Überaudit: looking for content beyond the site

It’s time to start looking beyond the web site when conducting a content inventory.

Big organizations are plagued/blessed with massive web sites with sprawling content. But small and midsized organizations are often faced with the opposite problem: not enough web content. Many of them, for whatever reasons, don’t have a CMS, have a crappy CMS or don’t control their CMS. As a result, their websites are threadbare and suffer from acute ROT (not to mention horrible design and UX).

But these organizations still need to communicate. So what happens? Employees find workarounds. They create what I call content eddies: swirling, uncontrolled flows of content that flow into the void created by a bad website.

Some of this non-web content is official and legacy (think print).  A lot of it is not.  But it is a natural human reaction to the fact that communications, like nature, abhor a vacuum.

These organizations have content, they just don’t have web content.

Where to look

You can’t come up with a feasible content strategy if you don’t have a handle on all the content flotsam and jetsam floating around an organization. Here are some of the places I look (in order of priority)

  • Printed collateral
  • Sales materials, printed and electronic (namely turgid PowerPoint presentations)
  • CD-ROMs (yes, they still exist) and video clips
  • Press releases
  • Intranets
  • Customer support sites
  • Customer extranets
  • Software
  • Blog posts
  • Forums
  • Social media
  • Google (I always trawl by company name and file types .doc, .ppt and .pdf. Amazing what you can find)

What to ask

Once I find and catalog this content I ask myself these questions:

  • Who is the originator/owner and are they a stakeholder in the content strategy project?
  • Does it pass the ROT test? Can the organization live without it?
  • Why are they using it and does the content strategy address this need?
  • Can it be transformed into HTML web content? Does it need to be downloadable/printable?
  • How much money is being spent on producing it and can I have some of the funds?
  • Is distribution of these items subject to any governance? Is management aware of all the crap in circulation and the risk that non-control  presents?

As content strategists we ignore these kinds of content at our peril. It is content, after all. but it is an ad hoc ecosystem that obeys its own rules and org charts. Ignoring it (or worse, disdaining it) can stymie your progress and starve your project of funds, support and human resources. Do it right and this non-web content can serve as source material for the content creation phase.

Don’t underestimate it – embrace it.


2 comments on “Überaudit: looking for content beyond the site

  1. Nicole Jones
    December 10, 2010 at 9:41 pm #

    Nice post, Richard. I think it’s helpful for newcomers to show actual lists of things to consider and questions to ask.

    Don’t forget e-mail newsletters (marketing and general), chat and e-mail canned responses, and positioning.

    I find system-level items are often overlooked as well, like error, alert, and secondary interface messaging.


  2. J. Todd Bennett
    December 17, 2010 at 5:33 pm #

    So glad you posted this, Richard. I work with colleges and universities and find this problem exists with institutions of all sizes.

    What’s interesting about higher education is that their most important product, academics, is communicated by the producers of that product (faculty and students) with little to no centralized support. As a result, we see faculty turning to 3rd-party blogs, externally hosted, self-designed static websites and even Facebook to communicate what they’re doing while their official sites die on the vine. In fact, some of the very best content, the evidence that supports everything that marketing is trying to say about their product, is never communicated at all.

    It’s vital, particularly in higher education, that content audits reach beyond the website in search for lost treasure. We spent hundred of hours in interviews and discussions with faculty and students trying to find the real-stuff that defines an institution.

    As content strategists, we have to commit to finding this content and proving its value. Only then will institutions begin to rethink how they offer professional support to people in the trenches to better integrate these messages with the overall website.

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