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Secret’s in the source: Gathering useful source content

by Elizabeth Saloka on February 17th, 2010

We web writers like talking about bulleted lists. And keeping things short. And cake.  

But for whatever reason, we don’t talk much about source content. We should. Because no matter how short our paragraphs, or how bulleted our lists, or how cake-filled our mouths, if we don’t start with good source content, we’re screwed. 
Back up. Why’s source content so important?
Source content is to web content as marble is to the Venus de Milo. Or, more deliciously, as batter is to cake (mmm, cake). It’s the material you shape into your final product. If you want to create worthwhile content, you need to start with worthwhile source content.
What is “worthwhile” source content, exactly?
Source content comes in many forms—from your client’s current web content to print brochures to testimonials. Worthwhile source content gives you accurate facts and ideas relevant to your client and their users. Now, that’s not to say it doesn’t also contain outdated facts and irrelevant ideas. It probably does. That’s why you’re there—to separate the wheat from the chaff.
For example, if your client’s current print brochure says they work with Adobe, Apple, and Hall and Oates, that’s a fact. Arguably, a notable and powerful one. If your client’s current print brochure says they “work with many premier clients” that’s not really a fact. And it’s not a very powerful statement. Wheat. Chaff. See the difference?
Now, I know what you’re thinking …
But what if your client’s source content is all chaff? In that case, you’re going to have to do some digging. In other words, you’re going to have to ask for more source content. Or …
Interview ‘em!
Okay, so. You asked the client for more source content. Turns out, they don’t have any. Now it’s time to dust off the ol’ notepad, hop in your Dodge Stratus, and conduct interviews!
That’s right. You’re gonna have to put on your reporter hat. Before you do, read up on how to do so effectively and efficiently:
1. Exhaust your resources.
The great thing about being a web writer these days? We have a handy tool called the Internet. Not like when our great-grandmothers were web writers. Back then, web writers didn’t HAVE the Internet.

Not funny? Let’s move on. My point is, the Internet obviously contains a lot of information. So, if you have holes in your source content, it can pay to do a quick Google search or two before approaching subject matter experts. If you get information from third-party sources, be sure to verify it with the client. 
2. Prepare yourself.
Don’t go in to interview clients without a basic idea of what you’re looking for. If you’re working with a content strategy, refer to that.
If you’re not working with a content strategy, make a list of common questions users will likely ask when they come to a website that the source content didn’t answer. Such as, “How do I contact the company?” Or, “What, exactly, does this company do?” Write these questions down.
Then, when you interview stakeholders and subject matter experts, you can be very specific about what information you need from them. By being prepared, you save yourself and your client time. And you increase the likelihood you’ll get exactly the source content you need.
3. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
Source content is a sensitive area for a lot of clients. Because, at some point—maybe even now—it wasn’t just their source content. It was their content. Their home page. Their brochure. They approved it. Maybe (though they might not cop to it) they even wrote it.
So, instead of saying, “Holy corn fritters your content’s horrendous!” say, “I’m SO thrilled to work with you. We’re gonna make your website super awesome.” When you show clients you’re on their side, they’ll open up. They’ll trust you. Which means they’ll be in a better position to answer your questions. And they are more likely to clearly, fairly judge your work once you start writing.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions.
My kindergarten teacher used to say, “There’s no such thing as a dumb question.” What a liar!
But as a web writer—and, OK, just as a regular human—I ask dumb questions all the time. Questions like, “So, what do your customers do with your toasters after they buy them?” Or, “What do you mean by ‘good,’ exactly?”
Dumb questions can get you really far for two big reasons. First, dumb questions loosen clients up. They’re so blown away by your sheer stupidity, they forget to be self-conscious. Instead of saying, “We’re an experienced team of technologists,” they say, “We fix computers. We’re computer fixers. You do know what a computer is, right?” They break things down in plain, direct, unmistakable terms—the same thing you’re trying to do for users.
Dumb questions also shake things up. They make people really think. By doing this, they open up all kinds of potential avenues. “Hey, do we need an FAQ section?” And, “Why exactly do we have fourteen paragraphs about our CEO on the About Us page?”
You ask dumb questions. They start asking dumb questions. The content gods smile.
And there you have it, chief. You’re now a source content rock star. Please, use your skills for good. And to score free cake for yourself and your loved ones (hint: me).

  • http://smyword.com/ Gabriel Smy

    Thanks Elizabeth. I love interviewing clients for content because you often get a new angle on their businesses. They will say things that they wouldn't have allowed themselves to write down. Plus you get a feel for what the natural tone could be because they are talking informally.

    On the other hand, there are those interviews where you realise that the client has no idea what their business is/does and can't answer even the most simple questions about how it works. Still, at least you know that they don't know and can go away and make something up…

  • melanie75

    So great. So true. I love the last point. I was just telling a colleague the same thing, namely that “you can't do this job well if you're afraid of looking stupid.” I ask dumb questions all the time. Often, the answers are surprising.

  • jerihastava

    Thank you! This SO resonates right now. I've just begun a project working with a client whose total source content consists of 2 price lists and a homemade brochure. Eek! I find I'm frequently repeating always the same questions in our “interviews,” but the responses vary providing a richer more complete picture of their business.

  • http://wion.com/ Destry Wion

    “If you’re working with a content strategy, refer to that. If you’re not working with a content strategy, make a list of common questions users will likely ask when they come to a website that the source content didn’t answer.”

    Speaking of stupid questions, I'm always good for a few.

    1) Assuming the client did have a content strategy, what would they need the consultant for? (Or do we assume they fail to govern their strategy?)

    2) If there was a content strategy (and I imagine there's some master doc, or collections of docs, that detail it), how might this content sourcing be written into it? In other words, if a content strategy did exist and there was some content sourcing strategy to refer to, what would it look like?

    More clues to the puzzle.

  • Elizabeth

    Zut alors! Apologies for the tardy response. Crazy week.

    Okay, so …

    1) Some clients have content strategies. Some don't. Regardless, they'll need a web writer to write the content.

    2) If I'm not mistaken, you're talking about a content creation plan. In her book, Content Strategy for the Web, my boss Kristina Halvoron talks about what a content creation plan should include, among other things:

    “One of the content strategist's most valuable contributions to any project is the content creation plan. This plan details:

    – Which content needs to be created.
    – Who is responsible for each and every piece of content.
    – How the source content maps to new content requirements.
    – Where the content will be stored and delivered throughout the creation process.
    – How the content will get done on time and on budget”

    She goes on:

    “All of this information should be as *detailed as possible* in the content strategy documentation, or in the accompanying documentation.”

    Does this help? I hope so. And thanks so much for reading my blog post!

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