Our Content Philosophy: 7 Guiding Principles

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Last month, my boss challenged our team to spend a few days away from the office to answer this question:

If you were just starting your job at Bethel, what would you do first?

To begin thinking about my answer, I went straight to Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web to reacquaint myself with her eloquent, yet simple, definition of web content strategy. In her words, as a web content strategist, I’m here to support the creation, delivery, and governance of Bethel’s web content.

But in revisiting this definition, I got spooked. This is a mega responsibility. If that’s really what I’m here to do, I have no clue where to start.

So I spent the next 20 minutes feeling completely intimidated. And then I forced myself to begin free writing. What emerged was an answer to new questions:

What do I believe about web content? What’s our content philosophy?

The result was 7 principles—7 beliefs about web content—that drive our strategy here at Bethel.

1. Start with Content

We approach all projects from a content-first perspective. Most of us would likely chuckle at the thought of laying out a magazine feature without first planning and writing the content. So why would it be any different on the web?

Without content, we don’t have a website. That’s principle number one.

Putting the principle into action: Plan content before jumping to tools or solutions. Encourage colleagues to think through their messaging before beginning any new web project.

2. Put Users First

Content exists to help users accomplish their goals. It’s not here to support our egos or personal interests. It’s here for our visitors, and we should put their needs, hopes, and desires above all else.

Writing content with our users in mind keeps us from throwing useless content on the web.

Putting the principle into action: Ask good questions before agreeing to (or asking for) new webpages or websites.

  • What’s the purpose?
  • Who is it for?
  • What are our users trying to accomplish?
  • How can we make it easy for them?

3. Support University Goals

In addition to helping users accomplish their goals, we also need to know what the university is trying to accomplish. We need to know what degree programs we’re looking to grow. We need to keep up with new program launches and brand initiatives.

Our website is the front door to our university. It should accurately reflect what’s happening here and where our community is going.

Putting the principle into action: Know the goals and aims of the university. If you map out how you can support these goals, you’ll better anticipate what priority projects might be coming your way.

4. Create Sustainability

Sustainability is my mantra. And it’s a huge challenge in a massive, distributed web system.

But I believe all content must be reasonably supported. If it’s not supported, it needs to go away because it’s only annoying our visitors and poorly representing our institution.

Putting the principle into action: Plan for the life of your content after the launch. Protect your website from content bloat by asking:

  • Does someone have the cycles to support this?
  • Can this be sustained by the person coming after me?

5. Practice Useful Consistency

Consistency makes our webpages more useful for visitors. It helps them predict patterns and know what to expect.

This principle is especially true for large, institutional websites. We continually face the challenge to represent ourselves as a unified university rather than a loose assembly of schools and programs. This principle reinforces the need for university-wide headers and footers. It also gives us the drive to maintain a consistent voice and tone for our web content.

Putting the principle into action: Think about the predictable patterns you can create with your web content. Here are a few:

  • Use consistent headings to make content scannable.
  • Give calls to action a consistent feel and format.
  • Take time to think about your site’s organization, architecture, and navigation.

You can also use your CMS to help create consistency and repeat these patterns. Think about using templates for events, news, scholarships, and other content types.

6. Think Beyond the Desktop

At Bethel, we’re working hard to break old habits. Web content is no longer tied to a single webpage that’s accessed from a desktop machine. And this new reality completely changes the way we should think about our work.

We know that visitors use all kinds of devices to access our pages, and we can no longer predict or assume what they’d like to access with those various devices.

Putting the principle into action: Recognize that changing your mindset is tough. Start small. Take notice of how you use the web from other devices.

  • How do you use the web on your phone or tablet?
  • What frustrates you? What’s helpful?
  • Does this change how you look at your web content?

7. Build Relationships

Web content is only as successful as the people creating it. If they’re not happy or properly supported, it will show through their work.

Although time and resources significantly limit our ability to build relationships with the hundreds of potential clients that could show up in our office suite, we know the quality of our content depends on us doing whatever we can to help them navigate an increasingly complex landscape.

Putting the principle into action: Balance policy with empathy. Listen well, and be open to changing your methods and plans. But remember that by trying to make every client happy, you’ll likely forget to serve your web visitors. So also be honest and candid about the realities of the web.

That’s our web content philosophy here at Bethel. It’s just 7 basic principles that we believe in and try our best to put into action.

What guides your content? If you’re not sure, or if it isn’t clear, I hope you can take some time in your busy week to check out, clear your mind, and define the principles that guide your work.