As a discipline, content strategy isn't suited to rigidly standardised processes. Different businesses have radically different needs around content planning, creation and governance.
This means that a successful content strategy will always be customised, using the best tools for the job at hand.
This lack of a standard methodology can make beginning a content strategy a daunting proposition - whether you're creating the strategy internally or hiring an external content strategist.
Fortunately, there's one step that almost all content strategists agree should come first: a content audit.
Doing a content audit means putting together a complete picture of your existing content: what content you have, and what state it’s in. It’s an incredibly useful exercise for any business that has existing content. That is, any business that’s not brand new.
What do I get from a content audit?
To understand the benefits of a content audit, think back to the last time you cleared out your personal filing cabinet. (If you’ve never cleared out a filing cabinet, maybe content strategy isn’t your thing!) You probably came across the following:
- Documents that you could simply throw out (utility bills from ten years ago).
- Documents that needed to be updated (an expired passport).
- Useful documents that you assumed you’d lost because they were misfiled (an interesting set of conference notes, buried in your tax papers).
- Documents that gave you ideas (a set of old photos that you could put up on Facebook to entertain or embarrass your friends).
You can expect similar results from a content audit. Just by looking at your existing content, you’ll realise that some of it can be deleted, some needs to be updated, some needs to be reorganised to make it more findable, and some of it sparks unexpected, useful ideas.
Beyond this, a content audit is an invaluable document for demonstrating to the rest of your organisation that your online content needs work. It’s a way to get the ball rolling on a content strategy, even before you have official signoff.
How do I do a content audit?
The standard tool for a content audit is the humble spreadsheet. To make things simple, use Econsultancy's Content Audit Template.
The first step of your audit is to list every page on your website alongside its URL. You can do this manually for a small site, or get the data from web crawling software for a larger site.
(A content audit can and should examine non-website content as well, like Facebook Pages and printed collateral, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll stick with web content for now.)
As this point, you have what’s called a “quantitative content audit” or “content inventory”. This bare listing of pages is useful in its own right, because it’s impossible to get a sense of a website’s scale at a glance, and because the chances are there are whole sections you’ve forgotten about.
But the real magic happens when you start evaluating your content - turning a quantitive audit into a qualitative one. Just add spreadsheet columns for each of the criteria you want to use for evaluation.
The criteria you use might include:
- Relevance (does your audience really need the content on this page? does it help fulfil a user need or business objective?).
- Currency (is the content up to date?).
- Quality (is it well written?).
- Style (is it consistent with your business’s branding and tone of voice?).
- Traffic (according to your analytics data, do many users actually visit the page?).
- Metadata (does this page have a relevant, keyword-rich title tag and meta description?).
- Opportunities (can this content be re-used somewhere else?).
If you have a large site, you might want to evaluate a representative sample of pages rather than every single page on the site.
Also, you might not be able to do all this evaluation at the same time: for instance, there’s not much point evaluating content for brand consistency if you don’t yet have a brand strategy worked out.
The content audit is a living document that you’ll keep coming back to throughout the content strategy journey.
What are the outcomes of a content audit?
You find out what content you can throw away
A list of content that can simply be deleted is probably the single most useful outcome of a content audit.
Deleting content doesn’t just declutter your website - more important, it makes it easy for users to find content that’s relevant to them. It streamlines the browsing experience, and it prevents redundant or out-of-date content appearing in search results.
Gerry McGovern relates that Microsoft once did a content audit and discovered that 3m of their 10m pages had never been visited! They went on a page deletion spree, and found that getting rid of unneeded content made relevant content much easier for customers to find.
Most businesses don’t have quite as much redundant content as Microsoft, but almost all of them have pages they could productively delete.
You find out what content needs to be updated or moved
As part of your content audit, you’ll also find content that is still required, but needs updating. This can be a quick fix: if you run a restaurant and the menu on your website is from two months ago, a recurring reminder in your calendar might be all you need.
But for larger-scale businesses, this can be a much bigger issue, with multiple types of content that need to be constantly reviewed in response to changes in the market, legislation, customer behaviour, and so on. That’s when you need to think about a web governance strategy.
You’re also likely to find content that’s useful in its own right, but is buried in the current information architecture. A classic example of this is a large, disorganised FAQ section. As part of your content strategy, you might want to think about relocating answers to the context where they’ll be most relevant to users.
Here’s a less tangible but equally beneficial outcome of a content audit: good ideas get sparked simply by the act of looking over your old content. You might find a series of old blog posts that can be given a dust-off and turned into an email autoresponder sequence.
You might find some old company photos that can help you start building a Facebook timeline. You might find long text instructions that could be better conveyed using video.
Write down these things as you think of them, and you’ll come to your content strategy already armed with ideas for improving your content and extending its reach.
Use a content audit to bring others along
As we’ve seen, you get a lot of useful benefits from doing a content audit. But it’s just as important to share this work with others. A content audit is a document that you can use to advocate for content work within your organisation - one that goes beyond the general perception that “our web content is terrible”.
Your content audit makes that perception quantifiable and actionable.