The struggle to publish useful content

A common question in our web writing workshops is ‘How do we stop people publishing content we know no one will ever use?’ It’s not easy, but we offer some suggestions in this article.

Poor publishing strategy in the public sector

Many of my clients are public sector organisations. Most use content management systems and have staff from all over the organisation producing content. Publishing decisions are decentralised and there are rarely any strategic efforts to guide this activity. So publishing goes on relatively unconstrained.

These websites are often enormous. Many have three or four times as many PDF documents as there are web pages. They are often filled with reports and other long documents, many of which are years and years old. Often, when we check usage statistics, we find they’re rarely used—even when first published. And I’ve seen sites full of brochures that refer readers to ‘more information online’, when they’re already online and all they can find is the brochure they’ve just read.

Poor publishing decisions often mean sites are full of duplicate content. Universities are probably the worst offenders. Sometimes you’ll even find different versions of the same information. A prospective student once told me she found three conflicting versions of course information and got a fourth when she called to clarify the situation. She was appalled, and decided to enrol somewhere else.

Reasons for publishing that need to be challenged

Over the years I’ve heard all sorts of dubious reasons for publishing content online, including:

  • It doesn’t cost us anything, so let’s put it online
  • Someone might find it useful, someday
  • If anyone ever calls about it, we can tell them where to download it
  • We don’t have much content on our part of the website, so lets put some of this stuff up
  • We’ll be able to find it again if we put copy it and put it on our section of the intranet
  • If we just link to it, then we’ll have to keep checking that the link still works
  • It’s not our core business, but we get telephone enquiries about it
  • I spent a lot of time writing this, and I want it to go online
  • We were all allowed to publish 4 pages (I kid you not!)

How many of these sound familiar to you? More often than not, these sorts of motivations should be questioned.

How to avoid publishing low value content

It’s hard to resist on your own

Most people who notice this problem try to deal with it on their own. They explain to the would-be publisher why it’s not a good idea to publish information that no one is likely to want. They explain that the website is not a filing cabinet, that the more you put on it, the harder it becomes to organise and find things. They plead, cajole and sometimes get frustrated and angry. Sometimes it works. But a lot of the time it doesn’t. It’s tiring and can eventually wear you out.

A coordinated approach is best

Instead, organisations need a coordinated approach. A web content strategy needs to guide decisions on what to publish. And the strategy needs to apply to every part of the organisation. Someone senior needs to support and champion it, and make sure it doesn’t get watered down over time.

There should be a publishing process that starts with asking questions about the benefits (to the organisation and to users) of publishing a piece of content. If you wanted to do a print run of brochures, you’d have to make a business case for it. The same should apply to web content.

How to get started

Different things will work in different organisations and at different times. Here are some things you could try.

Gather evidence

You could start documenting poor publishing decisions and their results (duplication, poor usage, waste of publishing resources, inability to maintain content and so on).

Or you could do a content audit and show how much content there is (often a shock in itself), how much is duplicated, and how much is unused. Be careful not to just highlight outdated content. That’s a different problem that happens at the other end of the content lifecycle — lack of maintenance, removal and archiving. But it’s still a problem that a content strategy should address.

Find a champion

If you have a web team, talk to them. Maybe they can help you push this agenda. If you have an online communications team, approach them.

Whoever you talk to it will be important to find someone senior in the organisation who cares about your website and can help you make the case for making better publishing decisions. Changing an organisation’s culture (which is often what’s needed) takes time and persistence.

Piggy-back onto an existing project

Are there any web or communications projects happening in your organisation? Are you doing a policy or style guide review? Is a new content management system being rolled out or are you making changes to the existing one? You might get some attention for this problem by raising it in the context of an existing project.