2 content design lessons from minimalism

May 8, 2019

Some weeks ago I went to a learning lunch with Susan Bateman, aka The minimiser.

She shared her own journey toward minimalism, and how that journey has positively impacted her life.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a bit, as the kids say, extra. Aside from my joy at finding anything that's leopard or sparkles, I love a good shop. I own a three bedroom house and, dear readers, it's full.

(So is the double garage but that’s a different story)

And while I do really love stuff - like my five jars of different coloured buttons and drawers of varied sized cake tins - I truly believe in the saying that you should not have anything in your house that you do not find to be beautiful, or useful.

I'm much more ruthless when it comes to the web. I love great design, but I'm happy to ditch pretty for pretty's sake and only focus on the useful.

As I sat and listened to Susan, I realised that Content Strategy is an exercise in minimalism. So many statements resonated with what I do.

"Start somewhere small and contained"

Susan was talking about where she started. The second drawer down in the kitchen: the universal junk drawer. Contained yes, but cleaning that drawer is no small feat!

Most content work starts with an audit. We need to diagnose the problem before we can work toward a solution. But if you've got a site that has,

  • had a functioning blog at any part of its history,
  • or a huge amount of services,
  • or you regularly launch something new and create a landing page,
  • or you just have a site that is regularly touched and is more than 5 minutes old,

auditing all of your content is going to take a long time.

And those aren't always resources that can be spared.

Instead, think small and contained. Create a rolling audit schedule whereby you focus on one part of a site at a time. Only focus on your most viewed pages or - even better - your least viewed. Tackle blogs one month at a time. Group like services or pages and move through them bit by bit.

I've been conducting a rolling audit of an agency blog for...well...a long time. The first job was to isolate the posts that performed highest in search. I checked them for spelling, grammar, clarity and match with brand message and user need. Then I ensured they all had a single, clear call to action to download something and join the mailing lists. This was just one part of the audit. With only 4 blog posts tweaked, we saw a 1% rise in overall newsletter conversation from the website. After that was done, I started to roll through auditing the rest of the blog, based on the month they were published.

The most visited posts are now the ones most in line with the agency's services and values. There is better alignment between their content (and business) mission and their content, and the analytics show that it’s resonating more with their audiences as well.

It wasn't about doing everything at once, but small incremental change.

"We each have everything we all need."

Susan spoke about how, if we all took a more minimal approach to items, we could create better community connections. She was talking about the sharing economy - the idea that we don't have to own everything, we can just borrow it.

I think this is key to making the internet a more accessible and open place.

Consider how much stuff gets published online every day.

How much of it is truly there to meet a need - and how much is there just to "feed the SEO beast" or to meet a marketing target?

We can apply the concept of the sharing economy to our website and content by considering exactly what our users need and matching it with what we can give them. For example, if I run a driving school, my users need to know the road rules, how to book a driving test, fill out the license form and what will happen if they pass or fail.

But is it my place to give them that information on my website?


If the information exists, and it's of high quality and comes from a more reputable source I can either

a) decide to stay in my lane and leave it or

b) link to the other content, in the most useful place for me to do so (not just an unstructured 'other resources' page)

Start by writing a list of all the things that you could talk about (this is called domain mapping - what is everything within your domain?). Then look at it again and highlight all the things that you are the best possible person to talk about (be confident here - don't end up without topics because you think you're not an expert!). Now just focus on those - on your website, on your blog, in your newsletter - and 'share' content where you need to.

When I think about what to write on a blog or have on my site, I'm always thinking about need. I know my user's need to find more time in the day - taking a less is more approach to content does that. They need to reach more people - focusing on user need will make content will be more findable (SEO). So I’ve written this blog. If a piece of content doesn’t meet user need, or I am not the best person to give the answer in a unique way, I don't write it.

"It took seven bags of rubbish to create the one bag of rubbish you throw out."

Firstly, WOW.

Secondly, this is a big issue in businesses with a large amount of legacy content on their website.

You've already invested all the time and money into creating your content and here I am saying you need less? What a waste.

But it doesn't have to be.

Some of that content might have served a great purpose at the time it was created, but it doesn't fit where your business is now. It's not evergreen. For this content, if it's still getting lots of traffic, you might need to consider why. Are people looking for a service you're no longer offering, but you love the impact it has on your numbers? That content is not actually serving you. Make like Marie Kondo, thank it for its service, and unpublish.

Some of it might just not be performing as it should. It is really important stuff that you wish your users knew, but no-one's reading it? Consider how to make it more findable of the site. Maybe it needs to be re-written so that the user can really understand how the information affects them.

And if you're in a mid-sized or bigger sized biz, some of it just might be there because "so and so said it should be". This is a hard one.

Content is political.

There is no denying it. It's hard to tell a manager that their content is poor, or that it isn't necessary, or that it's convoluted. It can be hard enough to get this across to clients - and they've paid for that advice fully willing to go along with it.

Business unit A thinks what they have to say is super important. Business unit B sees that business unit A has five pages on their one service and want to know why their thing isn't getting as much love. This is where a robust Content Strategy comes into play. If you have a solid workflow around what makes the cut, and what doesn't, it's easier to play minimalist. Instead of asking 'does this spark joy?' the question can be 'does this serve our user's need?'.

So are you - or your business - a content minimalist or maximalist? Is it getting just a bit too extra, or overwhelming? I'd love to know.

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