(Guest post by the content guru I go to with my toughest website redesign projects: Eric Harberson.)
Okay, it’s time for some real talk: if you are this far into your website redesign and just now thinking about content, that is….not great.
The content strategy you use during your website redesign can be the key to ushering in a new era of digital marketing for your firm. Or it can be the Achilles heel that makes your site crash and burn. At every step of the process and at every decision point, you should keep content front of mind.
So let’s back up a little.
Most website redesigns start with a list of priorities and pain points. Things you or your stakeholders want the site to include or do better. This list will become your guiding star.
No doubt your wishlist will include content. That’s a good thing: a website redesign is a great opportunity to make your content more web-friendly, identify better messages and calls to action, and highlight persuasive differentiators for your firm.
A word of caution about your content wish list: If you don’t plan well in advance, creating wholly new types of content as part of a website redesign can blow up your timeline and turn the most exciting new features into embarrassing failures. For example, if you’d like to highlight experience as part of your practice pages on the new site, that’s great. Begin developing that database of matters (including headlines, descriptions, attorneys involved, practice and industry tags, etc.) well in advance of the website redesign process.
As you prepare to kick off a website redesign, the most helpful thing you can do is ensure your content inventory is up-to-date and any content gaps and wish list items are noted.
You do have a content inventory, right?
A content inventory and audit of your current site are the most important strategic tools for your website redesign project. But if you’re like most of us, your content inventory exists somewhere between your CMS, your document management system, and your head.
A written, organized inventory (quantity) and audit (quality) will give shape and add actionable detail to your content wish list. Your inventory and audit will help you identify priorities for the new site. It will help you spot gaps and areas you need to improve. Most importantly, it will help ensure that every element of the new site, from the sitemap to wireframes and page templates, are built to your firm’s actual real-world needs and not to pie-in-the-sky ideals.
Website redesign in next year’s budget? Start your content inventory and audit immediately; these take more time to create than you’d think. It’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole here: stay focused on the most relevant content for your firm’s marketing and business development goals.
Do you want to incorporate case wins on practice pages and attorney bios? Then your content inventory should track the number of case write-ups you currently have, when each was last updated, and character counts for all the different content elements (e.g., title, description, client name, attorney(s), industry, etc.) You’ll need these details when it’s time to build the web pages.
Reality Check: In the world outside of law firms, content inventories often contain SEO, accessibility, and analytics information. However, many law firms aren’t as far along in their content strategies as other industries. If that’s the case, consider building in a big SEO and accessibility push as a post-launch enhancement project. If you are in a position to incorporate these details in your pre-redesign inventory and audit, you are my hero.
Your new sitemap will align with key user journeys and organize information intuitively for users. As you identify pages for the sitemap, make sure you have sufficient content for each one. A common mistake: the creation of pages that are nothing more than categories or organizing buckets for child pages.
Here’s an example: You have a dozen industry pages highlighting your firm’s work in various sectors. That’s great. But do those industry pages really need a parent page called “Industries”? The better approach may be a menu page called “Services” with menus for practice areas, industries, and geographic areas.
The bottom line: don’t add unnecessary clicks for your users by burying your key information under pages of marketing fluff. As you build the sitemap, ask yourself, does this content really need to be a page?
Wireframes built without real content in mind are about as realistic as Santa Claus. As you consider your page structure, keep in mind your current content, your content goals, and the gap between them.
Building in a banner at the top of the page? That may require content that does exist, such as a title that fits the banner, a teaser blurb, an image, a clear CTA, and perhaps topic tags. If you don’t have those all bits of content on hand, they will have to be developed before launch.
Or perhaps your practice page wireframe includes a dynamic list of matters. Before you make that a required element, look at the practice content you have on hand. if you have 20 matters for your IP practice but only two for your white collar practice, you’ll need to fill those content gaps for the wireframe to work. That means identifying matters, finalizing descriptions, and obtaining client permissions. That can be a huge undertaking.
If you can’t get the content in time for launch, is your wireframe flexible enough to accommodate a need for anonymous matters or no matters at all? Even with flexibility, you will need to navigate the internal politics of presenting different amounts and types of information on each practice page.
If you’re building a website for a law firm, consider yourself lucky.
Stop laughing—I’m being serious. Law firm web pages tend to be highly templatized, which is a blessing for content development. Every page is a type: Bios. Practices. News. Representative matters. If you’ve built your wireframes well, they can become incredibly useful templates for content.
Next, consider how you will draft, review, and finalize page content with your attorneys. Trying to get them to visualize how each piece of writing will appear on the pages can be a nightmare. You’ll want tools to help them understand the context for every piece of content on the page—and the rules for writing them. This can be the most challenging part of finalizing content for launch—getting constructive feedback from your attorneys. Drafting, reviewing, providing context and enforcing consistency, and getting attorneys to agree to a final draft. This is the part of the web redesign process that can completely overwhelm your internal resources. Bringing in outside writers, editors, and strategists to shepherd the content development processes can be a big help.
Because you’re not letting lawyers write the first draft, are you? Heaven forfend.
By the time you have all of your pages written and approved and proofed, you’ll think “Well, that was exhausting,” and pour yourself a glass of wine. But sadly, you’re not done yet.
I call this the worst content not because it’s unimportant—it very much is important. I call it the worst because it requires expertise and specialization that’s often not available in a law firm marketing department. And there’s a lot of it.
I would include here things like pdfs, imagery and graphics, metadata, and keywords: essentially anything that is not literally front-end page content but that has a big impact on SEO, accessibility, and brand consistency. Getting this stuff right is critical for your Google juice, but it’s also important for post-launch management and maintenance.
Even if you have a brand manager who is carefully controlling the look and feel of all pdfs and imagery, there is still a fair amount you’ll need to do. The reasons? SEO and accessibility. This would include things like naming conventions for files uploaded to the site. ADA compliance on pdfs. Alt text on images. Keywords and heading tags. Bringing in an outside vendor to provide guidance (or even produce and deliver these content assets) can be well worth the money.
As you develop and finalize pages, you should create and maintain a content inventory for the new site. I recommend doing this in a spreadsheet and, using a row for each page, track whether or not there is imagery, linked documents, graphics, or components requiring special content assets on each page. Then include columns to track UAT completion, proofreading completion, and whether the page is ready for launch. (If you get any more detailed than that, you’ll need administrative support to keep this up to date.)
Once you’ve launched, this inventory can be modified to become your ongoing site content inventory. Track when the page was last updated, who the key stakeholders are, and who within marketing is responsible for the page’s content. Managing the inventory outside the CMS, especially in a tool like Smartsheet, will allow you to assign tasks, produce progress snapshots, and develop an annual maintenance routine.
Content strategy is not easy, especially in law firm land, and it often gets short shrift in web redesign projects. But letting content slip through the cracks can be fatal to your firm’s goals for the new site.
If you take nothing else from this post, take this: your website redesign effort needs a dedicated content shepherd who is focused solely on the content side of the process.
Whereas your website project manager is oriented around the platform and technology and collaboration with the web vendor and IT, your content shepherd will focus on how the new site will be populated, obtain the necessary content from key stakeholders, and ensure that each page is robust and correct for launch. Your content person must be senior enough to provide a voice of leadership. But they can’t do it alone. You’ll need a content support team who can assist with assembling content assets, drafting pages, and final proofing.
Your content shepherd can be an in-house comms manager who already oversees web content along with print assets and firm messaging. But if you’re overhauling web content as part of your web redesign, that will be a huge burden on in-house folks who already have a lot on their plates. Bringing in an outside consultant who can offer tools and templates, process efficiencies, and a dedicated focus on delivering content on time can ensure your website is as good as it can be for launch.
Website redesigns are huge projects, and content is too often overlooked. But a strong approach to content strategy will mean the difference between a website that sparks a whole new era of digital marketing for your firm and one that fails to ignite.
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