Your Product: The Content

Last post I struggled through the most difficult part of my metaphor — a building of website software.  Now I come to the most important and often overlooked part of creating a website — the content or your product.  A physical business is filled with what is being sold, whether products or a place for services.  This is what the people come for.  The quality, price and service all affect customer satisfaction.  On the web, this is only half the story.

A website may sell a physical product, but that product is not represented physically to visitors.  Instead, the site’s display and description of the product represents the product to the customer.  Until a customer experiences a product, the website content is all that affects their perception.  All sites have a product, whether it is physical or not.  The product is what the site is about, what it is selling.  Whether that be an idea, a service or something physical, that is what site content has to explain — what is this site and what it is selling all about?

The Content is the Product

On the web, the content is the product.  I have come up with this phrase, like “the medium is the message“, to stress that whatever a site is about (the product) comes through in the content.  Failure to focus on a site’s content is a failure to focus on the product.  Sites with poor, low quality, incomprehensible content will do poorly with visitors and search engines.  This makes the content of any site much more important than the domain, the host or the software used.

The content is often overlooked when site owners contract website development or design to third parties.  It is assumed these web experts will create the content for them.  Even when told it is their responsibility to create the content, site owners often underestimate the time and difficulty to do so.  This leads to many sites which launch with a few minimally populated pages and it never improves from there.  The blame for low traffic is laid at the designer’s feet, even though without any content the site did not have a chance.

Content will be the single largest time consuming aspect of a website for an owner.  It will require a large amount of time to adapt existing material for the web or write all the content from scratch.  After launch, maintaining and adding content will continue to require dedicated blocks of time.

Creating Content

Whoever the content creation task falls to, writing can be intimidating and stressful.  Non-writers, once they have gotten past any writers block or procrastination about starting, can write verbosely and ineffectively (guilty as charged) in an effort to fill the page and seem eloquent.  Editing your own work for brevity and clarity can be hard.  I recommend getting others in the organization or close friends with some knowledge of the topic to review your writing.  Beyond nit-picking items, if someone says something is too long, unclear, or otherwise confusing, it probably is.  A dissection of a real life example of website content can be found in Erin Kissane’s article Writing Content that Works for a Living.  In it we see how easy it can be to write what is thought to be a description of a company or product and not actually describe it at all.  When a visitor arrives to your site, especially via search, and has no idea after reading the initial couple paragraphs if this is what they were looking for, they the content has failed.

The focus should be on quality of content, not the quantity.  The written word should answer a visitor’s questions – who, what, when, where and how.  Do not hide information, requiring visitors to visit another page to have a question answered.  For instance, all information on a product should be on the product page.  Visitors should not have to visit multiple pages to get product description, options, warranty, pricing, etc. information.

Some other writing tips:

  • Refresh yourself on the rules for correct grammar and look for ways to improve sentences that sound awkward or incorrect.  (I often have to look up rules when I take the time to polish what I’ve written).
  • Proofread for spelling mistakes and other errors (incorrect word usage, duplicated words, etc).
  • Try to keep the writing consistent in tone and style.
  • Outlining articles in advance of writing can help organize the structure of a post and keep it focused on the points you wish to make.
  • Write in a first person narrative, especially for conversational items like blog entries.  Avoid writing in a newspaper reporter or press release style.  This is your site, you are saying it.  Visitors want to know it is the site owner or representative speaking to them.

Creating a Two-way Conversation

So outside of the content describing the business/organization, website, products or services and other standard pages, what do you have?  In today’s age, every site I believe should have a place for conversation with the site’s visitors.  Call it a blog, call it whatever, but a section where updates can be provided, announcements made, questions asked and answers received will provide a much more down home, conversational feel to a site.  It portrays a sense of openness and transparency to visitors.  It builds a site community, which builds repeat visitors and loyalty.  It provides a place for two-way conversations between the people behind the website and the visitors.  It is the most important factor I believe to building a website from scratch with few resources and having the greatest success.  Building a community this way will encompass most of the time needed to run a website but can bring the greatest rewards.

Depending on the site and the topics being discussed, articles may range from essays on issues affecting an industry or community to less formal “blog” entries.  To be able to produce the frequency of output, it is important to remember that even serious topics can be discussed in short articles.  Let links to other sources tell the back story and get to your opinions and ideas in five or six paragraphs

Other Content Types

Content is not only about words, however.  Images also constitute content.  General images may be required for corporate sections of the site and specific images for site-specific needs such as product shots, previous work or employee listings.  This can be done by anyone with a good digital camera and a little expense and practice.  It is also possible to acquire stock photos from any of the many repositories or contract a photographer to take the specific images needed.

Other media types can be used as well.  Certain organizations may have needs for audio or video content.  This also requires time to be prepared.  Audio or video podcasts as part of your blog may better match your readership and purpose.  Demonstrations of products, recordings of events or screencast videos are some of the common uses of video content.  While creating content in audio or video may seem like a quick way to avoid writing content (blog entries) regularly, it should be noted that creating audio and video content can be more challenging, especially for those not comfortable speaking or appearing on camera.  Also, this content is not easily discoverable by search engines, so either transcripts or episode summaries should be posted to provide a way for the content to be found by searchers.

Conclusion

Of the four components I have discussed in this series, the content is the most important and should be the focus of the site owner.  The initial technical steps of the site can delegated to a web professional, but the content must stay the responsibility of the site owner or someone in the organization that understands the purpose of the website.  Planning and outlining a site and its content is a large task and should be started well in advance of a site launch date so the site can be as complete as possible for its initial visitors.