“Content-first” is a philosophy that leading digital agencies are adopting to guide their clients’ websites in a more efficient and successful direction. It emphasizes the importance of putting your website content before everything else as content is the reason users are there.
The need for content strategy
A solid content strategy that defines how you will meet your target audience’s needs and achieve your marketing goals is a critical building block of your website. Content is the magnet of your website and a content strategy will guide your plans for the who (audience), what (topics) and where (site architecture) of content creation. It also helps to establish a hierarchy for your content and understand what content is most important to least important for each page on your website. At the onset of your website redesign project—before any design or development is started—a content strategy for your website should be developed.
The problems with designing first
Humans are visual creatures. Seeing things with our own eyes helps us to understand things, instead of having to conceptualize and use our imaginations. Seeing what your website could look like before having any real content prepared is a nice, satisfying visual, but it’s putting the metaphorical cart before the horse.
Designing a website before determining a company’s essential content is a misstep that can offset strategy and waste time and money. As described by Rian van der Merwe, “If we design before we have content, we effectively create the packaging before we know what’s going to go in it. And if the content doesn’t fit the package, there are only two options: start from scratch, or try to jam the content into the existing package. We don’t want that.” Instead of forcing content into a pretty design, the design should be created around the content to highlight the most important information in a meaningful way.
Designing first also sets a company up to fall short on delivering a great user experience. Content should be easy to find and engaging. If the content has to be crammed into a design, you might have to sacrifice those principles to make it all fit together.
Organizing your content
Like with so many tasks, preparation is key. For a website redesign, brainstorming, organizing, paring down and mapping out content is the most important task that will guide the rest of the site building process. Site architecture is a critical component and Sitemaps are handy tools for breaking down and organizing a site’s content. They provide a blueprint for the website, showing primary, secondary and tertiary pages, as well as different types of content that could exist and in what order. Sitemaps make it easy to visualize the content hierarchy and to add, edit or remove areas. Once a good outline is agreed upon, it becomes easier to develop or edit content for the new hierarchy.
Content and design working hand-in-hand
For a long time, companies have seen some kind of design before generating their content, so jumping into content development can be a daunting task without that visual, motivational boost. For the Content-first approach to work, agencies will need the help of their clients. A website can exist and be successful with no design at all, as long as the content is good and provides value to the user (e.g. Wikipedia and Craigslist). However truly powerful websites have a balance of quality content, intuitive navigation and beautiful, engaging design.
Design around the content
The purpose of a website’s design is to present the content in a meaningful way, maintain the brand, and set up a comfortable and interesting visual environment. Traditionally, designers are forced to come up with ways to display content that doesn’t even exist yet, or that could change drastically. If they had a better understanding of the content earlier, the design would have likely been very different. On the modern web, where content is digested very quickly from a variety of devices, form follows function and design should follow content—not the other way around.
Place the proper emphasis on content upfront
As tempting as it may be to start first with design and figure out the content later, content should be a priority. It starts with developing a content strategy, but it also requires creating client-focused, compelling content that will provide your target audience the information they seek and the answers to their questions at each stage of the client journey.
While design and development are obviously essential to the success of your website redesign, strategy and content should be where both you and your web design partner start. The content-first approach will not only help you better serve your audience’s needs, it will also provide a design that creates a more positive user experience that will impact usability, navigation, engagement and ultimately conversion.