provide the resources for creating and maintaining the content of the site. The result is frustration all round.

    Sometimes it’s helpful to encourage clients to at least target what resources they have at polishing up the words and pictures on the pages which will have the biggest effect.

    For example, on an ecommerce site, use Google Analytics’ Top Landing Pages Report, filter it to show just the category pages and then switch to the comparison or the performance views. Then look for the ones which have both a decent number of entrances and worse-than-normal bounce rates. Give those some love, even if you can’t take care of the lot.

    And don’t forget to note the original figures as a benchmark to see if your work produces an improvement.

    That aspect is key: the people doing the work and the people allocating resources need to learn that these efforts make a difference. I’d be surprised if they didn’t learn that content is still king. It’s costly and it involves internal effort, but it still rules.

  • Len

    Website Owner?

  • Love, love, love this article!

    As a web designer I always find myself writing content for clients. It is the motherly instinct and helicopter parent in me that does not want any project to fail. I end up Googling competitors, reviewing old pages, and simply filling in gaps of concepts that the client missed or just didn’t care about. Frustrating is beyond words.

    Content does not magically appear. It is like birthing a baby and raising a child. It is a painful process that takes time and a whole lot of nurturing and attention.

  • What happens instead is that content is copied and pasted from your website,
    printed material or any other ad hoc source that can be found.

    This is so accurate it’s scary. That, EXACTLY as you described it there happened to me with a client.

    I have 10 years of experience in this field (before this I was doing graphic design), so I did tell the client from day 1 “make sure you take care of the content because THAT is ALWAYS the issue”.

    The hardest thing to me has always been to get trust from the clients. It takes a while. By the time I got that the job is finished and I move on to another client.

  • Lime

    I almost have the opposite problem to this. I’m a full time web editor for a public sector organisation. I have a stack of work to do in order to get our website up to scratch. Yet the marketing team are constantly getting to me to do non-web related stuff because ‘Oh, well you can write better than I can’. I write letters, emails, posters, leaflets and booklets – sometimes even have managers dictating things to me that they need to write for their managers.
    I guess it amounts to the same thing though – people are quick to complain about the website underperforming but they don’t understand the importance of giving someone the time and space to work on the content.

    • Wouter
      • Try to have it added to your job description
      • Prioritize web content over other content. Plan your time and show your planning when ‘that time’ comes again
      • Propose to have someone else (internal or external) do the non-web writing
      • Explain that writing for the web is very different than writing for print (this is why there are so many books)
      • Try to get more backing (my own mistake when I first started). If possible, explain to your superior and use him as a filter (after all, it’s one of the reasons he holds that position)
      • Prove your worth: use web statistics, surveys, usability testing to show that your web work paid off. If possible, add ROI estimate (for the managers)
  • In the medium sized business I work for, we have an internal communications coordinator who is still studying creative writing, but who had never written specifically for the web before.

    With the help of a few pointers about website content writing such as: understanding that visitors don’t have time to mess about and read pages of content on the website, simplifying your sentences, making it easy to understand, less corporate-like and more personality (which works for our branding) and with a few helpful articles about web content writing, she is now very good at writing for our website.

    I would also recommended reading a book on copy writing as well since most websites need to sell services or products.

    • Wouter

      I recommend ‘Letting Go of The Words’, by Janice Redish

  • I love this. There is so much truth behind these pictures and words. Although I’d probably get shot if I sent this along to someone that I work for currently, it definitely presents lots of valid points.

  • Great post thanks. As marketing coordinator the content for our website falls to me. We find that unless it is actually part of someone’s job description the work doesn’t get done. But you have to have buy-in from the rest of the business as content doesn’t materialise out of thin air and making it part of their job description as well really helps.

  • Paul,

    “You’re preaching to the choir” on this point and I couldn’t agree more. In the past I’ve worked with smaller sites and content was always an issue. Recently I’ve been working to optimize much larger e-commerce sites and the challenge has become even greater; we need to pull out all the stops to first sell the value of adding content and then to guide the creation of unique material that users will find valuable.