You’ve convinced your client to prioritize the content in the website redesign process. That’s the hard work. Now it’s time to show them why this matters and how it can inform a more user-friendly site.

With a content-first approach, you need to start with a discovery phase. It prioritizes the content as the focus on the website, gives you key insights on what content needs to be created, and helps you understand how the brand's audience will actually use the site. This is all valuable information that should influence the design of the site.

Prior to running GatherContent, I ran a digital agency, so this is a tried-and-tested approach that we used on many client projects.

We began including a discovery phase as a non-optional line item in our proposals because we had learned our lesson over the years. We haggled with clients and chopped planning items to accommodate budget only to end up with a substandard, poorly planned website. 

We wanted to be proud of our work, and we wanted our clients to be happy with their product, so we introduced the discovery phase.

This phase might feel tedious, but it creates a much better end-product, both for the client and its audience. 

Here's the five main phases of content discovery:

Content Audit Preparation

Before you dive into your project, it’s essential to conduct a content audit. Whether content will be migrating from the old site to the new, or you’re going to wipe the slate clean, the learnings from a content audit are invaluable and will actually help you to determine whether that client’s request for migration is even viable.

Get members of your team and your key contacts on the client side into a room. Then, start the detective work. It’s worth noting, in many situations, that the client may not know the answer to some of the more technical questions. If you think this will be the case, it may be worth emailing over a questionnaire before the meeting so they have time to look for answers internally or externally if they worked with another firm in the past.

A few of the questions I use when preparing for a content audit are:

  • What content types currently exist? Is there news, staff profiles, resources, ebooks, videos, or product pages?
  • Where is content feeding into the site from? Is content from an RSS feed appearing on the site?
  • Is some content out of your control? Are there any constraints around its accuracy, format, or availability? For example, are there financial services regulations on site content?
  • How much content will the new navigation need to handle? Will you be streamlining the existing navigation content or adding to it?
  • Has the existing team been able to maintain the content and site sections that already exists? Don’t necessarily trust your client’s response here. When was the blog last updated? What about the news area? Which authors are active and inactive? Has any content not been updated since the site last launched?
  • What content is or has been popular? If the brand has analytics setup, it’s worth checking the numbers yourself to validate this with data. Nobody can argue with the numbers.

The next step in this preparation stage is to determine the size of the site you’ll be auditing. We always used a rule of thumb to ensure that content audits were feasible and manageable from a resource perspective (as with any project work really).

For smaller sites that were less than 400 pages, we did a complete site audit. This meant a review of every page and every content asset. For larger sites, we completed a sample audit that included a variety of pages and assets from each section and at all levels. Depending on the size of the larger sites, we would vary this accordingly.

To determine the number of pages on the site as quickly and painlessly as possible, find the sitemap page. It’s worth noting that on complex or large sites, not every page is listed on the Sitemap so you might need to do some more digging to get an accurate picture of the site’s scale.

You can also use tools that help automate this process, such as Content Analysis ToolContent Wrx, or Screaming Frog.

Once you have an idea of how many pages you are working with, it’s time to get your hands dirty and begin the audit itself.

It’s worth noting at this stage that continuity during auditing is essential. Yes, it’s a tedious task. But don’t be tempted to outsource it because the insights are invaluable. Assign the task to a member of your team who will be able to use the findings to influence the project at every stage.

Start With a Content Audit

If you don’t already have a structure or process for content audits at your agency, here’s a sample content audit template you can use to get you started.

I recommend you modify it based on your project, client, and agency. Ours was a constant work in progress based on what the clients needs were and what we had learned during previous projects.

1) Organize the site content in Excel or Google Sheets.

Do this in layers. Start with the homepage (layer 0), about, team page, and then move on to layer two, which is the next set of subpages. Don’t forget footer items that might not be in the sitemap. 

2) Audit each page.

Input the title, URL, content type, content assets, page functionality, page owner, source of content, analytics data, key messages, accuracy, quality, and red flags for each page. It helps to also assign each page a unique reference number so you can easily keep track of pages. 

3) Analyze the results.

Once you have all of the research and data in your spreadsheet for each page, it’s time to analyze the results so you can reach actionable insights. Ask these questions:

  • How much content exists? Is it more or less than expected?
  • Did we discover any content types the client need to preserves?
  • What state of accuracy and quality is the content in? Can anything be migrated, or does it all need to be re-written? Is the content coming from expected sources?
  • What content did the site struggle to sustain?
  • Overall, what content was popular or unpopular with readers?

4) Share the findings.

Once you have all the necessary information document, you need to pull out key insights you can share with both your internal team and the client. Sharing the results, particularly the quantitative ones, will solidify and support your recommendations to the client, making it easier to move forward without resistance.

Understand the Content Ecosystem

Once you have a better understanding of your clients’ existing site content, it’s important to learn more about the wider context of the information.

Set aside an hour or two with your client, ideally those who are responsible for creating and maintaining content, to go through things in a little more detail.

It’s worth establishing:

  • What are the main sources of content that detail their brand and should inform the site content? For example, is this the annual report or the company's corporate social responsibility policy?
  • What content does the site currently syndicate from other sources? This may have been fully answered during the audit or you may need to find out more.
  • Is there any related and valuable, non-digital content that could be used or repurposed for the new site? You might need them to investigate internally as often things are hidden away or siloed across departments.
  • Who is responsible for each source of content? Determining this will be critical to the content production process once you reach that stage.

You could make this exercise more interactive by using Post-it notes to map out the key sources. Collaboration is key during a process like this. You’re more likely to get honest and insightful responses from the client if they feel involved. 

Obvious digital sources of content your team can repurpose will be the existing site, social platforms, microsites, and intranets. Non-digital sources could include marketing collateral, sales resources such as catalogs or buyer’s guides, corporate documents including policies, or public investor reports. Once you give your client examples, they should be able to come up with a wealth of existing content that will start to shape the content plan.

Perform a Competitor Content Analysis

Most of you who offer websites and services will be more than familiar with the trusty old competitor analysis. But have you taken it a step further and done a competitor content analysis?

Initially, you may be thinking this is overkill. After asking our client content questions, researching their site, auditing their content, analyzing it, and asking them more questions, what is the value of spending more hours looking at their competitor’s content?

Unless your clients offer a product, service, or serve a purpose that no organization has ever served before, they will have competitors who have already attempted to create content to serve similar users and goals. This means that there are valuable lessons to be learned from their efforts.

Ask your client who their top three (or more, if time and budget allow) competitors are and have a look at their sites to determine:

  • What language and labels do they use? Is there a trend across competitors?
  • What are the primary communication messages they’ve prioritized?
  • What content types and templates are they using?
  • What content is unique to them and what is the equivalent for your client?
  • How much detail do they include?
  • What content mediums are they using and how?
  • What content are they translating?
  • What tone of voice do they use? Does it reinforce their brand?

The results of your content competitor analysis can then be fed back to your client and project team to inform the approach to your content migration/production phase and design.

Apply Content to Personas

This final stage of our content-first discovery phase is about the application of personas to content requirements and needs. (If you want to learn how to define and create personas, click here.)

When you have your personas created, start to determine the answers for the following questions. It’s worth involving your client in this stage as they will have the most insight into their current customers' mindsets, habits, and needs. 

  • What specific content does each persona need to solve their problem?
  • What content type do they prefer, expect, or need?
  • Where and how do they currently access that content?
  • Why do find the client's site? Could they go elsewhere?
  • How much detail do they expect or need?

For projects where additional budget is available, it’s worth it to validate these gut conclusions with data from user surveys and interviews.

Find Focus for Your Next Web Project

This in-depth study should provide you with the information you need to create original content, refine outdated content, or simply migrate strong pieces of content. And you will be able to analyze all this from the view of the brand's target customer.

The process will also reiterate the content-first approach you are taking. Clients can begin to see why this focus matters to the design process and for future marketing initiatives. 

Most importantly, the discovery phase will result in the creation of a streamlined, user-friendly website that is both informative and relevant. That is something both your agency and the brand can be proud of. 

Does your agency run a content-first discovery phase with clients? What tools and techniques do you use to understand a brand's existing content? Share your approach in the comments below!

new agency client kickoff

Originally published Mar 11, 2015 12:00:00 PM, updated July 28 2017


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