“People only say ‘Wow!’ once.” One of my former bosses would frequently say this to clients who obsessed over web design. Her point was not that design isn’t important; rather, that snappy fonts and clever color palettes are not the reason people visit websites. People visit websites because they want good content to help them complete a task they have in mind.
Curiously, few people obsess over web content in the same way that they obsess over web design. It’s easy and fun to tweak the “look and feel” of a site, but producing content is taxing, time-consuming work.
Content is a broad term. Here, we focus mainly on web copy—that is, the words that make up 90 percent of most websites. Most clients (whether internal or external) feel capable of producing this content themselves, and most web teams or agencies are happy to let them. But it’s also work that can significantly hold up a site launch.
This article can’t promise to show you how to make producing good web content easier or more fun. It will, however, recommend some effective ways of motivating people to get this hard work done. It will be particularly useful for internal web teams who wish to cajole content out of staff within their organization. It will also be useful for any UX professional who recognizes the need to help clients populate the site they’ve helped them create.
In researching this article, I spoke with a range of web professionals, working both client-side and agency-side, about how to motivate people to create good, effective, and timely web content. The following practical tips—a mixture of strategic and operational interventions—are inspired by those discussions.
1. Have a Proper Plan
In truth, most people do have some kind of plan for the content they need to publish, but not all plans are created equal.
On one hand there’s the plan that identifies someone in marketing to write a few pages before a certain date, or reminds a few junior members of staff when they’ll need to pull an all-nighter for a content migration. On the other hand there’s the plan that audits existing content, analyzes business processes, observes user behavior, and tracks competitor activity so as to make effective, workable recommendations for new content. The latter is the kind of plan you need, often called a content strategy.
Content strategies provide:
- Compelling rationale for all decisions about new content
- Workable frameworks for creating and maintaining content
Content strategy brings clarity, order, and purpose to the messy business of content creation. Let’s face it, no one likes a mess. (For an excellent book on content strategy, try Kristina Halvorsen’s Content Strategy for the Web.)
2. Assign Value to Web Content
It’s hard for someone to get motivated to produce content if they’re not sure how it serves the business, who the reader is, or how that reader is going to engage with it.
With few exceptions, every piece of content should simultaneously meet an agreed business objective and a known user requirement (preferably detailed in the content strategy and conveyed through tools like user personas). It’s certainly more motivating to produce something with a defined goal than to create something that does not align with a business need or may never be read.
3. Measure and Report on Success
There are many ways to measure whether a piece of content is fulfilling its purpose. The important thing is not which tools you use, but what you decide to measure. Key performance indicators (KPIs) need to be decided at the beginning of any project, ideally defined in a content strategy.
The least helpful KPIs are often a variation of the number of hits/clicks/visits a certain page gets. This reveals little about whether a page is fulfilling its purpose for the business or the user.
Better KPIs take an online business objective, link it to a user action, and find an accurate way to measure how often a user completes that action. For example,
- Number of times a brochure is downloaded
- Number of newsletter signups a web form generates
The best KPIs measure engagement at key milestones throughout the lifecycle of an individual user, showing where the overall user experience can be improved.
These kinds of success metrics are incredibly motivating for content owners. They show the real-world impact of the work they’re doing online. More importantly, they give indications of how to continuously increase this impact.
4. Get Rid of the ROT
Ironically, while it’s hard to produce good content, organizations often have far too much content on their websites.
Information bloat is incredibly demoralizing. Culling content to create a fitter, leaner website is hugely motivating. Start with the ROT: content that is Redundant, Outdated, or Trivial. If you did a content audit in the early phase of your content strategy, this will help you identify what needs to go. Be ruthless, get senior level buy-in, set a deadline for content owners to argue their case, and if you don’t hear from them, DELETE!
No one wants to spend time creating even more content for a site that’s out of control. But contributing to a focused, effective, well-oiled publishing machine? That’s a different story.
5. Get a Reality Check
When you’ve been working somewhere for a long time, it’s easy to forget how things are in the “real world”. For those managing websites, this can mean fixating on internal issues—such as budgets and resourcing—while losing sight of important trends in the external environment.
Two of the most motivating insights come from an external environment reality check:
- What is the competition doing online?
- What do users really think of what we’re doing online?
An expert review of competitor websites can help show how a website fares in comparison to others within the same market or sector. Take this a step further and film users trying to complete simple tasks on the client site and again on competitive sites. Is the site you’re working on honestly considered best in class?
Few things are more likely to motivate people more than seeing happy users on someone else’s website.
6. Embrace Good Enough
Writing can be nerve-wracking. Putting something down on paper is like shining a light on our own intellect. Anything less than perfect and we fear looking like a buffoon.
In reality, this kind of attitude can hinder content production.
For most people, writing is difficult; editing is easier. This suggests we do two things: take the pressure off writers and tap into the creative energy of editors. A first draft doesn’t need to be perfect, just “good enough”. A first edit might be more substantive; a second edit fixes language and grammar; a third edit serves as a final proof.
Here, we are aiming for a workflow that eases the burden on individual writers by shifting the emphasis to team production. Writers might get paired with named editors at the start of the commissioning process, so they know with whom they’re sharing production responsibility.
7. Avoid the Blank Piece of Paper
Nothing is more uninspiring than a blank piece of paper (or Word document), with a few lines of instruction and a deadline. Most people need structure and guidance to get the creative juices flowing.
With web content, this guidance comes in the form of content templates. Ideally, you’ll work with your key content owners to create a template for each of the generic types of content on the site, for example: News Item, Event, Blog Post, How-to Guide, Case Study.
A template identifies the blocks of content that need to be created on a page, gives instructions for each block, and specifies word limits. Templates help writers by providing sufficient structure and guidance to motivate them into action. They have the added benefit of ensuring a more consistent user experience across all content on a website.
8. Don’t Drop the Ball
If you’re managing a web project that involves a significant amount of content production, you cannot afford to drop the ball. That means no missed deadlines or tardy communications.
There will come a point in most web projects where almost everyone is looking for an excuse to stall on producing content. It pays not to set a precedent that says delays are okay.
Set goals for the project, communicate them widely, and deliver on your share on time. That way, you maximize your chances of others following suit. You also get to negotiate from a position of authority if and when people fail to deliver.
9. Get Buy-in From Senior Management
If you want to motivate busy people to do things for you, it helps to have their boss on your side. In this instance, buy-in doesn’t mean senior management signing off on a project plan, but that someone with senior level clout champions your project and will motivate staff to help you.
I’ve used enthusiastic directors to email my surveys, recruit for internal user testing, cajole content producers, remind people of quickly approaching deadlines—all because staff are far more likely to respond to them than to me.
Nurture powerful allies. They become more and more useful as the demands on staff to produce content increase.
Writing for the web is a peculiar skill. Everyone required to produce content online should be trained appropriately.
This is more than just helping a few people become better writers or understanding how to use a style guide. The best training comes as part of an organizational cultural change that slowly embeds a new way of thinking about content.
Training for web writing should achieve two fundamental things:
- Encourage people to unlearn bad habits picked up from academic writing. Academic writing encourages complexity, wordiness, cleverness. Web writing demands brevity, simplicity, and accessibility. Many people think they can write because they have a good degree or can turn in a good report. Conversely, many people think they can’t write because they’ve struggled with academic standards. Writing for the web humbles the intellectual and empowers those who think clearly and simply.
- Move people out of a print mindset and into a digital mindset. The print medium provides a linear progression through information—it helps people passively consume information. It’s the medium that most of us grew up with and with which we are most familiar. Digital media is highly networked and encourages interaction—it helps people do things. But its networked nature creates very mobile, distracted users. It means content producers need to understand their audiences, grab their attention, and help them complete their tasks. Otherwise, they’ll quickly go elsewhere.
Over to you…
Hopefully this approach to web content is more motivating than focusing on punctuation or grammar. In today’s digital world, these kinds of insights aren’t mindless distractions, they’re life skills. There are, no doubt, countless others and I’d love to hear some of yours in the comments.
Special thanks to Andrew Georgiou, Dan Jackson, Lara Carim, Joel Hardman, Chris Moos, Susan Farrell and everyone at Sift Digital for their valuable insights.
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