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Archive for May 2008

Analyzing the Bathwater

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There is a saying that goes: don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. It is quite common knowledge, as there’s a very similar warning in the Italian language too (buttare il bambino con l’acqua sporca, in case you’re italophiles): if we’re not careful, we could get rid of a good thing just because we don’t want to deal with the rest of the mess.

So let’s try to apply this warning to our job. When I start working for a new organization, for the first weeks you will find me buried under piles and piles of paper: brochures, flyers, yearbooks, house organs, magazines, catalogues — everything I can put my hands on, even if it was published twenty years earlier. I am not only getting familiar with my new employer, I am also mentally scanning their riches. Looking for babies. Sometimes I am really lucky, and there’s plentiful toddlers, alive and kicking, ready to be brought to the next step. Other times I can tell that nobody has ever really taken care of the content, and I’m left with communication devices stating unconsistent facts. Or even wrong facts. OK, let’s not be too harsh, sometimes they’re totally consistent. Well, their visual is.

In these cases my gut reaction would be to throw the mass of paper in the nearest bin, and call it a day. But then I think about the babies who may be gasping in the bathwater; so, armed with a cup of green tea (if my name were Sam Spade at this point I would positively need scotch), a pen and some grids, I start going through the materials once again. That’s when the content audit starts.

First of all, I map all the content in the different grids, according to the type of publications: periodicals (newsletter, press releases, house organs etc), corporate, single product deliverables. At this point I only need to know if any of these publications is still useful, or if it’s only “bathwater”. It’s trickier than it seems, because maybe a product sheet describes something that’s not produced anymore (bathwater) but there could be a very interesting boilerplate that could be reused (baby). Keep. At the same time, content is like clutter: you have to get rid of the things you don’t really need, before they start piling up. When in doubt, I open a “let’s review this in 6 months” file: if I’ve never felt the need to consult that content in the meanwhile, it is ready to become bathwater.
Keep in mind that it’s worth writing down the content you are dismissing, and the reasons why: in a year you forget a lot of things, especially the less important ones, and you don’t want to go through the same painful check everytime someone emerges from the archives with a piece of content archaeology.

When I’m past this stage, I can finally devote myself to babies. I will write down what’s good and what’s not in the single publication: I am looking to reuse as much as I can, because that single content is an investment my employer decided to make at some point. Man hours, or money given to an agency, I don’t care: I’m sure there’s a chunk of text, or even just a winning metaphor. I maniacally note everything down.

A blog post isn’t exactly the most fitting place to go into the details of designing the grid, or specifying which qualities you look for to discern the babies from the bathwater. It really depends on your role and on the type of project you’re working on (clearly an Enterprise Content Manager [1] has a wider scope than an E-commerce Content Manager, and someone working in an online media environment has a pivotal skimming factor, that CMs working in retail/sales don’t have: date of publication). The only advice I can give in such a brief post is to broaden your field of investigation as much as possible. Don’t focus on the short-term goal, but make an inventory that you can reuse over and over for projects you don’t even have in mind yet.

That’s time consuming, I know, and if I have to fill a timesheet I always warn my manager: I need a field who reads “baby saving”.

[If you’re an Enterprise Content Manager, you can’t miss Ann Rockley’s Managing Enterprise Content for some great tips on content audit — well, the rest of the book is really helpful too!]

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Written by Paola

May 29, 2008 at 9:33 am