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Content First, Then Design – Why All Websites Need A Content Strategy

It happens way too often:  You want to build a new website and your first priority is an amazing new design.  After some back and forth with an agency or contractor the design is finally complete.  It looks great, even all that “Lorem Ipsum” text.  There’s no real content because you didn’t want to use any of that content you wrote a decade ago.  You wanted something fresh, but went ahead on the design first figuring you’d fill in the blanks later.  Now all you want to do is launch your new site, but you’re trying to write copy to fit in all those placeholders the design firm left for you.  Nothing fits, and your awesome new design just doesn’t look right anymore.   Sound familiar?

The problem is that we think about design first, content afterwards, and that’s the absolute wrong order.  The conversation about content must happen first otherwise the design you create will need to be redesigned again and again to work with all the inevitable content changes.  By focusing on content first, design second, you will focus your energies on the most important aspect of any website – its content – and save everyone time and money down the road.  Best of all, it’s easier than you think.

Develop a content strategy with your agency

A basic content strategy is vital to your overall website design.  It is the organization of all information (pages, copy, photos, videos, etc.) on the website and it is how you portray your image or brand to the world.  A content strategy also ensures all parties (team members, employees, partners, etc.) fully understand the purpose of your website and achieve a birds’ eye view of the project.

This article is designed to help you develop that overarching content strategy – not actually write it.  The writing can be handed off to someone else on your staff or taken on by a full service agency like LeapGo.  By assigning the task early on, the content can be ready by the time your design is finished.

The most important thing is that everyone has a deep understanding of the importance of a content strategy.  It will allow you to minimize project snags, maximize project efficiency, and build a stronger website.  Now you should be thinking, “a content-first strategy is a great idea”.

What the heck are content pillars and how can I use them to help formulate my content strategy?

To start your content strategy, you need to focus first on your website’s content pillars.  The word “pillar” is thrown around a lot in the business world, but in the context of content strategy, your pillars are the underlying concepts that keep your website together and should be known before any content is written.  What is the purpose of the website?  How will visitors perceive it and trust it?  Will the online content need to align with offline content?

To answer these questions, most content strategists will focus on pillars, such as:

  • Objective – The purpose of the website, whether it’s to sell t-shirts or get people to download recipes.  This is imperative to ensuring proper flow of web pages (all roads lead to the end goal)
  • Audience – Knowing your customers is essential.  This helps you develop ideas with your customers in mind, because maybe they need more education, more contact options, or more product information
  • Branding – This guarantees that the tone of voice, product positioning, educational information, and other aspects of the website are in tune with what’s already out there.  Consistency is key.
  • Trust – Making sure you are employing elements so visitors feel safe exploring and transacting.  Think about testimonials, team bios, FAQs, resource pages, and other ways that make your website trustworthy.

Next create content silos

Once you understand the site pillars, you can begin to breakdown the major content components.  These components are more specific buckets of information and we like to call these ‘content silos’.  Content silos are broad categories, but they portray the actual content you want to put on the website.

For example, take Joe’s T-Shirt Company.  The company is a family-owned business whose objective is to sell t-shirts through product education and branding. The audience is young and is generally unaware that the tees are organic and American-made.  Therefore, the content silos might look as follows:

  • Company History [Joe’s Family, Joe’s Bio, Company Mission]
  • Product Education (Made in America, Organic Cotton, Process)
  • Product Info (Product Descriptions, Retail Locations)
  • Legal & Technical (Terms, Privacy, Returns, Shipping Info)

Lastly complete a full site map

Eventually, these content silos can be broken down further into specific web pages and the main menu navigation, thus creating a full site map.  Your site map doesn’t have to reflect the exact same content silo buckets, but rather the buckets should be used to ensure all the information is included in the site map.  Continuing the Joe’s T-Shirt Company example, the site map might look as follows:

  • Home
  • About Us [Joe’s Family History, Founder, Team Bio, Company Mission]
  • Our Products [Joe’s Tees, On Sale, Retail Locations, Testimonials]
  • Our Process [All Organic, Printing Process, Made in America, FAQs]
  • Follow Joe [Blog, News & Events]
  • Contact Us
  • ~footer~ [Terms, Privacy, Returns, Shipping Info]

As you can see, the final site map differed slightly from the content silos.  The site map kept the objective in mind (Our Products being a primary category to increase sales) and the audience too (page titles and navigation are customer-friendly).  In addition, trustworthy resources, such as FAQs, a blog, and news and events were included.  The site map’s well-organized hierarchical style is easy to follow and puts everyone on the same page.  At this point, no words have been written on any pages, but you have a strong understanding of the flow, content, and needs of the website.

Use a master content document

If you plan to take the content a step further by creating or helping to create all the actual written content, then our recommendation is to create a master content document.  This is a working document that details every inch of website content, from the main menu titles and subpage copy to the images and small-print disclaimer copy.  A master content document is crucial to keeping everything in order and in one central location.

How do you create a master content document?  Make a Word or similar document with a dedicated section for every page on the site map.  When content is ready (rough draft or final), paste it under each page.  You can color-code each section with red (meaning still need content), yellow (rough draft or unapproved), and green (approved/final) so you quickly know where everything stands. Work through the document until every section is green and voila – your content is complete!

If you want an online option that’s more sleek and collaborative, you can use a combination of websites.  Create a site map using software such as SlickPlan.  Then develop the content in a site such as GatherContent.

Still the best online tools can’t develop high-quality content and ideas for you. When you need help putting together your entire content strategy, hire a talented contractor or agency to assist in content strategy and development.

Time for design

You don’t need a completed master content document to start designing.  As soon as you feel comfortable with the overall site map and have established clear roles of content responsibility, you can start the design process.

The best part about creating a content strategy first is that it makes your initial designs stronger too.  The approval and revision process is so much easier when you don’t have to review barebones mockup, make guesses as to where the content will fit, or fill mockups with masses of Lorem Ipsum; rather you’ll have information that is real and applicable to your awesome new design.

Think content first, then design and you’ll always win in the end! Do you have a story to share or comment? Please let us know in the comments section below: