Tag Archives: updating

Content Maintenance: A Framework

What happens to content after its publication seems to vary widely.  Content maintenance is not considered exciting — and is often overlooked.  Even the term content maintenance has no commonly accepted definition. Despite its lowly status and fuzzy profile, content maintenance is a many sided and fundamental activity.  I want to explore what content maintenance can involve, and how to prioritize its different aspects.

An Inconspicuous Activity

Many diagrams showing the content lifecycle have a placeholder for content maintenance.  After creating content and delivering content, content maintenance is required.  But what that means in practice is often not well-defined.    This shouldn’t be surprising: content maintenance somehow lacks the urgency that content creation and content delivery have.  After the adrenaline rush of creating new content, and watching the initial audience response to it, the content is no longer top of mind.

Content maintenance is often a lower priority. The UK's Government Digital Service awaits guidance on the topic.
Content maintenance is often a lower priority activity. The UK’s Government Digital Service awaits guidance on the topic. [screenshot]
In many organizations, content maintenance isn’t planned at all.  Some content gets updated because it is rewritten periodically, while other content is never touched after publication.  The organization may do a cleanup every few years in conjunction with a website redesign or IT upgrade, relying on a tedious content inventory and audit to evaluate how messed up the situation has become — content strategy’s equivalent to doing a root canal.

Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rich, in their popular book Content Strategy for the Web, offer one of the most detailed discussions of content maintenance. They call for a content maintenance plan that reflects content objectives such as assuring accuracy and consistency, archiving or reordering older content, confirming links are working and metadata is current, and removing redundant content.  This is a good list, but in itself doesn’t suggest how to implement a repeatable process for maintenance. These authors further recommend establishing rules to govern content.  Another sound idea.

But critical questions remain: On what basis does the organization prioritize its maintenance plan?  What criteria govern maintenance decisions?

A pivotal issue with content maintenance is defining its scope.  What activities are necessary, desirable but optional, or unnecessary? Does a maintenance task apply to all content, or are there any distinctions in types of content that effect how tasks are allocated?  If there are differences in how various content is treated in maintenance, on what basis are priorities made?  Are they arbitrary decisions made by a committee crafting a plan, or are decisions guided by a stable set of rules that are always dependable?  How do we know we are doing content maintenance effectively, given finite resources?

Decisions about content maintenance can reflect deep convictions about the core value of different kinds of content.  The content maintenance approach of an organization can express unconscious attitudes about content.  One common approach is to make sure that popular content is kept up-to-date.  An exclusive focus on popular content is not a comprehensive approach to content maintenance.

Many people consider content maintenance as a simple housekeeping task.  But it can play a bigger role.   The ultimate purpose of content maintenance is to help organizations use content to grow their engagement with audiences in a sustainable way.  Content maintenance deserves to be reappraised as a foundation of sustainable growth, instead of a zero-sum exercise of pruning and fixing last year’s publications. When organizations understand how content maintenance is essential to making content reach and connect with audiences more effectively, they will place more emphasis on what to do after content’s been published.

Content maintenance serves two functions:

  1. Countering entropy, where published content starts to decay due to various factors
  2. Improving relevance through optimization

Entropy-fighting Maintenance

Keeping content up-to-date often seems like an impossible task because content managers don’t have a good understanding of why content gets out-of-date.  Admittedly, the reasons are manifold.  But a clearer understanding of why content becomes dated will help with the maintenance process.

Recently, some content managers have begun to speak about a concept called content debt.  The concept refers to when there is no plan for the content once it has been published, so that a debt is incurred because the content’s creators have deferred decisions about what should happen to the content in the future.  Many organizations practice bad habits when publishing content.  With so many ways things can be done badly, establishing a robust process to keep content accurate is not an easy task.

We need to distinguish two related concepts: content relevance, and content validity.  Content relevance refers to whether audiences care about the content.  Content validity refers to whether the content is accurate, a subset of content relevance.  When people speak of updating content, they often do not make clear whether they are concerned with fixing inaccuracies in the content, or whether they are assessing how to make it more relevant.  A lack of precision when speaking of updating content can become confusing for those responsible for the task.

Generally, when people speak of updating content, they are presuming the content is intrinsically relevant, but that some aspect of it needs correction. Two types of updating are common:

  1. Content accuracy updating
  2. Technical updating

Content accuracy updating addresses what has changed factually in the content since it was published?  Facts have a tendency to go out of date.  In his book, The Half Life of Facts: Why Everything has an Expiration Date, Samuel Arbesman notes that even scientific facts are not stable, and are subject to revision.

Web content often created around events, past and future.  Some content refers to forthcoming events on specific dates, which may indicate a need to update the content after that date, depending on what the content says.  Other content may have a hidden dependency on events.  A change in executive leadership, product names, or business location may impact many items of content that make reference to these now-changed facts.  To some extent, content referring to internally determined facts can be managed utilizing content structure and metadata.

When content refers to facts that change due to external factors, the maintenance process can be messier.  Content may refer to whether products comply with certain regulations that may be subject to change but that could not have been fully anticipated when the content was created.  Service providers such as airlines may need to update content to indicate changes in factual information reflecting service disruptions due to external factors such as strikes or volcanic eruptions.  Organizations should map how content accuracy may be dependent on external events, and plan for how content will be updated in such scenarios.

Technical updating can be challenging for organizations that have a lot of legacy content.  The web is over 20 years old, and has become our external memory of what’s happened in our world.  Many people expect to find something they saw in the past, but how that content was constructed from a technical perspective may not be compatible with current web standards.

External developments are often responsible for technical decay.  Broken links referring to third party content are the most obvious example.  The more pervasive problem arises when technical standards shift, and the content is not renewed to conform to the new standards.  Two examples of standards shifts are changes in markup standards, such as the growth of semantic search markup, and changes in media format standards, such as the recent demise of the Flash format for video.

Updating content requires content professionals to think about the content lifecycle more globally.  The content lifecycle depends on the event lifecycles to which the content refers and relies on.  The content is part of a larger story: the story of how a product is managed, how an organization evolves, or how an enabling technology is used.  The specifics and timing of these events may not be known, but the broad patterns of their occurrences can be anticipated and planned for.

Popularity as a Factor When Updating Content

Deciding what content to update is an essential part of content maintenance.  It often involves judgment calls, which take time and do not always result in consistency.  In the search for rules that govern what content to update, some content professionals have been advocating content popularity as the criterion for deciding what content to keep, and hence keep current.

Paul Boag has suggested a traffic-based approach to managing legacy content.  Gerry McGovern has written extensively about the value of using traffic to guide content decisions.  McGovern’s writings on the importance of content popularity have become popular themselves, so I want to examine the reasoning behind this approach.  He uses the “long tail” metaphor of content demand first popularized by former Wired columnist Chris Anderson, but draws different conclusions.  McGovern differentiates the “long tail (low demand or no demand stuff) and the long neck (high demand stuff). The long tail has been seen as a major opportunity, but it can become a major threat.”

The Long Tail concept of content popularity, where many items are of interest to few people.
The Long Tail concept of content popularity, where many items are of interest to few people.

McGovern considers the popularity of content in terms of the distribution of page views.  He contrasts the head of the distribution, where the top ranked pages get a high volume of views, with the many low ranking pages in the tail that get few views.  McGovern says: “Much of the long tail is a dead zone. It’s a dead and useless tail full of dead and useless content.”  In contrast, content in the head of the distribution (the top-ranked pages) get the lion’s share of views.  How much of total demand is attributable to the head is not always clear.  McGovern has cited the figure that the top 5% of content generates 20% of demand; the next 35% of content (what he calls the body, though this is not a standard term used in head/tail distributions) accounts for 55% of demand; the remaining 60% is basically useless, accounting for only 20% of demand.  More recently, McGovern has featured the success stories of various organizations when they removed 90% of their content, implying that only the top 10% of content viewed is worth keeping and maintaining.

McGovern’s argument is that low traffic content gets in the way of people accomplishing their “top tasks,” which are represented by the highest volume content.  Moreover, long tail content is difficult to maintain.

McGovern makes some excellent points about the costs of low usage content, and the importance of making sure that frequently accessed content is easily available.  Unfortunately, his formulation is not a reliable guide to deciding what content to maintain because it doesn’t distinguish different content purposes.  McGovern considers all content as task-oriented content.  But content can have other roles, such as being news, or providing background information for educational and entertainment purposes.

Let’s assume, like McGovern, that all content follows a head/tail distribution.  With task-based content, the rank ordering of popularity is stable over time.  If all the content is task-focused, then the ranking of pages in terms of their popularity won’t change.  We can argue how many pages deserve to be included —that is, how many tasks should be supported —but the customer’s prioritization of what’s important is not impacted by when the content was created.

In other cases, when the content was created can have an impact on how important consumers consider the content, even when the age of the content has no bearing on the accuracy of the content.  In these cases, relevance is a function of time.

Comparison of how content popularity might change over time, according to the content's purpose.
Comparison of how content popularity might change over time, according to the content’s purpose.

The most obvious case is when popularity of content decays over time because it becomes less topical.  Any informative content that might be considered news, such as high profile product announcements or announcements of changes to membership services, might become less popular over time.  News oriented content becomes less relevant over time, but old news content is not intrinsically irrelevant.  The need to keep legacy content will depend on the organization’s mission, and the utility of the information in the future.

A different example of content is so-called evergreen content — content that will have a long shelf-life (even if it isn’t truly maintenance-free).  Often such content is created to build awareness and interest in a topic, and isn’t tied to a specific event.  The content may debut with a low ranking, but gain views as awareness builds.  It may gain exposure through a promotional tie-in, a third party’s endorsement, or relevance to some event that wasn’t foreseen when the content was created.  After gaining in popularity, its popularity may settle back down into the long tail.  The popularity of such content can yo-yo over time.

Without considering the purpose of the content, it is difficult to know what content to maintain.  Relying solely on content age or content popularity can result in a meat cleaver approach to content maintenance.  While content that is jettisoned does not need to be maintained, the content that is kept does not all need to be treated the same way.  Sometimes content is intentionally kept in an archive, with a minimum of maintenance promised or provided.

Content Maintenance as Quality Improvement

A very different view of content maintenance considers maintenance as continuous improvement.  Instead of just keeping content up to date, content is actively managed to become better.

Gerry McGovern touches on this approach when discussing what he calls “top tasks”.  He says: ”Continuously improve your top tasks. The Long Neck [top-ranked pages in the head of the distribution] is made up of a small set of top tasks and it’s important to manage them through a process of continuous improvement.“

Continuous improvement can be applied to any content, not just content supporting common tasks.   The purpose of such activity is to make the content more relevant to audiences.  It is a form of content optimization, a term most often used to refer to far narrower dimensions of content, such as search engine positioning or call-to-action behavior.

Optimizing content — in the broader sense of making it more relevant for audiences — involves two sets of decisions:

  1. Deciding what content to optimize as part of an ongoing evaluation program
  2. Making choices about evaluation methods, and assigning resources to support such activities

Optimizing content is often associated with A/B testing.  But the range of approaches available to improve content relevance are diverse, and include:

  • Analyzing content usage and actions
  • Surveying attitudes and preferences relating to content
  • Testing content comprehension and receptivity

Behavioral outcomes can certainly be tested, but content testing and analysis can probe more upstream factors such as how audiences evaluate the content prior to considering taking action, and suggest more fundamental changes that could improve content relevance to audiences.

Some techniques available to improve content relevance can be done prior to publication. The question arises of what content should continue to be evaluated after publication with the aim of improving its performance? If the content was well thought out before its publication, why does it need optimization after publication?  Any evaluation and enhancement activities that are done multiple times will require additional commitments of resources.   What content justifies the extra attention?

Business critical content will be the best candidates to optimize through continuous improvement.  Business criticality will reflect the reach of the content (amount of views), its importance to audiences, and its influence on business outcomes.  It may be content that comprises part of a funnel, but not necessarily.  In some cases, it might be key content that provides the first impression of an organization, product or topic that will have long term impacts in terms of future behavior or social influence.

Strategic Content Maintenance

Content maintenance involves many aspects, and content with different characteristics and purposes must be prioritized differently.  Maintenance-free content is a myth, but not all content requires the same level of maintenance.

Many times organizations jettison content for the wrong reasons. Content should be retired because it is no longer relevant, not simply because something about it, factually or technically, has become dated through neglect, and it is now too much effort to update it given the volume of content that’s in a similar state. Manage content based on current and potential relevance, and plan to maintain the relevant content. Jettison content that’s no longer relevant, and unlikely to be relevant again.

While having less content can be easier to maintain than having large volumes of content, one shouldn’t base one’s content strategy on operational convenience.  Small, tightly focused websites can be the right choice for smaller, tightly focused organizations, who can devote their energies toward optimizing the entirety of their content.  But for larger organizations with diverse missions, imposing a rigid content diet — say restricting the website to 50 pages — may help the web operations run smoothly, but at the cost of preventing the organization from fully serving their audiences, and allowing the organization to meet their wider digital objectives.  If the breadth of content offered is insufficient to satisfy the needs of audiences, the content published will sustain neither the audience’s interests, nor the mission of the organization.  The organization needs to understand what effort is required to maintain what it decides is relevant content, and then plan how to maintain that content appropriately.

No one-size strategy for content maintenance is right for all organizations.   But  organizations can use a framework to help them prioritize their content maintenance, in terms of identifying differences in content, and different approaches to maintaining such content.  The end goal is to find the right balance.  As alluded to earlier, content maintenance is about delivering sustainable growth.  It is about fostering a pool of content that can establish, maintain, and even expand its relevance to audiences without being a drag on operations.

The matrix considers content according to two properties.  First, it considers how popular the content is over a defined time period, say six months.  Second, it considers two broad approaches to maintaining content: through continuous optimization, and basic updating.  The goal of the matrix is to encourage content managers and owners to characterize the kinds of content that belong in each quadrant, and decide how they will manage such content.

The filled out framework is illustrative.  This strawman framework is intended to spark discussion rather than dictate action.

A matrix that can be used as a framework for considering different dimensions of content maintenance.
A matrix that can be used as a framework for considering different dimensions of content maintenance.

It is important to note that what’s low traffic content today may not be so tomorrow.  Organizations also need to consider the diversity of their mission or corporate strategy when making decisions about how to maintain content that gets less traffic.

What Happens After Publication?

Ideally, every item of content published should belong to a specific content maintenance category.  At the time of publication, it could be slugged with the category that best represents how it will be maintained in the future.  Doing so can help support of the operational processes associated with maintenance: for example, determining how long it had been since the last update for items associated with a certain category.

Content requires maintenance, and maintenance requires process, not just willpower.  Rules, criteria and plans are helpful to ensuring that content maintenance happens.  The challenge is connecting these rules and plans to the larger purpose of the organization’s content strategy.  Content maintenance needs to be upgraded from its status as a boring chore, to being seen as a contributor to sustainable growth in audience engagement.

— Michael Andrews

Making content updates an intelligent process

In the first part of this two-part post, “Why your content is never up to date,” I discussed how common approaches to managing out-of-date content are focused on first searching for content that’s dated, and then updating it as appropriate.  In this post, I want to explore how to prevent content from being becoming out-of-date.  Making sure content is always current requires more than willpower.  It requires more sophisticated tools than are widely available today.

Unfortunately, for all the bells an whistles in many content management systems, they are generally poorly designed to support real-time enterprise management of content’s “nowness”.  The intelligence of what’s up-to-date resides in the heads of the content creators, and the CMS is largely oblivious to what is involved with that judgment.  The cognitive load of having to keep track of how up-to-date content is, and why, is doubtless one of the frustrations that contributes to user disillusionment with CMSs.

Due to the limitations of existing tools, I will propose some new approaches.  In some cases, organizations will need to build new software tools and business processes themselves to enable proactive management of content.  While this option is not for everyone, it is clear to me that content innovation comes from publishers and not from the CMS industry, and that content leaders are often the ones who build their own solutions.

The solutions I propose fall in three main areas:

  1. understanding the temporal lifecycle of content elements
  2. developing more robust business rules for content
  3. building intelligence into content workflows

Why does content change?

Few organizations at the enterprise level have a good understanding of why their content changes over time, and how often.  Since they tend to devolve responsibility to individuals, they don’t monitor this dimension.  But without insights into what’s happening, they are unable to manage the process more effectively.  They need to understand what elements of content are routinely updated, what business areas those elements relate to, and how often the updates happen.

Organizations need forensic insights into content change.  Content can go through at least three patterns of changes in state:

  1. content that is thrown away because it is no longer useful
  2. content that is temporarily replaced by other content before returning, such as when a limited time offer replaces the standard offer
  3. content that is updated, and evolves from one state to another

The difference between throw-away content and revisable content may not be clear cut. Sometimes content is thrown away because it is too burdensome to revise.  Other times content looks like a revision when in reality is a repurposing of content about one product for use about another (a forking or mutation change).  It’s valuable to know what kinds of content change often (or should change often), and what about the content changes, to anticipate what is a problem area in terms of generating out-of-date content, or generating revision effort.

Gaining an understanding of what content changes is not typically developed during a content inventory, which is one of the few times organizations ever thoroughly examine their content.

Another challenge is to understanding change is knowing what level of detail to examine.  Even interviewing content owners about change will not necessarily reveal all the changes that happen.  Owners will likely focus on changes specific to their content, and then only the most substantive ones.  But changes relating to specific details can happen on a global basis, and can become tedious or worse.  The VP for Customer Relations, for example, one day may decide that henceforth all customers will no longer be described as “members” but instead as “guests.”

Most CMSs are not robust tracking the many content components that can change, such as the terminology used to describe a customer.   Content strategists often advocate structured modularity in content to help manage such issues.  Modularity can be helpful, but is infrequently practiced when it comes to embedded content — content within content. (Notable exception: CMSs optimized for structured online catalog content.) Some CMSs don’t support modular component embedding, and of those that do, they are often cumbersome for endusers.  To avoid having unstructured content embedded with larger content, some strategists recommend avoiding embedded content all together, for example, never having links in-line with the text body.  But scattering content elements in different places can degrade the audience experience.  Content creators reflexively embed content in other content to create a more naturalistic content experience, publishing content that feels integrated rather than fragmented.

A key need is to understand changes that happen within embedded content. Most CMSs don’t offer good visibility into how pervasively specific content components, structured or unstructured, are used across digital publications.  Conducting an analysis of how these components change will help your organization manage them better.

Ideally, a reliable and repeatable process for understanding change will involve something like this:

  1. a snapshot is taken of a consistent representative sample of content at different time intervals
  2. the sample snapshots are compared using file comparisons to identify what aspects of the content have changed over time
  3. the text of content that is found to have changed is analyzed as to its type, meaning and purpose
  4. patterns of change for components of content are identified according to element and the context in which it appeared, to provide a basis for developing content business rules
Example of CMS track changes functionality.  It does not indicate what kinds of content components are being changed, or why
Example of CMS track changes functionality. It does not indicate what kinds of content components are being changed, or why.  Are the wording changes substantive, impacting other content, or merely stylistic?

Another area where most CMSs are weak relates to versioning content, especially at the component level.  There isn’t much intelligence relating to versioning in most CMSs.  Typically, the CMS auto-creates a new version each time there’s a revision, for whatever reason.  The version number is meaningless.  The publisher can “roll back” the version to a prior one in case there was a mistake, but you can’t see what was different about the content three versions ago compared with the current version.  Even for the few CMSs that let you track changes over time, there is no characterization of what the change represents, and why it was made.  A few CMSs let the author add comments to each version, but such free text entry is generally going to be idiosyncratic and not trackable at an aggregated level.  Comments might say something like “Revised wording based on Karen’s feedback” — meaningful in a local workgroup context perhaps, but not meaningful elsewhere.

At a minimum CMSs need to provide publication date-based version management, so that administrators can easily identify what content about a topic was published before or after a certain date.  This capability allows one to at least see how much content may be impacted by an event-driven change.  This is basic stuff, and easy to do, but it falls short of what’s actually needed.  It would be helpful to be able to apply conditions to such search, such as finding items published prior to a date with content containing some variable.

An even better solution would provide an easy way to record the business reason for the update.  These could be formalized as trackable data elements, that could be applied as a batch when clusters of content are updated at the same time.  Examples of reasons you might want to track are: product model change, warranty change, branding update, campaign language revision, etc.

Having such changes tracked will enable organizations to monitor how much updating is happening, and the status of updates.  It allows content owners to examine the status of all their content without having to read each item.

More robust business rules

As organizations begin to look at content updating as an organizational issue, instead of as the problem for individual content owners, the opportunity arises that different kinds of updates can be prioritized according to business value.  I would be surprised if many organizations today have an explicit policy on how to prioritize the updating of content.  Instead, it is common for updating to be based either on what’s easy to do, or what seems urgent based on immediate management prerogatives.

While any content that is out-of-date should be updated, provided the content has continuing value, it’s obvious that some content is more important than others.  Broken links are always a lousy experience, but unless they are on a high traffic page that’s a key part of a conversion funnel, they probably aren’t mission critical.

Different kinds of updates need to be characterized by their business criticality, and an estimation of effort involved with the update.  Errors and changes to regulatory, legal and price related content are business critical.  Changes to unstructured content, such as branding changes involving photographic imagery, often take longer when done on a large scale.  Each organization needs to develop its own prioritization based on its business factors and content readiness.

Once an organization has a better understanding of what drives content updates, it can begin to define business rules relating to content so that it is kept current.  The goal is to formalize the changes of state for content, so it can be better managed.

The content update analysis performed earlier will provide the foundation for the development of business rules. To do this, map the content changes you observe against the content contexts (larger content containers) and against a timeline.  Map what changing content elements (fragments of text, images, whatever) are associated with content types and topics.  Identify common patterns.  Some content elements will be used many places.  Some topics or types of content will have multiple changes associated with them at a given time, others will only experience minor changes.  After you have performed this analysis (using either a computer-based cluster tool, or doing it manually through affinity diagramming), you should start to see some common scenarios.  If it is not obvious why the updates occurred, work with content owners and other stakeholders to reconstruct what happened.  You should end up with a series of common scenarios that describe cases where your content requires updating.

From the scenarios, you will want to identify specific triggers that generate the need for updates.  This will be internal or external events that impact the content, or situations where some variable relating to the content has changed.

In the case of situational change (e.g., something changed, but the actor or the timing is not well defined), it is important to understand how small scale change can ripple through content.  Perhaps a product line has been renamed, or messaging has been revised slightly.  When such details impact many items of content, they should be managed through content templates where such details are structurally controlled.  There is always a trade off between the overhead of managing components and the efficiency of updating them.  Having a solid grasp of the relative frequency of items, their prevalence of use, and frequency of updates will allow content designers to strike an appropriate balance.  Even if such content elements are not all centrally managed, it is important to know where they are being used.

In the case of event triggered change, it is useful to characterize the types of events and associated actors, and the elements typically updated as a result.  Triggers can be internal, such as a new marketing campaign, sale of a division, the introduction of a new product line, or a new partnership.  Triggers may also be external: a new regulation, a dramatic market shift, or the adoption of third party guidelines.  Such events potentially impact multiple content elements, and involve more complex coordination.  By identifying typical events that impact content, as well as major corporate-level changes that may be less frequent but have huge consequences, you can build workflows needed to assure necessary updates happen.

These recommendations may appear simply to follow the principles of good content design.  But effective content design also needs to be transparent, so all stakeholders can understand the linkages, and status of updates.  Such visibility is essential to being able to revise the model as business requirements change.  Unfortunately, even in well designed content implementations, it is often difficult to understand what’s under the hood, and know how the pieces fit together.

Implementing a more intelligent approach

Content administrators, content owners, and the executives who depend on content to deliver business outcomes have common needs:

  • knowing what to do when updating is needed
  • knowing the status of updates
  • being sure their effort is efficient and effective

An effective process needs to accommodate the various parties who are involved in content updating.   One approach would be to empower a central team with lead responsibility for major update initiatives.  It might involve a command center or newsroom, where company initiatives that impact company content are identified, and the updates needed cascade through the organization.  Suppose the company announced a new initiative, or a change in policy. The central command center would query a database of content to identify impacted content.  If the changes were global, they could make the updates themselves.  If the changes impact selected content, the team would identify the specific content and send a notification to the content owner to make revisions. The notification would include a message about the business criticality of the update, the reason for needing the update, and an estimation of effort.  As updates are made, the team would monitor progress on a dashboard.  This approach assumes a degree of central management of content within an organization.

Another situation is when large scale content changes are unplanned.  Such changes might be harder for a central team to identify, especially if they arise from a peripheral division that doesn’t have a close relationship with the central team.  Suppose a content owner initiates an update that has an impact on other content she does not own.  Assuming this owner has authority to make such an update, there needs to be a way to alert other parties of the change.  Ideally, the content system will be smart enough to have a file conflict detection capability, so that it could spot a conflict between the revisions the content owner has made, and other similar instances of content.  The inspiration for this approach is the conflict detection capability in repositories such as GitHub, though the user experience would need to be radically simpler and more informative.  Complex, marked-up content is unquestionably more elaborate that the flat files managed in file repositories.  The task is not trivial, and there could be a lot of noise to overcome, such as false alarms, or missed alerts.  Having good taxonomic structure would be imperative.  But if it could work, the alert would serve two functions.  First, it would make the content owner aware that the change will make her content out of sync with other content, and ask for conformation of intent.  Second, it would trigger notification of the central team and affected content owners that updates are necessary.

Costs and opportunities of an intelligent process

The vision I have outlined is ambitious, and requires resources to realize.  No doubt some will object to its apparent complexity, the expense it might entail, the uncertainties of trying an approach that hasn’t already been thoroughly tested by many others.  Some CMS vendors might object that I undersell their product’s capabilities, that I am exaggerating the severity of the problem of keeping content up-to-date.  I can’t claim to be an authority on all the 1000+ CMSs available, but most I see seem to emphasize making themselves appear easy to use (“drag and drop inline editing!”), aiming to convince selection committees that content management should be no more complicated than an iPad game.   Vendors deemphasize harder questions of enterprise level productivity and long term strategic value.  Once installed, few endusers find their new CMS nearly as fun as they had hoped.  The emphasis on eye candy is an attempt to deflect that enduser unhappiness.

As I noted in the my earlier post, relying on existing approaches is simply not an effective option for large organizations.  It’s costly to always be playing catch up with content updates and never be on top of them.  Organizations that are always behind on updating their content miss business opportunities as they exhaust their staff. It’s risky not to know that all your content is even up to date: an expensive lawsuit could result.  Playing catch up impairs a business’s ability to operate agilely.

Yes resources are required to develop the capability to proactively update content before it becomes out-of-date.  But content has no value unless it is up-to-date, so there is little choice. In this era of mining big data and precision enterprise resource planning, it’s not unrealistic to expect more granular control over one’s content.  It’s not acceptable for large organizations to be presenting information to their customers that’s not the newest available.

I don’t assume my suggestions are the only approach to making the process more intelligent, but radical change of some kind seems needed.   If you agree this is a problem that needs new solutions, I encourage you to share your views on your favorite social media channel and encourage the development of something better.

— Michael Andrews

 

Why your content is never up to date

Audiences need to feel confident that content they are viewing is active — current, accurate and relevant to the moment — and not dead.  They expect to view the newest information. A robust process for keeping content up-to-date has never been more important, but existing approaches fall short of that ideal.  In part one of this two part series, I will examine why common approaches for updating content can create problems.  In part two, “Making content updates an intelligent process,”  I will suggest alternatives.  First, let’s look at why the current situation is a problem.

Audiences can punish brands on social media when content’s dated and inaccurate.  Even content with minor blimishes, such as copy that simply looks outdated, can influence the perceived credibility of the content.  People don’t want to think they are getting something that’s old and stale, something that makes them feel they aren’t a priority.  Numerous studies have shown that audiences evaluate information for being up-to-date ahead of any other factor.   Current content is also essential for SEO.  SEO experts believe Google gives priority to most recent content, and content that appears more recent will probably have higher click through rates (CTRs).

Brands still face major challenges fighting the problem of dead content, even though everyone agrees on the value of keeping content up-to-date.  Why is this?  The old model of “publish and forget” is no longer acceptable.  Previously, brands might publish something, then mentally throw it away after it was no longer desirable or needed, without actually taking steps to retire the content.   Now, content will often have at least a notional expiry date associated with it.  Deadlines sound serious, as long as people believe in them.  But many times the content updating process is built on wishful thinking.

Common approaches to updating

The current approach to preventing dead content is what I will call “publish and be vigilant.”  This approach involves several tactics that rest on two core values: discipline, and accountability.  The vigilant approach depends on the heroism and foibles of people.  It can work well in some situations, especially when there is a small group of content creators who regularly revise content.  But a process based on vigilance is not effective or sustainable for large scale content management.  To understand some the elements of the vigilant approach, we will look at the content governance advice of the U.S. Government (as of this writing in early 2014).  I’m using this example not because it is notably good or bad, but because it is representative, and provides a rare glimpse into an internal organizational policy.

screenshot of content updating advice
Advice from the U.S. Government’s How To website (screenshot)

The above screenshot shows the basic process.  The key recommendation is to set up a review process: content owners follow a list of criteria to check that the content is readable and functional, and conduct reviews on a quarterly basis, with all content reviewed once a year.  This advice is consistent with recommendations commonly offered by content strategists, and is sound as far as it goes.  These things do need to happen, even if they may need to be done differently than the basic guidance would suggest.  But the larger problem is to assume doing these things alone will be sufficient to keep your content up-to-date.    The real world of content is far too messy to be managed by simple rules.

Hope #1: Content ownership

All content needs an owner — that’s the standard advice.  Here’s what noted content consultant Garry McGovern says: “Anything that does get published must have an identifiable owner. That owner must commit to regularly (every six months at least) checking their published content. It is absolutely no excuse for them to say they don’t have time. Don’t let them publish if they don’t have time to review and remove.”  But McGovern also notes “It’s very hard to review and remove. Not alone does it take time, it also takes skill and authority.”

While having an owner is essential, it’s not a panacea.  McGovern highlights the skill and time issues associated with ownership.  The problems get even bigger when looked at across the entire organization.  The reality is that content ownership is almost never distributed on the basis of resources available to support the content.  People are content owners because they want political ownership, or are the subject matter expert, or else they were the unlucky inheritor of content no one else wants to own.  Some people are owners of a few items that aren’t burdensome but are largely irrelevant to their main job functions, and hence a low priority.  Other people “own” piles of content they can’t hope to manually review on a regular basis.  Simply devolving responsibility for managing the dead content problem is not a viable solution.

Hope #2: Content reviews

Another tactic that often fails in practice is setting up a content review schedule.  The content owner, who has moral responsibility for keeping his content up-to-date, even if he has no staff hours budgeted to do so, is expected to review all his content on some arbitrary schedule: quarterly, semiannually or annually.  During this review period, all other of their work obligations will presumably pause.  Of course, few modern organizations have fallow periods available for spring cleaning.  But even if an organization did prioritize content review, doing it on an arbitrary timeframe makes no sense.  Such arbitrary schedules are not based on the underlying characteristics of the content, and do not reflect any solid business requirements.

Content varies in its shelf life.  Some content has a short shelf life: it needs to get updated more frequently than once a quarter, and probably does get updated, because it is front of mind.  Other content has a long shelf life.  It may need updating at any time, but when that will be is unpredictable.  If change is infrequent, then reviews will either result in wasted time checking ok content, or allowing a long time to lapse before something that has become outdated is revised.

Content management systems promise to manage the problem by including an expiration date on the content that sends a alert to the content owner.  While tying an expiration date to an item of content does have the advantage of distributing when different content is reviewed, it doesn’t change the the fundamental problem of date-based reviews: they are predicated on an arbitrary timeframe, a guess of when to look at something again.  In the case of a CMS expiration, there may even be a tendency to overestimate how long a piece of content will stay current, since we all like to believe in the lasting value of our efforts.

Scheduled reviews aren’t efficient or effective.  There needs to be better methods tied to actual business requirements.  Use scheduled reviews only as a fall back until you’ve implemented more robust solutions.

Hope #3: Kill unused content

A third tactic, borrowed from the realm of content auditing, is to get rid of content once it’s not being used.  This is essentially a Darwinian approach: if content isn’t being viewed, it isn’t of value to audiences or the organization, so it doesn’t deserve a home any longer.  And, unsurprisingly, much content that isn’t viewed is in fact out of date.  So utilization can be a proxy for out-of-datedness.

Paul Boag suggests this approach as being both labor efficient and skirts some of political squabbles  surrounding content retirement: “An alternative to time based review points would be traffic based. This is designed to remove content that is not really used by users rather than out-of-date content. This review point would be triggered if the traffic to a page falls below a certain threshold over a given period. This would indicate that the page is of little interest and is simply making it more difficult for the majority of people to find what they are after.”

Boag recognizes the human resource bottleneck of manual reviews, and his proposal is elegant.  But killing unused content is both reactive and unstrategic, and could result in some bad outcomes.  The goal should be to keep content up-to-date, not simply to get rid of old or underused content.  Those two goals are not equivalent.

Unfortunately, web traffic is an imprecise measure of the topical value of content.  It merely records what content has been viewed, not the actual interest of audiences in the topic itself.  One can imagine several scenarios where content that should be of interest to audiences and is strategically important, is not getting expected traffic:

  1. Content on important topics may be poorly written; such content should be improved, not eliminated.
  2. The lead subject matter expert for a hot, fast moving topic may have left the organization and could not be replaced right away: the content got old and stale, and traffic fell.  Again, eliminating such content will only weaken public perception of the organization’s expertise about the topic.
  3. There was a SEO problem for the content due to JavaScript technicalities on those pages.  The webpages need fixing here, not the content.

Perhaps more unsettlingly, web traffic analysis may not catch out-of-date content when traffic is high.  Content may be out of date and contain errors, but still gets lots of traffic due to its keywords or placement.  Instead of flagging the problem, the analytics team is blissfully unaware that they have a large scale issue until customer service complaints start coming in.

Analytics should be part of the tool set, but remember that they are looking backward, and can miss some blind spots.  Analytics don’t answer what content the organization should be emphasizing in the future from a business perspective, it only addresses what content audiences have found popular in the past.

Why the status quo needs disruption

The approaches I’ve critiqued do have merits: all are conceptually simple, all are necessary, and in many cases they are the only options organizations currently have to address content that’s gone out-of-date.  Organizations are not wrong for using these approaches.  But relying on these approaches alone will never solve the problem that content goes out-of-date, and organizations only discover this fact after it has happened, sometimes a long time after.  These approaches are about how to resuscitate content that has died, about applying CPR to content that’s stopped breathing.

Every year organizations publish more and more new content, and every year they have more and more legacy content they need to look at to make sure its not out-of-date and in conflict with all the new stuff.  Every year, customer toleration of old content lessens, as people expect faster updates, and get more frustrated encountering legacy content that hasn’t been updated.  A process based on discipline and threats can’t cope with these trends.

To review some of the problems with the status quo:

  • content owners are often not aware their content is out-of-date for long periods
  • other members of the organization may not know of the problem either
  • web analytics won’t necessarily flag the problem

What’s been missing in the content strategy toolkit are ways to anticipate when content will go out-of-date, and make revisions to the content before the content becomes overtaken by new events.  In the second part of this article, I will explore ideas for improving an organization’s anticipatory capability to make content changes when they need to happen.

— Michael Andrews