Busting Through the Content Bottleneck: WordCamp Portland, Maine 2017

Content is a huge bottleneck for freelancers and agencies. (How many sites have you seen get delayed because of content loading?) I’ve felt the pinch on projects big and small, both in-house and with client work. But I’ve also learned a few tricks for getting around it.

In this session we’re going to look at four approaches for dealing with the content problem: Making it an up-front dependency; treating content development as an early project phase; working on content in tandem with a website build; and making content development a standalone value-added service. We’ll also review a handful of different tools and resources that make content less of a pain to work with.


Content is king.

“Content is king.” Have you heard that line? Probably. It’s been parroted for years. It speaks to how information is the most important aspect of a website. The text, the images, the video… this is the meat of a website. It’s what people are looking for.

The thing is, content is hard work. It takes time to produce. And as competition increases, the quality of the content needs to increase as well.

How long does it take to create content? HubSpot ran a survey a couple years ago. Marketers were spending an average of 1-2 hours on a 500-word blog post. The folks at Buffer take an average of 2-3 hours to write a ~2000 word post. (And that’s just blogging – video production takes much longer!)

That’s why content creation is an industry on its own. Media companies like BuzzFeed, The Onion, and the New York Times have studios that work with big brands to create original content.

On a smaller scale, services like Contently, Upwork, and 99 Designs pair content creators (writers, designers, artists) with businesses that need their help.

Content is king… but we don’t care about the monarchy.

In my experience, working in-house or as a freelancer or as part of an agency, content was seen as something that the client would provide. “Content loading” was a step in every project where the client would (theoretically) have everything ready to drop into place.

For us, as the web professionals, content was an afterthought. It was a chore. It was like taking out the garbage. We knew it needed to get done. But we’d rather not deal with it until we absolutely had to. And we didn’t think about it all that much.

It’s like we shut off the part of our brain that knew content was an important, hard-to-do task. We’d just leave it to the client to deal with. And there are three scenarios that played out from that.

The first scenario is that the client had absolutely no content to work with. They were a blank slate. And we had just dropped this big homework assignment on them to go and create content. But they didn’t know where to start.

And then the project would get delayed because we’re waiting on them to provide content.

The second scenario is that the client had some existing content. Maybe it’s from sales or marketing collateral – brochures, emails, flyers, sell sheets, whitepapers, and so on. So then we’re asking them to take that information, that existing collateral, and flip it so that we can use it on the website.

And then the project gets delayed because we’re waiting on content.

The third scenario is that the client has an existing website. And so we’d ask them to just take the content from that existing site and flip it over to the shiny new site.

And then the project gets delayed because we’re waiting on content.

We need to do more.

Small clients, clients who aren’t web-savvy, clients who don’t see the website as a top priority, and clients who don’t have the resources to focus on the website…? They’ll always be a reality. We’ll always have to deal with them.

You may be an agency team. You may be an independent freelancer working on contract. You may be an in-house specialist hired to look after the site. In any case, you’ve been hired as a web professional to guide these people through the process.

So if you’re making content a line item that they’re responsible for, and you aren’t providing the guidance and support they need? You will always be waiting on them. You will always be delayed. You will always have a bottleneck.

So how do we fix this?

Content as an up-front dependency.

The first approach makes content a prerequisite before the project even begins. The idea is to have all the content ready to go, and the rest of the project will follow.

If you’re taking this approach as an agency or as a freelancer, you can think of this as part of the qualification step in your sales process. Qualified leads need to have content already; if they don’t have content, they’re not qualified.

Now, the amount of content they need to have ready is up to you. For example, you could ask for a list of pages, or a sitemap, or a general outline as part of an automated onboarding process (e.g. in a “Request a Quote” form on your site).

Or, if the client doesn’t know what content they need, you could also provide a set of free worksheets with standard pages based on their type of business, ask them to fill it out, and come back once the content is ready.

Tip: Instead of a worksheet, you could build this as a free tool on your site using a form plugin like Caldera Forms, Ninja Forms, Gravity Forms, WP Forms, etc.

With this approach, you’re making content a priority from the beginning. The information you gather at this stage can then be used to inform the design and development decisions you make later on.

You’re adding an extra qualification step so you’re not wasting time with potential clients that aren’t serious about the project. And you’re also able to automate this step and turn it into a lead generation tactic, e.g. by gating the worksheets behind an email capture form.

Content as an early project phase.

This approach moves content up to become part of the project. In this situation you’re working with your client (or colleagues) to develop the content. While they handle actual production — writing, sourcing images, creating video — you’re providing recommendations and guidance along the way.

Go through all of the important website pages — the Home page, the About page, Products, Services, Case Studies, FAQs, and so on — while looking for opportunities to create new content.

Tip: Use a project management tool like Trello to keep track of the content that needs to be created. Each piece of content is a new task (Trello card). Your job is to make sure the content is produced. The client’s job is to produce the content.

An important aspect of this approach is to ask a lot of questions. While the primary objective is to get the content created, a secondary objective is to learn as much as you can about the client or business. You’ll have a more thorough understanding of what the website needs to achieve, and you can use that knowledge to inform how you approach the rest of the site build.

Working on content in tandem with the site build.

This approach puts content development on a parallel path with site design and development. In my experience, this was the most common approach because it took less time.

If you’re using WordPress, this approach is also convenient because it’s so easy to create and delete pages on the fly.

The challenge, though, is that this approach needs at least two parties to work. One party — your client, yourself, your agency, or a team — works on content creation. Meanwhile, the second team works on design and development.

If you’re relying on your client to handle the content, and you want them to load the content directly into WordPress, they’ll need to be comfortable with that. And you’ll need to be comfortable with it as well.

To make yourself comfortable, ensure that those users only have the level of access necessary for the work they need to do. Don’t give them full-on administrative access if there’s a risk of them breaking something while you’re building the site. The number of options, as an Administrator-level user, can also be overwhelming for novices. You want them focused on getting the content in.

Tip: Create a separate administrator account for your client; it’s their site, and they should have admin access if they need it. If necessary, use Justin Tadlock’s Members plugin to create a custom role with specific capabilities.

To increase their comfort level, you’ll need to provide up-front training, which may seem like additional time that you don’t have, but it’s actually a good thing.

In the same way that content is often treated as a line-item deliverable, user training is often tacked on at the end of a project. This can leave the client feeling overwhelmed with something new to learn, make them anxious because the site is live/about to go live, and concerned that you’re wrapping up the project and moving on to something else.

So, in a sense, working on content in tandem with design & development is a handy way of training users while also making progress on the project. You’re pulling these users into the experience of building the site, rather than just creating something for them and handing it over at the end.

Tip: Extend this approach to your project management tools as well. Pull them into the process. Assign tasks. Get them involved at a deeper level so they can see exactly what’s going on.

Making content development a standalone service.

The three approaches I’ve covered so far are all dependent on the client being responsible for creating content. They put you in a position of facilitator; at most, you’re laying out a sitemap or a list of required content.

This fourth approach puts you, your team, or your agency at the center of everything. In this scenario, you create the content. Your clients or colleagues become responsible for reviewing and approving the content, and informing the content development.

One nice thing about this approach is that content creation can take place whenever you feel it’s appropriate. You could make it a standalone project before the website build; the early phase of the build; or, if you have the resources, in tandem with the build.

If you’re working in-house, this approach opens up new project opportunities. Once the site is built, for example, you can start tackling content marketing activities.

If you’re working freelance or in an agency, this approach adds a new service offering to your repertoire, one that could even be offered standalone or as part of an ongoing website maintenance plan.

Tip: Start with writing text and sourcing images. That’s the lowest barrier to entry and is needed across the board. Photography, video, and illustration are endeavours on their own. Unless you’re serious about getting into those areas as a core competency, I recommend outsourcing or partnering up instead.

Let’s get rid of the “content loading” bottleneck.

We know that content is important. But, when it comes to building websites, too often content gets treated as a line-item deliverable from our clients.

That’s a problem. Content is hard. And the majority of businesses and clients that we work with won’t have content creation as a core competency. So when we give them the big homework assignment of providing content, we inevitably end up with delays.

So let’s get rid of the bottleneck. We’ve looked at four approaches here: Making content a requirement before we take on the project; treating content development as an early project phase; working on content in tandem with the website build; and making content creation a specialized, standalone service.

In each case we’re removing content as a blocking dependency that exists in the middle of the project and, in turn, removing the bottleneck.

Tools & Resources

Managing & Editing Content

That’s entirely up to you. I’m a fan of Google Docs. In previous roles we’ve worked extensively with Word docs that had Track Changes enabled. I’ve had my eye on Gather Content and Contently for a while, but haven’t had a chance to use either tools. I also know some people who manage everything directly through their CMS.

Sitemapping

Xmind is my personal favourite for visualizations, though I know some who swear by spreadsheets (e.g. Google Sheets or Excel). The specific pages and content types you need will depend on the site, but generally speaking, I think these are good starting points:

eCommerce / Product Sites

  • Home
  • Products
  • Gallery
  • FAQs
  • Blog (“Posts” page in WordPress settings)
  • About
  • Contact

Service Sites

  • Home
  • Services
  • Testimonials
  • About (i.e. “Meet The Team”, “Company History”)
  • FAQs
  • Contact

Finding Talent: Writers, Designers, Content Creators

In addition to being a tool for managing your content workflow, Contently has a network of talented content crafters that you can tap into. Check out 99 Designs or Crew for finding designers and illustrators. For everything else, look at CloudPeeps or Upwork.

Dealing with Images

If you’re working on an eCommerce or product-oriented site, product photography will be important. Work with a local photographer. If your client isn’t local, try finding a photographer in their area and coordinating a shoot.

If you’re working on a services-oriented site, professional photography of the team are a great asset. It shows potential customers who they’ll be working with. (Please, please don’t use stock photos!)

Professional illustrations can also come in handy for adding a distinct style or personality to the site.

If you can’t find a photographer or illustrator to work with, put aside some budget for sourcing high-quality stock images.

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Erik Spiekermann: “Work is gas.”

Work is gas. Work will fill any given volume. If you give me two hours, I will take two hours. If you give me 10 minutes, I will take 10 minutes. So if you give somebody two weeks to do a project, he’s going to start on day 12 and it will take him two days, but the two weeks will be filled because work expands like gas. Straightforward physics.

Source: Erik Spiekermann: No Free Pitches – 99U

Missing GeoCities

Basically, I miss Geocities. I miss the feeling of any given webpage being a moment in time, a familiar blaze on an unfamiliar trail, a place where URL hacking was a shortcut and not state manipulation. I want apps to look like I’ve been there, not like the Ghost of Material Design has. I want the web to look like my living space, which is neither clean nor limited to a six-color palette. The one-page webapps that neatly shunt us into text areas do so beautifully, but all the content we can ever create won’t break the surface of their style guide. They tell us to make more things that look like this and act like this. There’s comfort in consistency, sure—but that horizon in the distance is only a landscape, painted on a sheet.

Source: Bless This Mess

Props to Kevin Barrett from Postlight for the pang of nostalgia.

We’ve got all this hype around authenticity and individuality and being creative. Meanwhile we’re rearranging grey boxes on our screens and calling it cutting-edge design.

Fearless Girl

I love the little statue of the girl in the Peter Pan pose. And I resent that she’s a marketing tool. I love that she actually IS inspiring to young women and girls. And I resent that she’s a fraud. I love that she exists. And I resent the reasons she was created.

Source: seriously, the guy has a point | gregfallis.com

I wasn’t aware of the marketing aspect to Fearless Girl until I read this article. And I wonder how many others are just as unaware as I was.

On a hamster wheel of working more to work more.

Unless all this productivity is making us all exponentially happier or more fulfilled, it just feels like we’re working our asses off to work our asses off more. Without some bigger purpose or grander goal, like getting work done faster to spend more time not working, it feels like a hamster wheel of working more to work more to spend more so we need to work more.

Source: What’s the point of productivity?