The good news is that this is going to be a relatively quick read.
The bad news is that after you read it, you're probably going to want do do a few things very differently than you are doing them today.
The good news is that I'm going to share with you three tools you can start using today to bring big changes to how you plan content for websites.
Ok, enough with the good news/bad news routine. Let's get right into it. There are three documents that have become indispensable to how we guide our clients through content planning in the very early stages of a project. I want to share those documents with you, and in doing so, hopefully impart a vision for better content-focused website planning.
At this point, it's rare to actually design and build a brand new website. Most of the websites we build — we being all of us here at Newfangled — are redesigns and rebuilds of websites that have been around for some time. But make no mistake, they are significant departures from their predecessors — significant enough to think of them as entirely new, even though their addresses hadn't been vacant before. This is because the new design and build are the necessary next steps after adopting an entirely new content marketing and lead development strategy, one that relies upon the regular creation of new content and, often, discarding old content.
All this is to say, we don't do many content inventories.
But there are plenty of website projects where, regardless of a new marketing strategy, an inventory is necessary. Think big sites, like for universities, or hospitals, or companies with several distinct verticals. The bigger the site and the broader its persona profile, the more likely that its content is not so easily jettisoned. Sites like these are often behemoths — information architecture nightmares that, while often stuffed with extraneous, outdated, or completely forgotten content, actually do contain plenty of important and valued content. The trouble is, that good stuff is often cloaked in the disarray of the not-so-good stuff. So much so that it can be too easily overlooked in the process of an aggressive revision of marketing strategy. I've seen plenty of projects halt just short of launch because entire sections of important content were completely forgotten until some stakeholder — who had not been involved in those important, early planning discussions — caught wind of the impending change and raised an urgent, "Wait, what about…!?!"
A content inventory can prevent that, as well as help you properly outline what, exactly, needs to be done: What content needs to be created, revised, reorganized, or archived.
Here's what it might look like:
While the example above is a helpful indicator of how you might format a content inventory, it's an incomplete template. A robust content inventory will call for so much information across the horizontal axis that, in the interest of legibility, I'm only able to show some of it here. In fact, I think that the best way to describe what a content inventory should contain is simply to list it out as an outline. Some of it will be self-explanatory, but where an entry needs a bit more explanation, I've put that in green:
- Date last updated
- You might use categories to indicate a piece of content's type (e.g. blog, newsletter, whitepaper, etc.) or it's specific product/service vertical (e.g. an equipment reseller might have industrial, automotive, or consumer level machine parts).
- Time on page
- 10-second test
- Goal-focused test
- Ideally, you'd test key content templates and give them a manageable score — say, a scale of 1-5 — and then average their overall usability based upon these individual scores. The idea is to use a simple ranking process that will be easily scannable when reviewing the inventory later. (We've got articles on both types of tests: 10-second tests, and Goal-focused tests.)
- Image consistency
- Like ranking usability, creating a simple 1-5 scale for these aspects of formatting would enable you to easily discern which pages need extra attention in later reviews.
- Title tag
- Meta description
- Friendly link
- Owner (who will create/maintain this content)
- Status (e.g. keep/delete/revise/planned/writing/editing/etc.)
Content inventories are a lot of work. Boring — excruciatingly boring! — work. That's another reason why they don't get done as often as they should. But I think having the format worked out is just the sort of kickstart most of us would need in order to get serious and set aside time to fill it out. No, it probably won't be much fun, but it will certainly be worth all its toil to avoid a possible "Wait, what about…!?!" situation later on. (Oh, and there are a few tools that will at least help with gathering the list of pages a bit more quickly. Check out: ScreamingFrog, XenuLink, or SiteOrbiter.)
This next thing, however, will be more fun.
Content Planning Matrix
Once you've taken an inventory of your content, you can start integrating it — or at least, whatever portion of it you intend to preserve — with your new content strategy. That's where the content planning matrix comes in. It will help you to properly match content with your website's users, their needs, and your purposes. Most of the content planning documents I've used over the years are tactical tools; I've always wanted one that captures the strategic intent of the content marketing plan and can function as both a planning guide and as a reference to which any content creator is accountable later. This is that document. Once you've used it as a guide to your planning, it can end up looking something like this:
See, the backbone of a content planning matrix is simply in connecting users, needs, content, and purpose.
By the way, the blue arrow indicates that content tends to have increasing relevance as the user becomes more familiar with the site. So, while a piece of content written for an evaluator might not be relevant to a researcher, just about any piece of content could be relevant to a buyer. Same goes for customers, future employees, and the like. The basic idea is that while we may categorize content for users based upon their needs and our intent, we must also recognize that needs are going to be very nuanced, and good content could contribute to meeting them no matter what its original intent was. There have been several occasions where a buyer has shared that a very specific piece of content — often something of the wonky, detail-y researcher variety — confirmed her confidence in us and as a result, catalyzed here decision to call.
So all in all, pretty simple, right? Now, as I said, once you start using it as a planning tool, a content planning matrix could contain a list of information similar to what is depicted above, if not much more. Just in case you want to transpose this list and play with it on your own, I've put it below in text outline form (just FYI; scroll quickly if you don't need info-overload right now):
- Future Employees
- What things are
- How they work
- Why they're important
- Financial Benefits
- Efficiency gains
- Container expectations
- Transition plan
- Future Employee
- Case Study
- Needs assessments
- Employee Bios
- Live Chat
- Calls to Action
- Account admin
- Live Chat
- Email alerts
- Future Employee
- About Us
- Employee bios
- Job listings
- Lead Development
The needs and types of content I've listed above are likely possibilities, but they are by no means definitive. I am sure you could include many others. More importantly, the structure of the content planning matrix itself is quite adaptable. There are plenty of considerations, based upon your specific audience and goals, which might either change or extend the information your planning matrix contains. Here are just a couple of examples:
Instead of specifying personas, this template specifies users based upon actions relative to you (e.g. prospects — researchers, evaluators, and buyers — customers, employees, etc.). I've preferred this distinction for some time now because it makes identifying content intent and imperatives so much simpler than when we complicate it by adding possible personalities to the mix. However, there are many types of websites where the additional layer of persona complexity is especially necessary and could add differentiation to each user type. For example, a company that sells a wide variety of products or services is likely to have a corresponding variety of customer types. While the customer needs I've included in this matrix (access, support, maintenance, etc.) are likely to fit most scenarios, there may be additions or alternates depending upon a customer's type. Likewise, the content you plan to meet those needs may also vary. In that case, you might simply expand the "Customer" row to include sub-rows. In fact, the researcher, evaluator, and buyer user types could just have easily been sub-categories of a general "Prospect" category, and nested beneath it in a similar way.
How you organize this is entirely up to you and the scale that best fits your situation. It's flexibility is what makes it such a powerful tool.
Business or Organization Type
I've tried to keep this matrix as general as possible, so that it can work for just about any website. However, certain types of businesses or organizations might need to adapt aspects of this template to better fit their needs. Here are a couple of examples:
- Higher Education: The prospecting process is going to be slightly different here. An evaluator — someone who has narrowed down several possible options and now needs help comparing them — might be someone considering where to apply, as well as someone who has been accepted to several schools and is trying to decide where to enroll. Similarly, the higher-ed buying stage also comes in two parts — first, when someone decides to apply, and second, when they decide to enroll. Certain types of information will be relevant to each stage of this unique process, so the template would need to scale to fit. Additionally, rather than listing customers, a college or university might replace this row with several new rows, such as "Students," "Alumni," "Faculty," and "Staff." Each group is likely to have very distinct needs, and therefore, very different content created for them.
- Nonprofit Organizations: Like higher-ed, most nonprofits aren't going to handle prospecting in the same way that a typical business would. Their "Customer" audience is going to be divided into at least two distinct user types. First, supporters. These are the people who might either donate, volunteer, or both. They will have their own needs within the "buying" cycle, and consequently, unique content to guide them. Second, clients. These are the people the nonprofit exists to serve. They might be further divided into unique sub-categories, depending upon the breadth of services offered. A nonprofit's site will need to create content that appropriately addresses the needs of both audiences.
These are just two variations on this structure. I could also envision slight adaptations to the planning matrix for business websites based upon distinguishing them further as business-to-consumer vs. business-to-business, as well as products vs. services. However, those differences would be far more minor as compared with the alterations specific to higher-ed and nonprofit that I mentioned above. If you can think of any others, please share them in the comments!
Content Production Matrix
Finally, once you've figured out your website's content profile, you can get into the tactical work of figuring out how that content is going to be produced. A content production matrix will help you plan a production calendar that takes your audience, content types, time, and resources into consideration while — most importantly — keeping you from veering off course over time.
A content production matrix can look something like this:
The main reason for documenting your content plan in this way is to ensure consistency. Depending upon the size of your organization, content production might be spread over many departments and personnel, which makes preserving the original intent and guidelines for your content plan all the more difficult. A content production matrix should be created before content production begins, and then centrally managed so that it is the one source of truth for what content is produced, when, and by whom. The frequency of content created for each stage of the buying cycle, or for any relevant categories, should be determined by the nature of your business. Ratios will vary.
Like the content planning matrix, this production matrix can also scale in a variety of ways. Here are a few examples:
- Time: This production timeline's smallest unit is a week. For many organizations, their initial capacity — especially if they've never had a serious content marketing plan until now — will be far lower than they hope it will be eventually. For an organization like that, even just one blog post per week could be ambitious, not to mention a clip of three blog posts and one newsletter per month, a case study every other month, and a webinar each quarter. However, a larger organization — or at least one with greater production capacity — might have a calendar that goes all the way down to the day.
- Content types: Obviously, there are far more possible types of content than the four included in the example.
- Categories: A matrix structured in this way could have as many categories as are necessary. Since they are indicated by abbreviations overlaid on units of time, there isn't any particular numeric limit to them provided they are all on the same tier. However, if you were to create sub-categories, annotating the production calendar would get a bit more complicated. I have seen production matrices place X's along the same horizontal row as the sub-categories that match with the vertical time entry for an individual piece of content.
- Buying Stages: Similar to the categories, these can easily be extended as long as the colors used to indicate them are visually distinct enough to make scanning the production timeline useful. In the higher-ed scenario I mentioned above, where there are two possible evaluator and buyer stages, one might create different shades of the same color in order to make their differences and similarities read properly in a quick scan.
- Personnel: This particular example matrix does not indicate specific personnel, but it could easily be adapted to do so. In some cases, an organization may not have meaningful categories, and so the initials of the content creators could be substituted for the category abbreviations (e.g. "CB" over an entry for this newsletter, perhaps). However, if the matrix needs to include categories and personnel, the X method I mentioned for sub-categories could be used for whichever datapoint is not handled with abbreviations.
These are just some adjustments that I can anticipate would need to be made to a basic content production matrix. In fact, I've made all of them for matrices I've created for clients in the past. As you might imagine, Newfangled's content production matrix uses many of the extensions I described above. It has twelve different types of content listed, includes seven different personnel, and is planned down to the day of the week over a year interval. But the basic structure — Time on the horizontal axis and unique variables on the vertical axis — should work for everyone.
So, that's it. There's a lot of detail, but it's really not that complex once you have the right structure for it. Now that you've got this all worked out, you should probably share this article, bookmark it for reference later, and go set up your own versions of these three documents. I'd love to hear how that goes for you in the comments. Also, feel free to leave any questions you might have there as well. I'll answer them all :)