Back to content strategy basics

Kristina Halvorson is one of my content heroes (seriously, if you’re a web content geek and haven’t checked out Content Strategy for the Web yet, do it). I was fortunate enough to catch her Q and A webinar “why is content strategy so hard?” and had to share my thoughts.

There was so much good information, but the stuff that resonated the most for me came at the end. And that was that no matter how many new and shiny marketing tools come along, the core principles of content strategy remain the same.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the next new trend that is going to drive your traffic to new heights, increase engagement, and increase your sales, that the purpose behind your website can get lost. So it’s worthwhile to do a rerun of a few always-relevant points.

Put your customer at the centre

That’s it. It really is that simple. Your customer is showing up on your site for a reason. Doesn’t it make sense to be sure you know what that reason is, then give them what they need?

As Kristina noted, Gerry McGovern (another content hero) has been getting on stage and delivering this same message over and over – for years. Here he is talking about customer-centric websites in 2007…

And in a slightly different context in 2016…

He notes that we still measure content production over content consumption, so “most websites are. . . 90% crap, and the 90% crap kills the 10% quality.” (See his examples starting at around the 14 minute mark – they’re quite illuminating.)

Look at your existing content critically. Run analytics. Do a survey. Is your content helping your customers succeed?

Create good content

Once you know what your customers want, make sure they can find it and understand it.

  • Use the terms they do (if you use “job placement” when your users are searching for “work experience,” your content won’t be found no matter how good it is).
  • Remove pages that don’t help your customers achieve their goals. Your site doesn’t need the extra clutter.
  • Remember that good writing is critical; it’s one more way you make an impression on your customers. If you’re writing your content yourself:
    • try to keep it at a eighth-grade reading level for general audiences (literacy issues aside, check out this fascinating article about the reading levels of famous literary works)
    • have someone else read it for you before you post, both to catch typos and to make sure you haven’t missed something important.

If you don’t have the time to do your content right, or you know you’re not a writer, hire someone to do it for you. I can help. Or if that seems too self-serving, I can recommend you to other great writers I know. Your content is worth it.

Use the right tools

I get it – being where your customers are is important. Using social media to listen to and respond to your customers is a huge part of being viable in today’s landscape. But make sure you’re creating that video or Pinterest page for a reason, not just because it’s what everyone else is doing.

Put your energy into the channels where you know your audience is, and make sure they’re finding what they need through those channels.

I’m always on the lookout for other good content resources – if you have some, please share them in the comments.

Future-proofing your online portfolio

So you’ve done some amazing work for someone else’s website and you want to make it a permanent part of your online portfolio. Now that you’ve put the link on your site, you need to get ready for the time when your piece changes on you.

Wait. . . what?

Yep, I did say to get ready for your piece to change. Once your work is on a site that you don’t control, it can change at any time. What you see as the best representation of your work today may not look the same tomorrow.

  • Your article needs to be updated with new information and a typo sneaks in.
  • A process or program changes and now the only thing that remains of your original piece is the title.
  • The content has outlived its usefulness for the current site and needs to be archived.

While I think it always looks best to have a link to the actual page in your portfolio, it’s worthwhile to have backup versions you can use if one of the above situations happens to you.

My archive process

It may seem like a bit of overkill, but having experienced the frustration of having content change on me (often without my knowledge) – it’s worth the time to take these few steps.

Take a screencapture

Do this as soon as you can after the page is published. I’m telling you from experience, it’s really easy to forget.

While I’m usually a big proponent of free tools, I highly recommend buying Snagit for screencaps. It has a ton of features, including the ability to save long pages in a single capture. There’s a 15-day free trial, and if you end up loving it as much as I do, it’s reasonably priced (less than $70 Canadian).

Archive it

If you would prefer to use a functional link in your portfolio instead of a screencapture, you can also add the page to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine so it will be accessible in the future.

Wayback Machine screencapture showing Save Page Now tool
This screencap and circle took me about 30 seconds with Snagit.

I love the Wayback Machine – it’s the only reason my website has any examples from my five years of work on the Government of Alberta website. (Because back then, I was still printing articles for my portfolio.) There are a few things you should be aware of, though.

  • Wayback Machine page displays aren’t perfect (but they’re usually a pretty fair representation). See my Web Writing for Government page for examples of how older pages can render.
  • There are some pages that the Wayback Machine can’t capture. See the Wayback Machine FAQ for more.
  • The Save Page Now function may not accurately capture link destinations. Your link will be active, but it may or may not go to the same place it did at the time you saved the page.

Set up a page change alert

No one has time to go back and check old pages, just to make sure they’re still the same. But you do want to know if something has changed enough that you want to switch to your archive link or a screencap – or remove the piece from your portfolio entirely.

I suggest setting up alerts at the same time you take your initial screencap. I use Follow That Page and Distill for free page tracking. Both also offer paid services, but I haven’t had the need to use either of the paid versions yet.

Follow That Page is your low-tech friend. You create an account, then copy in the URLs you want to track. Follow That Page will send you a plain-text email whenever it finds changes to that page. The emails show additions with a plus sign and deletions with a minus sign. You can also set filters to ignore certain words or phrases.

Distill provides a more visual experience, and lets you monitor the entire page or select the exact parts of the page you want to track by clicking on them. You can sign up for an account, but I find the Firefox browser extension works wonderfully all by itself. (They also have extensions for Chrome and Opera.)

A word of warning on monitoring the full page: If you choose this option it will track any change on the page, including changes to navigation and other global elements. I’ve gotten a lot of false positives from the one page where I chose to monitor everything. Thankfully, I’m also tracking that page through Follow That Page, so I have a secondary check.

What’s your process?

Like most things, my personal archiving process is always evolving. Is there something useful I’m missing? Is there a better tool out there that I don’t know about? Please share your experience in the comments.