Naked clients: the paradox of brevity and its cause

Two hours into a site redesign meeting I looked up to discover that my client was naked.

Rewind. I’d been brought in on the project to develop the content. We were basically starting from zero, which was good, or so I thought. After interviewing a gaggle of execs, we’d come up with a site map with all the requisite pages. We’d done a content audit. Because the budget was tight, the client’s marcom people were in charge of preparing all the source material that would be turned into final content.

Kissing a brick wall

When the source material started trickling in, my heart sank. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there was no there there. The source material was copious but thin. In one case, three pages of explanation yielded one paragraph of real content. Scads of waffle words trying to mask an obvious paucity of information.

We’d been run smack into the dreaded Paradox of Brevity.

“You’ll just have to work with what we’ve got”

When the marcom people saw the content I was producing they weren’t happy. Where had their beautiful, carefully thought out prose gone? But once they’d gotten over their emotions, they quickly realized the larger problem.

The depth of the content available in the company wasn’t aligned with the depth of the site map that had been approved. The client was naked and feeling very uncomfortable about it.

We proposed going back to the business owners for more fabric, so to speak. We developed a helpful questionnaire/template (we probably should have done this from the get-go, but marcom told us it wasn’t needed). “Oh, they won’t have time for that. Too busy,” said marcom. “You’ll just have to work with what we’ve got.”

The site map trap

By now, you’re probably saying to yourself: why didn’t you just simplify the site map? Consolidate the threadbare service pages into one strong services page, for example.

Because clients have an inferiority complex when it comes to navigation bars, that’s why. I may be the last person in the world to have clued on to this, but clients want their navbar to be as long as those of their competitors. God forbid they have a wee one. The navbar was sacrosanct.

So we were stuck in the Paradox of Brevity. We couldn’t adjust the site map. And we couldn’t fill the pages with strong content, based on the source material we had.

In need of a third leg

As I write these words I’m trying to figure out how to integrate this experience into my content audit workflow. What follows are my first thoughts.

We’re all familiar with the concepts of quality and quantity when assessing content, but they mainly measure what exists. Gap analysis tells us what’s missing.

I think the quality/quantity stool needs a third leg. For lack of better word, I’ll call it “richness”.

Diagnosing Richness Deficiency

Richness is an assessment of the raw materials the content producer has to work with. Richness (or lack of) is what determines if content strategists and content producers are going to be able to bridge the gaps they find, producing the right quantity of content with the right level of quality.

I’m convinced that Content Richness Deficiency is to blame for a lot of poor web sites. And it’s closely linked to organizational maturity. In a lot of companies, the most interesting raw materials about a service or a product reside in the heads of people, not on paper. They are the stories told during sales calls, but never written down. The inability to formally capture this information is what leads to the Paradox of Brevity.

But how the hell do you measure it?

Post scriptum

We finally convinced marcom to let us go back to the business owners. We also got them to consolidate part of the site map. In the end, we won’t have to pad and decorate. But it’s a hollow victory. The story we’re left to tell lacks the original ambition. And we’ve had to push delivery back by a month.


5 comments on “Naked clients: the paradox of brevity and its cause

  1. Lise Janody
    July 12, 2010 at 10:20 pm #

    I’m convinced that a key reason for this paucity of content richness is the tendency to ‘create by committee’, which generally leads to long validation cycles. By the time you get to version 9, most people are tired and just want to get the damn thing over with. Serious compromise is never a good recipe for quality content.

    Another reason is the disparity in the allocation of content resources; in most companies, not all subjects are created equal. As web writers, you’re supposedly working from source material, but very often, that source material is very sketchy (or is buried in tons of Powerpoints) so you need to start from scratch. Perhaps you need to ask exactly what is the source material you’ll be given before you build your site map.

    Anyways, I feel your pain ☺

    • Rich
      July 13, 2010 at 7:58 am #

      Totally agree. The quality and availability of the source material should be part of the content audit process. It’s a bit like deciding on a menu without looking in the fridge first to see what you’ve got to cook with.

  2. Sara
    July 15, 2010 at 4:58 pm #

    Also agree with Lise. Another problem in organizations is people being afraid to make decisions and be held accountable for them; people simply do not want to take responsibility for approving content.

    • Rich
      July 15, 2010 at 5:10 pm #

      Thanks for the comment. I agree that the fear of decision making is a common problem, but I consider it to be more of a project management problem that a creative one.

      The lack of something interesting to say (or not having access to the people who have something interesting to say) means that content creators end up having to pad out their copy with meaningless fluff.

      But you’re right that the two problems are related. Meaningless fluff is easier to get approved that sharp, concise copy.

      Thanks for adding to the discussion.



  1. Pre-flight checklist: Is the client ready for content strategy? | RICHTEXT - August 5, 2010

    […] talked about this in a previous post. It’s very important to find out where content lives inside the company. Is the knowledge formal […]

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