Whether responsible for the success of a Web site or merely contributors of content, marketers must understand the skills and processes required for achieving the site's communications objectives.
Yet the role of a content manager and the processes for creating a Web site are often unclear and mismanaged. Sometimes, content simply "appears" when someone realizes the task is left undone. Other times, a copywriter is hired and given a daunting task that he or she is incapable of executing.
Generally, when a company decides to redesign its site, it does not fully include the task of content creation and management into the scope of the project—and it rarely understands the nature of the role, the work process or the necessary deliverables.
This article first defines the role of content manager and clarifies the qualifications. Then, it delves into the details of the content management process and workflow and how they fit into the big picture. It also provides a list of resources to aid in the quest for clear content creation.
Defining the Role
The role of content manager is difficult to define. Applying for that job is like applying for a position that not does not exist—and the need for it isn't even apparent to the company.
Many clients think we're talking about a copywriter, but it is much more than that. The role consists of several categories of work, from marketing to information design. The content manager will work between the client (the company) and the Web development team during the process.
We usually confront one of the following three scenarios when developing content:
- Client Magic. The client company thinks its people will magically produce the content for the site, on time, using existing marketing resources, without hiring an expensive copywriter. After all, don't they already have brochures and existing site copy they can repurpose for this new launch? And, if there isn't enough time, isn't this a virtual environment where you can add any unfinished pages after the site is launched?
- Copywriter to the Rescue. The client has worked with a copywriter who has written company white papers and marketing or collateral materials. The catch: usually, this copywriter writes for print, sometimes just technical manuals, and has little understanding of how the Web works. He/she does not understand online linking and navigation—how Web content differs from print or advertising. The person can learn, and his/her experience is valuable, but sometimes the learning curve is painful for all involved.
- Design Team Knows All. The client assumes that the newly hired Web design/development team has the answers—after all, they have done this many times before. Surely the design team must be able to take the copy from the old site and massage it into updated content for the new site. Also, there is a ton of existing marketing materials in both print and digital format. So all the client needs to do is provide some updated bios and product page information. Isn't this what we are paying the design team to produce?
There is also a rare, fourth scenario: the client gets it, and hires a competent content manager who has the background and experience to get the content organized, written and delivered in a timely manner; or the company has a system in place with internal workflow and approval processes and a staff of writers (or contractors) in place for ongoing updates.
Most companies assume, when we tell them they need to hire a content manager, that we are telling them to hire a copywriter. Not so. You do need someone who can write well, but he or she may need to manage a copywriter or a team of writers. Content managers must be well rounded and self-running: They might have writing skills, but do they also have Web knowledge? They might have management skills, but do they also have industry expertise?
Finding the perfect resource is extremely difficult. But to find the best person to manage the content process for your Web site, you need to know what you are looking for. He or she should have (some of) the following characteristics:
- Self-Running: The content manager should be self-running and must understand what it takes to develop Web site content. Each project and situation is different. This person will need to manage a daunting, deadline-driven process. Digging for information, pushing to make deadlines and running solo without much guidance is par for the course.
- Organized: The content manager should have the organizational and management skills to manage the content-development process. This generally requires a project management or producer mentality—the ability to set and make deadlines, manage resources and the budgeted time, set expectations and communicate effectively. This person needs to be detail-oriented and able to handle multiple deliverables at one time.
- A writer or editor: The ability to write and edit is a critical component of the role; however, this person may hire other copywriters to actually produce the final content if his or her style or writing ability does not match the needs of the project. Editing skills are necessary to help conform the style and tone of various marketing materials or previous site copy. Having a background in marketing is helpful but not mandatory.
- Web savvy: The content manager doesn't need to know the ins and outs of HTML but should have some basic level of awareness. He or she should also understand how Web writing differs from regular marketing copy. Navigational copy (some call it "navitorial" copy) needs to be addressed, along with descriptions of images and page titles. Paragraphs need to be short and action oriented.
- Versed in information design: The content manager and/or copywriter should work very closely with the information designer on the Web team. The content manager may be the one to actually produce what will become the outline content and the initial wire frames for the project. Therefore, he or she needs to understand the nuances of navigation, labeling and action-oriented copy.
- Knows the client's industry: Such knowledge is preferred, though not required. A smart individual can interview, research and gain insight into the client's industry fairly quickly. It is a bonus if the content manager has background in the client's industry and the audience that will be interacting with the site.
This list of characteristics represents a best-case scenario for a Web project—especially one with no existing content and a tight deadline. If you invest in the right resource, you can also expect this person to help write and manage the creation of content for marketing efforts (on and offline), product documentation, site updates and more. Screening and hiring the right individual is a worthwhile effort. Be aware, though, that you might need to go through one or two people to find an ideal fit.
This job is generally either a contract position or a side responsibility for someone already on the Web team or in the marketing department. Copywriters or content managers charge a premium for their time (between $65/hr to $125/hr). Because this person will be working closely with the client during the process, it is recommend the client hire this person directly.
There is no single perfect way to manage the process of content development. Every Web project is different, and so is the way you address the process. The following discussion outlines a framework for managing the content development process in tandem with the development of a Web site. Use this four-phase methodology as a starting point and a guide:
- Discovery and clarification—gathering data
- Setting framework—outlining content
- Writing—creating the copy deck
- Publishing—posting, reviewing and editing
Phase 1: Discovery and Definition—Gathering Data
Generally, the content manager does whatever is necessary to gather data and produce the deliverables necessary for the site design and development. In the discovery phase, the content manager should spend time talking to the key stakeholders in the company to (1) learn what their business goals are and who the audience is and what it wants; and (2) strategize about how to merge the two sets of needs.
Questions such as these should be asked: how the Web site fits into the larger corporate strategy; how the current (soon to be ousted) site meets or fails current measurable goals; whether the new site will be using the old content; and so on. Research into the competition and overall industry should also be conducted. These do not have to be formal endeavors; however, having a solid overview of the company's industry, Web site strategy and audience is the goal for this stage.
Before continuing, clarification of the overall goals, audience and strategy should be produced as a "Communication/Marketing Brief." The content schedule and list of deliverables should be clearly outlined and approved by all involved. Make sure to add time in for QA (quality assurance) of copy prior to project launch.
Don't depend on last-minute online editing of copy and content. Although some of this is inevitable, it is often what leads to sloppy mistakes and accidental overwriting of pages and layout.
Phase 2: Setting Framework—Outlining Content
The next phase of the content development cycle is creating the content framework. This is created in the form of a content outline, which captures the main sections of the site (I, II, III, IV, V, etc.) and then adds in known secondary and tertiary pages (a, b, c, d, etc.) with placeholder titles.
This may be as easy as using what currently exists or it may involve several meetings (with conflicting results) to generate a new or modified framework and outline of the site. This outline may also change during the site structuring process. But putting together the framework for the site via a content outline is the best way to determine the scope and depth of both the site and the content writing and acquisition process.
Some content managers (in their copywriting role) prefer to start writing copy for the main pages of the site and move on to secondary or additional pages of the site after the main pages are completed. Sometimes it is difficult to glean the entire site's content without first working on the high-level marketing messages and overall goals. This is acceptable as a stalling point for a short time (to allow the copywriter to truly get his or her head around the project), but the first deliverable must be a comprehensive site outline.
Content Audit. Sometimes it is necessary to conduct a complete content audit of the outgoing site to determine what stays and what goes during the content development process. For a site with several hundred pages, this can be a daunting and painful task. Someone needs to go through the site, starting with the main pages, and then cull. This someone might be client side, or the content manager. This is a necessary step for some projects; plan time and patience for this task.
Phase 3: Writing—Creating the Copy Deck
The next step in the process is to begin putting the content together. Remember, content is not just copy—it is text, graphics, quotes, advertising and active links, title tags and more. Understanding how to approach the creation of the actual content takes experience.
A good way to start is to determine the readiness of the content: What content will be ported over in its existing format from the current site? What content exists in digital form and needs little or no editing? What content needs to be created from scratch?
Divide the content into chunks of deliverables that make sense, and attach due dates and review cycles to each chunk. Plan for enough time to review and edit the copy offline, and then to review and edit the copy once it is integrated into the HTML of the site itself. Paper does not screen copy make.
The copy deck can be developed in stages, starting with a description of what will be on the page (a short paragraph or two) and the call to action on the page—shown by an actual HTML link or some other graphics. Also consider sidebar information and other page elements, such as quotes or advertising. The Web design team will need to plan for these elements as they work out the wireframing of the page in their own site-structuring phase.
Working collaboratively during this stage is a must. Potential confusion and frustration often occur during this timeframe, when the client and copywriter just want to start writing directly into the HTML of a page, and the Web design team needs to know what goes on the page in order to start the design process effectively.
Content Management Systems (CMS) and XML-based Sites. The development for a CMS site differs from that of a static HTML site. Most large CMS-driven sites still rely on a top layer of straight HTML, with most of the second level pages and portions of the HTML pages populated by an object-oriented content management system. This means that the site is built using a series of templates. These templates are set up with a header, footer, titles and areas for body copy, sidebars and navigation. It may be necessary for a content manager to help define these areas in advance of writing the content outline, or getting into the main navigation, which can change on the fly due to the flexibility of a robust CMS system. This also means a separate workflow not directly addressed in this article. Think of your site's content as components of information—objects placed on individual pages such as news, ads, special deals and more.
Phase 4: Publishing—Posting, Reviewing and Editing
The final step in the content-development process is finalizing the copy deck and integrating the copy into the development process following the building phase of the site.
If templates have been created by the Web design team, the integration team should be building out the entire site and pouring in the content from the final deck. This allows the copy and linking structure to be viewed and tested in HTML. The navigational copy, links, invisible copy (see below), graphics and images should all be in place. This is the final run through before show time!
The truth is, generally, at this stage not all of the content is completed—and the client has a well-intended but poorly timed plan of eliminating the pages that aren't yet completed. This causes a lot of trouble from the development side, as these pages have been built and linked to.
Proper planning and estimating time and resources from the framework/site-structuring phase would help solve this problem earlier in the process. At this stage, have a solid plan for content revisions because editing online, on the fly, may cause issues with version control if the site is still in production.
Invisible Copy. Whether search engine focused or not—every HTML page needs a descriptive title tag—the most highly ranked component of a page's search engine results. Keywords are also important, although lately it has been shown that meta data is less critical than it has been in the past. ALT tags are descriptions accompanying images that preload the image. This allows individuals using text readers to view the site, as well as helps them if they are viewing over slow connection speeds or using a browser with images turned off. Setting the preferred format (e.g., img: setting sun or nav: about us) for ALT and title tags and metadata should be done well in advance of pages being built in HTML. However, often it is left up to whoever is doing the HTML, which is not the ideal thing to do.
The most successful Web site redesign projects have this in common: a content manager who was identified in the beginning of the project and worked through the proofing of developed HTML Web pages.
Hopefully, awareness of the critical need of the content manager, plus familiarity with the content development process, will become the norm among companies. Thus, everyone's job—especially the content manager's—will be more understood and appreciated.
Links to Resources on Effective Writing for the Web
- www.useit.com/papers/webwriting/—Jacob Nielsen's research on how users read on the Web and how writers should write for the Web
- www.sun.com/980713/webwriting—A summary by Jacob Nielsen and Sun's Science Office of how they improved Web site usability by rewriting content
- www.gotomedia.com/resources_structure_content.html—A Macromedia and gotomedia coauthored resource on Web site content structuring and development
- usableweb.com—A collection of links about writing and editing Web content
- www.newarchitectmag.com/archives/2001/02/kilian—Kilian's thoughts on Web writing and molding information to the Web
- www.webwiseone.com—A company of former technical writers offering humorous, conversational and instructional content solutions
- Hot Text: Web Writing that Works—A book that provides a summary of current thought on "user-centered" writing for the Web
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