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The Content Inventory: Roadmap to a Successful CMS Implementation

April 5, 2005

The sad truth about many CMS implementations is that not nearly enough time is spent working with content. All too often, organizations get wrapped up in issues related to technology and design, forgetting what the system is supposed to be managing.

It’s easy to avoid focusing on content when you have no idea what it is or where it is. CMS vendors focus on the user-friendly aspects of their software; rarely do they address the complexities of content migration. Since the system you’re implementing is supposed to make content management a breeze, there’s a temptation to avoid thinking about content until the very last minute. This flawed assumption has doomed all too many CMS projects.

Our first article defined content in all of its many forms. This article focuses on the nuts and bolts of identifying content and coralling it in such a way that you have what you need when it comes time to populate your CMS. The key to achieving this goal is a process called the Content Inventory.

What Is Included In A Content Inventory?

Content Inventories almost always take longer than anticipated. We try to start this phase of the project as early as possible, knowing we can iterate the inventory as new information about the project is revealed. Your inventory serves as the starting point for developing your IA and as the roadmap for ensuring all content is migrated to the new site. While many documents are created in the course of a web development project, chances are your content inventory will become your primary tool and reference point.

This inventory includes:

Web-based applications or third-party systems are not necessarily content, but should be noted on the inventory for informational purposes. These applications often require placeholder content or links to external systems. If these systems are not included on the roadmap, they might be overlooked in the final rush to get everything done before the specified launch date.

For each item on your content inventory, you need to capture (at a bare minimum) the following information:

Creating The Content Inventory

While we expect our clients to shoulder their share of the burden when it comes to the content inventory, we typically take a first pass by inventorying all content on the existing website; we do this by methodically following every link on every page, in order. This approach allows us to spend quality time with the client’s existing content and leads to a deeper understanding of the client’s business.

Once we’ve seeded the inventory with the existing web content, we provide the inventory worksheets to each department and allow the client’s staff to add any additional content they want to include on their new website. This requires that the client be as specific as possible. You need to know if you’re migrating two agendas or 25. “Various documents” is not a content item — the content migration is not the time to work out the details of what was meant by “various”.

Once the client has completed their work, we analyze the entire content inventory and follow up on the inevitable questions that arise. This follow-up is done via email, phone, or small meetings with key staff. At this point, we’ll iterate on the inventory with the client until we’re sure we’ve captured everything that needs to be included. This process includes tasks like identifying gaps in the content and coming up with appropriate titles for articles.

Content inventories, especially for information-rich sites, can get quite large. A spreadsheet allows you to sort and filter the data into multiple views as needed. Once we’ve completed the initial capture of information, we expand the inventory to include keywords, target customers (especially helpful for developing a user-centric navigation system), and other information relevant to the migration. This content-related data is a crucial part of the raw material used to develop the site’s information architecture.

We said in our first article that the first step to developing an Information Architecture is identifying a website’s content. Once you have an understanding of the type of content that will be included on the new website, you can begin to figure out how all of the pieces will fit together.

For example, if you’re building a site for local government, you’ll notice that various departments have resources targeted toward businesses. In a physical City Hall, business owners may be required to visit multiple departments in order to perform various tasks. As you develop your IA, you can target this customer group by aggregating business-focused content into a common area and organize that area around the various tasks that business users would want to accomplish. The result of this process is a customer-oriented site structure improves the overall user experience.

Once the IA is complete, we add one more column to our inventory: location on the new website. Knowing where things go in advance allows the entire migration process to proceed rapidly. Our worksheet allows us to easily sort by new location and build each section of the site in an orderly manner.

There are many approaches to the content inventory process, and you will ultimately find a system that works best for you. The first step, of course, is creating a usable spreadsheet. Here’s an Excel worksheet that you can use as a starting point. Remember, a content inventory template is just that; you’ll note that ours includes columns for language and audience. This is information we need to capture for the majority of our clients. Different projects have different needs, and you may need to modify this template on a case-by-case basis.

Analyzing The Content Inventory

While individual departments can create their initial inventories, one person should be responsible for analyzing and understanding every item on the completed inventory, from its purpose to its relationship to other content. Employing too many analysts leads to big picture items being missed. For example, some sites will have the same content item posted in multiple locations. A good CMS streamlines the process of managing one piece of information in multiple places; however, the content analyst needs to be aware that this duplicate content exists (we usually indicate this in the Notes section). Otherwise, you will negate the benefits of a CMS. A single content item is easy to maintain; the same item in multiple locations means that someone needs to remember to update the item in every location, every time the document is updated.

This analysis of the content inventory also aids in identifying and understanding various types of content (content classes) that need to be accommodated by the CMS. Articles can take on many forms: news releases, public notices, agendas, FAQs, or even photo galleries. Good content management systems handle a variety of content classes, and identifying the article classes early in the project aids the design process, information architecture, and CMS implentation.

Adaptive Path’s Jeffrey Veen has called content inventories “mind-numbing” (Doing a Content Inventory (Or, A Mind-Numbingly Detailed Odyssey Through Your Web Site)).

There are benefits to this tedium. By the time you’re finished, you will have a better understanding of your client’s business and, likely, a lot of ideas about how to better organize content. You will discover relationships between content that can be maximized. And you will walk into the Information Architecture phase of your project with confidence.

Next Up: Analyzing and Preparing Content for Migration to Your CMS

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