Content strategy

Recognising and getting out of content debt

Understand the concept of content debt and how to reconcile debts in your business.

Have you every journeyed into developer world?

The first thing you're going to want to do is pack a notepad and snacks. The notepad is for writing down the phrases you don't quite catch and ask the developers to 'tell me like I'ma 5 year old' later.

The snacks are for bribes when you're told something can't be done (99% of the time it can be done, it will just take time and testing).

While you're bribing the team, you might be told "I can do it, but it will be hacky".

Or, "it will work, but it might be a bit janky in the back-end".

In these conversations, you'll be circling around ideas of 'tech debt': the costs that build up over time when you prioritise speed in delivery over the cleanliness or perfection of the code. Whether the bill falls due today or in 5 years, you always have to pay the price eventually.

Content carries debt too.

Once you've invested in what you have, how do you get the most returns from the work that's already been done, while expanding and changing?

Good debt versus bad debt

In content as in accounting, not all debt is bad debt.

In financial circles, "good debt" generally means debt that will help you build wealth in the long run. Things like educational loans, your first home or an investment property.

"Bad debt" applies to debts on items that depreciate quickly or do little to improve your financial standing. Credit cards, car loans and personal loans usually belong inthis category.

We might consider content debts in a similar way. All content carries a cost, but content effort expended as a step toward a larger goal could be considered "good". An MVP (minimum viable product) website, or content item like an explainer or formula that could later become an interactive tool, could fall into this category.

But even good debt can turn bad.

It's easy for well considered steps in a content strategy to get lost in the rush of moving onto the next big thing. Before long, you don't remember what you have where, how to make use of it, or how to evolve it to that next stage. If you don't make the most of that well considered piece of content, very quickly the time, effort, and costs to produce it will go to waste.

Content audits

Why do so many content strategies start with a content audit? Content audits can rack up a form of content profit and loss sheet. Are you in debt or credit, and what investment will it take to get into the content position you'd like to be in.

Content audits should help you answer:

  • what content exists
  • where it lives for publishing and maintenance
  • what is the total cost in hours and people for creating, reviewing, approving and maintaining content in your business, right now (ad can you track that?)
  • do these content efforts align with the content's shelf life (for example, a social media post has a shorter shelf life than an email newsletter has a shorter shelf life than a blog post has a shorter shelf life than your home page -- does the current investment in each content item align with this lifespan)
  • do these content efforts align with the content's impact or return to the business

A well understood content inventory is a powerful thing. As a small business example, I was recently working with a client on an email sequence to act as a bridge between a lead generation quiz and a sales pitch for their signature program.

Because I'd worked on the launch of that program, I knew there was email content we could re-use for this different audience. And I knew would work because it spoke to the needs of someone at a similar stage in their journey with the coach and their program.

I could make this leap, and get the email sequence written faster (and at a lower cost), because I'd been involved in the launch. But without some kind of inventory of content, a different writer wouldn't have been able to make this saving.

From debt to opportunity

As Laurah Mwirichia, a Product Writer on the Risk team at Square wrote in her article 'Content Debt', "the process of organizing, sorting, and archiving content is intrinsic to growth. However, it's often abandoned in favor of creating and curating new content (new content is always cooler)."

The other course of action is to stop the disorganisation spiralling by checking in with your content processes, governance, and workflows.

On a team, that means really thinking about what you're creating and why, who is involved and why, and getting your boss and other stakeholders to align over a content strategy.

I always find that having something agreed and on paper (or in a Google Doc) can give you a foundation to provide some gentle push-back when you feel a bright shiny light may derail things.

There are whole books on this process, and I won't pretend that it's as simple as only dedicating a single paragraph to it in a blog post would suggest. But something as simple as having a meeting to agree on a few dot points captured on a slide can start the ball rolling on keeping people on the same page.

Managing a team of one? Think about what your 'bare bones' content strategy looks like. For example, you might be delaying getting a strong website sorted, because so much time is spent keeping up with a heavy social media publishing cycle. What would you accept as bare minimum? Start there. Think about what your audience really need from you, the best place for that information, and think of that as the centre of your content creation world.

I know from experience that "going back" to do an audit, or "realigning" with an existing strategy can bring some depressed and defeated feelings.

"It's all broken and nothing is working."

I very much doubt that's true.

The reality is, without going through the process of creating, publishing, and testing that debt-riddled content, you wouldn't know what was and wasn't working.

You wouldn't know how to evolve.

And now you do.

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