Content strategy rethink – I don’t design like I used to either

My first ever content strategy happened in about 2000. I had this crazy idea that if you made a simple cut paste and post system and hosted it on the web server, anyone could be a web content creator. I had just started a new job and in talking to my co-workers and to people in other parts of the organzation, it was clear to me that the time it took to get stuff put on the website was a major problem.

And the source of the problem was the fact that it all had to go through The Webmaster™. Because that person was the only one who knew which buttons to push.

So why not, I reasoned, make everyone web content creators? After all – we were all grown up, professional type people. We were well-compensated and entrusted with the well-being of the organzation. This would remove the bottleneck and whatever bias The Webmaster™ had due to their situation within the organization.

Content strategy goes from Webmaster to Wild West

And I wrote an embarassingly bad set of scripts in ASP. It took input from forms, stored it and organized it in a database, dressed it up in a template and served it to the visitor. I trained people on how to use it and gave everyone an account and a password.

It took a long time for the concept to take hold. In fact it didn’t really until three years later. By that point the server had moved to Linux/Apache/PHP and a different set of scripts. By that point I was calling it a content management system.

And a couple of years after that I was starting to think maybe this wasn’t working. See the site’s content was overwhelmingly lopsided, favouring press releases over… well… pretty much anything. The website was the creature of the communications department. That’s where the web staff were and that’s whose stuff got posted.

Self-publishing regimens don’t always result in more content

The whole “you can post it yourself” argument (said in that earnest, we’re-trying-to-empower-you kind of voice) worked to quell complaints but not to create content.

Then I made another kind of discovery (by reading someone smart on the internet): putting print content on a website sucks. The only stuff we had that was ‘web ready’ was the ‘fit for public consumption’ stuff – pithy press releases. For all the problems they entail. Shortly thereafter I had another eureka moment: maybe web content doesn’t have to be a 150 word chunk of text. Maybe it’s a listing. A table. Maybe even a video.

Maybe people weren’t feeding the site with content because I’d been asking them for 150 word chunks of text when what they needed was a table. Or maybe they needed a form so that they could listen instead.

Ah but the sands of time shifted beneath my feet and I found myself – two years ago now – in another organization. This lot seemed to have adopted the worst of both worlds: The Webmaster™ strategy but with everyone as a content creator and no curative or editorial role given to… anyone.

Should you be rolling your own web content?

So I’m often the bearer of bad news: “That needs a title that explains what the story is about”. “I don’t care if it’s already been translated, it can’t go up like it is”. We’re trying to provide supports of various kinds (templates, workshops, one-on-one tutorials and planning sessions) to help people produce web content. But the pace of change is slow. Possibly fatally so but that’s the subject for another post.

I’ve concluded that I think all the people we expect to roll their own web content really should not be doing that. They should be content sponsors, or executive producers. Their expert staff should be advising the people who do create the content where they’ve over-simplified, lost or changed meaning. But the job of deciding what form the content should take, and how it should be created properly belongs to people who… ah… know a thing or two about creating web content.

They’re not necessarily communications people or even writers either.

But that’s assuming infinite resources and a workforce that can be reshaped in an instant and populated with stars. I expect in many organizations reality is a tad more complicated and possibly disappointing in that regard.

So until some of the same energy and resources that we used to apply to producing paper communication gets applied to producing web content, it’s likely going to be templates and workshops for us to help people be their own web publishers, whether they want it or not, or whether it’s the best approach or not.

This post originally appeared on my blog,