A Contentmas Epiphany

The twelve days of Christmas fall between 25 December, Christmas Day, and 6 January, the Epiphany of the Kings. Traditionally, these have been holidays and a lot of us still take a good proportion of these days off. Equally, a lot of us have a got a personal site kicking around somewhere that we sigh over and think, “One day I’ll sort you out!” Why not take this downtime to give it a big ol’ refresh? I know, good idea, huh?

HEY WAIT! WOAH! NO-ONE’S TOUCHING PHOTOSHOP OR DOING ANY CSS FANCYWORK UNTIL I’M DONE WITH YOU!

Be honest, did you immediately think of a sketch or mockup you have tucked away? Or some clever little piece of code you want to fiddle with? Now ask yourself, why would you start designing the container if you haven’t worked out what you need to put inside?

Anyway, forget the content strategy lecture; I haven’t given you your gifts yet.
I present The Twelve Days of Contentmas!

This is a simple little plan to make sure that your personal site, blog or portfolio is not just looking good at the end of these twelve days, but is also a really useful repository of really useful content.

WARNING KLAXON: There are twelve parts, one for each day of Christmas, so this is a lengthy article. I’m not expecting anyone to absorb this in one go. Add to Instapaper. There is no TL;DR for this because it’s a multipart process, m’kay? Even so, this plan of mine cuts corners on a proper applied strategy for content. You might find some aspects take longer than the arbitrary day I’ve assigned. And if you apply this to your company-wide intranet, I won’t be held responsible for the mess.

That said, I encourage you to play along and sample some of the practical aspects of organising existing content and planning new content because it is, honestly, an inspiring and liberating process. For one thing, you get to review all the stuff you have put out for the world to look at and see what you could do next. This always leaves me full of ideas on how to plug the gaps I’ve found, so I hope you are similarly motivated come day twelve.

Let’s get to it then, shall we?

On the first day of Contentmas, Relly gave to me:

1. A (partial) content inventory

I’m afraid being a site owner isn’t without its chores. With great power comes great responsibility and all that. There are the domain renewing, hosting helpline calls and, of course, keeping on top of all the content that you have published.

If you just frowned a little and thought, “Well, there’s articles and images and… stuff”, then I’d like to introduce you to the idea of a content inventory.

A content inventory is a list of all your content, in a simple spreadsheet, that allows you to see at a glance what is currently on your site: articles; about me page; contact form, and so on.

You add the full URL so that you can click directly to any page listed. You add a brief description of what it is and what tags it has. In fact, I’ll show you. I’ve made a Google Docs template for you. Sorry, it isn’t wrapped.

Does it seem like a mammoth task? Don’t feel you have to do this all in one day. But do do it. For one thing, looking back at all the stuff you’ve pushed out into the world gives you a warm fuzzy feeling which keeps the heating bill down.

Grab a glass of mulled cider and try going month-by-month through your blog archives, or project-by-project through your portfolio. Do a little bit each day for the next twelve days and you’ll have done something awesome. The best bit is that this exploration of your current content helps you with the next day’s task.

Bonus gift: for more on content auditing and inventory, check out Jeff Veen’s article on just this topic, which is also suitable for bigger business sites too.

On the second day of Contentmas, Relly gave to me:

2. Website loves

Remember when you were a kid, you’d write to Santa with a wish list that would make your parents squirm, because your biggest hope for your stocking would be either impossible or impossibly expensive. Do you ever get the same thing now as a grown-up where you think, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could make a video blog every week”, or “I could podcast once a month about this”, and then you push it to the back of your mind, assuming that you won’t have time or you wouldn’t know what to talk about anyway?

True fact: content doesn’t just have to be produced when we are so incensed that we absolutely must blog about a topic. Neither does it have to be a drain to a demanding schedule. You can plan for it. In fact, you’re about to.

So, today, get a pen and a notebook. Move away from your computer. My gift to you is to grab a quiet ten minutes between turkey sandwiches and relatives visiting and give your site some of the attention it deserves for 2011.

What would you do with your site if you could? I don’t mean what would you do purely visually – although by all means note those things down too – but to your site as a whole. Here are some jumping off points:

  • Would you like to individually illustrate and design some of your articles?
  • What about a monthly exploration of your favourite topic through video or audio?
  • Who would you like to collaborate with?
  • What do you want your site to be like for a user?
  • What tone of voice would you like to use?
  • How could you use imagery and typography to support your content?
  • What would you like to create content about in the new year?

It’s okay if you can’t do these things yet. It’s okay to scrub out anything where you think, “Nah, never gonna happen.” But do give some thought to what you might want to do next. The best inspiration for this comes from what you’ve already done, so keep on with that inventory.

Bonus gift: a Think Vitamin article on podcasting using Skype, so you can rope in a few friends to join in, too.

On the third day of Contentmas, Relly gave to me:

3. Red pens

Shock news, just in: the web is not print!

One of the hardest things as a writer is to reach the point where you say, “Yeah, okay, that’s it. I’m done” and send off your beloved manuscript or article to print. I’m convinced that if deadlines didn’t exist, nothing would get finished. Why? Well, at the point you hand it over to the publishing presses, you can make no more changes. At best, you can print an erratum or produce an updated second edition at a later date. And writers love to – no, they live to – tweak their creations, so handing them over is quite a struggle. Just one more comma and…

Online, we have no such constraints. We can edit, correct, test, tweak, twiddle until we’re blooming sick of it. Our red pens never run out of ink. It is time for you to run a more critical eye over your content, especially the stuff already published. Relish in the opportunity to change stuff on the fly. I am not so concerned by blog articles and such (although feel free to apply this concept to those, too), but mainly by your more concrete content: about pages; contact pages; home page navigation; portfolio pages; 404 pages.

Now, don’t go running amok with the cut function yet. First, put all these evergreen pages into your inventory. In the notes section, write a quick analysis of how useful this copy is. Example questions:

  • Is your contact page up-to-date?
  • Does your about page link to the right places?
  • Is your portfolio current?
  • Does your 404 page give people a way to find what they were looking for?

We’ll come back to this in a few days once we have a clearer idea of how to improve our content.

Bonus gift: the audio and slides of a talk I gave on microcopy and 404 pages at @media WebDirections last year.

On the fourth day of Contentmas, Relly gave to me:

4. Stalling nerds

Actually, I guess more accurately this is something I get given a lot. Designers and developers particularly can find a million ways to extract themselves from the content of a site but, as the site owner, and this being your personal playground and all, you mustn’t. You actually can’t, sorry.

But I do understand that at this point, ‘sorting out your site’ suddenly seems a lot less exciting, especially if you are a visually-minded person and words and lists aren’t really your thing. So far, there has been a lot of not-very-exciting exercises in planning, and there’s probably a nice pile of DVDs and video games that you got from Santa worth investigating.

Stay strong my friend. By now, you have probably hit upon an idea of some sort you are itching to start on, so for every half-hour you spend doing inventory, gift yourself another thirty minutes to play with that idea.

Bonus gift: the Pomodoro Technique. Take one kitchen timer and a to-do list and see how far you can go.

On the fifth day of Contentmas, Relly gave to me:

5. Golden rules

Here are some guidelines for writing online:

  • Make headlines for tutorials and similar content useful and descriptive; use a subheading for any terrible pun you want to work in.
  • Create a broad opening paragraph that addresses what your article is about. Part of the creative skill in writing is to do this in a way that both informs the reader and captures their attention. If you struggle with this, consider a boxout giving a summary of the article.
  • Use headings to break up chunks of text and allow people to scan. Most people will have a scoot about an article before starting at the beginning to give it a proper read. These headings should be equal parts informative and enticing. Try them out as questions that might be posed by the reader too.
  • Finish articles by asking your reader to take an affirmative action: subscribe to your RSS feed; leave a comment (if comments are your thing – more on that later); follow you on Twitter; link you to somewhere they have used your tutorial or code. The web is about getting excited, making things and sharing with others, so give your readers the chance to do that.
  • For portfolio sites, this call to action is extra important as you want to pick up new business. Encourage people to e-mail you or call you – don’t just rely on a number in the footer or an e-mail link at the top. Think up some consistent calls-to-action you can use and test them out.

So, my gift to you today is a simplified page table for planning out your content to make it as useful as possible.

Feel free to write a new article or tutorial, or work on that great idea from yesterday and try out these guidelines for yourself.

It’s a simple framework – good headline; broad opening; headings to break up volume; strong call to action – but it will help you recognise if what you’ve written is in good shape to face the world. It doesn’t tell you anything about how to create it – that’s your endeavour – but it does give you a start. No more staring at a blank page.

Bonus gift: okay, you have to buy yourself this one, but it is the gift that keeps on giving: Ginny Reddish’s Letting Go of the Words – the hands down best guide to web writing there is, with a ton of illustrative examples.

On the sixth day of Contentmas, Relly gave to me:

6. Foundation-a-laying

Yesterday, we played with a page table for articles. Today, we are going to set the foundations for your new, spangly, spruced up, relaunched site (for when you’re ready, of course). We’ve checked out what we’ve got, we’ve thought about what we’d like, we have a wish list for the future. Now is the time for a small reality check.

Be realistic with yourself. Can you really give your site some attention every day? Record a short snippet of audio once a week? A photo diary post once a month? Look back at the wish list you made.

  • What can you do?
  • What can you aim for?
  • What just isn’t possible right now?

As much as we’d all love to be producing a slick video podcast and screencast three times a week, it’s better to set realistic expectations and work your way up.

Where does your site sit in your online world?

  • Do you want it to be the hub of all your social interactions, a lifestream, a considered place of publication or a free for all?
  • Do you want to have comments (do you have the personal resource to monitor comments?) or would you prefer conversation to happen via Twitter, Facebook or not at all?
  • Does this apply to all pages, posts and content types or just some?
  • Get these things straight in your head and it’s easier to know what sort of environment you want to create and what content you’ll need to sustain it.

Get your notebook again and think about specific topics you’d like to cover, or aspects of a project you want to go into more, and how you can go ahead and do just that. A good motivator is to think what you’ll get out of doing it, even if that is “And I’ll finally show the poxy $whatever_community that my $chosen_format is better than their $other_format.”

What topics have you really wanted to get off your chest? Look through your inventory again. What gaps are there in your content just begging to be filled?

Today, you’re going to give everyone the gift of your opinion. Find one of those things where someone on the internet is wrong and create a short but snappy piece to set them straight. Doesn’t that feel good? Soon you’ll be able to do this in a timely manner every time someone is wrong on the internet!

Bonus gift: we’re halfway through, so I think something fun is in order. How about a man sledding naked down a hill in Brighton on a tea tray? Sometimes, even with a whole ton of content planning, it’s the spontaneous stuff that is still the most fun to share.

On the seventh day of Contentmas, Relly gave to me:

7. Styles-a-guiding

Not colour style guides or brand style guides or code style guides. Content style guides. You could go completely to town and write yourself a full document defining every aspect of your site’s voice and personality, plus declaring your view on contracted phrases and the Oxford comma, but this does seem a tad excessive. Unless you’re writing an entire site as a fictional character, you probably know your own voice and vocabulary better than anyone. It’s in your head, after all.

Instead, equip yourself with a good global style guide (I like the Chicago Manual of Style because I can access it fully online, but the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook has a nifty iPhone app and, if I’m entirely honest, I’ve found a copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves has set me right on all but the most technical aspects of punctuation). Next, pick a good dictionary and bookmark thesaurus.com. Then have a go at Kristina Halvorson’s ‘Voice and Tone’ exercise from her book Content Strategy for the Web, to nail down what you’d like your future content to be like:

To introduce the voice and tone qualities you’re [looking to create], a good approach is to offer contrasting values. For example:

  • Professional, not academic.
  • Confident, not arrogant.
  • Clever, not cutesy.
  • Savvy, not hipster.
  • Expert, not preachy.

Take a look around some of your favourite sites and examine the writing and stylistic handling of content. What do you like? What do you want to emulate? What matches your values list?

Today’s gift to you is an idea. Create a ‘swipe file’ through Evernote or Delicious and save all the stuff you come across that, regardless of topic, makes you think, “That’s really cool.” This isn’t the same as an Instapaper list you’d like to read. This is stuff you have read or have seen that is worth looking at in closer detail.

  • Why is it so good?
  • What is the language and style like?
  • What impact does the typography have?
  • How does the imagery work to enhance the message?

This isn’t about creating a personal brand or any such piffle. It’s about learning to recognise how good content works and how to create something awesome yourself. Obviously, your ideas are brilliant, so take the time to understand how best to spring them on the unsuspecting public for easier world domination.

Bonus gift: a nifty style guide is a must when you do have to share content creation duties with others. Here is Leeds University’s publicly available PDF version for you to take a gander at. I especially like the Rationale sections for chopping off dissenters at the knees.

On the eighth day of Contentmas, Relly gave to me:

8. Times-a-making

You have an actual, real plan for what you’d like to do with your site and how it is going to sound (and probably some ideas on how it’s going to look, too). I hope you are full of enthusiasm and Getting Excited To Make Things. Just before we get going and do exactly that, we are going to make sure we have made time for this creative outpouring.

Have you tried to blog once a week before and found yourself losing traction after a month or two? Are there a couple of podcasts lurking neglected in your archives? Whereas half of the act of running is showing up for training, half of creating is making time rather than waiting for it to become urgent. It’s okay to write something and set a date to come back to it (which isn’t the same as leaving it to decompose in your drafts folder).

Putting a date in your calendar to do something for your site means that you have a forewarning to think of a topic to write about, and space in your schedule to actually do it. Crucially, you’ve actually made some time for this content lark.

To do this, you need to think about how long it takes to get something out of the door/shipped/published/whatever you want to call it. It might take you just thirty minutes to record a podcast, but also a further hour to research the topic beforehand and another hour to edit and upload the clips. Suddenly, doing a thirty minute podcast every day seems a bit unlikely. But, on the flipside, it is easy to see how you could schedule that in three chunks weekly.

Put it in your calendar. Do it, publish it, book yourself in for the next week. Keep turning up.

Today my gift to you is the gift of time. Set up your own small content calendar, using your favourite calendar system, and schedule time to play with new ways of creating content, time to get it finished and time to get it on your site. Don’t let good stuff go to your drafts folder to die of neglect.

Bonus gift: lots of writers swear by the concept of ‘daily pages’. That is, churning out whatever is in your head to see if there is anything worth building upon, or just to lose the grocery list getting in the way. 750words.com is a site built around this concept. Go have a play.

On the ninth day of Contentmas, Relly gave to me:

9. Copy enhancing

An incredibly radical idea for day number nine. We are going to look at that list of permanent pages you made back on day three and rewrite the words first, before even looking at a colour palette or picking a font! Crazy as it sounds, doing it this way round could influence your design. It could shape the imagery you use. It could affect your choice of typography. IMAGINE THE POSSIBILITIES!

Look at the page table from day five. Print out one for each of your homepage, about page, contact page, portfolio, archive, 404 page or whatever else you have. Use these as a place to brainstorm your ideas and what you’d like each page to do for your site. Doodle in the margin, choose words you think sound fun to say, daydream about pictures you’d like to use and colours you think would work, but absolutely, completely and utterly fill in those page tables to understand how much (or how little) content you’re playing with and what you need to do to get to ‘launch’.

Then, use them for guidance as you start to write. Don’t skimp. Don’t think that a fancy icon of an envelope encourages people to e-mail you. Use your words.

People get antsy at this bit. Writing can be hard work and it’s easy for me to say, “Go on and write it then!” I know this. I mean, you should see the faces I pull when I have to do anything related to coding. The closest equivalent would be when scientists have to stick their hands in big gloves attached to a glass box to do dangerous experiments.

Here’s today’s gift, a little something about writing that I hope brings you comfort:

To write something fantastic you almost always have to write a rubbish draft first.

Now, you might get lucky and write a ‘good enough’ draft first time and that’s fab – you’ve cut some time getting to ‘fantastic’. If, however, you’ve always looked at your first attempt to write more than the bare minimum and sighed in despair, and resigned yourself to adding just a title, date and a screenshot, be cheered because you have taken the first step to being able to communicate with clarity, wit and panache.

Keep going. Look at writing you admire and emulate it. Think about how you will lovingly design those words when they are done. Know that you can go back and change them. Check back with your page table to keep you on track. Do that first draft.

Bonus gift: becoming a better writer helps you to explain design concepts to clients.

On the tenth day of Contentmas, Relly gave to me:

10. Ideas for keeping

Hurrah! You have something down on paper, ready to start evolving your site around it. Here’s where the words and visuals and interaction start to come together. Because you have a plan, you can think ahead and do things you wouldn’t be able to pull together otherwise.

  • How about finding a fresh-faced stellar illustrator on Dribbble to create you something perfect to pep up your contact page or visualize your witty statement on statements of work. A List Apart has been doing it for years and it hasn’t worked out too badly for them, has it?
  • What about spending this month creating a series of introductory tutorials on a topic, complete with screencasts and audio and give them a special home on your site?
  • You could even do the web equivalent of getting up in the attic and sorting out your site’s search to make it easier to find things in your archives. Maybe even do some manual recommendations for relevant content and add them as calls to action.
  • How about writing a few awesome case studies with individual screenshots of your favourite work, and creating a portfolio that plays to your strengths? Don’t just rely on the pretty pictures; use your words. Otherwise no-one understands why things are the way they are on that screenshot and BAM! you’ll be judged on someone else’s tastes. (Elliot has a head start on you for this, so get to it!)
  • Do you have a serious archive of content? What’s it like being a first-time visitor to your site? Could you write them a guide to introduce yourself and some of the most popular stuff on your site? Ali Edwards is a massively popular crafter and every day she gets new visitors who have found her multiple papercraft projects on Flickr, Vimeo and elsewhere, so she created a welcome guide just for them.
  • What about your microcopy? Can you improve on your blogging platform’s defaults for search, comment submission and labels? I’ll bet you can.
  • Maybe you could plan a collaboration with other like-minded souls. A week of posts about the more advanced wonders of HTML5 video. A month-long baton-passing exercise in extolling the virtues of IE (shut up, it could happen!). Just spare me any more online advent calendars.

Bonus gift: Grab a copy of Brian Suda’s Designing with Data, in print or PDF if Santa didn’t put one in your stocking, and make that awesome something with some expert guidance.

On the eleventh day of Contentmas, Relly gave to me:

11. Pixels pushing

Oh, go on then. Make a gorgeous bespoke velvet-lined container for all that lovely content. It’s proper informed design now, not just decoration. Mr. Zeldman says so.

Bonus gift: I made you a movie! If books were designed like websites.

On the twelfth day of Contentmas, Relly gave to me:

12. Delighters delighting

The Epiphany is upon us; your site is now well on its way to being a beautiful, sustainable hub of content and you have a date in your calendar to help you keep that resolution of blogging more. What now?

  • Keep on top of your inventory. One day it will save your butt, I promise.
  • Keep making a little bit of time regularly to create something new: an article; an opinion piece; a small curation of related links; a photo diary; a new case study. That’s easier than an annual content bootcamp for sure.
  • And today’s gift: look for ways to play with that content and make something a bit special. Stretch yourself a little. It’ll be worth it.

Bonus gift: Paul Annett’s presentation on Ooh, that’s clever: Delighters in design from SxSW 09.

All my favourite designers and developers have their own unique styles and touches. It’s what sets them apart. My very, very favourites have an eloquence and expression that they bring to their sites and to their projects. I absolutely love to explore a well-crafted, well-written site – don’t we all? I know the time it takes. I appreciate the time it takes. But the end results are delicious. Do please share your spangly, refreshed sites with me in the comments.

Catch me on Twitter, I’m @RellyAB, and I’ve been your host for these Twelve Days of Contentmas.

About the author

Relly Annett-Baker lives in the Home Counties with her husband, Paul Annett, and their two small sons. As a result, she thrives on the country air and can be guaranteed to stand on Lego at least once a day. Her principle employment is as live-in domestic staff for two cats but when not being purred into submission she is a content strategist and writer, runs dedicated workshops in-house with companies big and small and continues to procrastinate over the draft of her Five Simple Steps book ‘Content Creation for the Web’ due out in 2012. She’ll get right back to it just after she’s had another cup of tea and checked her RSS feed.

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