Separating Content Strategy Needs from Wants

Most of my clients are in the business of making money. Their purpose in life isn’t to own a website. They have a site because they’re convinced they need one — just like in the old days when every company thought it needed a corporate brochure.

This concept of “need” has always intrigued me. It reminds me of when people say they “need” a new iPod or they “need” a cigarette.

When you listen closely, “we need” usually means “ we want” or “we have to”. It rarely expresses a real need. And I’m convinced that a lot of the content strategy problems we come across downstream could be avoided if we paid more attention to real needs upstream.

When examining the content requirements/existing content of a website project, the single most important question to ask is: do you need this?

It’s like helping my youngest son pack for a trip. I let him put all the stuff he wants to take on his bed. Then I bring him a small suitcase. After he tells me it won’t all fit, I point at the items on the bed and ask: “do you need this?” After a while the pile gets small enough to fit in the suitcase. I try to do exactly the same thing when looking at the content and the functions of a web site.

The quickest way to answer the question “do you need this?” is to focus on purpose.

To do this I use the Five Whys, another technique I stole from the Toyota Production System.  In a perfect world, every page, every piece of content, every app, every button has a clearly defined purpose. I ask why at least five times to determine that the need is a real one – and not a c-suite vanity, me-too obligation or technology workaround masquerading as a need. As far as I’m concerned, if you keep content you don’t really need you’ll end up wasting resources that could be more gainfully employed down the road.

The Fives Why are particularly useful because not only do they help you decide what to keep and what to throw away, they also help you identify gaps – real needs that aren’t being addressed.

Now that you’ve thrown out the junk, look at what’s left and what’s not there.

Start with the existing site map. You’ll see some bare branches. Prune them. Next, figure out what’s missing. This is where I try to put myself in the user’s shoes. Why have they come to your website? What do they want to do? What would make them come back? This is where I try to re-inject as much purpose as I can.

I’m convinced that lack of purpose is what bedevils most web site projects. Clarity of purpose must precede any content strategy. Otherwise you are just rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.


2 comments on “Separating Content Strategy Needs from Wants

  1. CJ Walker
    May 26, 2010 at 8:20 pm #

    Another brilliant post, Rich. It’s true and it drives me nuts how seldom it’s thought about. Thank you!

  2. Bas Zurburg
    May 27, 2010 at 1:02 pm #

    Yes please delete all the content you don’t need. The suitcase is lighter to carry and takes you further: less maintenance needed.

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