In the beginning, there was the word. It wasn’t content managed. There was no HTML. There were no templates, no workflows, and no CMSs. Things were easy. But then there was a paragraph, a heading; there were links, images, and interactive content. Before long, things got complicated. Updating words, webpages, and websites became hard work.
CMSs made this hard work easier. People without specialist knowledge of web development started to create web content too. It became possible to publish more content faster—except there was a catch. The CMS didn’t produce quality content. It simply published whatever it was that people entered into the system.
When I worked for a digital agency, we had a client—let’s call her Lisa—who was lively, enthusiastic, and always full of ideas. She was on a mission to make the world a better place. When she got access to the CMS and was put in charge of managing web content for a large hospitality website, she was excited. Within days, content was updated here, there, and everywhere. The site had it all: big red headings, enormous images, cryptic fonts that hurt your eyes. Never mind the emails to us with the subject line “Help!!!” when the CMS didn’t work wonders. Never mind the bloated code behind the scenes to accommodate Lisa’s very peculiar requirements. Never mind all the features that we developed specifically for her. When Lisa set her mind on something, there was no stopping her.
Interestingly, as a business manager, Lisa was knowledgeable, pragmatic, and determined. But armed with a CMS, she was a danger to herself and others. How could this be? Worst of all, Lisa was not alone. There were others. CMSs turned out to be a double-edged sword, and in the wrong hands, they led to large volumes of poor-quality content being published day in and day out.
Although CMSs have vastly improved in the last decade, and creating decent web content is easier than ever before, there are still lots of Lisas around, and they still produce lots of poor-quality web content. Why? The reasons are varied, but they boil down to four main ones:
Lack of skill—Without a doubt, limited knowledge of usability principles, writing for web best practices, and SEO get in the way of producing effective web content. But this is a problem that’s relatively easy to fix through training and professional development.
Lack of experience—Effective planning, knowing what to leave out—not just what to put in—and being able to predict longer-term outcomes is learned through experience. Accomplished web editors see beyond the excitement of creating a new site and can adequately plan for maintenance and support. However, amateur content editors focus all their energy on creating new content, and they don’t leave enough time and resources for the follow-up work and content updates.
Lack of time and other priorities—In large organizations, content editors are often working on the website on an irregular, part-time basis, alongside their other, primary duties and responsibilities. They often know that they need to do more, but they just can’t carve out the time.
Lack of support—In devolved content authoring environments, web editors usually have access to help in the form of documentation, training, and support. But getting the right help at the right time is difficult. One-to-one support from an experienced digital professional is effective but expensive—and, therefore, scarce. Documentation is often incomplete and out-of-date. CMS training courses conducted by the CMS vendors dive deep into the capabilities of the system, but do little to help with the specifics of a project at hand.
So what can we do to counteract the lack of skill, experience, time, and support? How can we avoid the disjointed, broken customer journeys that are so common in devolved authoring environments?
- Locking down the functionality is a common way of managing output. Use isolated fields for small chunks of content—enter the heading here, and insert your image there. Restricted styles and fonts and limited or no access to template development does the trick. But it’s easy to overdo it and end up with an inflexible system that no longer meets the needs of the content contributors.
- Training that is relevant and specific to the project and the implementation at hand is invaluable. Wider training for subjects such as writing for the web, visual design, usability, and SEO is often overlooked—and it shouldn’t be.
- The art of saying “no” is a necessary practice. Vision and strategic direction are important, and they are as much about saying “no” to things that get in the way as they are about saying “yes” to things that really matter. Content editors should work within clear boundaries that encourage them to produce content that makes sense for the business.
- Healthy pragmatism is essential. Not all content is created equal. Oliver Weedon, digital transformation manager at the University of Westminster in the U.K., uses a garden analogy to describe the web ecosystem in higher education. In this analogy, “walled garden” is the content that’s really important and requires careful consideration. “Wildflower” garden is developed with guidance and direction from the web team. “Meadows” are websites that are free to grow and develop naturally, with only minimum requirements imposed. Treating all content with the same vigor is a losing proposition.
At the end of the day, quality content comes from well-defined processes, motivated content authors, and clear vision. Devolved content authoring shouldn’t be about giving people free rein, but it shouldn’t be about restricting their every move either. With clear strategy, established governance, and relevant training, a lot can be done to elevate the quality of content.