December 9, 2013
Let me guess: The first iteration of your company's website was an attempt to get anything online. It was probably over ten years ago, and you, being the trailblazer you are, had a sneaking suspicion that whatever the future of the world wide web would be, you needed to be a part of it. I bet more than a few people at your company didn't believe you. They thought building a website was silly, but said, “Sure. Go ahead, if you must.”
The design of your first website was probably pretty limited, and it was built completely out of tables. Each page's HTML had to be updated individually to make even the tiniest change site-wide, and making a change to the navigation was absolutely intolerable. But, people eventually realized that your website was, as you had known all along, a great way to communicate with your target audiences for very little cost. The interest in your company's website took off.
All of a sudden, those people who didn't even want a site before were pissed off because you couldn't keep up with their change requests and all the content they wanted to add. You knew you had to get a CMS powering the front end of your site, but you had no idea what kind of beast you were unleashing. You had no content strategy, no governance in place, and your new flexible site grew and grew.
Jump to the current day.
The web is a little more grown up, a bit more sophisticated, and you are looking to redesign yet again. But none of those pages your now content-happy, busy-bee employees have created over the years has ever been reviewed, let alone deleted.
You could go ahead and painstakingly sift through every single page on your site, evaluate its quality, read its content, decide who lives and who dies.
But let's face it: You probably don't need to cart over even half of what you have.
You certainly don't need to waste your time evaluating the leftover page announcing the 2011 company picnic.
We have a suggestion. Instead of sorting through all of the old crap, why not create a list of what you really need to say and what your audience really needs to know?
Take a fresh perspective.
Start with your users' needs and create a “Reverse Content Audit” of the content you are going to need for your new site.
Outline all of your target audiences. The ones that really matter. I am not talking about the occasional person that is going to end up on your site because they were searching for something random. I mean the target users that you have built into your business model—your customers and all the other important possible visitors—your peers, media outlets, and potential employees.
Once you have prepared this list, gather all the smartest people who work with or for you and have them brainstorm everything they can think of that your audiences really need. If you have access to people in your target audience group, ask them what they need. Find out what they have come to your site for in the past, or what they get from your competitors' sites. What do they wish they had always been able to do or find on your site? Don't be scared—they won't bite, I promise. And getting these needs straight from your users' mouths will eliminate any unnecessary guesswork on your end.
Now that you have created a clear outline of all of these needs, think about what mindset your user will likely be in when they approach each piece of content. Will they be excited? Stressed? Confused? Angry? Your content should align with their emotional state. Don't greet a frustrated user with a corny welcoming statement—you'll just make them more frustrated.
Then, search your existing site, scour it even, for any content that covers what you know your audience is looking for. Treat it like a scavenger hunt. Once you find anything relevant to your new content checklist on your existing site, evaluate it with a most discerning eye.
The last thing you want to do is simply move over all the useless content you had in your old site, even if it's reorganized and given a fancy new responsive home. If you start with a content audit before you've really evaluated what your users need, you're likely to let old and less than optimal content make it into the new site.
Why should you audit what you already know is outdated and not serving your goals, in order to determine what you need?
This is where the Reverse Content Audit provides a fresh perspective that can unearth entire areas for new content creation and ways of editing what you already have.
For each bit of content you are evaluating (old, new, in need of some edits), ask yourself the following questions.
- Which one of your target audiences needs this?
- What mindset would they likely be in when they look for it—stressed, in a state of emergency?
- What voice and tone is appropriate to use?
- What is the next action you want that audience to do from this piece of content—contact you, sign up for an e-newsletter, make a donation?
- Does your content sound like it came from a human? Make sure that your content is a conversation, that it is anticipating your users' needs and going above and beyond to give them what they are looking for.
- Is your content helpful? Remember, if all they seek is a single phone number or email address, don't make them work too hard to find it by burying it at the end of a long webpage.
When you evaluate your existing content based on all the needs you have established in your new reverse content audit, don't be afraid if you end up having to rewrite a lot of stuff. You probably will. You may even have to write new content that you never knew you needed.
But with this method, I promise you, you will not end up carting over anything you don't need. You will finally have a reason to make that long-needed fresh start, allowing you to make your content and messaging as helpful and clear as it can possibly be. After all, a website is really about the content it contains. If you aren't using it to better communicate with your clients, you're likely wasting your time.
What do you think about this approach? Have you used other successful but unconventional approaches to auditing website content in the past? Let us know what you think. And if you decide to use a Reverse Content Audit in your next website project, let us know how it transforms your process and outcome! In the words of the great Missy Elliot, “Is it worth it? Let me work it. I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it.”
Creative Commons image from Flickr by Kat Somers