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Mining for (Source) Content Gold

by Amy Wallace on June 21st, 2012

As a writer or editor, it’s ideal to get solid content strategy and background information before you start creating content. But sometimes you need to fend for yourself.

The scenario plays out like this: You’ve been assigned to write the content for a website, and you’re ready to get started (hooray!). Even if there is no strategy, you hope there’s loads of source material. Or at least enough to support the proposed site structure and objectives.

Then, you’re presented with one measly PDF. Good luck!

Not exactly enough to create a website with, is it? If your source content is non-existent, then you’re going to have to find it. You can do it. Here’s how.

gus chiggins

Old prospectors found gold. And you can, too!
(Will Ferrell as Gus Chiggins on Saturday Night Live)

Identify subject matter experts (SMEs)

Whether you’re working with a client or an internal team, you’ll need to identify your project’s key players. And they aren’t necessarily the ones that give sign-offs and approvals. You’re looking for the people that know the product or service inside and out—researchers, product developers, customer service representatives, marketing folks. People who spend their days immersed in the very stuff you need to write about.

Sit down with your project sponsor and talk about who these people might be. Get a list of names and job titles. Then schedule some time to chat with each one of them.

Create a discussion guide

Once you’ve determined who you’ll be interviewing, it’s a good idea to create a discussion guide. Nothing too rigid or overdeveloped—think outline or talking points. Something that will help you keep the conversation on track, and get to the heart of the information you really need: content priorities for both users and the business, as well as tangible knowledge about the product or service.

Ask simple, open-ended questions like:

  • What is the <product or service>?
  • What are the benefits to consumers? How is this <product or service> different from similar offerings in the market?
  • What is some typical feedback (positive or negative) that you hear from consumers about the <product or service>?
  • If you could convey one key message, what would it be?
  • Are there any existing written materials or other information about <product or service> that you could share with me?

Whether it’s a module, a few web pages, or an entire site, the content needs to exist for a reason (this, of course, in an ideal world where pet projects and knee-jerk reactions to competitors don’t exist). It’s your job to find out why—and why users should care.

Talk … and listen

You’ll be leading the discussion, but let your SME do the talking. Ask questions—and let the silence sit. Give them time to process and think. Count to 10 in your head. This may feel a little awkward (OK, it does feel awkward), but you’ll get better, more thoughtful answers in the end.  

However, sometimes, you’ll find that people need a little coaxing. This often happens when they’re unsure about their own knowledge. Many times, we’ve come across situations where people are hesitant to answer certain questions because they don’t think they’re the “expert” on the topic. And each time, we assure the person that any perspective they offer can be helpful.

In fact, it’s often those “non-expert” interpretations that help us develop the most user-focused copy—because they’re free of details that are too specific, complicated, or just plain unnecessary for the average consumer. Wherever your SME may reside on the corporate or organizational totem pole, their opinion matters. Make sure they know that, and encourage them to share.

Begin writing and reevaluating

Once you’ve gathered all of your source content, it’s time to get to work. And once you begin writing, you’ll quickly realize what’s possible and what’s not, in terms of initial priorities and site structure.

For instance, maybe the proposed sitemap doesn’t really support the content you’ve gathered. Maybe the priorities are different, now that you’ve heard from the actual people in the trenches.

Don’t be afraid to recommend structural changes. Just as your SMEs understand the product or service, you understand the content and what it needs to do to be the most effective, for users and the business. If you see an opportunity to make the content (and user experience) better, don’t ignore it.

So, eureka! There you have it. With a little initiative, nurturing, and planning, you can create relevant, focused source content. And that’s pure gold.

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