This article is part of an ongoing series. See the blog entry Delivering Your Enterprise: The ilities for an overall discussion.

I’m about to give away one of my secrets. I probably shouldn’t, but as long as you promise to not tell anyone else, I’ll trust you. So here goes.

When I’ve engaged or been about to engage in consulting with an organization, one of the first things I do is take a close look at their website. In particular, I look for news, press releases, or anything else that is time-sensitive. What I typically find, especially for smaller companies, is “news” that is two or more years old.

Simple – perhaps. But it also provides a wealth of inferences about the organization. For instance:

  • The organization may have worked hard to scrape together enough cash to pay the developer. They may still be severely budget constrained, their assurances to the contrary.
  • The website was probably constructed using simple techniques (like straight HTML), with little consideration for maintainability. For instance, if you want to change the phone number in the footer, you have to change it on every page in the site.
  • They probably don’t have anyone technical on the staff to maintain the site, or that person is working on something considered higher priority.
  • The stakeholder (the owner, person responsible for marketing, etc.) either doesn’t understand the impact of an obsolete site on customers (be they internal or external), or has given it lower priority.
  • The site may be acting as a pointer to a social site like Facebook. While the organization may not understand why they should be on Facebook (it could actually be detrimental to their business model), at least social sites provide a limited self-service capability to post more current content.
  • The stakeholder doesn’t think they have enough content, or has not made the effort to find additional content.

And so on.

It’s important to note that these issues are not just technical, although they can certainly be exacerbated by technical choices. The issues are just as much process and people-oriented as anything else.

So how can we improve the freshness* of a web site; namely, how do we keep the web content topical, current, and generally attractive so that people come back to the site on a regular basis? Here are some ideas:

  • Think ahead – You never know when or where you may have a great idea for content, so make a habit of stashing it away for future use in your mobile phone, a tool where you can take notes, or even a yellow sticky. Just put it somewhere you can find it later.
  • Work effectively – There are times when I can put out two or three blog postings in a single week, and other times when I go for weeks without inspiration. Don’t pressure yourself to produce content on a regular basis, unless you’re the type that thinks they work better under pressure or actually have deadline commitments. Also, most web content tools like blogs allow you to set the publish date on content. There’s nothing wrong with writing content in July and setting the publish date for December (just be sure to re-check the content before you release it).
  • External content creation – Why should you and your organization create all the content? Take Amazon as an example. They provide base content about a product, and then practically beg their audience to create reviews as more content. The same thing happens on product forums. Yes, you give up a certain amount of control (see the point about criticism), but you get a lot of content in return. Don’t be afraid of anonymous postings either. I saw an article recently (sorry, can’t find reference right now) about a news organization that went from anonymous to identified postings and then back to anonymous. While the anonymous postings generated more controversy, the organization also felt the quality of the discussion decreased when they required logins.
  • Appropriate tools – We tend to think as web content as text on pages, but there is a wealth of tools on the web for publishing, such as blogs (surprise!), FAQ’s, wikis, message boards/forums, tweets, knowledge bases, lists, email, newsletters, etc. Each of these methods has different layout, temporal, and organizational characteristics. Carefully choose your mechanism to enhance the impact of your message, and don’t always use a wiki because that’s the only thing you’ve taken the time to learn.
  • Publish on regular schedule – I’m sure you’ve heard before that people are creatures of habit. It’s certainly true for web site visitors. If you publish new content that’s interesting on a daily, weekly, bi-weekly, etc. basis, people will unconsciously detect that pattern and come back on a regular basis. If you post content sporadically, you’ll get sporadic or no visitors.
  • Self-Service – Allow others within your organization to create content, without involving yourself in the creation of that content. You’ll get some surprisingly good stuff. But see the point on reviewing.
  • Review process – Even if it’s just you and yourself in your organization, establish a review process for any sort of content that is published by your organization. It should really be done by someone other than the content author. This isn’t just for spelling and grammar, but includes things like trademark and HR policy enforcement. Even more important is to establish whether another person gets the point you are trying to get across. Larger organizations need to enforce this process using automated workflow and staging servers to ensure that the organization’s message comes across consistently outside the organization.
  • Backup process – When creating content, sooner or later someone in your organization (not you, of course!) will make a misteak mistake that gets published, or trashes a piece of content that was written long ago. Make use of of modern web content management (WCM) tools that automatically track versions of your content. Gather all your content pieces together on a staging site so you can see the whole picture before you release. At worst, take a snapshot of your site files before and after a change. There will come a time when you’re grateful to have it.
  • Accept criticism – Be magnanimous. Take criticism as an opportunity to improve. You can state your side of the picture, but don’t get defensive. Remember someone felt it was important to give you feedback. The Web is rife with examples with organizations that did not value that feedback and ended up with a public relations disaster. But sooner or later you may run into Internet trolls, the very definition of unreasonable people. If there is no other way, technology can be your friend – block the idiots. But also realize they will be back until they tire of the game or their parent’s basement gets flooded.

So if you’ve learned anything today, create lots of content on a regular basis and own it. Just be careful where you fling it.

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* fresh can be an overused term, but I think it’s apropos in this context. Not in the twenty-something fashionista’s sense that something is great just because that person hasn’t been around long enough to see it before, but in the sense of bread sitting around too long gets stale and undesirable. And for those of you about to post a comment that freshness doesn’t end in ility, you’re right. Too bad. End of snarky comments.

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