Recognising and getting out of content debt

February 18, 2022

Listen instead

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".

(Insert joke about back-ends here)

In these conversations, you'll be circling around what is called 'technical debt'.

They're the costs that build up over time when you prioritise speed in delivery over the cleanliness or perfection of the code.

With whole websites and social media accounts dedicated to 'hacks', we think of these shortcuts as good things. We love the idea of working hard and fast, but is this just a route to greater debt?

Content carries debt too.

Any business that's been around for a while is going to have a 'content debt' to manage.

You've sunk costs into what you have, how do you get the most returns from the work that's already been done, while expanding and changing?

Is it good debt, or bad debt?

My dad - who is a certified accountant and has spent his career jumping from managing one small to medium business to the next (including what was once Sydney's biggest nightclub that has an ongoing connection to our local village pub... hit reply for that story) - always says, "Have you had your hearing checked? You do speak very loudly."

He also says, "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 student 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, cars loans, and personal loans are usually lumped into this category.

I like to think about content debts in the same way.

All content carries a cost. But any content created as even a small step toward a larger goal could be considered in the "good debt" category. Think, a 'how to' blog post for now, that will become an interactive tool or perhaps a guided course later. Or a MVP (minimum viable product) iteration of a website, structured to grow as more high fidelity content is added.

(Before you say, 'but Sarah, all of my content meets my goals' keep reading)

This good debt can quickly turn bad when that well considered content gets lost in the rush of publishing the next thing.

Before long, you don't remember what you have where, how to make use of it, and 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 goes to waste.

It's time to get a handle on your debts

Start to think about what your content has really cost you.

It might make you feel a little dizzy. That's ok. Use that feeling to spur you on to think about how you can make the most of what you've got.

Ask yourself,

What content exists? Where is it, and how does that impact it's shelf life? (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 it?)

Who is involved in creating content? From planning to creating, approving and publishing, who does the work? Even if it's just you....

How much time do people spend contributing to content creation or publishing content?

How does that time break down for different kinds of content? Again, think about the relationship between the investment in the content and its shelf life.

How long does it take to create and publish new content?

Once you assess the debts, you can begin to look for opportunities.

Turn those debts around

I hate to do this to you, but the best place to start is with an audit.

Understanding what content you have - and where - is the gateway to understanding what you can eek more out of.

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.

As Laurah Mwirichia, a Product Writer on the Risk team at Square wrote in her recent 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)."

I'm not going to give you examples from businesses with larger amounts of content, because this article already does it. It gives an excellent insight into the content debts identified at Square, and the actions they're taking to overcome them. So go read it.

(And obviously, even though I forgot about it until I sat down to write this, I obviously owe a debt to Laurah and this article. It's clearly been playing on my mind since I read it!)

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

Yes, even if you're just one person.

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 de-rail 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 an email 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.

Solo, 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.

That might look like focusing your 'new thing' creation on an email, then sharing it as a blog, and breaking it into social posts. Maybe it's really honing your sales page for your launch, then using that content in emails and on socials. Really getting bang for your buck out of everything you spend time on. Not great at this stuff? Does it look like spending your time talking to camera so someone else can take that, find the gold, and turn it into the written content you need?

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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