Web content planning is probably the most essential and least glamorous aspect of web communications. We give so much more attention to developing and implementing technologically magnificent content management systems and designing and building beautiful interfaces, and none of these activities come close to smart content planning in terms of importance.

We've found that most clients who believe they need a complete site redesign, mostly just need help developing a smart content plan, and the real work only starts on the day after that plan is implemented. No web redesign project will ever achieve long-term communications goal. But a good web content plan--supported, staffed, maintained and reviewed regularly--can.

It takes a lot of time and effort to develop a web content plan, and even more to implement it. But anyone can do it. And the most vital part of the process is the ongoing maintenance and implementation of that plan...the part that no consultants or hired guns can help you with. On this page we'll give you and overview of a content planning process and the tools and examples you need to make it happen.

Before you get started, it's always good to consider your motivations for undertaking a redesign or content planning project. There are good and bad reasons, and here are a few:

Good reasons to engage in a redesign and content planning project:

  • We want to attract more applicants from this specific group ___________.
  • We want _________ to know that our organization/college/unit is especially good at _________.
  • We want to drive more traffic to these specific pages ____________.
  • We want ________ to accomplish ________ via this website.

Not so good reasons:

  • I want to do less work/receive fewer emails/get fewer phone calls. (Web redesign projects and the development of a content plan always creates more ongoing work, not less. Sites built to lessen workloads are always abandoned after launch, are never maintained and quickly become obsolete.)
  • We want our site to look different from everyone else's. (You should always make your site easier to use, which means using the same themes, templates, patterns and designs that other sites within your organization and across the web are using. Being different rarely solves communications goals and usually frustrates users.)
  • My executive wants (or I want) to redesign our site. (Why? Redesign for the sake of redesign is never a good idea. Goals should always come first. Beware of regime change redesigns or vanity redesign projects; allow the executive to be here long enough to develop specific goals for the site that a web communications plan can help solve.)
  • I want my site to be more dynamic. (Being dynamic simply for the sake of being dynamic will absorb more resources and staffing without solving any specific goal. Goals should always come first.)

 

Charts on a whiteboard

Content planning process

  1. Goals discussion
  2. Audience discussion
    • Persona exercise
  3. Navigation planning
    • Card sort exercise
  4. Wireframing
    • Content planning
  5. Site development
    • User testing
  6. Create Web Communications Plan
  7. Maintenance
    • ​Regular plan review

1. Goals discussion

The first step of any strategic planning process is to establish goals. You can do this in one meeting. Odds are, if you're being asked to build a new website or breathe new life into an existing one, someone somewhere is trying to solve some communications issues. You should work to clearly identify those issues, and that usually involves speaking with your stakeholders. Every organization's political and social dynamic is unique, so there's no one-size-fits-all formula, but a rule of thumb is to invite as few people as possible while still being representative.

The biggest strategic planning challenge in any organization, and especially higher education, is selecting the right goals and limiting their number. Some goals just can't be solved by a website. And many administrators strive to be too ecumenical in naming goals, leading to priority bloat and eliminating the "strategic" component of the whole process.

So how many goals should you establish? One is perfect and four is too many. Aim for three or less, and make sure that each of them is something that can be realistically addressed by a web communications plan. If you have more than one priority, force your stakeholders to rank them in order of importance. They'll try to squirm out of this task, but it's your job not to  let them off the hook.

So it's time to schedule the meeting and establish these rules up front, and once this discussion wraps you can move onto an audience exercise.

2. Audience discussion

This step may involved a second meeting, though you may want to consult the same configuration of stakeholders assembled for your goals discussion. If the latter is true, make sure you schedule enough time to account for this discussion. Each component should take at least an hour. Book everyone for two hours, and if you finish early, you'll be a hero.

The audience discussion should identify the target(s) of your communications goals as clearly as possible. The same rules apply: one audience is best, and more than three becomes problematic. Just because you're building a site for one audience doesn't mean it won't be usable by others...deciding on one audience just gives you an extra focus and helps you make smart content decisions throughout the life of the site (or until your plan is refreshed).

Personas

One activity that can help you refine your audience is the development of a persona. It usually adds some interactivity to the discussion and helps keep it on track. You start by drawing a stick figure on the board and slowly add details. This stick figure is your ideal user. Have the group offer details, like the person's gender, age, interests, family background, education, interests, hobbies, pets and more. Have fun with it...the less dull your meeting, the better the engagement by your stakeholders. 

You can do multiple personas as part of this exercise if you have multiple target aurdiences, or better yet, if they represent subgroups of your main target audience.

Save these personas and include them in your web communications plan. You can use them to make decisions down the road or defend choices and help keep your website focused.

Do a web search on conducting a persona exercise and after a little research, draw up a plan that works for your group.

3. Navigation planning

Now it's time to push up your sleeves and plan out your navigation. We recommend three basic rules when mapping out your site's menus. Keep those in mind when you sketch out your navigation. OSU Drupal sites offer two main areas for navigation: the top bar and a side menu. You can use one, the other or both. The goal is to limit choices and scanning and keep users moving through your site quickly. Use your goals, audience discussions and personas when making tough choices. Use nested menus or drop-downs to prevent long lists and clutter in your navigation.

Card sort

Card sort exercises provide a fun way to engage stakeholders. You may want to include this activity in your initial meetings, or better yet, set up a meeting with actual users who match your personas and do the activity with them.

It's a simple process. Write down every link on your main navigation, existing or propsed (or both) onto colored index cards. Keep all the cards face-down. Assemble your group around a table and, without looking at any websites, flip the cards over one at a time. Have the team organize the cards into groups. Eliminate cards they don't find useful. Keep some blank cards on hand (of a different color) for any new words or links proposed. Your goal is to organize these cards into two groups of less than seven cards each, with additional cards nested under items in those two groups.

Card sorting allows you to really focus on each term and word used in your navigation without all of the background noise provided by the rest of the site. You may find that some of the words are vague or awkward, and other alternatives exist. What you call something, with your deep institutional knowledge, might be quite different from the words your personas would use. You may find that longer words or phrases can be condensed.

As you focus on the navigation terms, you may also want to make cards for features, such as blogs, calendars, news feeds, galleries or other web elements that aren't part of your navigation. You can use these cards to build virtual page layouts for your home page or key landing page, complementing the navigational structure. Stakeholders might also propose terms or items that belong more as feature stories or temporary highlights rather than as part of your navigation.

You can do a web search for examples of card sort activities and develop a process that meets your situation. There are few rules beyond keeping your team off of their devices or laptops and conducting this activity without any representations of the website present.

Card sort exercise

4. Wireframing

Once you've conducted your navigation planning, it's time to start wireframing. You can use the basic page layouts we provide, or draw up your own. If you're using Drupal or Wordpress, be aware of the limits and constraints. And remember that following these common layouts will align your site with others on campus, speeding up your users' experience and increasing the effectiveness of your site.

You can use paper, a whiteboard, PowerPoint, Photoshop or the sketching tool of your choice. Draw in your menus first. Then you can start adding content, like feature stories, highlights, feeds, images and blocks of text.

You'll want to wireframe your home page and any key landing pages. If you have a complex organization (College, School, Department, Program, Instructor, Lab), you may find that you need different layouts for each level. Or your project might only focus on the home page or one sub-section of the site. Whatever the case, sketching on paper or digitally will give you a roadmap to use once you start building pages in Drupal.

Content planning

As you're drawing up your wireframes, it's time to start making notes on your content. Think of your communications goals and how the elements you add to your wireframe will help solve them. For example, if your goal is to highlight young alumni and demonstrate career potential to your current students, then you can make a note to always have two alumni profiles in your feature story rotator. If you want to drive event attendance, you might note that your highlight region should contain one single highlight for the next big upcoming event. Make notes on the work and staff resources that will be required to maintain each section. By this point you're well on your way to successful, long-term content planning.

Some of our recommended Drupal layouts have a corresponding content template in Word. The templates are customized to include the features used in those layouts. You can print the forms out and complete them with your team, and it will help you to decide on what content elelements you need to write, create, collect or develop before you start the next step. If your site wireframes don't follow our standard layouts, you can easily create your own content template. Use these templates to get you started.

5. Site development

Once you have your wireframes drawn up, it's time to engage in site development. There are a wide range of possibilities for how this phase can play out. It may involve refreshing imagery and rearranging existing menus. Or it could be creating an entirely new site from scratch. Whatever the case, it will be made easier by the work you've already accomplished. The best case scenario will mean that you're already using a content management system and all of your changes will involve tasks that can be accomplished within that same version of that system. If this is the case, and you've filled out content templates, it's just a matter of plugging in the content. This task can still be time consuming, especially if you're carefully following the recommended best practices. But you'll start with a clear roadmap to completion.

If you need to call in support for this part of the project, the work you've already done will save you a lot of time and money. You can hire a designer, writer or video producer to just accomplish specific tasks. A Drupal developer can help you set up any needed custom features or custom content types.

A site development process usually involves the following steps:

  1. Create a development website (or development copy of your current site)
  2. Make your updates
  3. Review with your team
  4. Perform user tests
  5. Refine
  6. Launch, moving your development site to production

User testing

User testing is a process to help with your site's usability. Like card sorts and persona activites, user testing is a very flexible process. You can hire a firm that specializes in user testing, or you can run your own shoestring process. There is no right or wrong way of conducting user tests, and you don't have to spend a lot of money or even recruit subjects from your target audience to see some benefit from the exercise. Anyone who is not already familiar with your site, or the new prototype, can teach you something about your site's usability.

Here are some steps for conducting a basic user test:

  1. Write a test script - A simple script should outline a scenario for the test subjects and present them with a series of tasks. A scenario might be something like this: you are a prospective student looking to apply to an Engineering program... Task might include these sorts of web activities: starting from the home page, apply to the program, find out how to make an appointment with the advisor, find out the cost of tuition, etc.
  2. Recruit subjects - Ideally it's someone from your target audience, though it doesn't have to be. They can merely play the role of that target audience. You'll often get the same results.
  3. Run the test - You can use an emtpy office or a conference room. Simply read off the tasks and watch how the user interacts with the site. Take notes. You can ask subjects what they think of the site or their impressions and frustrations during or after the test.
  4. Repeat - Any user testing is better than no user testing. Repeat as often as you can and share the results with your team.

Here is a sample script to get you started.

6. Web communications plan

Now it's time to gather all of the information you've learned from the above activites, meetings and exercises into one document. A web communications plan is your roadmap to keeping your site on track. Periodic review can help refresh the plan and keep it in sync with organizational goals and changing staff and projects. A good plan can also help defend the integrity of 

A solid plan is a great way to identify the resources and staffing required to maintain a site and keep it an effective part of a communications program.

Elements of a web communications plan include, but are not limited to:

  • Overview or summary
  • Communications goals
  • Wireframes
  • Content plan
  • Audiences
  • Tactics
  • Metrics
  • Ongoing maintenance

Here is a sample web communications plan.

7. Maintenance

Anyone is capable of devleoping an effective web communications plan. There are no special technical or design skills required. What is required is a lot of work and a lot of time, and an ongoing committment to staff the plan once it's implemented and the real work begins. A good website and a good web plan will require more effort to be maintained, not less. So if you and your stakeholders are ready to invest in your site, it's time to set up that first discussion and get to work.