Content Before Design: Your Website Starts Here

It is imperative that we start the design process by developing the core content first. This will ensure that we design a web site purposefully to help users find the information they need, and guide them towards desired actions, as opposed to designing the interface first without knowing what content will be displayed.

What happens if we don’t follow a “content first” strategy?

Let’s say we provide some mockups of what the site might look like.

Now let’s say you love this approach and we proceed with graphic design, and eventually, towards the end, we finalize the content. We plug the content into the design, and then we discover we have a problem. Suddenly our design doesn’t work so well any more.

If we design before we have content, we effectively create the packaging before we know what’s going to go in it.

But it’s not just about making the design work.

Developing the content first allows us to be much more strategic about the words we put on the page. It gives us the opportunity to start with user and business goals, and make sure our content meets those goals.

It’s time to stop building the house without knowing how many bedrooms it may need. It’s a paradigm shift in the way we think about building websites. But, it has to be done. Because you know what they call things that are beautiful, but have no function? Useless.

Can you really trust your content strategy?

Content strategy needs to be precise. See, before you even put pen to paper, you need to know the direction you are heading.

Most of us who work online, from freelance writers to small business owners, probably have a content strategy. But there’s just one problem: it’s up in our heads.

But if you say, “My business is not that complicated, and neither is my content strategy. I know where I want to take this business. I don’t need to commit it to paper,” then this stat should make you take pause:

Copyblogger’s 2015 Cost of Online Business Report revealed 51 percent of online business owners are struggling to make a living online.

So, that notion you call your content strategy may be causing you to leave money on the table, publish ineffective content, and aimlessly feel your way to your destination, which might end up being the wrong destination after all.


You need a clear and focused content strategy to produce optimal results.

So how do we design with a “content first” approach?

Square away an afternoon, ask yourself these questions, and document the answers in a notebook, on a whiteboard, in Evernote, or a bar napkin. The point is to get it out of your head. Have fun!

1. Who are your users?

Identify and specifically describe the members of your audience.
For example:

  • She is a working mother who would like to feed her family a healthy meal three times a day.
  • He is an African American who wants to become a lawyer so he can give back to his community.
  • She is retired, without any concerns for money, but simply wants to be productive and not bored.

You may be speaking to more than one target audience. Define all of them.

2. Who are your competitors?

And I’m not just talking about your direct competitors. Who or what can take prospects away from you?

For example, a web designer is not only competing against other web designers, but also against tools that allow non-designers to design.

3. What do you bring to the table?

There is a reason I discussed your customers and competitors first. They give you an idea of the shape of the market and how you can fit into that market.

I say this all the time to people who are trying to build a business and a brand:
Your mission and strategy will change over time. It will evolve as you learn about your customers and competitors.

With your research from steps 1 and 2 in your belt, you now can ask:
How do you fit into the market?
What do you bring to the table that no one else can?
What makes you unique?

4. What do you hear?

I mean the voices from your customers and ideal target audience.
What are they saying?
What are the recurring themes, in regard to their dreams and challenges?

If you don’t know where to hear these voices, find the online water coolers where your prospects like to hang out. They could be on social media sites like Reddit, Facebook, Google+, or Twitter. Also consider LinkedIn discussion groups or support forums.

5. What content do you already have?

You need to assess the content you already have on your website, blog, and social media platforms — and how far along you are into the content marketing game will determine how painful this will be. But it’s important it gets done.

What do you want your content mix to look like?

One of the benefits of a content audit is you can get a good sense of what The Whole Thing looks like.

Give some thought to what you want it to look like.

Some types of content attract new visitors, some strengthen your relationships, and some pave the way for a sale. What would be the ideal mix for your site?

Ultimately, you want to determine the type of content that would be the most beneficial to produce going forward.

6. What is the purpose of your content?

This is perhaps the most important question.

Is your content intended to:
Drive sales?
Generate leads?
Build authority?
Increase organic search traffic?
Please your mother, your spouse?
Prove your ex wrong?
All of the above?

More than likely “all of the above” is the case, but each individual piece of content will accomplish a different task.

For instance, the purpose of an article you wrote on another blog may simply be to drive more traffic to your website. But not to just any page on your website — a landing page specifically designed for that guest article. A landing page designed to convert those visitors into email newsletter subscribers.

And that email newsletter is designed to strengthen your relationships with your readers and educate them on your products or services. For instance, one email you send may be crafted to drive those subscribers to another landing page designed to sell them your product or service.

It’s important to understand the purpose of your content. And the purpose of each piece of content can be determined during your content audit.

7. How often should you publish content?

Once a week? Daily? Answers to these questions boil down to your resources. How much time do you have? Who is going to create all of this content? Is the content converting?

8. How will you distribute your content?

Content that isn’t shared is content that is ignored. No matter how great you think it is.

So, which social media platform(s) will you focus on? Where is your ideal audience? Who is going to share your content? Are you going to use scheduling tools?

9. Who is in charge of your content?

Is it you? Should it be you?

Like Michael Gerber said in his classic book, The E-Myth, a business owner should be in a position to work on his business — not in it. Otherwise, you may find it difficult to grow. You may need to hire someone to write new content and manage existing content.

10. Who will produce your content?

You may have a lot of wishes and desires. And no shortage of ambition. But allow human nature to teach you a lesson: We are all limited in what we can do.

If you want to create 12 infographics this year, who’s going to do the research? Write the content? Design it? Will these people always be available when you need them?

11. Who is going to maintain the content?

The content on your website is like a garden. It needs to be cultivated.

For every new blog post you publish, there are five rotting away with broken links, outdated facts, and topics that are now irrelevant.

Who is going to clean up this mess? Name that person, and create a schedule.

12. Who is responsible for the results?

If you’re the only content creator, easy enough. You are responsible for everything.

But if you have a small team, make each person responsible for some area of the content. You will provide motivation to your team by measuring their performances.

Make sure these goals are measurable, achievable, and specific — and not ultimatums. In other words, don’t say, “You’re gone if you don’t meet this.” Allow room for mistakes, corrections, and growth.

In addition, you should be held responsible for an area of the content as well. Your people will respect that.

13. What’s your destination (core strategy)?

All the preceding questions build to this final one.

This is about stating what you need to accomplish, determining the type of content that will help you achieve this goal, and creating a plan to help you accomplish it.

Use these guidelines to create a core strategy:

  • Aspirational: Create a goal that gives you room to stretch, fail, get back up, and grow.
  • Flexible: Your core strategy should allow you to adjust as your environment changes around you, without having to make a drastic pivot.
  • Meaningful: Does your core strategy align with your values, and will you be able to sustain it and endure challenges over the long haul?