I’ve worked around developers and engineers long enough to be familiar with the term technical debt — in short, the consequence of sacrificing quality for speed. Your product ships earlier, but down the line requires fixes or a complete code overhaul because corners were cut.

The same concept applies to the very real issue of content debt.

What Is Content Debt?

It’s strange to think of “content” and “debt” in the same sentence. We live in a digital age defined by a surfeit of content. We’re literally drowning in it, so how can anyone be talking about content debt?

Simple. If your audiences aren’t finding and consuming your content, if it’s inconsistent across platforms, irrelevant or outdated, you could be amassing content debt. The debt has less to do with the volume of content you have and more to do with the resources it takes to produce, manage and optimize it.

It’s a widespread phenomenon in organizations large and small. When you rush to produce content, applying shortcuts and short-term thinking, you might discover later that this content failed to meet your objectives. Now you’re forced to revise it heavily, or start from scratch with new content. Both options are costly — wasting time and money — and that’s a hallmark of content debt.

Related Article: How Mature Is Your Content Organization?

5 Causes of Content Debt

If you’re in the business of creating, managing or distributing content, chances are you’ve amassed content debt, likely through one of these five culprits:

1. Single-Use Content

Producing content quickly, without thought to the additional use cases and channels in which that content might appear, results in redundancy or additional effort needed to retrofit this content for reuse. That’s content debt.

A better approach:

Consider the example of an instructional step-by-step guide for using your product. This piece could be produced in isolation, published through your support site and checked off your to-do list.

But think about the other places this content would be useful. In-product or in-transaction help, for example, may require each step to be broken out separately so that they appear at the right stage of the process. Your chatbot may require similar text, but in a condensed format.

Content debt occurs when these instructions are recreated by siloed teams within your organization. Instead, you could write it as structured content, made up of reusable content chunks to be distributed across multiple platforms. This will save you time and resources, and result in a more consistent message. And when it’s time to review or update that content, you would only have to do it once, again saving time and avoiding inconsistencies.

structured content
An example of how structured content elements can be repurposed across channels and platforms.

2. Content Bloat

Sometimes I feel like a psychotherapist in an episode of “Hoarders” as I help organizations to audit and rationalize their content. The sheer weight of having to decide what to do with hundreds of thousands of pieces of content can be crushing. That’s content debt.

A better approach:

Content bloat (i.e., excessive content) occurs because organizations focus purely on the creation of content, and fail to consider when, how and by whom a piece of content will be reviewed and optimized (or removed) over time.

Rather than putting off reviews until they’re an overwhelming task, establish a cadence and discipline of regular content review. Most content platforms have built-in functionality that allows you to set review or expiration dates when content is published so you can manage a rolling review cadence.

3. Disorganized Content

If internal teams don’t know that a piece of content already exists, they might create something similar, resulting in duplicated effort and/or redundancy. If external audiences can’t find it, you’re missing valuable opportunities to engage them. Both of these are forms of content debt.

Learning Opportunities

A better approach:

Content findability is a common issue I see, and one that can only be resolved with the help of a well-structured information architecture and taxonomy. Giving both internal and external users a consistent and predictable way to find what they are looking for, makes it less likely that content will be ignored or passed over.

The benefits of a solid taxonomy go much further than findability: think dynamic content and personalization, content analytics and internal process management, all of which also help to mitigate content debt.

4. Organization-Focused Content (vs. Audience-Focused)

Content that is created around an organization’s priorities, rather than those of target audiences, will not catch or hold their attention. That’s content debt.

A better approach:

Focus content on your customer, not your company. Start by defining who your audiences are and what answers they seek; that’s a central building block of a good content experience. If your content addresses your audience’s specific questions, you are far more likely to gain their attention and trust, and ultimately achieve the results you’re looking for. It’s better to create fewer effective pieces of content than to prioritize volume.

5. Lack of Investment and Resources

Where organizations have been quick to invest in technology and even design, content is still sometimes an afterthought, and often receives less investment and support than other disciplines. That’s content debt.

A better approach:

Invest in the right people, processes and tools, which will allow you to build a streamlined and consistent content operation across your organization, ultimately resulting in lower content debt over time.

Related Article: CMSWire Contributor Q&A With Lindy Roux: Best Bets on Content Taxonomies

The Keys to Avoiding Debt

So how do you avoid content debt? I’m not going to tell you there’s a quick-fix solution, but there are a few principles that you can apply now to save yourself from future debt:

  1. Develop a content strategy built around your audiences and their informational needs.
  2. Before you create content, consider all its potential uses and the platforms you’ll use to distribute it, and structure your content accordingly.
  3. Build content assessments, optimization and removal into your organization’s content workflow.
  4. Develop a robust taxonomy, but also invest in the governance, application, management and adoption of the new taxonomy across the entire organization.
  5. Invest in the tools, people and processes to support a content-first approach to digital marketing and experiences.

And don’t wait to get started. Much like those dishes sitting in your sink, if you push off addressing the problem until tomorrow, it’s only going to get harder!

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