One of the ways online content differs from print is that it has a lifecycle. In print, once something is published, it exists in that form forever. Online, though, content is a living entity – it doesn’t have to and truly shouldn’t stay the same.
As I see it, the content lifecycle has 6 steps: conceive, create, publish, promote, maintain, and retire. The impetus and decisions involved in each step vary from one organization to the next, from one website to the next, and from one content type to the next. Content strategists need to understand the facts and the rationales for each step in order to analyze the content that exists, identify what’s missing, and create smart, sustainable strategies.
Every step involves both content and people. You can’t make decisions about the content unless you understand how the people work.
Step 1: Conceive and set goals
Organizations create content for several reasons:
- To meet a business goal, which may be universal or specific. Often, this is information about a new or updated product, program, event, report, etc.
- To meet an audience need – that is, to answer a common question or solve a frequent issue.
- Sometimes, content IS the product – in the case of a book, report, article, etc.
Smart conception must include measurable goals and success metrics for the content, whether that is views, downloads, usage of the material that the content is about, or other metrics.
- Does everyone involved in conceiving and defining a piece of content identify the need and understand the goal in the same way?
- If the content needs to meet a business goal, do they understand the customer implication and context?
At one time in my (pre-Internet) career, I was a copywriter for Avon Products. My primary job was to write the marketing materials for Avon’s sales representatives. One of my assignments was to introduce a new mascara. The marketing team had really done their homework in describing how wonderful the mascara was, what industry trends it reflected, etc., which was really helpful. But the question I asked was how this mascara fit in with the handful of others that the company offered at the time. I wanted to focus on that information most, since that would be what the sales reps needed to share with the customers they met face-to-face.
Online, it’s the same challenge – customers need to know more than just the facts about a new product or service, but the benefits of it TO THEM. Empathy-based personas are a great technique for creating this audience awareness inside of an organization.
Step 2: Create and optimize the content
By “creating the content,” I mean providing the words, images, multimedia and all other elements involved with this particular piece of content. In the case where the content is the product, it also means ensuring that the related content is created – press releases, tweets, etc.
Optimize means adding the appropriate keywords and metadata. This is sometimes overlooked or done in a separate process by separate people, but doing it together saves time and rework. Why? Keywords, for example, aren’t something that is just in the page’s metadata but needs to be used in a conscious, consistent way in the text itself, so the person determining the best keywords for a particular page needs to communicate that to the person writing the actual content. This ties back to the “conceive” step, because the keywords should stem from the initial goals for creating this content – and if this happens well, the content creation and optimization will be in synch and will work together to ensure that the content can do what it’s supposed to.
Optimization is a separate art, because the major search engines change what they do and don’t look at over time. The person charged with optimizing a site’s content also has time to stay tuned into the specific terms and phrases that the site’s audience uses to look for content, so they can recommend user-focused terms for the content. The content creator, on the other hand, may be more tuned in to the business needs of the content, so it’s important for them to work together.
Step 3: Publish the information online.
This step has two parts:
- The internal workflow and review process. Text-based content may need associated imagery, which could be selected by a separate group. Content may need to be reviewed by the legal or marketing department, or by management if it is high-profile enough. Reviews take time, and sometimes large organizations have a challenge getting information online quickly. The content team needs to set timeliness criteria and have a process for “rush” approvals when timeliness is especially important – say, in times of crisis or breaking news.
- Putting the content into the content management system, or CMS. It is important that the content be entered into the CMS correctly. That includes entering all the metadata in the right fields.
In a corporate environment, it may be a senior manager who is the subject matter expert writing the content, but it is a production assistant entering it into the CMS. If the subject matter expert never explicitly defines the audience, the production person may always select “all,” thereby defeating any audience segmentation that the site administrators have set up.
All of this speaks to the need for training for everyone involved in the content creation process – ongoing training, since people may not always remember every step in the process.
Step 4: Promote
Content strategy extends to how content will be promoted:
- on the site – on the home page, key landing pages, and relevant topic pages
- in the organization’s e-newsletters
- syndicated to third-party sites
- on social media
- offline – in print ads, on-hold music, events, etc.
All these promotional opportunities mean that content must be created with shareability in mind.
A clear, compelling headline is a major factor in determining whether someone wil click on the headline or not. The content also needs a summary that teases up the primary call to action, which is based on the content’s main goal – that summary will show up in many places including the RSS feed, the Facebook “share” thumbnail, and ideally the e-newsletter. So it needs to be part of the effort of creating the content well from the get-go. Social media strategy is definitely a component of content strategy.
Step 5: Maintain and measure
Once the content is out there, it’s critical to keep track of how it’s doing. It might be advantageous to test out different headlines and calls to action, as well as different promotional channels or approaches.
I used to oversee Realtor.org, the member website for the National Association of Realtors. We found that our members wanted information they could use and respond to on Twitter, while on Facebook they wanted content they could share with their own audiences. And on all promotional channels, we saw that content focused on them was tremendously more popular than content focused on the organization. That was another major shift we had to make in the organization’s communications. Sometimes the relevance was in there but buried, so we had to rewrite the content or at the very least, choose a headline that made the relevance clearer. Other content was important to the organization but honestly not really relevant to the members’ daily lives, and in those cases, we often didn’t promote that content at all.
It’s only by tracking and measuring content that the content strategist can make these types of decisions. Although it sounds pretty straightforward, it took us a long time to make these realizations and the resulting decisions.
Step 6: Retire – archive, delete or update/revive
There are three options when it comes to retiring content: Archive, delete, or renew (which is to say, update or revive)
Online, content needs to be current and relevant. So at some point, each individual piece of content probably needs to fade away. The people who create content often assume that when the link to their information comes off of the home page and it stops being promoted, that content somehow vanishes. Or, they may want the content to stay live forever, just in case someone wants it or in case they need it sometime in the future. You can see why this can make a site pretty messy. There are also different interests at play.
For example, on Realtor.org, the public affairs department wanted all press releases to be deleted after a year, since they were no longer relevant to the media. However, the press releases were the primary way that the organization communicated information about housing market conditions and major research reports, among other things. The research department wanted people to understand the trends in housing market conditions over time, so they wanted those news releases to stay online for several years. As the web team, we were caught in the middle. What we did was to work with the research department to create information about the research itself that was separate from the media-focused press releases, so that each type of content could do the job it was intended to do. That was a pretty major shift for the organization.
Archiving is an example of how the Web drives organizational change. Organizations choose to archive specific pieces or types of content when it is not needed on a day-to-day basis but they want or are required to keep it online.
Archiving can mean keeping it online in a specific way or just keeping a copy offline in a private digital archive on the organization’s intranet or separate repository. Those decisions are based both on legal and other business requirements and on the site’s technological capabilities. Some organizations set their on-site search engine to limit the initial search results to the last year’s content – this is a common practice for online news websites, for example. But depending on how their content is set up in their CMS, the older content may be found on public search engines even if it doesn’t initially come up on a search from their own site.
Case study: September 11 content story:
Realtor.org had a small section about September 11 dating back from 2001 when Realtors really rallied to provide emotional and financial support for people who had lost their homes as a result of the World Trade Center tragedy. There were letters and drawings from children, lists of donors, and comments from the volunteer members who led the organization at the time. When it was initially created, the site didn’t have a robust content management system so the September 11 pages couldn’t use the same design templates we used for the rest of the site. But every year, we commemorated those efforts by linking to the original section and just letting people know that it honoring our members’ valiant efforts at the time.
In 2006, for the fifth anniversary of September 11th, we did our best to update the pages but left the section in the same database that it was initially in.
In 2009, we eliminated those old databases as part of our preparation for a complete site overhaul and redesign. We knew that the information about what our members did in 2001 was part of the organization’s history, but it wouldn’t make sense for it to come up on a search on the regular website for, say, how Realtors help others. So we created a completely separate archive and migrated old but historically significant information there. By “migrated,” I mean manually cutting and pasting the information into it. We needed to make the migration go as quickly as possible, so each page was pasted with its existing links into the new repository. So these pages are still live and they are removed from the site’s main search, but they no longer link to one another.
When I did a search on Realtor.org for “September 11,” there were no results for this information. However, the site had a link that led me to content created before 2009. We put that link there knowing that there would always be a small number of people searching for older information. On the archive site, when I did the same search, the information was there, but each page displays the same title tag and it’s pretty impossible to tell which is which. (The screenshots for this example are in the presentation below.) Was this an effective approach for archiving? Why or why not?
Another option for content retirement is deletion. Gerry McGovern refers to this as “content weeding.” There are great reasons to delete content that has ROT – redundant, outdated, or trivial. Gerry worked with Microsoft. The Microsoft.com website has about 10 million pages, and about 3 million of them have never been visited. He found that by removing the irrelevant pages, people had much more success finding the information they were looking for. This saved Microsoft money in customer service calls and also increased people’s satisfaction with not only the site, but the company overall.
The team managing the content about Excel on Microsoft’s site saw that a lot of people were searching for “Remove conditional formatting.” People found pages on that topic, but they reported that the “help” content was not helpful. What these people were really trying to do was get the formatting feature to work right. Microsoft had content on this topic also, but people were not finding it because they were seeing the content on the other topic also. After the team removed the “remove conditional formatting” content, the more comprehensive information about applying, removing, and changing conditional formatting came up in search results, and users found this information much more helpful and useful. This is in one of your readings for this module.
As David Hobbs writes in The Web Diet, “Small Web sites are easier to manage than large ones.” He asks a rhetorical question, why aren’t sites smaller?
On Realtor.org, we reviewed content at least once a year – we aspired to auditing it every three months, but we usually couldn’t meet that schedule because of people and time. And when a page’s views dipped below 100 in a one-year period, we deleted it.
We got pushback about this sometimes from the people who had created these pages, because they felt that if only the content were promoted more, it would get more views and remain popular. We did try that a few times, but found that the content had indeed stopped being relevant, so we did not honor those requests. It wasn’t an easy position to be in, as you can imagine. This is one of the ways that the people side adds more complexity than you may expect, and why people skills are such an important part of being a content strategist.
The other challenge with deletion is links. When you delete content, anything that linked to that content now contains a broken link. In some CMSs, internal links go away when pages are removed, but that can’t happen for external sites or bookmarks.
The people inside organizations who are concerned with SEO often don’t want links to go away either, since broken links may have a negative impact on a site’s rankings in search results.
The final option for what to do with content is to update it. For content about an annual event, it often makes sense to create a single URL – website.com/annual conference, for example — that gets updated as needed. Before the conference, that page could be the primary promotion for all the great things about the conference, the early registration pricing, the speakers and agenda as they come together, etc. During the conference, it could have the Twitter feed, information about any room changes or important announcements. And after the conference, it could have links to videos from the keynote speakers and attendee reviews, which then become the foundation for promoting the conference next time. In this case, the content can’t really get stale. The related content that this page links to comes and goes as needed, and individual speaker bios may get deleted three months after the conference ends, for example, but the primary page remains live and relevant all the time.
Here’s the presentation that originally accompanied these remarks: