THE 1,000+ PAGE WEBSITE OVERHAUL…HOW TO UNDERTAKE A MASSIVE WEBSITE REWRITE
Much has been written about crumbling infrastructure throughout the United States.
If it’s not roads and bridges, then it’s internet networks and dated telecommunications infrastructure.
But not so much has been written on the effects of aging on internet content.
The internet has been around long enough that many sites have compiled years of content and supplemental pages.
How do companies and universities manage updating and creating content for huge, often unwieldy sites?
A large content production or migration project can appear daunting at first.
Anyone who’s worked on one of these projects for the first time inevitably has come out the other side with a laundry list of learnings.
From architecting new structures to staffing a writing team large enough to complete the project in a timely fashion to hand-holding subject matter experts and ensuring an efficient workflow, large content project managers will have had to work through the bottlenecks common to such large-scale projects.
A proverbial analogy for today’s large-scale content production projects might be different takes on “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
If we consider the content as the “baby” and the platform as the “bathwater,” you can see how the various iterations of these projects might look:
- If you chuck the baby, then the scope of the project involves producing all new content to populate your current platform.
- If you chuck the bathwater, then you’re looking at a content migration project where the biggest challenges become identifying content you want migrated to a new platform and new content you want produced (an example being your company’s desire to migrate your content and data to the cloud).
- If you’ve chucked it all, or perhaps have no baby or bathwater to begin with, then your challenges multiply.
Obviously, there are subtle variations to each of these scenarios.
And while there are plenty of marketing firms that can handle large-scale content management, when it comes to actually producing the living, breathing content that your users will consume, the task of creating compelling and cohesive content on a large scale can prove challenging without a well-honed writing team in place.
Assembling Your Team
Even if your company employs a third-party marketing firm to handle content production and management, many marketing firms don’t staff a large enough writing team for such large-scale projects.
So, the first issue that needs tackling is ensuring coverage of the sheer manhours required to produce large amounts of high-quality content while maintaining an attentive focus on cohesion.
It’s not enough to simply hire 10 or 15 writers and divide up the work.
Those writers need to form a fluid team that works well together, understands the broad scope of the project, and can converge to meet a common goal.
Project managers will be the critical hub for these types of large-scale projects.
Not only will they be involved with staffing a cohesive writing team, but they will also be instrumental in attaining consensus for the style guides that need to be produced, in drafting training materials and process documentation, and in assisting through the decision on what to repurpose and what to scrap.
Project managers are also key to keeping a project on budget and on schedule.
Wintress Odom, Owner of Houston-based The Writers for Hire, says “To ensure the project stays within scope, each individual writer needs to understand how much time they have allotted per writing task, else ‘small’ overages on individual tasks can add up to hundreds of extra work hours.”
Extra works hours can equate to budget overruns and missed deadlines.
Oh. And, of course, you need an editor.
At the risk of going over the top with the proverbs, when it comes to editors, you might consider that too many cooks spoil the soup.
Odom says, “For large projects with multiple writers on a team, it’s important to have a single editor.”
She qualifies this by explaining that a single editor will have the entire vision of the project within their scope, and by introducing multiple editors, there’s a good chance the rate of inconsistencies in tone, content, and style grows exponentially.
Together, the project manager and editor will oversee the writing team and ensure stuff gets done on time.
At project inception, one essential key Odom identifies is in ensuring the initial architecture takes into account not only the form the project is to take, but also in preemptively constructing a chain of command that will streamline the decision-making process and save time and headaches down the road.
For such a large-scale project, everyone involved has to be on the same page.
This is done by documenting workflow and review processes before a single word gets written.
Process documentation can range from the bare minimum to quite extensive.
On a large project, you might find the need for some or all of the following:
- Project workflow guides
- Content guide
- Chain of review roadmap
- Stakeholder responsibility definitions
- Writer and stakeholder training on project-specific software
Odom stresses the need to have most of this in place before starting a project. “You are bound to tweak processes as you go along, but starting a major website overhaul without key procedural documents is a costly mistake.”
The one exception? Surprisingly, the style guide.
“If a company doesn’t already have one,” says Odom, “trying to create one before the project is somewhat ridiculous. You can’t possibly anticipate all of the nuances you’ll run into, from capitalization preferences on company trademarks to oxford commas.”
Odom suggests recording preferences – building a living style guide – as the project progresses. Then, completing a front-to-back edit just to implement style guide decisions right before launch.
One last invaluable tool for allowing the writing process to flow much smoother is the key messaging platform.
Most larger companies have this valuable marketing tool already.
It’s a master marketing message document, covering the company’s branding as a whole as well as each individual product and service the company offers.
The key messaging platform provides cohesion across all marketing mediums and ensures not only consistency in branding and style, but also a roadmap to avoid multiple content producers from having to reinvent the wheel.
Thankfully, the internet makes available a wealth of prompts and tools for creating effective key messaging.
Throughout her career, Erin Hanson, Content Marketing Manager at Autodesk in Northern California, has had to learn many lessons through trial and error.
Earlier in her career, Hanson was charged with the daunting task of overhauling content for the entire University of California at Berkeley extension course catalog, a project which ended up taking over two years.
To give you a sense of what one of these large-scale projects looks like, consider just a handful of the tasks Hanson had to manage for the university’s site overhaul:
- Drafting and distributing requests for proposal for third-parties
- Gap analysis for requirement gathering from student information and records
- Gathering information on each field of study’s course descriptions and certificate programs
- Creating and managing content hubs for each of those fields of study
- Conducting student interviews—one in each field
“The bottlenecks,” Hanson describes, “were everywhere. To begin with, there was a lot of data, old systems that needed to be shut down, migration to plan out and the need to get sign off from academic stakeholders.”
For Hanson, now at Autodesk, the reliance upon technology to manage large scale content cannot be understated.
She uses a wealth of technological trappings such as digital asset management software and other browser-based search tools to manage an immense workflow.
Odom agrees on the use of technology in workflow management and recommends using a task-based workflow process to track the current status of each website page.
This type of system means that a stakeholder can see any page’s progress at-a-glance.
The system also makes it easy to see where pages might be held up – scheduled for a subject matter expert interview, waiting on technical content review, or stalled due to an unanswered question.
A proper workflow management system will also allow for per-task conversations, feedback, and communication.
The alternative is corresponding and trading files through email or a less sophisticated file-sharing system which Odom dismisses as “a total mess.”
Working With Subject Matter Experts
High-level subject matter experts aren’t always in great supply.
Realistically, the ones in your company likely have some of the best and most relevant insight into the content you’re producing.
However, relying on in-house subject matter experts to produce content may represent a general misalignment of goals.
- SMEs don’t have time. A subject matter expert is likely fully immersed in their job responsibilities and may not prioritize their assigned content production duty.
- SMEs are not always good writers. These folks may be the best at what they do, but when it comes to articulating that for the rest of us, they may not be good enough writers.
- SMEs have different goals. Marketing department and corporate bonuses are often built on key performance indicators, many of which are deadline driven. SMEs, on the other hand, may have an entirely different set of KPIs, in which case they’re not incentivized to work within the timeframes your content production project demands.
As an alternative to relying upon in-house subject matter experts to produce well-written content, try using those SMEs as mini-editors.
It takes far less time for an SME to make themselves available for a brief interview, and to review and comment on content created by someone else than it would take for them to sit down and craft new content from scratch.
When interviewing SMEs, Odom recommends modifying communication styles and setting clear expectations.
The discourse style of an enterprise developer is bound to be markedly different than a financial advisor, for example.
When working with SMEs, Odom has found that “Some people just don’t do well with pre-call preparation. They need to react to your questions off-the-cuff. Others want prep questions and campaign briefs to feel comfortable.”
Finally, one of the most important elements of creating large amounts of content quickly lies in being able to shepherd those SMEs through the writing and editing process.
Relationship building becomes paramount as there will inevitably be the occasions when a SME is dragging his feet in getting back to you.
Whether you’re migrating and repurposing large amounts of content or you’re charged with scaling a new project which might feature tens of thousands of pages, you’ll want a clearly defined plan of attack and a staff of qualified writers. Tweet this
But perhaps the greatest dividend to having completed a large-scale project is that you now have a team in place that’s fluent in your culture, your subject matter, and your goals.
After working on a large project, “We now know how all those departments work, we know all their key messaging. We just happen to be offsite.”