December 27, 2011
Content audits are essential—the very backbone of content strategy, right? But I’ve got a secret: most of the time, I don’t even do them.
Don’t get me wrong. I love me some quality Excel time. I don’t mind spending a few days weeks neck-deep in the quest to document every single thing about a site’s content. As a consultant, I’d just prefer that you do it yourself.
Yes, you got that right: I like my clients to do their own content audits. Seem like a poor way to make a living as a content strategist for hire? Blasphemous? Or just plain lazy?
Trust me, there’s a method to this madness.
It may seem counterintuitive to hand over content strategy work to people who aren’t content strategists. But when organizations are invested in their own audits, everyone wins.
Organizations: Know your own mess
Every content audit is an opportunity for an organization to own its content—in all its gory detail or glorious disarray. Without helping you get close-as-can-be to understanding what content you have, where it is, and what condition it’s in, how can I expect you to know what it takes to govern and maintain it?
The more those of you within an organization are comfortable with your content and clear on what it needs to accomplish, the more prepared you’ll be to take control of it for the long haul. After all, your organization created it and scattered it willy-nilly ‘round the tubes, and you’ll be responsible for it once I’ve gone off to help sort out other people’s content problems. By rolling up your sleeves and digging in, you’ll learn a tremendous amount about what to do—and what to avoid—in the future.
Consultants: What you don’t know does hurt you
Which content is up to date? What’s relevant? Who owns what? Standing on the outside, I find it difficult to answer these questions satisfactorily. While picking up some industry knowledge and asking smart questions about an organization helps, nothing replaces insider information.
Instead of going it alone, I like to turn to the folks who’ve been closest to the content for the longest: marketing or website managers, editors, corporate communications folks, and the like. Those who are intimate with the inner workings of the organization and are tasked with managing content will always know a lot more than me about where it comes from and whether it’s accurate.
Both: Budget matters
Let’s be real: if you hire a consultant, their time is your money. Consultants aren’t cheap, and investing in one is a big decision. By freeing your content strategist’s time to work on more strategic elements, you’re saving budget for the parts of the process you’re least familiar with, like message development, editorial planning, content structuring, or site architecture.
As for me, it’s not all about maximizing billable hours. It’s about coming to an agreement about what my client’s priorities are, and working together to achieve them. After all, what I want more than anything is to feel good about the end result. And knowing my efforts are likely to hold up for the long term feels best of all.
After working with several clients on joint content audits, I’ve found I get the best results when we can establish shared responsibility. Typically, the arrangement looks a lot like this:
- Both: Get on the same page about what we need to accomplish. Identify content goals and key messages. Discuss known issues.
- Consultant: Document the big picture: content types, current organizational schema, approximate quantity. Assess content performance (through analytics, user research).
- Consultant: Create audit approach: identify quantitative metrics (URL, date modified, type, etc.) and recommend qualitative elements (tone/voice, call to action, quality).
- Organization: Vet content types and audit approach.
- Consultant: Conduct audit sample for each content type. Train internal auditors on what to look for.
- Both: Establish timeline for completion and regular check-ins. Discuss findings along the way.
- Organization: Audit. Audit. Audit. Then audit some more.
- Consultant: Use final document to develop overall analysis and recommendations.
- Both: Discuss results and next steps for implementation.
Your mileage may vary—after all, there’s no one right way to tackle a content strategy problem. As Corey Vilhauer puts it in his epic piece on building a content strategy methodology:
“The one true path to content strategy gold is a fallacy, because no one has the same rhythm, the same skills, the same circumstances.”
Not only does each strategist’s skills vary, but businesses have complex ecosystems of their own as well—making a rigid approach difficult to stick to. While the benefits of an internal team working on the audit are great, not all organizations have the time, skills, or resources to tackle the project themselves.
Rather than force-fit my preferences to others’ circumstances, I try to understand both the problem and the organization, then suggest an approach that will accomplish as much as possible given the realities of the situation. Sometimes we divvy up the audit. Sometimes a client takes the project and runs with it. Sometimes we do an abridged version together because we’re on a tight turn. Occasionally, I own the audit entirely and just ask questions along the way.
However you choose to work, you’re going to need a heavy dose of partnership for this to work—and that may be new territory for some consultants and organizations.
In the old agency model, organizations hired agencies to perform a service: to make an ad, build website, place media, design a sales kit, whatever. Agencies would get the assignment, ask some questions, and then make the thing they were hired to make.
While this model still works for some projects (though, to be honest, I think it’s becoming increasingly problematic), it never makes sense in content strategy—because that strategy must live beyond a launch date, and it’s those inside the organization who are going to have to keep it alive.
To get there, we need organizations that are invested in the process and eager to be part of it, and agencies or consultants who are just as eager to share their secrets and teach their clients. It’s only with this combination—specialized strategic knowledge and close understanding of internal realities—that we can go beyond short-term measures and effect lasting change.
The content audit, with all its complexity, is the perfect place to start. Together.