How to plan better content

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November 13, 2012
How to plan better content.

Building stuff for the web is fun. Want to know what isn’t? Waiting on a client to give you content so that you can launch their bloody website.

Before I founded my startup, I worked as a freelancer and built websites for all kinds of clients. I often found that my entire process would fall short when it came down to the delivery of content. Worst of all, I would find myself not getting paid because their website “hadn’t launched.”

It didn’t matter who the client was or how much planning had gone into it: content was always delivered late, and clients never made deadlines. Most of the time, content would be delivered in dribs and drabs — which meant I would have to waste time trying to piece it all together.

Content first

Avoid delayed and disorganized content by taking a “content first” approach.


Get to know your client, their business and their objectives. The more time you spend doing this, the easier it will be to work out what content they need.

Before you begin design, development or wireframing, help your client understand the true value of their content. I’ve found this approach useful: include the words “revenue” and “content” in the same sentence, as in: “Having great content is important because, ultimately, it increases the likelihood that your website will generate revenue.”

While not every project has big budgets set aside for content, I recommend you allot as much time as you can to the following steps:

  1. Content audit: lay everything out on the table.
  2. Audience research: get your head into the mindset of the crowd.
  3. Information architecture: develop your site structure.
  4. Define goals: empower your audience to complete tasks you set along the path.
  5. Calls to action: identify key calls to action, and measure their effectiveness.
  6. Content development: break up your content into manageable chunks.
  7. Workflow: automate the process when possible to keep things fresh.

In this article I’ll walk you through these processes and show you how you can use them to streamline your content workflow.

Content audit

Let the fun begin! A content audit helps you lay out existing content and identify what can be adapted or repurposed. Content audits are great for highlighting gaps in a content strategy by exposing content that is missing or outdated. For example, if a company has gone public, they need to make the required regulatory information available, and it may not already be on the existing website.

Follow these steps to make sure you’re nailing the basics:

  1. Excel it up.
    Create spreadsheets for all your clients’ websites (as well as any off-site content). Take inventory of all web pages, including proper titles and descriptions. It will be a worthwhile investment of time.
  2. Adapt and repurpose.
    Use the information you gathered in your discovery process to identify what content is still relevant and how it can be used.
  3. Analyze gaps.
    What has your client talked about that doesn’t already exist? Prioritize the nonexistent stuff; consider it when developing the site map.
  4. What’s hot?
    Study analytics to identify pages that generate more traffic than others. Following this, unearth why those pages are popular, and obtain the search terms that people are using to find the website.

Audience research

Audience research helps you understand the people you should be developing content for, and understanding these people will help you give them what they’re looking for.

Depending on how much time you have, choose either to conduct cursory or in-depth research (in which you’d go as low as roles and perhaps the different phases of a prospect’s buying cycle). For now, we’ll keep it simple.

The research you are about to embark upon doesn’t need to be taxing; by conducting simple interviews with the right people about the information they seek, you can make big strides towards producing useful, usable and delightful content.


Goals image via Shutterstock

Use these quick steps as a starting point for your research:

  1. Get a list of existing stakeholders (namely customers) from your client.
  2. Find out which of those customers makes purchasing decisions and what their roles are in their companies or households.
  3. Interview these people individually to determine what content is most important to them.
  4. Investigate what else might be of use to them (“When buying (x), what information is most important in your decision-making process?”).

The key at this stage is to define the groups of people that your clients interact with and to make sure there is content to accommodate to their needs.

A great way to pull all of this research together is to create personas. Say your client sells telecom systems. In that case, multiple decision-makers are likely involved in purchasing a new system. They may include:

  • the CEO, whose job is to consider overall business benefits;
  • a purchasing officer, who ensures the company gets the best deal;
  • and an IT team, to make sure the system is compatible with the other systems.

Even with these three simple examples, you can begin to imagine breaking content down to cater to each group. You’ll likely discover a multitude of people who your client wishes to address. Some other audiences to consider are:

  • customers and prospects,
  • suppliers,
  • the press,
  • trade organizations and societies,
  • investors,
  • partners,
  • competitors,
  • career-seekers,
  • regulators.

Come out of this stage with a list of required content that has been mapped against your relevant audiences. To visualize this, consider creating a content map.

Information architecture

So, you’ve spent some time getting to know your clients and their business, talking to their teams and developing an understanding of their various audiences. Now it’s time to get your hands dirty and begin to flesh out the structure of your site and determine what information should go where. Draw from your research.

A common delusion I’ve discovered in clients was the expectation that a site map would represent their company’s organizational structure. They should, rather, organize the information in such a way as to make it most accessible to their audiences; they should be thinking about making purchasing and other actions as easy as possible. Still, welcoming your client’s ideas will help you develop an optimal site structure.

Before you start drawing pretty diagrams, though, make sense of all of the information. Techniques are available for just that.

Card sorting is a great starting point. Note each potential web page and section on different colored cards, and get your client to sort them (by grouping or mapping) according to what they believe would be most logical for their customers.

To sum up:

  1. Use your initial research and content audit to help generate ideas;
  2. Study web analytics to identify what is popular already and how people are finding pages;
  3. Gain insight from your client about the site structure’s rationale.

I’ve always found it useful while working with clients to break particular products and services down into:

  • pain points (obstacles faced by potential customers),
  • benefits (what you can provide to ease the pain),
  • value (why customers should choose your client).

By asking your clients to think about their products and services in this way, you can draw out techniques to target audiences effectively. For example, CEOs appreciate concise information, whereas IT staff appreciate detailed technical specification PDFs.


Launch image via Shutterstock


Now that you have a solid idea of the audience and what information they’re seeking, set content-related goals. Goals will help you determine the website’s structure and maintain consistency.

Set at least one goal for every page of the website. They don’t have to be very ambitious — just enough to facilitate making improvements down the road. For example, the goal of a product page could be for visitors to make an inquiry, register for a webinar or download a white paper. The goal of a careers page might be simply to get candidates to upload résumés and read about the company’s culture. Goals vary a great deal from project to project, but the important thing is to know what they are.

Setting goals is a great opportunity for you to show your client that you understand their business and its objectives. If an objective is to increase sales, show that you are looking for opportunities to generate leads. If an objective is to recruit people, entice users to upload résumés and click through to the company’s culture page.

Don’t overcomplicate things. For me, the idea has always been to start small, show a client the benefits of a goal-orientated approach, and then land repeat business with them to improve upon the results once we’ve learned what works effectively (as well as what doesn’t).

Calls to action

Follow through on goals by making a big deal of each call to action. Ensure they are clear and specific. You need users to trust the website, and they need to know what to expect. It doesn’t have to be dull; it’s just that uncertainty is never fun. On a website that runs webinars, for example, label the call to action something like, “Yes, I want to learn about telecom systems for FREE.” Get as creative as you like, but make sure your calls to action deliver on their promises.

It’s imperative that you put mechanisms in place to measure your calls to action. Otherwise, how will you know they’re working? Watch and learn what works. Improve what doesn’t.

Hundreds of tools exist that let you track conversion rates. My favorite is KISSmetrics. Also, check out Mixpanel. If you prefer a free solution, Google Analytics is great.

I recommend tracking analytics weekly and monthly. Spend a few minutes preparing a report for your clients that explains the metrics and that includes your hypotheses and shows how you plan to act on the results. This will provide them with good reason to hire you again: to improve the results.

Content development

You’ve made it… to the hard part. It’s time to get your clients to deliver the content you need to launch the website on time. How do you make this process easy and painless?

Break content down into manageable chunks, and guide your clients through it. Simple, surely.

Growth image via Shutterstock

Shooting over a few empty Word documents isn’t going to cut it. If you use Word documents, set them up as structured templates for each page of the website. A template could include information about:

  • target audience (personas that the content should address);
  • pain points that the page is intended to mitigate or prevent;
  • supporting assets (e.g. PDF downloads or prerecorded webinars);
  • tone of voice, writing style (a style guide);
  • the goal this page is intended to contribute to;
  • calls to action invoked on the page.

Include content requirements, such as:

  • legal requirements (e.g. “All content must be hosted within the UK.”);
  • business requirements (e.g. “The company logo must be in all emails.”);
  • creative requirements (e.g. “All written content must follow the company style guide.”),
  • technical requirements (e.g. “Photos must be 72-DPI JPEG files, narrower than 400 pixels.’).

Keep yourself organized at this point; Word documents can get messy quickly, and attachments are easily lost in an email inbox.


Stay away from Word documents if you can; there are loads of online tools that can move content development out of your inbox and into a dedicated place, a content management system (CMS). This is desirable; the workflow can become agile and collaborative rather than static and fragmented.

Choose tools that work with your existing workflow, or adapt the way you work altogether. It’s worth breaking a few eggs at this stage in order to make management easier in the long run and to increase the likelihood that content is completed on time. One of the main benefits of online content development is that everything is online and visible (unlike untethered email attachments), and it’s much easier to monitor progress and react to bottlenecks.

For small teams and individual freelancers, there’s the somewhat predictable Google Drive (formerly Google Docs) approach. Google Drive is fairly familiar even to “technically challenged” clients, because it’s not very different from most desktop word-processing software. By making your documents public (which eliminates the need for people to set up a Google account) and by enabling inline commenting, you can create a quick, easy and flexible means of collecting content. It can be too flexible, though; there’s always a risk of templates being dismantled, broken or just plain ignored.

Large teams (or anyone looking for a more comprehensive content platform) might like to try GatherContent, which can help you plan, structure and collaborate. With it, create a heirarchy of pages, and add structural templates to each. Add guidelines for each piece of content if you like, and thus walk your clients through the writing process while constantly referring to style guidelines. This approach of collaboration and guidance serves as an extremely powerful safety net against wasted time and bad content. Furthermore, when using these online platforms, it becomes easy to spot outdated content because all existing content lives in one place (making those audits a whole lot more enjoyable).

This leads to the very-much-not-an-endpoint: content maintenance. I can’t stress enough the importance of looking after your content. It’s common to publish and then forget, and equally common to find outdated or irrelevant content that has been forgotten. To prevent both, conduct regular content audits.

Making something delicious

Developing a content strategy isn’t all that different from cooking. Yes, some recipes are complex, but they’re still essentially about following steps. As in cooking, it helps to invest time in planning and making sure you have the all right ingredients for a website; nobody wants to be caught unprepared for Joe Vegetarian.

By following the steps I’ve laid out in this article, I hope you’ll begin to give content the time it deserves (and requires) and, at the end of the day, get the content you need, on time. Go content-first!

What challenges do you encounter when gathering site content? Have you ever had a client deliver content on time? Let us know in the comments.

James Deer

James Deer is passionate about digital and has distaste for unorganized content. He’s the founder of and founded DEER/digital, one of Scotland’s leading digital agencies. He loves his wife, two pugs and snowboarding. Connect with @jamesdeer on Twitter.

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