Your Brochure, Your Website, and Content-First Design Approaches

I’ve been implementing secure websites with built-in Content Management Systems (CMS) since 2004. I started using Adobe ContributeĀ®, and eventually embraced WordPress™ over Joomla™ and Drupal™ for one very important reason: the ability to modify the back end to improve end-user friendliness. No CMS provides an out-of-the box user-friendly environment quite like is advertised, or as is expected by the client who pays for the site to be built. This means that additional costs are often required when building a CMS-based website so that non-techies can really leverage the power they provide. Training reduces perceived complexity, like boiling the water away to leave only the salt behind, so that actual complexity is revealed. For this to happen, the client has to be fully committed to learning new things, including the many hours required to learn those things. There is, however, another issue that arises once the CMS is mastered, and it is not related to the technology at all. It is the realization that what worked in printed marketing communication (marcom) does not always translate one-to-one for a website; and this is where things can seriously stall during a web project.

The things that should be answered first are often considered last, and put the website on semi-permanent hold once the integration point has been reached. The integration point is the milestone at which all the technology is proven working as per the requirements, and it is time to pour in the content. I have had projects delayed by up to a year from clients who thought once they have a working design they will know what content to create and put into that design because they already have it in a brochure. This is a backward approach, and can be proven as such because instead of solving problems it creates new ones such as these:

  1. The brochure has the text but the method of content progression disclosure is different in print than it is for the web. For example, on the brochure the first two paragraphs might setup your core value proposition, but on the web these same paragraphs might be too long if your goal is to have the most important information “above the fold” before screen scrolling is required to read the rest of it. Likewise if you think you need a few complimentary messaging components above the fold, next to each other, in content boxes with a “more” link.
  2. Between the time the brochure was distributed and now, the core value of the company has been shown to require tweaking. This can happen when marketing feedback shows the brochure didn’t connect as intended with the audience. If the decision is made to re-write key content that establishes your identity and value only after the website project is approved rather than before, the likelihood of project delay increases. I’ve seen one paragraph take over a week to get right in high-stakes, competitive software startup environments.
  3. Content should inform design, not the other way around. Force-fitting content into a design results from this way of thinking 100% of the time. You can easily see this mentality in the way it crams content into a design that was intended for a specific level of content density, but which was exceeded by the actual messaging needs.
  4. Content as a last consideration usually results in re-design expenses after the integration point is reached. Column widths, teaser pockets, and banner ads all have to balance out visually on desktop and mobile. If content is an unknown variable all the way through the design phase, it will change the visual balance once it is finally quantified. Sometimes the modifications are minor, and sometimes it is like shoving a beach ball through a garden hose. The surprise expense shows up here in the form of significant layout adjustments or even full-blown design changes.
  5. Graphics, writing, and file links are all “information”. Information Design is the practice of determining how that information is arranged on a website, and how various navigation elements (such as the websites’ main menu or side-menus) should be optimized to reduce the number of clicks required to access the desired information. This absolutely depends on how information is arranged…and this is determined by knowing what your audience is looking for and how they are expecting to find it. If information is not the primary consideration, but is instead subordinated with the idea that “we just need a design first”, the changes in the site map and site architecture can be significant and expensive surprises to deal with after the integration point.
  6. Search Engine Optimization (SEO), if that is something you need, modifies content so that a search engine can more accurately determine how relevant you are for a given search phrase versus another website with similar content. The ratio of websites serving a particular phrase versus the amount of searches done on that phrase is called the “KEI Value”. SEO can impose far different content, navigation, and design requirements than websites where greater exposure is actually undesirable. This is most common for specialized organizational and corporate websites where the build is more along the lines of a Document Management System (DMS) for researchers or other subject matter experts to check-in content. The content requirements here are dramatically different because the function of the content is different. In SEO the content acts as a marketing tool, but in archival research sites it is to be protected from prying eyes; which in turn means site membership is predicated on invitation-only.

Marketing is the act of connecting those that have a need with those that satisfy the need. The differentiator is usually how the problem is solved, and this often depends on at least some educational content so that the target audience understands why the differentiator matters. If “how we are different” is not understood, then it won’t matter. Existing printed marcom may have been created for exposure in the context of a trade show or one-on-one meeting with a C-Class stakeholder during a complex technical sales effort. These are far more specialized situations than the generalized context of a website. Even if the printed marcom is working well within that context, it is unlikely to translate with the same impact on the web. By recognizing that who we are trying to reach is as important as the context within which our message will be received, we can create content that informs a design naturally, and improves the overall experience for potential new clients.

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