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The Design of Your Content Is as Important as the Content Itself

Everyone knows that the shelf-life of a website is short.

Information changes, trends change, technology changes. It’s typically those factors — in that order — that we think about as “aging” a website most rapidly.

But there’s another factor that, if not accounted for properly, can erode a website’s vitality and effectiveness immediately after launch: the design of content.

It’s one thing to design a website well; it’s entirely another to sustain its design. Design, after all, is not just a one-time project. It is an ongoing and exceedingly labor-intensive process, as active and fluid as producing the content your website has been created to support. And that’s the key. We don’t just write content.

Every piece of content we create, whether it’s an article, an eBook, a video, an email — or even an advertisement for content — is also designed. When we don’t account for that, a website and its entire prospect experience can fall apart.

What is Content Design

Right away, some disambiguation is needed here. Many smart people in our field mean something totally different when they refer to “content design.” Specifically, content design is a term often used to describe all the work that goes into maintaining a content system born out of content strategy — inclusive of things like managing tasks, maintaining messaging, tone, and voice, and considering various stakeholder needs, mental models, and business objectives.

Experts like Kristina Halvorson have urged the use of this term because of how complex content strategy has become and out of a need to differentiate between the foundational planning and oversight of content and the systematic integration of it across an organization. I think that all makes good sense — no one knows this topic better than Kristina! But I also think that we need a term for the creation of the visual assets that don’t just accompany content, but are as integral to it as the words. “Content Design” may not be perfect, but most people understand its meaning, and just as often, their need for it.

So for the purposes of this article, when I use the term content design I mean the creation of the visual components of website content.

Integrating Content Teams

Most effective digital marketing teams are increasingly complex. They consist of strategists, editors, writers, designers, developers, and specialists of all sorts. When teams focused on producing content collaborate with teams focused on outbound activities, like email and paid media, the need for both strategic and tactical integration becomes critical. Content design is one issue which serves as a perfect example as to why.

A piece of content begins with an idea — an area of expertise that needs to be shared. Strategists, editors, and writers work together to express that expertise in an article. Right away, content design may come into focus if that article needs a visual aid, or if the design of the website presumes that articles are supported by some kind of lead imagery, like a “hero image.” Who makes that imagery?

When the content has been finished, the outbound teams pick up the baton and begin to assemble a campaign to carry it into inboxes, search engines, and social media channels. The question then becomes, how does the content work and look in those contexts? What does the email look like, and how does its design support the content it is promoting? What does an advertisement on LinkedIn look like? How does that ad capture the attention of the right prospects in such a crowded context while also maintaining consistency with the experience they’ll have once they click through to your website? How are the elements of these outbound tools tested and optimized while campaigns are executed?

A good content designer isn’t just a designer who sticks around after the initial website design. A good content designer anticipates these questions (and many more) and understands how to create and maintain a design system that supports the work being done across the entire digital marketing team. And a good content design system provides a lot of necessary detail and structure, but also is flexible enough to adapt as strategists and designers measure campaign performance and want to adapt to their observations.

The Components of a Content Design System

The major elements of a content design system support the ongoing creation of supporting imagery for articles, gated assets — like eBooks, White Papers, and content upgrades — email templates, and advertisements.

We follow a process that begins similarly to a good website design process, as the initial creation of a content design library feels a lot like the creation of a website element collage. We create examples of each element and show them together, not because a prospect will ever see all those elements at the same time, but in order to ensure consistency among them.

Initially, a digital marketing team should steer this process toward approval in terms of comfort with moving forward. In other words, approving the initial system is not approving its parts. It is a matter of agreeing that the system contains what it needs to sustain the website’s design and content. But each element requires its own final approval based upon the particularities of its function.

Email Templates

An email template, for example, would be approved once, built within an email marketing tool (e.g. Act-On, Hubspot, or MailChimp) and used until a change in branding required revision.

Article Imagery

Article imagery, on the other hand, is created or selected for every article moving forward, but should follow an established art direction agreed upon in an initial content design phase. Things like stock imagery style guides can help maintain awareness of the conceptual and aesthetic guideposts a content designer works within here. Similarly, gated assets should all feel like they’re from the same ecosystem.

Gated Assets

A document template with a variety of page types and content structures should be created at the outset and customized to every asset that is produced later. In all these cases, the process should keep rounds of revisions to a minimum after the initial design choices have been made and established in various asset templates.

Paid Media

Operational autonomy is especially critical for paid media. Once an ad system has been initially approved by the full digital marketing team, it’s necessary for the paid media team to be able to operate as independently as possible. This is because the data they gather in real time can often demand adaptation, and working through a traditional design process to alter advertisements requires time that they do not have.

A good content design system creates ad families — a set of possible ads with predictable, structured variations based upon what the paid media team knows will affect ad performance, like the balance of text and image, the use of color, the presence and type of buttons, etc. Not only will a good paid media strategist know when to change course and use a different ad variant, but they will also often want to roll up their sleeves and alter ads themselves. When every click comes with a price tag, it’s necessary that they can do this without waiting on a traditional design approval process.

The Results of Content Design

The goal of all of this, of course, is not just consistent design, but effective design. Consistency maintains the vitality from the outside looking in, but effectiveness maintains the vitality from the inside out. Both affect the “shelf life” of your website, but we all know that a shiny package can contain rotten contents. The purpose of content design is to maintain the integrity of the prospect experience across the entire digital marketing system.

Experiencing a prospect’s journey should validate the effectiveness of content design. Whether you begin with a search query, a social media feed, or an email, the prospect experience of a website begins elsewhere, on someone else’s turf. Consistency from that context to the one you control is the first measure. The second comes from the measurable actions of prospects, both offsite and on. The third — and possibly the most important — comes from time and money saved by a good content design system.

Among our clients, the time to campaign launch is radically accelerated by good content design. It was once quite typical to wait upwards of three months before all the digital marketing elements — from the website, to its content, to the visual assets, to the outbound campaign components — were ready to go. Once we introduced a content design system, we were able to fully capitalize on the gains we made in other areas, like content development — where writers interview subject-matter experts and write for them — and technology integration, and reduce the time to an initial campaign launch in as few as six weeks. That’s an incredible savings. But doing that in a stable manner, where integration across the digital marketing team is not just preserved, but increased, is an almost intangible brand asset in and of itself.

If you’re interested in learning more about how our Content Design service works, start here.

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