She feels the same way about websites.
She loves the web, and she loves content. She knew she was going to be a writer since middle school. She loves that the web allows us to publish and communicate in a way we never thought possible.
Our websites are pretty filthy, too. There is content that is JUNK. What gives? Because people actually do care about content, so why is there so much garbage?
We need to recognize that the people we work with and the websites we make are complicated and chaotic. There’s infrastructure there but they’re messy and imperfect.
There’s no way you can beat every little messy thing into submission. Changing the way a company deals with their content can be a BIG thing. We need to recognize that we’re not just talking about these tangible issues like bad content strategy.
We are talking about bigger, cultural problems, like “not-my-problem” problems. They’re also “too-big-to-try” problems. A lot of times teams will say things to Sara like “are we the worst you’ve ever seen?” Everybody says the same thing because everybody feels like it’s just too much to do and they wrap up shame in it. They feel like they’ve failed at their job. This is a culture problem. There is no document you can write to fix this.
BUT, hope is not lost!
How can web projects fix those problems?
Stop thinking about this as a whack-a-mole game where you try to fix everything and you end up getting exhausted. Instead, think about how you can turn your project into a catalyst for improvement. How can you influence content for the long term?
You’re not trying to fix everything or tear the city down and rebuilt it. You’re trying to influence progress.
1. MAKE CHANGE FEEL ACHIEVABLE
Most people want to do a good job, the same way most people don’t want to live in garbage… but it’s not that simple.
A great example of how to handle this with a Philly trash project – the W Rockland Street Project. They have the mission to revitalize one city block. They don’t want people to get overwhelmed or give up.
Big problems feel… BIG.
When you go to someone with a huge project like “let’s rewrite all of the content for a responsive site,” or “let’s put all the content in your 4,000 PDFs into structured content,” they can get overwhelmed.
Start with just one thing.
Find one place where you can make a meaningful difference and start there.
Her criteria for picking that one thing:
Visible – find something that is causing pain right now. This should be the eye-sore, something everyone would agree is a problem.
Valuable – Is there something that would immediately improve the flow of users? Is there something that would cut down substantially on staff time? Find something that you can attach a value to the organization, it’s more likely to get picked up.
Scope-able – pick something you could actually get done in a matter of weeks or months? We want to show people results relatively quickly. This is just as much for the client as it is for the people who are working on it.
Let’s say what you’re trying to do right now is move an existing site over to a responsive design. You realize that product specs have been hidden in PDFs for years. Instead of rewriting everything for the new site, take a look at those PDFs and create a product content model for the future product specs.
It’s easy for us to go into the model of fixing everything, because that’s what we’re trained to do! Because of that we see the problems constantly, and we want to fix them ALL!
However it’s a lot more effective if we can focus on fixing something as opposed to fixing nothing.
Small wins build OPTIMISM, and you need that.
2. AIM FOR OWNERSHIP
Ownership is key to getting content chaos improved. You need people to stop waiting.
With the W Rockland Street Project, the neighborhood was involved in deciding what they wanted to do, and so they were collectively invested.
Get people problem-solving together. She’s going in before the decisions are made and talking to them. She’s asking questions like ‘what do you think should be different?’ ‘If you were going to re-do this, what would you like to see change?’
What she’s found is that people are so much more open to helping if they are involved in making choices as to what the solution is going to be.
She does a lot of activities with her clients, because she likes to get people hands-on solving their own problems so that they have some commitment to them.
Another tactic: Pair Up
Let’s say you’re trying to get everybody to move from writing big long pages of stuff like blogs to more structured contents with
Leaving them alone to do that at their desks can be really hard. So she has people work in teams of 2 to do a small content assignment. It is less overwhelming and alone.
With > For
Involvement creates Ownership
3. GET COMMITMENT
A long term commitment to a plan is pretty damn difficult. A lot of time you’ve just got an enormous document that tells them how to handle content moving forward… but it’s daunting.
So, build a map.
Show the big destination in the future and small steps to get there.
Having a map for content connects the goal to the operational day to day mundane crap that has to get done to get there.
We have to be able to define where we’re heading in order to have a roadmap. Have the big picture vision, which could look like:
Going from UNSTRUCTURED to STRUCTURED
Going from OVERWHELMING to GOVERNED
Going from CHURNED OUT JUNK to PURPOSEFUL – go from the ‘more is better’ mindset to a purposeful mindset
What are the different things need to do to get there? What projects could we do to get there?
Break down the big steps and make lists to get the smaller steps done.
Decide who will lead each charge.
Set a cadence for progress. What’s the priority of different items, when can we get this done?
She typically maps out the steps on a wall with post-its.
GOAL is at the end
Each step has: WHAT, WHO, WHEN, AND FIRST STEP(S)
Having the first step is important because a lot of times someone will set out to do something but won’t know where to start.
These maps keep people moving.
Content is chaotic, and political. People won’t always agree about what should go on the homepage, or what thing is the most important because everybody’s thing is the most important. Content is also never finished. It’s messy and weird because it’s human. WE are messy, chaotic, and never finished. It’s ok. Those imperfections are what make us human and it gives our content the opportunity to feel real and alive and like people actually touched it.
We don’t have to fight the chaos all the time, and we aren’t here for perfection. We can succeed without wrapping every project completely up in a pretty bow. The web ebbs and flows, and so does content. Instead of trying to fix content, we can make the most impact if we see it as an opportunity to inspire people and make change themselves.