Your business likely faces a content challenge – like an intranet that siloes important information, or a website that doesn’t exactly facilitate customer purchases. Perhaps your successful content gets buried too early in its lifecycle, before you can maximize its potential. Or other less successful content doesn’t get archived quickly enough, and ends up boring, inconveniencing, or alienating your audience.
Content problems not only cause you headaches, they also cost you money. Implementing a content inventory is a key preliminary step in taking control of your enterprise’s existing content burden, and allowing you to launch an influential content strategy.
What is a content inventory?
Sometimes also called a content audit, a content inventory is a comprehensive quantitative and qualitative content assessment that provides a critical baseline for all your content analysis, content migration, and content marketing efforts. (Some field experts distinguish between a content inventory as a more broad, numeric analysis, and refer to a content audit as a more qualitative snapshot. DEG tends to use the term content inventory, because that reflects more of the terminology we hear from our business users.)
A content inventory can also help inform other enterprise collaboration goals – such as using discovery processes and user experience analyses to develop information architectures. In our experience, we especially encounter clients needing to carry out a content inventory before migrating to Sharepoint.
How does a content inventory work?
At DEG, we recommend taking a five step, strategic approach to a content inventory: defining project goals, choosing the right tools, data collection, data analysis, and follow up.
Define Goals, Scope, and Objectives: What is the purpose of your content inventory items? Are you facing a web migration, lacking decent analytics, and really have no idea how many pages you need to migrate, much less what content they contain? Are you considering a website redesign, and need to know specifically what templates and content patterns currently exist? Does your inventory need to be comprehensive, or will a smart content sampling accomplish your goal?
You will also need to decide the scope of the inventory, or how many systems you will include. For example, if you are considering an enterprise-wide content inventory, break it down into manageable chunks. Yes, you may need to overhaul several internal sites and a document management system, but we recommend you approach that problem in stages. (For your own sanity.)
Once you know the goal of your inventory, you should be able to state your objectives, or the information you want the inventory to generate: “At the end of this inventory, I need to know how many webpages I’m dealing with, roughly the types of content they contain and what shape they’re in.” “I need to know what kind of content is successful with our users, and what kind is not.” “I need to get a sense of the kinds of content we have, as well as what we lack.” Etc.
Choose Content Inventory Tools: The goal of the inventory will determine the mix of quantitative and qualitative data you capture, and thus what tools you use to capture it. The most common tool is a content inventory spreadsheet (more on that below). Also consider these additional options:
Quantitative. Analytics are your friend. Your existing CMS may also be your friend, capturing useful data on page numbers, metadata, etc. Some vendors offer content inventory software, and you can also use an SEO crawler like Screaming Frog to harvest a wealth of information (often useful if you are faced with inventorying a large site).
Qualitative. Sit down with the content owners, generators, and users. Seriously. Yes, in some cases they might be the same people who helped get your content burden into its current situation. On the other hand, they possess valuable information that will help your inventory enormously. You may even find that some business units have evolved their own internal content management policies that others might learn from.
An underused tool in content inventories is also the context scenario. In this approach, a user experience analyst will carry out interviews in field situations to help you understand how your users integrate content in terms of workflow or other processes. Questions might run along these lines:
- What sort of content do they create, revise, share, and distribute on a daily basis? Do they access calendars, make notes, share files through email or intranet (and if so, what type of files?)
- Can they easily locate information they need to do jobs and complete tasks, or otherwise meet needs?
A few substantive field interviews will provide your content inventory with a much-needed sense of context. During this process you will be gathering a ton of information – and context scenarios can help you filter and analyze the results.
Collect Data: Speaking of gathering a ton of information. To get you started, we offer a sample content inventory spreadsheet template. If you are inventorying a large website, start a new Excel sheet for each tab or major section of the site.
Customize these spreadsheet columns however it works best for you, but remember – the columns you choose are where the rubber meets the road. If a piece of information does not help you meet your objectives, don’t gather it. (We promise, you will have plenty to deal with.)
No matter your specific goals and objectives, at a minimum you will likely need to track some variation on the following content elements:
- Basic page information – title, ID# (if any)
- Content location – physical link, as well as where it lives in the nav and information architecture (you may also want to track metadata tags)
- Page type and purpose – landing page, product page, etc.
- File types – what types of files exist as part of this content (pdfs, docs, audio, video, images, etc). Also consider average file size, and where files are stored
- Links – what links live in this content? Are they external, internal, etc., live, dead… (for example, someone really should click on all links and see where they go, in case there are buried pages that don’t appear in your nav)
- Functionality (such as a page with fillable forms or customizable reports linked to a database)
- Content quality, and where it is in its lifecycle – current or expired?
Okay, you’ve got your spreadsheet. Now, guess what?
You get to go fill it out.
Analyze Data: Alright. Quite likely, filling out that spreadsheet took a lot longer than you thought, and your data capture might even be a little light in areas. The project manager is also nagging you because the deadline was two weeks ago.
Slow down. You didn’t get this far just to skimp on the analysis stage. You now need to sit down, take a deep breath, and consolidate your information from the spreadsheet, maybe an SEO crawler plus some context scenarios, or whatever combination of tools you chose to use. You review, then you analyze.
Your initial objectives help determine the categories of your analysis, but what you learned during the content inventory might have also brought whole new concerns to light. Acknowledge these new concerns and update your objectives, but don’t fall down the rabbit hole and let crisis and a few highly visible issues highjack your overall analysis.
Instead, use a combination of these filters and cautions to help shape this phase:
- This is the web. That means you are ultimately trying to identify relationships, paths, and patterns in content; you are not getting too mired down in a page by page comparison.
- Everywhere you see a content problem, the likelihood is that someone, somewhere in your organization, has figured out a workaround or solution. Ask for help. Reach out.
- Don’t confuse content subject matter with content format. Ie, in regards to a low traffic or conversion on a product page, don’t necessarily conclude “no one likes this kind of dog food AT ALL.” Instead, say – hey, similar content was really successful presented as an owner testimonial, or as a Q&A with a veterinarian, rather than as traditional marketing copy.
- Likewise, keep in mind that content “success” or “failure” for some products might be related to seasonal marketing cycles, and that website analytics might not accurately reflect all measures of value.
For a thoughtful blog on how to analyze content audits and inventories, see this piece from E3 Content Strategy.
Above all, remember the goal of carrying out a content inventory in their first place. You are trying to understand your current content burden – its strengths, its weaknesses, and its hidden operational costs.
Follow Up: So, you have now successfully completed your content inventory. I bet you never want to have to do that ever, ever again.
Following up on the content inventory will help minimize this risk. Try to find some sort of way to institute content tracking and content discipline across your enterprise – perhaps updating the inventory every quarter, maybe updating your governance process, or even creating a content czar to help keep your content in line.
Before you can move on to a successful new content strategy (and you can’t go wrong reading Clout, to figure out what that strategy might look like), you probably should stop old content habits from weighing you down. We recommend that you consider whether a content inventory would help you in this process.
Have you carried out a content inventory? What was your experience? What guidance would you recommend?