If it’s your job to craft news for your intranet, or work on reference pages with departments and subject experts, you’ll have a sense of the time costs involved. But it’s easy to discount content creation cost as just the price of doing your work.
When working on a particularly tricky piece of content, like a policy or a how to guide, you can assure yourself of its value by thinking about how many people it impacts or will help. Ten hours spent honing the text with expert colleagues could ensure that hundreds or thousands of intranet users get the facts, direction, or help they need.
Too cheap and easy
But in some ways, it’s too cheap and easy to write and publish content. Think of all the ‘updates’ people receive by email and the many intranet pages that have clearly been created by pasting text from some PDF manual from 2009. In some ways, we think that if its published, it’s available. And it’s better for information to be available than not, yeah?
But making information merely available isn’t the purpose of the intranet. Content should be useful, usable, and used — and to be useful it must directly meet a need, not just please one’s manager.
Everyone is a writer…
Everyone thinks they’re a writer, because writing is something you do. Most people send dozens of emails or scores of messages per day, so everyone understands that communication is how work gets done. But that isn’t enough, it really isn’t. ‘Writing’ is more than good grammar and using nice words. ‘Communication’ is more than sending a signal, it’s about interpretation too.
When we’re writing for the intranet, for broad audiences, we have to design the content to address specific concerns and needs that the audiences have. It’s tempting to just write about the topic, especially if you know the topic well, but our take on the topic may not meet the needs of the audiences; we might not help our colleagues at all. We risk adding to the noise. The only way to produce high-value content is to address specific needs.
Too much content
Is your intranet ever growing in size? Most likely you have a certain number of people who can publish documents and pages. Every time there’s a problem, a system update, or a change to ways of working in the department or across the company, a new page will be created for ‘everyone to refer to’; one source of truth.
Fair enough. What’s your archive and deletion process like? Impossible to execute, I’ll wager. “We might need it in the future” and other sunk cost fallacies mean that we’re all hoarders. It can feel easier to create a ‘fresh new page’ than go searching for existing content to update. Besides, when you do find outdated content on the intranet, it’s always owned by some other department, by a person who left the business months ago. Easier to just publish a ‘new new’ page.
But too much content clogs everything up. Search results can be flooded with similar sounding pages and documents. Navigation menus lead people to the older content. Even people who know the right content exists struggle to find it. Smaller intranets please more people; and note how Ayala Gordon and the University of Southampton discuss “simple, small” content in the context of sustainable business (quoting Gerry McGovern, naturally). When a topic is found to be missing, the need for it can be assessed – anything added should add value to the organisation. Information is an asset when it’s well constructed. A burden when it’s just thrown on the intranet.
Take a look at your usage stats of existing content to get a sense of impact and ROI. For example, low page stats may mean that people can’t find the content or that it has no real use. Low video views may mean that video is the wrong medium or too hard to consume, or has no real use. How will you judge?
Balance this against the cost of not having the right content (even for a small audience) and someone making a poor decision.
Hidden costs of content
Beyond the reasonably obvious costs of production, there are hidden costs that should make us invest in researching the need before we put fingers to keyboard.
You might shortcut past some of the following but I find that if you skip the research, your content can be less useful and so less valuable than you intended.
But the cost of maintaining content is not so obvious, and rarely factored into the total cost of content. Maintenance, even when scheduled, is often done in an ad hoc manner – quick reviews, a few words tweaked, approved at a glance.
Content production costs
- Defining the need (problem + audiences).
- Research and planning, considering content and comms strategy, audiences, and existing content / channels.
- Reviewing, improving.
- Testing with end users.
- Approvals – considering stakeholder alignment around context.
- Sourcing and editing images.
- Formatting and publishing, considering medium and channels.
Hidden and ongoing costs
- Archiving the artefacts produced during research etc.
- Managing original assets, like the ‘original’ content in document form and any and all original images.
- Amending existing menus or adding additional navigation routes.
- Setting a review schedule and specifying a named long-term owner.
- Reviewing, revamping, and approving.
- Moving the ‘location’ of the content and updating menus and navigation routes.
- Reviewing menu labels and the information scent.
- Monitoring the metrics / analytics.
- Reporting ‘content performance’ stats and assessing value.
If a reference page is a year old, it’s not just the facts within that need reviewing; every link needs checking and the style of writing should be reassessed, taking into account the balance of being brief and easy to understand. More than this, where the page is placed in the information architecture, in the structure of the intranet, should be reviewed. Maybe it was published in this section, originally, just because the author had the permissions to. Maybe this content would be better relocated to some other more on-topic section of the intranet. Separately, consider how people might navigate to the page – if it’s to be placed in a menu – and the information scent that leads people to it.
Maintaining content is about improving your intranet experience, not just fact checking.
Start bandying about the term ‘content debt’ whenever new content is being discussed. Content debt is the time you’ll have to invest in the future to deal with the messy or brilliant content you create today. If you think your new content will cost you ten hours to produce, you’re forgetting the time and pain that will be exacted in the future. Maintenance costs time and money sure, but revamping content is much more expensive, and don’t forget the inevitable content migration to a new system sometime in the next decade.
And there’s the cost of using content – of finding it, of discerning its relevance, of comprehending it, of assessing if any of it could be wrong or out of date. Your intranet-using colleagues do all this automatically but it’s a significant cognitive and time burden. Now worry about if content misleads people — the consequence of ambiguous content can be embarrassment or costly errors.
Content cost calculations
Calculate the time and cost of each activity in the lists above.
It might turn out something like this for a heavy piece of reference material:
Content production example
- Researching the problem: 8.5 hours for multiple people.
[Pause or stop here if the value cannot be demonstrated. Maybe there’s a cheaper and better way?]
- Researching the solution: 9 hours for multiple people.
- Drafting, reviewing, testing, and approving: 8 hours.
- Formatting and publishing: 1 hour.
Hidden and ongoing example
- Archiving and managing assets: half an hour.
- Future reviews and revamps: 1 to 10 hours.
- Monitoring and reporting performance metrics: an hour over the year?
Assuming the writer and subject experts earn over £30k (£14 $20 €16 an hour approx.), and the managers earn over £45k (£22 $30 €25 an hour approx.), you can quickly see that the more people involved with content, the more expensive it is, considering creation and maintenance.
- Research: 18 hours X £14 = £252.
- Drafting, reviewing, and approving: 8 hours X £14 = £112.
- Publishing: £14.
So, 600 words with screenshots in the ‘knowledge management’ section of the intranet about how to help a customer un-cancel their order might take 27 work hours and could cost over £400 / $555 / €465 to produce. You could be more exact with the items you count, or generalise even more than I have to get to a ballpark figure.
This is content as an asset, as IP (intellectual property). The £400 invested in creating quality content that meets a defined need will pay for itself in a matter of weeks, as hundreds of people refer to it and are helped by it, or if a single high-value customer is greatly helped by it. The ROI can be calculated.
Much of the cost of content is just swallowed as ‘the cost of doing business’ and I agree with that; my advice though, is to always always publish content that has a defined benefit to colleagues, and to help enthusiastic writers avoid adding more documents and pages to the intranet when the benefit cannot be literally expressed.