Beyond the content audit

If you want quality online content, you need to do more than a content audit. You need to understand the people and political issues and how to deal with them.

Many organisations audit content when they redesign a site or get a new content management system. Invariably, the audit shows there’s too much content and a lot of it is in poor shape. It’s out of date, duplicated or badly written. And surprise, surprise—much of it is unused.

So a big content clean-up starts, and by the time the content is moved into the shiny new web templates or whizzbang content management system, there’s a lot less of it. However, that’s not where the project should end, but often does.

Content audits don’t fix content problems

Too often, there’s little thought given to content after the audit, beyond:

  • Developing a publishing workflow. If a robust planning step was considered, more quality issues would be addressed. But I rarely see a workflow that includes this critical first step.
  • Offering a handful of writers some web writing training.

Five or six years down the track, you find yourself doing another content audit where you find pretty much the same problems. Again, you get rid of large volumes of content and migrate what’s left into your next lot of shiny new templates. And the cycle begins again.

So, how do you fix the problems?

A ‘context’ audit will show you how

“Most content problems exist simply because no one has ever asked the right kinds of questions…” Halvorson and Rach, Content Strategy for the Web (2nd edition).

If you want quality content on your website, you need to know exactly what it’s going to take to achieve it, and why it isn’t happening already. You need to start by understanding the context in which your content is created, published and maintained. This means understanding the messy people and political problems that don’t fit nicely into a spreadsheet like your content problems do.

After you’ve done your content audit (or before, but you’ll probably have more specific issues to delve into if you do it after), you need to start asking questions. And you need to talk with everyone whose job affects what goes on your website.

Who to talk to

Many organisations (including all the ones I work with), use a ‘distributed publishing model’ for their web content. This means:

  • Anyone can be asked to write content to go online
  • Managers at various levels and from across of the organisation can initiate content creation and approve its publication
  • The entire approach can vary from department to department.

Your first task will be identifying the range of staff involved in content production. Try to talk to a sampling of people at every level and in each part of the organisation. You’ll need to identify and interview:

  • Content writers—most will not be writers, but specialists in some other field (scientists, policy makers, economists, academics and so on). They may not identify as writers if they don’t use your content management system
  • Content publishers—often administrative staff who get training to use the content management system
  • Content owners—usually owners of a service, product or project who in turn own the associated content produced to support it
  • Content approvers—often the content owners, but they may delegate this to role to other managers
  • Technical or specialist reviewers—including legal, IT, marketing or others who review content against certain specialist requirements
  • Content managers—anyone in a content governance role.

Questions to ask

Start by asking some general questions that will encourage people to share information about issues you may not be aware of. Follow up with more probing questions wherever possible. Later, you can follow up on specifics you’ve found while doing the content audit.

Tailor your questions so they’re appropriate for the person you’re interviewing.

Here are a bunch of questions to get you started.

Overall impressions

  • What do you think the organisation (or your part of it) does well when it comes to web content?
  • What problems are you aware of?
  • What could be improved?

Roles

  • What’s your role (initiating, writing, reviewing, publishing, approving, managing, governing) in web content publishing?
  • How long have you had this role? Have you had this kind of role in another job or organisation?
  • Do you think your content role is well defined and well understood? Do you know what’s expected of you? Do others you deal with have a clear understanding of your role?
  • Who do you work or liaise with when it comes to web content?
  • Do you think web content roles are well defined and understood?
  • What role problems are you aware of?
  • What could be improved?

Processes

  • How does content start and end its life online (in your part of the organisation)?
  • Which of these processes are you involved with?
  • Do these processes work well?
  • What process problems are you aware of?
  • What could be improved?

Tools and resources

  • What tools or software (for example, publishing or document creation tools) do you use to create or publish content?
  • What resources (for example, templates and checklists) do you use?
  • How well do these tools or resources meet your needs?
  • What tool and resources problems are you aware of?
  • What could be improved?

Skills, training and staffing

  • Do you think your area has enough people (with enough time) involved in web content publishing?
  • Is there enough time for you to do your web content role satisfactorily?
  • Do you have sufficient skills for your role?
  • What training (writing, web writing, web accessibility, editing and reviewing, using the publishing system) have you had for this role? Do you feel you need more?
  • What skills or resourcing problems are you aware of?
  • What could be improved?

Standards, consistency

  • Does your organisation (or part of it) have a web writing style guide or some other type of guide to writing and publishing on the web? Does it help you make decisions about how to approach certain content issues? Does it clearly set out the quality standards that are required?
  • Does everyone in your area use the web writing style guide?
  • Is there a consistent approach to quality across the site?
  • Do you think content quality is adequate?
  • What quality or consistency problems are you aware of?
  • What could be improved?

Cross-media communication and publishing

  • Would you say your organisation (or part of it) is print-focused or online-focused? What evidence is there of this? Is this the right focus?
  • Is the web considered a lower priority than other media?
  • What coordination is there between publishing on the web and other publication channels or media?
  • Is planning for web communication done early enough?
  • Is your print content published online? Always, or only where there is a need? When it is, is it edited or reformatted in any way to improve usability or accessibility for online use?
  • Are you aware if any of your content is published or promoted on your social media channels (if you have a social media presence)?
  • What cross-media problems are you aware of?
  • What could be improved?

Governance

  • Who can initiate content requests?
  • Who can say ‘no’ to something going online?
  • Who makes decisions about what gets published on the website?
  • Is there any coordination of management of content across the site?
  • Who sets the quality standards and processes?
  • Who oversees the quality standards and processes?
  • What governance problems are you aware of?
  • What could be improved?

Summary questions

  • Of all the issues we’ve discussed today, which is of most concern to you (or your part of the organisation)?
  • What is your biggest challenge? What would help you most in dealing with this challenge?
  • What is your organisation’s biggest challenge?
  • What changes would you prioritise?
  • What do you think could be achieved easiest? What would be hardest?
  • What do you think would have the greatest impact?

Report your context audit findings

Analyse your data

Interview data can be difficult to analyse because of its volume and format. You’ll need to start by recording and categorising the issues that were raised.  Affinity diagramming (very similar to card sorting for designing the information architecture of a website) is one way to do this. Write each issue on a card (you could note the frequency with which the issue was mentioned on the card too, and note any issues that interviewees identified as priorities). Then look for similar issues and start grouping the cards. Keep sorting until all your cards are allocated to a group.

Once you’ve done this initial analysis, you can write up a summary of your findings.

Make recommendations

To develop recommendations, you’ll need to go back to your content audit and look for data that supports or explains what you found there. You’ll need to consider:

  • What are the most serious issues? What are the most frequent or widespread problems? Are there issues isolated to particular parts of the organisation?
  • What issues have the biggest impact on content quality? What about customer satisfaction? Staff productivity and morale? What issues did your interviewees prioritise?
  • What will cost most, or least?
  • What will be easiest or hardest to achieve?
  • What change will be welcomed or resisted?
  • What opportunities (related projects, funding sources, current focus or momentum within the organisation) could you make use of?

Write up a prioritised list of recommendations, based on these considerations.

Promote change

Finally, to see any real improvements you’ll need to find ways to get your organisation to adopt your recommendations.

Two key strategies are to look for:

  • Quick wins—the changes that are quick or easy to make to help you generate some momentum
  • Senior staff to champion the content cause.

Once you get started, you’ll need to monitor your progress. And you’ll need to adjust your strategy to fit the changing circumstances.

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