9 content mistakes you're making and how to fix them

Content may be king, but the path to the throne can be baffling. We'll walk you through 9 common issues and what to do about them.

Picture of Ann Buechner

By Ann Buechner, Director, Digital Strategy

March 22, 2016

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Understatement: the Internet is a big, weird place.

It is, by nature, democratic: LOL catz live alongside the Metropolitan Museum’s online collection; dubsmashing celebrities next to Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Cosmos; Just Do Yourself A Favor And Read These Banana Slicer Reviews next to the Harvard Business Review.

Whatever the type of content, one thing is clear. Our consumption of and hunger for content is ever-increasing.

This has allowed the line between advertising and content marketing to become so blurred, as to be nonexistent (I’m looking at you, “Sponsored Content”) -- so it's no surprise marketing teams everywhere have content on the brain.

(For proof, check out these Google Trends searches for “content marketing” and “content strategy.”)

Two things, then: 1). Content is having a moment. A big one. 2). People are having an ‘Oh s**t’ moment re: what they should do about said content moment.

Well, good news. Creating great content is within your team's reach. 

Here are 9 common content issues and what can be done to fix them: 

#1: No content strategy

Trying to produce good content without a content strategy is like going to the grocery store on an empty stomach. You could end up with the makings of a good meal, but you'll also likely end up with stuff you don't need at all and a big bill to boot. Before the first word gets typed, you need a content strategy that ties business objectives and user needs to content types and content channels.

Someone has a very big grocery bill

The price of creating content without a strategy

It doesn’t have to be complicated -- in fact it shouldn’t be, as it’s a living document that will be revisited and revised regularly. A simple one pager is fine. If your organization has many teams that produce content, it should also break down content objectives and executions per team.

If you're going through a website redesign or launch, a solid content strategy will be the backbone of user experience and design, allowing designers to provide strategic solutions to your content needs and guiding what goes where on your site.

#2: No Voice + Style content guide

Ever get a Kafkaesque feeling of unease from a website? As in, the marketing page doesn’t match the UI text, which doesn’t match the blog? This is a symptom of not having a content voice guide. 

A man awakens to find he's been turned into a cockroach

How I feel when content has an inconsistent voice. Illustration by James Legros.

If you don’t have one, you’re in good company -- a surprising number of organizations don’t, often relying on their content creator(s) to be the “voice.” This is problematic for a couple of reasons:

  • The brand voice is in one person’s head -- what if that person leaves? Gets ill? Gets too busy?
  • As content creation needs increase -- and given content marketing’s upswing, they will -- more people will be contributing content, which necessitates a formalized approach to it.

A content voice guide ensures consistency across channels and properties, while allowing for quicker content evaluation and review. Depending on how granular you want to get and what your organization's needs are, you can also compile a style guide that covers terminology and usage (e.g., email vs. Email vs e-mail).

#3: Overestimating the quality of current content

If you’ve ever been through a redesign, you know it’s like moving. Hard decisions have to be made about what to bring and what to leave behind. Here’s the truth: bring the super valuable stuff like your tagline, company description, employee bios, or popular blog posts, and consider throwing everything else away. 

Miss Jay from America's Next Top Model makes a shocked expression

Yep, I said throw it all away. GIF: The CW

While this may seem like an extreme approach, it's preferable to porting over outdated, off-brand, or just plain bad content. Don’t be afraid to write from scratch. This becomes less daunting when you allow yourself enough time to do it.

(And even if you’re not going through a redesign, plan to revisit/refresh annually "static" copy on the homepage, about page, etc.)

How to determine “good” content? It depends on your organization's content strategy, but a high level checklist includes:

  • Content is on-strategy - Does it target one or more of your user groups, with one or more of your key messages? 
  • Content is on-brand - Does it pass the gut check for "Yep, that's totally us." Google "brand social media fails" and "best brand social media" if you want to see this in action.
  • Content is performant - Because your content is connected to a strategy, you should be able to measure its success, whether that's in the form of new followers, enagagement rates, or new business. There are some great, free tools to track this type of thing, which we'll tackle in a later blog post.

#4: Underestimating content effort

In any web project, content should be the first thing that kicks off. There should be ample sample content available before a single page is designed. This way, the design is guaranteed to be the right fit for the content, rather than trying to shoehorn content into a design. 

I'm not going to lie -- getting content together takes a long time.

A cat furiously types on a Macbook

Writers, generally. Source: Reddit

For every page of content produced, figure a day’s work. Big Pages like the homepage, section landing pages, etc., require even more. Accurate estimates should factor in research, revision, and bouts of existential dread.

If working on a redesign, a thorough content audit can help take some of the guesswork out of the process. In it, you’ll inventory and rate existing content -- on a scale from “keep as is” to “burn to the ground” -- as well as plan for content creation. Also, keep in mind that the format of your content may change -- UX and design will likely devise clever ways to show hierarchy of messaging, as well as how to visually accomplish what you might have thought was going to be text-only.

#5: DIY Content

With regard to time and budget, writing is chronically underestimated, and it’s often the one thing in a project to which someone says: “Pfft … I can do that!”  

There's a beautiful lamb cake next to a terrible looking lamb cake

"Can you DIY?" Image: Sugarscape

It's true that we're all probably writing more now than we ever have before, but volume doesn’t make us, you know … good. And ironically, even good writers might not be good web writers. (Virginia Woolf and her page-long sentences, for example, would have been a terrible web content writer.) 

Whether freelance or in-house, you need a content specialist who has experience writing on-strategy, branded content for web on a variety of channels. Those specialists can strategize and execute on the big things (such as strategy, voice, landing page copy, etc.), while building the infrastructure to help others in your organization become better content creators.

#6: Content disregards SEO

Tales of the death of SEO have been greatly exaggerated. 

It’s true Google has come to favour in its search results rich, long form content since this is the content most likely to provide value to people; however, while keyword stuffing and other shady SEO practices have fallen by the wayside, the mechanism of Google search has not -- i.e., we all still type in what it is we're looking for. Therefore, it’s important to structure your content in such a way that Google -- and users -- can find it.   

A fox dives and digs for prey under the snow

Great content shouldn't be hard to find. GIF: BBC

Here are some strategies to maximize SEO:

  • Check out Google Trends and see what’s on the rise -- can you pull together a content hook that relates?
  • Front load high value keywords in titles, headings, and in the first paragraph of your content, and make sure your metadata features them too.
  • Ensure your content is long enough. While reports vary re: what “long enough” is, aim for at least 150 words. Medium claims the “perfect” length for a blog post (or long form content) is a 1600 word, 5 - 7 minute read, which might be too lengthy for your typical landing page, but it's something to keep in mind for blog posts and other resources.
  • Refresh your content regularly - Get a content calendar together and plan to regularly update your site, tweaking according to performance of your content and trending topics in your industry.

#7: Content isn't mobile friendly

Raise your hand if you’re reading this from your mobile device. 

As design, content must be mobile friendly -- that is, easily scannable.

Imagine how your content is likely to be read, usually with the worst case scenario in mind. (I assume rush hour on public transport, either without enough coffee or too much beer). 

A photo of a woman reading on her smartphone while on a crowded streetcar

"Wow, I sure am glad this blog post is mobile optimized!" Photo: Toronto Star

Make content digestible by:

  • Writing short paragraphs (no more than 5 sentences)
  • Judicious use of H2s (level two headers)
  • Lists (there’s a reason Buzzfeed’s content is so widely read and shared)
  • Images

#8: No content owner

Many organizations have multiple people contributing to content, often in silos and without one person -- an editor in chief, if you will -- steering the ship. Control and insight into the content production cycle is one of those things that can slip through the cracks because everyone thinks someone else is doing it. This results in off-brand content that is either rushed to be released or languishes on someone's desktop. Worse, people may be creating content with no idea why. 

Destiny's Child in the video for Independent Woman

I bet Beyonce is pretty good at being a content owner. Columbia Records.

A content owner provides shape and meaning to the content process by managing the pipeline and keeping content flowing through it. A content owner brainstorms with content creators to come up with new ideas, and ensures content adheres to strategy, brand voice, and quality standards.

#9: Inconsistent content across channels

A website is just one channel an organization exists on, so it’s surprising when it appears there's no unified strategy. It could be a gap in brand voice, such as social feeling markedly different from the website. It could be an email template featuring an old iteration of the brand. It could be user interface copy on a website that doesn't match the marketing copy on the landing page. Small inconsistencies like this pile up quickly and weaken customer trust.   

A real cat stands in a lineup of meerkats

Inconsistent content stands out

All content producers in any organization need to be aligned on the overall content strategy, as well as be rock solid in brand voice. No channel should be vastly different from the other -- if you've got a Twitter stream on your homepage, no visitor should feel like, "Who wrote that?!?" A quick monthly meeting to remain aligned on strategy, goals, and outputs should suffice. This will produce better content, while giving you the power to amplify your efforts (for example, if marketing has published a blog post, social should promote it).

Fin

Hopefully this list has been a helpful intro to identifying content issues, as well as a starting point for figuring out what to do about them. I'd love to hear your thoughts and experience with content in your own organization. Tweet me: @torontoniann