by Scott Pierce, Guest Blogger
When is the best time to perform a content inventory? There, I’ve asked it. Because nobody around you will. After you’ve explained what it’s used for, why it’s important and how much it costs, the content inventory’s golden opportunity is long past. It should be your secret weapon for killer estimates. Yet, from the horror stories I get from the field, it’s being shuffled around in schedules and descoped from projects due to looking like “too much work.” How did that happen?
In part, we have our old methods and tools to blame for giving the content inventory the bad rap. Back in the day, I empathized with the project managers and stakeholders who perceived the content inventory as a chunky deliverable and hard-to-explain cost passed to the client. The act of actually performing one was so damn laborious and tedious. Someone had to pay for drudgery. Crawlers were a huge advancement, but if not configured correctly, the resulting data still required tons of cleanup before any real analysis could start.
So the content inventory became the line item and point of contention. It was a deliverable to be sold, but the client didn’t really want to look at it last time, so what good is it now? The findings sound sexier, could you just work on that? Oh, and don’t move until there is a signed scope of work! That was the line of reasoning and a team felt they had to make decisions about scoping in the dark, with disastrous results.
The best time to do an inventory is during an estimate. The worst time to do a content inventory... is never.
Jonathan Kahn addressed the ethics of selling content strategy over a year ago, and the pricing dilemma thread is still open, if any of you want to chime in. Vague and stock assumptions about content always run the very real risk of being a danger to the project, the client and ourselves. I honestly can’t see success for any project that doesn’t benchmark the “as-is” state. It provides so much context and focus to getting to that “to-be” everyone loved in the pitch. So you know what I’m getting at, don’t you?
We aren’t doing content inventories early enough. We need to use them when they’re really needed—for the estimates themselves.
Looking back, the best estimates resulted from catching the name of a potential client in the hallway, running an quick crawl while grabbing a sandwich, and coming back with insights. Estimates are such a quick-turn activity. Anything that can help you prepare yourself to speak intelligently to the client about the opportunities and challenges is a win. From there, it’s a matter of being able to craft the details of the estimate with the team with this prior knowledge. Going into a client meeting or scoping session with some foreknowledge not only tells everyone you’ve done your homework, but that your estimates are based on something real.
Unless you’re a lone ranger, there are others on your team that can rock a Keynote presentation and sell the “idea” of content strategy. At this point, it’s good to use to have the inventory in your hip pocket to drive conversations with your client or team around the real strategy. These tools have leveled the playing field of identifying the problem. It’s about approaching strong decisions based on insights, and showing that we’ve done our homework to get those insights; that will set the right tone with a new client.
Over time, and with a little practice, spotting those patterns in your content inventory’s data becomes a quicker task. Once you’re afforded time to recognize patterns, remember past opportunities and challenges, you can add value to the conversations around estimates.
The content inventory can’t be the Creature Scheduled A Month After the Kickoff Meeting. It should be your Distant Early Warning System when estimating for any new project.
One of the least-hyped-but-most-useful features in Content Insight’s content inventory tool is the Job Summary. After enough projects under your belt, and watching seven seasons of Columbo, you learn to ask embarrassing and detailed questions at inappropriate times. Yet, it’s resulted in fast-tracking a more appropriate scope. I’ve used the Job Summary as my cheat sheet to get to the right questions, and below are a couple of examples of how I read one.
Case #1: Here’s a possible scenario for a blog redesign.
What’s the first thing that you spot? Right—in a blog, there’s usually there’s a closer to 1:1 count between pages and images. Why the huge difference, and where are those images really coming from? A quick peek at the site’s source code reveals that all images were being served from a third-party content delivery network (CDN). This could either make migration massively easier, or we have to determine another level of effort if the client doesn’t maintain the rights to that content repository. That’s a more informed conversation with the developers, and it affects the scope of a migration.
Case #2: This is for helping find candidates for a Digital Asset Management System (DAM). Not a big budget or timeline, mind you, but we need to see what we’re dealing with here.
Looking at their public-facing site, it’s a Mulligan’s Stew of content types. Wonder what that old video is for? What are these .zips holding? Oh, they’re assets for an online collaboration project for education initiatives. Is this going to be an ongoing activity? If there’s a need for automated renditions for print, web and mobile, that could narrow down the list of vendors to evaluate.
Yes, that spreadsheet may never be asked for again throughout the run of the project. The good news is, there is no wasted work. What you learn in the inventory is applicable to your audit, and those insights elicit the anecdotes that tell stories with the data. Those anecdotes will wind themselves through findings, requirements, and even into other pitches.
Keep in mind that during an estimate, the goal of the inventory isn’t to give the client “instant discovery,” even if the solution is incredibly obvious. Just allude to the important themes as a first chapter of the story of the project, and it will take the form of the approach in your proposal. Depending on the scope of the project, there is still more requirements gathering to do. We just need to convey the as-is state of the project. This is your “once-upon-a-time.”
The inventory is a foundation to add to from your audit and subsequent deliverables. That leads to a true content strategy roadmap. That leads to the “happily ever after.”
Although there’s a glossary of terms for tasks and deliverables at your disposal, the results of an inventory will make you re-write about 90% of your boilerplate responses. And you should. Anything you say can and will be held against you in a signed scope of work document. In order to protect your time, budget and sanity, the content inventory should be your tool to make decisions on what you can and should commit to on the next steps of the engagement:
Don’t be talked out of doing a content inventory—especially if it’s for a redesign. Death to the “guesstimate.” With the advent of recent tools like CAT, there’s less effort and cost involved, and no reason to not base your content work on at least a morsel of affordable and accessible data. There’s never been a better time than the present to use the content inventory the way it was intended. Gain your best insights earlier, get specific with challenges and opportunities, and tell better stories based on your inventory.
Scott Pierce began counting content at Disney.com over 16 years ago, and now uses that experience to develop content strategies for automotive, retail, arts and games clients. He’s a co-organizer of Content Strategy Seattle, which is convenient, because that’s where he lives.
Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lazzarello/ under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license.
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