Illustration: A net skims the sea floor trawling for only the tastiest treats. Trash lurks all around it, threatening to snag on it.
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How the Sausage Gets Made: The Hidden Work of Content

I won an Emmy for keeping a website free of dick pics.

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Officially, my award certificate says I was on a team that won a 2014 Emmy for Interactive Media, Social TV Experience. The category “Social TV Experience” sounds far classier than my true contribution to the project.

The award-winning Live From Space site served as a second-screen experience for a National Geographic Channel show of the same name. The show Live From Space covered the wonders of the International Space Station. The website displayed the globe as seen by astronauts, along with entertaining social data about each country crossed by the Space Station’s trajectory. One of those data points was an Instagram feed showcasing images of local cuisine.

Image of the National Geographic Channel’s Live From Space second-screen experience, including an Instagram photo of an Australian repast.
The second-screen experience for National Geographic Channel’s Live From Space event, featuring an Instagram photo of local food.

You might think that adding this feed was a relatively simple task. Include a specific channel, or feed in images tagged with the food and the country in which the images were taken, connect to an API, and boom: a stream of images from food bloggers in South Africa, Taiwan, Mexico, what have you. One exec was so impressed that he called this feature “automagical.”

What he described as “automagical” was actually me sitting in front of a computer screen, scanning Instagram, hunting for the most appetizing images, avoiding the unappetizing ones, and pasting my choices into a spreadsheet for import by a developer. I wouldn’t call it automated, and I wouldn’t call it magical. As the team’s content manager, I performed this task because the Instagram API wasn’t playing nice with the developers, but we had to get that information into the site by the deadline somehow.

An additional, and perhaps worse, problem was that if you found a feed of images taken in certain countries and tagged #food, you might get pictures of sausage. But we’re talking about the kinds of sausages usually discussed in locker rooms or on school buses full of junior high boys. As you can imagine, you cannot add Instagram photos tagged #food to a family-friendly site without a little effort, either in terms of getting around an API or filtering out the naughty bits.

The mythical “automagical” tool#section2

You might think I’m knocking the website, but I’m not. Many creative, brilliant people worked ridiculous hours to create a gorgeous experience for which they rightly earned an award, and the images of local cuisine made up only a small slice of the site’s data.

Yet I feel conflicted about my own involvement with Live From Space because most of the site’s users still have no idea how the sausage of apps and websites gets made. In fact, these people may never know because the site is no longer live.

Or they may not care. Few people are aware of the rote work that goes into moving or importing data from one website to another, which causes problems if they don’t understand how long the process takes to make content happen. Unless you’re working with a pristine data source, there often is no “content hose” or “automagical” tool that cleans up data and moves it from one app or content management system to another. Unfortunately, the assumption that a “content hose” exists can lead to miscommunication, frustration, and delays when it is time to produce the work.

Oftentimes, a person will need to go in, copy content, and paste that code into the new app or CMS. They must repeat this task until the app or site is ready for launch. This type of work usually spurs revolt within the workplace, and I can’t say I blame people for being upset. Unless you know some tips, tricks, and shortcuts, as I do, you have a long stretch of tedious, mind-numbing work ahead of you.

Did someone say shortcuts?#section3

Yes, you do have shortcuts when it comes to pulling content into a website. Those shortcuts happen earlier in the site-building process than you may think, and they rely on making sure your entire team is involved in the content process.

The most important thing when you are creating a new site or migrating an existing one is to lock down the content you want to bring in, as early as possible.

In the case of the National Geographic Channel website, the team knew it needed the map data and the coordinates, but did it really need the Instagram feed with the food data? And, when the creative team decided it needed the food data, did anyone ask questions about how the food data would be drawn into the site?

This involves building tactical questions into the creative workflow. When someone is on a creative roll, the last thing I want to do is slow them down by asking overly tactical questions. But all brainstorming sessions should include a team member who is taking notes as the ideas fly so they can ask the crucial questions later:

  • Where will this content come from?
  • Do we have a team member who can generate this content from a data feed or from scratch?
  • If not, do we need to hire someone?

These questions are nothing new to a content strategist, but the questions must be asked in the earliest stages of the project. Think about it: if your team is in love with an idea, and the client falls in love with it, too, then you will have a harder time changing course if you can’t create the content that makes the site run.

Site updates and migrations are a little bit different in that most of the content exists, but you’d be surprised by how few team members know their content. Right now, I am working for a company that helps universities revamp their considerably large websites, and the first thing we do when making the sausage is halve the recipe.

First, we use Screaming Frog to generate a content inventory, which we spot-check for any unusual features that might need to be incorporated into the new site. Then we pass the inventory to the client, asking them to go through the inventory and archive duplicate or old content. Once they archive the old content, they can focus on what they intend to revise or keep as is.

Image of an in-progress content inventory for one of iFactory’s current clients, a large community college.
A work-in-progress content inventory for a large community college.

During the first few weeks of any project, I check in with the client about how they are doing with their content archive. If they aren’t touching the content early, we schedule a follow-up meeting and essentially haunt them until they make tough decisions.

Perfecting the process#section4

How do we improve the way our teams relate to content? How do we show them how the content sausage gets made without grossing anyone out? Here are a few tips:

Your content strategist and your developer need to be on speaking terms. “Content strategist” isn’t a fancy name for a writer or an editor. A good content strategist knows how to work with developers. For one site migration involving a community college, I used Screaming Frog to scrape the content from the original site. Then I passed the resulting .csv document back and forth to the developer, fine-tuning the alignment of fields each time so it would be easier for us to import the material into GatherContent, an editorial tool for digital projects.

Speaking of GatherContent … set up a proper content workflow. GatherContent allows you to assign specific tasks to team members so you can divide work. Even better, GatherContent’s editorial tool allows each page to pass through specific points in the editorial process, including drafting, choosing pictures, adding tags, and uploading to the CMS.

Train the team on how to transform the current content. In my current workplace, not only do we train the client on how to use the CMS, but we also provide Content Guidelines, an overview of the basic building blocks that make up a web page. I’ve shown clients how to create fields for page metadata, images, image alt text, and downloads—and we do this early so the client doesn’t wait until the last minute to dive into details.

Sample slides from an iFactory Content Guidelines presentation.
Sample slides from a Content Guidelines presentation for one of iFactory’s current clients.

Actually make the sausage. Clever uses of tools and advance training can only go so far. At some point you will need to make sure that what is in the CMS lines up with what you intended. You may need to take your content source, remove any odd characters, shift content from one field to another, and make the content safe for work—just like removing dick pics.

Make sure everyone on your team scrapes, scrubs, and uploads content at least once. Distributing the work ensures that your team members think twice before recommending content that doesn’t exist or content that needs a serious cleanup. That means each team member should sit down and copy content directly into the CMS or scrub the content that is there. An hour or two is enough to transform perspectives.

Push back if a team member shirks his or her content duty. Occasionally, you will encounter people who believe their roles protect them from content. I’ve heard people ask, “Can’t we get an intern to do that?” or “Can’t we do that through Mechanical Turk?” Sometimes, these people mean well and are thinking of efficiency, but other times, their willingness to brush content off as an intern task or as a task worth a nickel or two should be alarming. It’s demeaning to those who do the work for starters, but it also shows that they are cavalier about content. Asking someone to pitch in for content creation or migration is a litmus test. If they don’t seem to take content seriously, you have to ask: just how committed are these people to serving up a quality digital experience? Do you even want them on your team in the future? By the way, I’ve seen VPs and sales team members entering content in a website, and every last one of them told me that the experience was eye-opening.

People are the “automagical” ingredient#section5

None of these shortcuts and process tips are possible without some kind of hidden content work. Content is often discussed in terms of which gender does what kind of work and how they are recognized for it. This worthwhile subject is covered in depth by many authors, especially in the context of social media, but I’d like to step back and think about why this work is hidden and how we can avoid delays, employee revolts, and overall tedium in the future.

Whether you’re scraping, scrubbing, copying, or pasting, the connecting thread for all hidden content work is that nearly no one thinks of it until the last minute. In general, project team members can do a better job of thinking about how content needs to be manipulated to fit a design or a data model. Then they should prepare their team and the client for the amount of work it will take to get content ready and entered into a site. By taking the initiative, you can save time, money, and sanity. If you’re really doing it right, you can make a site that’s the equivalent of a sausage … without dubious ingredients.

About the Author

Caroline Roberts

Caroline Roberts is a content strategist at iFactory, a digital agency in Boston that serves nonprofits and institutions of higher education. Spreadsheets, mystery novels, and bar trivia are her strong suits.

5 Reader Comments

  1. Thank you for this! My client is stuck in the swamp of “what to migrate” – I plan to create a content inventory and give it to them as a tool, hopefully a useful one. There’s nothing magical about the pick-and-shovel work of sifting through content!

  2. Thanks for sharing this, I’ve been looking for how to migrate and I have not been successful in any of the options until I get here, I’m going to create my content, regards.

  3. Love this. I’ve performed several of these types of not-so-glorious tasks for worthwhile projects, and I always felt a similar ambivalence (am I doing this right? shouldn’t we have fancier tools and workflows by now?).

    But the user experience is the important thing. I like your idea about asking for help contributing to content entry and migration to drive home that point. Thanks!

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