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Issue № 120

Evolving Client Content

by Published in Writing, Brand Identity

A year ago, clients had to be sold on the wonders of dynamic database-driven websites. The pitch went something like this:

While requiring a larger investment up-front when compared to static HTML sites, the long-term benefits of the database-driven model are significant. Not having to pay $200/hour to have your content copied from Microsoft Word into HTML by some web designer. Not having to wait three weeks for your web development firm to “fit you in.” Have your people doing what they are good at: coders coding, writers writing, not the other way around.

We painted a rosy picture. Then again, we were trying to make a buck.

The Past, the Present, and the Problem

I no longer have to sell clients on the concept of the database-driven website. They expect it, and so they should. It doesn’t take rocket science to put a website in the hands of a non-web-developer. Tools like Blogger have taken the concept of a self-managed website from the business world to average Johnny web surfer.

From a developer’s standpoint, the concept of a client-managed website is alluring. Who wants to copy and paste from WordPerfect 5.1 files anyhow? This way, the client can have good content if they know how, and if not, it’s clear where the fault lies: on someone other than you.

Random marketing rule #48: empower the consumer – or at least make them feel empowered. The ability to manage your own website content looks great from the standpoint of the client as well. Web developers are expensive, and having the power to update your website when inspiration hits at 3AM sounds fantastic.

As with any sales pitch, we took the pictures from the good side. Lurking in the shadows, though, is the unattractive fact that not every client has the resources and capacity to manage his or her own content.

The Jargon Conspiracy

Neil Postman, in a 1990 address to the German Informatics Society, made reference to George Bernard Shaw’s theory that “all professions are conspiracies against the common folk.” The idea being that professionals construct complex proprietary language (“gobbledegook”) in order to keep the common man from being able to understand, and therefore criticize their work. This phenomenon would be familiar to anyone who has ever been told by a tech support phone operator to “defrag your hard drive” and call back – by which time the operator’s shift will long since have ended.

With the impressive array of acronyms we have at our disposal as web developers, it’s quite a challenge to avoid using them for the purposes of evil.

Telling clients that they can’t afford a good website if they can’t afford to pay your writer to write every word on their site is a serious cop-out. The real danger comes, however, when the pendulum swings too far in the other direction. This more common scenario arises when all the web developer does is design templates that are then filled with whatever the client wants – and who really cares if it’s any good.

Clients have come to you looking to communicate. They trust in your understanding of the medium. Unless you are working within a very narrow contract (which is clearly understood as such by the developer and the client), it is your responsibility to share your knowledge and experience of the web as a medium.

It is your responsibility to engineer a solution that will please the readers and still be financially feasible for the client.

The answer(s)

Engineering this magical solution to tap your client for the ultimate content is no simple feat. Quality content involves the frequency and value of updates as well as consistent tone and personality (and not necessarily your personality).

You cannot create this for a client (unless content creation makes up a significant portion of the services you offer). You must put your clients in the position to create and publish the best content they possibly can. You must coax, persuade, and direct them in such a way that they create content that will be meaningful to their audience.

There is no formula here. Every project you do will make you better at this, but what works for one client may not work for any others.

Why Johnny can’t write

For the client with budget to spare and no ability to write, you will direct them to hire a good writer. For the client with a tight budget and a knack for good web writing, you will teach them some simple HTML formatting tags and let them loose.

Of course these examples are not representative of your real life as they are derived from the proud “everything happens in a vacuum” high-school physics teaching tradition. In the real world, friction sends the complexity of equations spiralling beyond the capabilities of our little minds.

Likewise, client situations are never as clear as they should be. The optimum solution is seldom a matter of meeting a series of demands with appropriate solutions. Rather, you must find a balance, weighing time and money against quality.

In order to achieve this balance, you must combine your expertise and knowledge of the web with the expertise and knowledge your clients have about their field. Your client may claim that they know their customers in the widget manufacturing business, and that said customers relish exciting, high-bandwidth sites. You respond by pointing out that your client’s targeted end-users may appreciate engaging content, but no one likes to wait for a slow site.

As with most professions, designers and developers are also educators, but you cannot purport to know the widget industry. You should look to your client’s understanding of their business to better grasp the eventual audience your site will serve. Ask your clients to share their marketing studies, and whenever possible, conduct studies of your own.

Ultimately, you must be sure to produce websites that will help your clients communicate with their customers, rather than websites that will make you look good in your portfolio. Of course, if the sites you create help clients communicate with their customers and look snazzy in your portfolio, so much the better.

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