No Time for Love, Dr. Jones: Prioritizing Content Strategy for the Small Business

This article is the second in a series of thoughts on content strategy for the small business. Read others in this category.

Running a small business or non-profit organization is a constant negotiation between resources and progress. Each step forward requires a readjustment of funds and attention. Each major change means adjusting nearly every aspect of the company, and the people who dedicate their lives to these constant changes are some of the best content partners we can find.

They work on a small team. They’re invested in the success of the company. They are close to their customers and they are passionate about service.

They are a multi-talented partner. But they’re often an overworked partner – facilitating content change and governance within the volatile waters of the larger business landscape.

They want the best. But they can’t have it all. That’s where we come in.

The Most Important Resource: Time

We spend a lot of time worrying about where content will come from and what form it will take. Strategic decisions focus on source and style – what will we say, and how will we say it – because that’s the part of our strategy that’s seen by our users. Makes sense. Give the people what they want.

Where we often stumble is aligning those decisions with our existing resources.

It makes perfect sense that our content should be structured. But moving an existing site from blobs to chunks means more than simple migration. And while we can all agree that everyone benefits when our content is machine-readable, the process takes more than a six-page taxonomy and an afternoon of clicking.

These things take time.

Oh, time. You horrible and necessary albatross.

It takes time to implement change. It takes buy-in, and rallying, and strategic placement of tasks within departments. It takes a bit of hand-holding. It takes a lot of patience.

These things can be built into the project. But it also takes time to sustain change. We fight like hell to get new site content up, but fall behind once the site has launched because our staff has other things to do.

Time is Our Problem

This doesn’t sound like a content strategy problem. But it is. Strategic thinking is more than just output: it’s process. It’s more than content strategy and information architecture – it’s also about people strategy and workflow architecture. We know what we want – now, how can we make it work within the structure of the business?

It’s the question that’s rarely asked before it’s too late. “Do we have the resources to take on this strategy?” In other words, how do we make the shift from theory to practice?

We’ve fielded calls from companies that are looking for articles that are blocked and chunked so they can be rearranged and reused according to a specific content query. We’ve worked with universities that want a high-level of context-driven personalization for each potential student. We’ve worked with small companies that want intense product catalogs that show off all possible combinations of a bathroom remodel.

These requests are made to save time. More robots and structure means less human interaction, right?

Sometimes. Each of these situations can be automated to some extent, but for them to work perfectly they require a business’ most precious resource: time. Time to implement the content structure, and time to maintain the taxonomy and structure therein.

Here’s where small business can begin to feel left out. Large organizations can large process changes and additional staff – they probably already have someone lined up who can take on the added duties of a new content model and governance plan. But small businesses (especially those that have limited staffing) do not have capacity to handle advanced content techniques. It isn’t that they’re behind, or that they’re resistant to change – it’s just that an addition of hours or staff is a much larger risk.

The leap from 14 to 15 employees is much larger than the leap from 200 to 201.

We always want to do what’s right. Yet, there’s a need to understand what’s “right” may not always be what’s “feasible.” As small businesses takes on the challenges of content strategy, it’s up to us to understand that it can no longer be “What can we do to change this business?”

It must become “How much change can this business handle?”

Prioritization

How much change can we handle depends on how change is prioritized. And how change is prioritized depends on what’s important to those pesky site users.

That part’s easy: determine site audiences, figure out what they’re looking for, and plan accordingly. (Spoiler Alert: it’s not always what you expect.)

For example: imagine you’re building a site for Pabst Blue Ribbon. The audiences are beer drinkers, beer distributors, bar owners, industry insiders and the government. While it makes sense that beer drinkers are the top audience, through interviews you might find that the second-most important audience is beer distributors. Thanks to the outdated and frustrating three-tier system, they’re the only ones with the power to distribute the beers in the first place.

Beer distributors are looking for information on pricing, merchandising materials, contact information and upcoming changes. Beer drinkers are looking to connect with the brand. Neither one is looking to dive deeply into corporate structure or read about stock options, so maybe the section on the company’s corporate policies can wait, and maybe the news feed can stick to consumer-facing information.

High priority issues will be clear. Do them first. It’s that easy. Non-priority issues will also be clear. Save them for the next phase.

The rest of that stuff will fall into place. As soon as we can accept that content change and creation can rarely be all-or-nothing, we’ll start getting used to the different shades of gray at our disposal.

Feature Truncation

Taking this a step further, our dependence on time means certain features may not make the first iteration. This is okay. THIS IS TOTALLY NORMAL.

In Content Strategy for Mobile, Karen McGrane talks about taking steps in the wrong direction, where we make decisions based on current resources that may seem incongruent to the overall strategy. She says:

As long as those decisions are conscious choices – made because of an immediate, short-term need to serve user expectations or meet business goals – there’s nothing inherently wrong with taking a little detour on your way to the end goal.

This may mean we decide to hold off on the product gallery, or maybe we need to focus more on updating content over transitioning to responsive web design. What’s important is that we begin taking some small steps forward, even if they seem counteractive to the overall goal.

If a small business waits for just the right time to start doing everything at once, they’re just falling farther and farther behind.

Methodology Truncation

Then again, let’s not throw this process to the wolves in development. A huge part of creating effective content is making sure we don’t waste someone’s time with unneeded tasks.

We all have our own methodologies. They’re in our head, or they’re written down, but they’re ours, and they’re what we follow when a new project lands in our lap. They’re our crutch – our safe ground.

And they’re almost always wrong for the current situation.

Because not every client – especially small business or non-profits with limited budget – needs a full-out content strategy party. Some might just need the drinks. Maybe they’re just looking for the dance. Every project is a precious little snowflake – one that needs a set of methods to match.

Content strategy on a shoestring? It can be done. Ask Carrie Hane Dennison, who talked about it at IA Summit in Denver in 2011.

Don’t just bring everything, especially when everything may not need to be brung. Instead, spend the first few hours of a project thoughtfully looking over client goals and the existing site. Determine what’s necessary. Don’t pile more things on in an effort to seem like you’re doing more work – instead, scale things back and spend the extra time streamlining their own process.

Imagine doing a content audit on a small landing page, when all that really needs to be happen is a face-to-face discussion about what’s work and what’s not. Imagine creating an editorial calendar or style guide for a site that has little newsworthy updates, when they’re better served by adding an update reminder function to the CMS.

Most of all, feel free to let go. You’ll know within a few hours of a project deliverable whether or not it’s going to be helpful. If it seems like a waste of time, it probably is – your goal at that point is to repurpose it into something usable for the current circumstance.

Empathy for Time

When I am juggling the three areas of my life – family, work, hobbies – and I find myself overwhelmed with any one of them, the other areas suffer. If my workload suddenly increases, my hobbies disappear. If there’s a family emergency, my work suffers. I am but one humble person, my friends, and I totally suck at multitasking.

A small business’ marketing plans could be similarly split into three areas. There’s the existing marketing upkeep – maintenance, for the most part. There’s creation and planning for the future – we’ll call this strategy. And there’s a certain level of immediate reaction to trends and competitors. These three areas – maintenance, strategy and reaction – take up a finite amount of time.

Suggesting a new site with CMS personalization? You need to find time for it.

Creating a deep taxonomy to provide better machine-readable content? You need to find time for it.

Developing an editorial calendar to ensure fresh, weekly content?

Yup.

Every content task addition requires that something goes away. Even adding hours – either by restructuring or staff expansion – requires a shift in another department’s hours or overall company payroll.

It’s our goal, then, to find ways for content to be easy. For it to fit within the existing workflow. We can’t be assured of a staff hire for every project, so we must create strategies that fit within the framework of the existing time allotted.

Sometimes, this simply means restricting a company’s communication. Ditch the print newsletter – or repurpose print articles for the web. Tag things at the product level so there’s no need for duplicating the task within the CMS. Lose redundancies between internet and intranet content – combine them into one CMS with password protection.

You can’t create more time. The only way forward is to be smarter about it.

The Moral

There are ways to make small business dollars stretch. They involve smart thinking, and they involve a heavy dose of prioritization.

But most of all, they depend on understanding existing workflow. Without taking time into account, all of our content dreams disappear into a haze of “we don’t have time for that.”

Which is the worst kind of haze. Don’t let your dreams disappear. Remember the time.

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