Drowning Your Audience in Content

The National Health Service just got caught red-handed doing what way too many companies do every day:

“The NHS spends up to £86m a year on thousands of websites that are difficult to find, badly designed and irrelevant to patient needs, according to a leaked government report.”

This article made me dust off my biggest jaded, bitter sigh. It’s a macrocosm example of what happens both in private enterprises and not-for-profit organisations all the time.

Full NHS article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/aug/04/nhs-websites-failing-patients

Delivery Overload – Content Flowing All Around but Nary a Drop to Drink

Waterfall 97
Image – waterfall-wallpapers.com

Time and time again I consult with organisations who seem to create new streams of content like water cascading across rocks. Every time the flow of information encounters an obstacle, it splits and creates a new smaller, weaker stream.

Companies struggle as it is getting different media like print and electronic formats, or even content for different product-lines, to jive together. Not only is the web a stream of content, it’s a relatively inexpensive one to set up new tributaries and sub-streams (if you only look at the short term costs), it’s easy to be seduced into creating websites all over the place.

There are legitimate reasons to maintain multiple websites, for example, an organisation with two clearly delineated brands with low audience overlap. For example, Aston Martin (http://www.astonmartin.com/) and Aston Martin Racing (http://www.astonmartinracing.com/).

They’re both Aston Martin, but the business models, content, products and customers are vastly different. For those interested in the main brand, right off the homepage you can get to the Racing sub-brand. It’s also easy to get back (although in my opinion the link back should be more obvious).

(Side note: Working with Aston Martin was one of my most geek-out, drool-worthy gigs of my career… Just sayin’)

Water-Logged Reasoning

A layer of NHS bureaucracy, represented by websites built by primary care trusts, foundation trusts and strategic health authorities, received “almost no recognition” from the public. “The question is raised why these sites were developed in the first instance,” the report says.

However, there are thousands more professional websites than there are valid reasons for sites to exist. Here’s some of my favourite reasons I’ve actually had explained to me, with or without a straight face, some of them various times in different projects:

  • “That site exists because IT couldn’t figure out how to control access to the content if it was on the main site.”
  • “Our main site is marketing stuff and the other site is for our customers and technical content.”
  • “That site exists because it was a big project so we thought it deserved its own website.”
  • “No one around here really knows why it’s a separate site, but it’s been that way a while so we just leave it like that.”
  • “IT (or Marketing) didn’t have time to help us with our need so we just hired an agency and set this site up.”
  • “We could have done a common site but we didn’t realise that another department had one so similar already running.”

And my all-time fav:

  • “Our departmental management set up our own site because he/she doesn’t want any other departments telling us what to do”

Integrate Content – Let Them Quench Their Thirst

Image – thewaterdeliverycompany.com

I said it in some recent posts, but I’ll say it again:

Your customer doesn’t care about your org chart!

The research also warned that poor websites mean “the confidence of the public in the NHS brand may be diminished”. Patients wanted to see “one NHS” online rather than a proliferation of websites.

Most of these delivery channels just add to the issue of duplication and confusion that happens across other forms and formats of content. Content integration is about unifying process and standards in an organisation so that customers are presented information in a way that makes sense for them, not in the way that is patterned after the teams and departments that created it.  You need to be consistent in how you present information so it can be found, consumed and deliver value.

Inconsistencies annoy customers (and staff who need the information) all to tiny little pieces, and dilute your brand. Specifically, it’s important to keep in mind being consistent in areas like these:

  • How to do a task or process with your product or your company
  • How to communicate with your company
  • How to refer to or find things across your different sites, products, hardware, software, marketing, sales, user, or maintenance materials (in short: content modelling, structural and terminology issues)
  • What features are offered on some sites vs. other sites

Yes – even features can be annoying. For example, at the Online Information show last week, we were talking to one of the world’s largest publishers. They recently implemented ‘word wheels’ (like those drop-down lists of auto-complete text for your search-terms as you type in Google) on some of their online products. The keyword: some. They actually get calls to customer support from people saying, ‘One of your sites is broken.  You sold us access to this content, and some of it doesn’t have word wheels like the other content you sold us’. They would actually have had a better customer experience with no nifty function because they wouldn’t think some sites were ‘broken’. The publisher is a major organisation.  Their customers think, surely the back-end content platform was integrated such that navigation functions were consistent? …Sure.

I don’t want to trash-talk anyone by name, so for an actual example I’ll pick on a company who I’ve said good things about in past, and has already sorted out the problem: SDL.

SDL has gone on the acquisitions trail (warpath?) in recent years, snapping up four organisations that I have worked and implemented with prior to the acquisition (Idiom, Trisoft, XOpus and XyEnterprise). If you take Trisoft + XyEnteprise, you get SDL “XySoft”. As a result, lots of little websites were born of these mergers, so for a while they had (all these neatly redirect to sdl.com today):

  • http://www.sdlxysoft.com/
  • http://www.tri-soft.com/
  • http://www.sdltrisoft.com/
  • http://www.sdl.com/

SDL totally get the problem and in fact asked me (informally) to contribute a telephone interview / usability review to their re-architecture efforts a while ago. Even at that point at least the sites basically looked the same. But, if you just jumped around between them and you sometimes didn’t know you’d left, and couldn’t figure out how you got there or how to get back. Also, you have to sympathise. They have one of the valid reasons to be having this issue, albeit a temporary one: acquisitions and mergers. Integrating new companies is hard, and if you keep buying them up all the time, then there’s going to be a more or less constant job of integrating their existing presence.

A Wash-Up

Some points of consideration before you get dragged down by the content undertow and start drowning your people in content streams:

  • Separate customer or audience profiles / personas don’t necessarily mean separate sites.
  • Separate sites don’t mean different back-end architecture.
  • A sub-domain (adding a part before the main domain, e.g.: mail.google.com or maps.google.com) is better than a whole new domain.
  • Although you might think it’s ‘special treatment’ to give customers vs. other people (prospective customers) a new discrete domain with separate content, it can be annoying if you’ve not properly integrated the content, features and worse yet, login details. Existing customers are your best prospects, so don’t annoy them making them jump back and forth between sites to wade through things they don’t own – there are better ways to cross-sell new offers.  Especially don’t make user jump back and forth because you’ve got some content in one site and not the other.
  • Separate sites are a breeding ground for (needlessly) inconsistent information architectures, terminology, navigation tools and worst of all the facts of the content itself (“Oh… right, well, we don’t sell that product anymore, but no one remembered we needed to take it off that site”).
  • If you are going to have separate sites, have clear guidelines around when a new one should be created.
  • See if you can make internal staff use the same content sources as external users. If they stop using ‘back doors’ to find information, you’ll get loads (tidal waves!) of usability feedback (read: screaming and yelling) when things aren’t optimised for findability.

I’d love to hear your stories of navigation and content inconstancies. No need to name names, so feel free to air the details of the salmon-like upstream swimming lengths users have had to go through to get the content they want.

* Featured Wave image – https://www.flickr.com/photos/17367470@N05/14942542900/in/photostream/


  1. Jimmy Breck-McKye

    One of the things I’ve noticed with government and local authorities (and quite a few private companies, too) is that everyone thinks they’re ‘special’ – that whilst the ‘generic’ solution might work for their peers, *they’re* the exception to the rule. As such, whether websites, marketing strategy or business processes, everyone assumes they *must* have something written ground-up around them. It’s great that people are suspicious of off-the-peg solutions, but these people reinvent the wheel every day.

    Thankfully, quite a few delegates at this year’s Driving Efficiencies conference were more than aware of the ‘Costs of Being Special’ (CoBS), and there was a real emphasis on how to extend the use of ‘generic’ solutions – like all-in-one websites – with a few ‘modular’ bells and whistles to convince the so-called ‘special folk’.

  2. B. Noz Urbina

    I’d generally agree, Jimmy, and thanks for the convenient acronym! There’s always a balance to be made between standardisation and tailoring and starting from the ‘no one has ever had this problem before, ever’ position is bound to lead to waste.

  3. David Hawkins

    Content management systems, especially web content management systems don’t seem to have the inherent capability out of the box that you point out here. I agree with you on the concept that it is better to create sub-domains rather than whole new sites, but as a small website system it becomes difficult to manage multiple landing pages with their own navigation and content categorization.

    I am not talking so much about commercial solutions here so much as the open source or free CMS products like Joomla, Drupal or other similar tools.

    I have not yet dug deeply into the new 1.6 release of Joomla, which is my preferred CMS, but it still appears that sub-domain management is not part of the tool’s inherent capability.

  4. B Noz Urbina

    Hi David,

    I don’t disagree in principle. Part of me feels you’ve said “on a small website system it’s hard to manage large complex websites”. Smaller open-source/free platforms are naturally going to be behind the enterprise commerical offerings.

    Still – I feel the underlying issue is that generally systems do what the market wants. Therefore I’m addressing the market to change its thinking. The systems will then catch up. Technology only does what we ask of it.



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