Content First FTW

Robert Mills

Today I gave a little talk at an event called Port80 LocalHost, a free event organised by Joel Hughes of Port80 fame. There was an impressive bunch of attendees and I spoke about content first, what it is, why it is a good thing and how we have introduced it to our project process at Bluegg.

This post was scheduled to go live as my talk ended, clever that innit (if it worked).

He’s a summary of the talk and some additional resources and further reading …

Me, my content and I

I’m a journalism graduate so I’m familiar with words, and therefore, content. What the story is, who it is targeted at and how best to reach them. I then worked in data analysis for local government (yawn) but here I worked with a large amount of content and had to disseminate to various teams and stakeholders. Then I worked at BBC Wales in an audience research role, again, heavily focused on content and targeting it effectively at certain audiences groups and segments. This lead me nicely to Mark Boulton Design which was the start of my career in the web and working with online content.

More recently, I have been writing web copy for clients at Bluegg, editing existing content, writing about tone of voice and managing projects where we have introduced a content first approach.

Hasn’t content always been first?

In short, no. Common practice has been to design web pages using placeholder text such as lorum ipsum. This sort of worked but when you have the content first you realise how daft an approach lorum ipsum was. Not least because:

  • designs needed to change to accommodate the content
  • content was shoe-horned into existing design
  • projects stalled at the very end when everything is completed and you were awaiting the content

This wasn’t true of all projects of course as some used existing content but it is an approach that is being banded around more commonly at the moment as the buzz still exists around content and content strategy as a whole. At Bluegg our focus on content has changed accordingly and that meant our project process needed to evolve too in order for us to adopt a content first approach.

Changing and Communicating

There’s no manual for content first. The clue is in the title, you get the content (first) and then you design. At Bluegg most of our process stayed the same such as the initial research and discovery phase and the final post-build testing and launch phase. The changes happened in between these goal posts. Here’s an (extreme) example based on a project where there was no existing content.

Previously we would scope the project, go through the research and discovery, confirm the budget and schedule and then produce visuals. These would then go to the client for feedback and we would refine as needed. Once all visuals were agreed we would build the site. Then we would wait for content. We would wait a bit more. Then a little longer.

Weeks would pass and in some extreme cases, months. The project was at a standstill despite our best efforts to keep momentum and coax the content out of the client. Eventually we would get it but then it didn’t ‘fit’ the design. Some pages had too much text, others not enough. We had to wait for amended content. We waited again. Eventually we had it, added it to the site, tested and launched.

With the content first approach we still have that research and discovery phase, agree budgets, scopes and timelines. Then the client has to provide final copy in line with the signed off project scope and sitemap. When you first tell them this it is a daunting prospect but so far experience has shown us that clients prefer this method. This is because they really have to think about what they want to say and who they are saying it to.

It makes them audit any existing content and only include content that has a purpose. But it takes a bit of work to get clients to this stage.

Selling the concept

I think we’ve been lucky at Bluegg as clients have really taken to this approach with open arms and minds. At first when you say the words ‘we won’t start any design work until we have all the content’ they tend to panic. We then explain the advantages of this approach and they get it because simply, it makes sense. We also reassure them that we are on hand as needed and communication needn’t stop between now and them delivering content.

When the client is then getting the content together they appreciate even further the advantages to this project process so have an honest chat with them about why it is better for all involved to have content first. A key to getting them on board is to reiterate that the design may not start immediately but the rest of the project that follows will be smooth because launch dates won’t be affected by designers waiting on content.

An exemplary example

One client recently proved how perfect this process can be. She went away for a couple of weeks and came back to us with a folder called Solas Website Content. In here were folders for all the top level nav pages and in those folders were folders for the sub pages for that section. All the content was included in each folder and presented exactly as per the agreed sitemap. This made it easy for us to add the content as needed, which was an agreement of the project scope.

Other methods have been via Google Docs or other online tools exist such as Gather Content where it is slightly more collaborative.

No project is the same of course and some clients won’t feel comfortable with this approach but we state that it is how we work during the initial discussions and by explaining the advantages clients get on board and see for themselves that it is content first for the win.

Resources and Further Reading

There is so much information available about this topic but here are some of my favourite content related articles and tools:


Books:

There are a fair few, here are my two faves

Content Strategy for the Web – Kristina Halvorson

The Elements of Content Strategy – Erin Kissane

 

Articles:

It’s best to have a dig around and see what takes your fancy as the choice is vast

Content strategy section on A List Apart

Content related articles on Smashing Magazine

Designing websites using content out - Mark Boulton

Extracting the content - Relly Annett-Baker

Interview with Content Strategist, Kristina Halvorson


Videos:

Content Strategy: the RPG – Relly Annett-Baker


Tools:

Gather Content - Gather content from anyone, painlessly


Content related accounts/people to follow on Twitter:

Kristina Halvorson

Relly Annett-Baker

Erin Kissane

Amy Thibodeau

Brain Traffic

Katherine Gray

Margot Bloomstein

Contents Magazine

Gather Content

Brian Clark

Karen McGrane

Colleen Jones

Ann Rockley

Ginny Redish

Contentini

The Content Lab

 

There we go. If you have any questions about my talk, would like to hire for for a freelance content related project, have anything to add to the above lists or just want to say hi, please leave a comment below or grab my attention on Twitter.