How I Grew My Agency by Overhauling Our Content Process

by James Deer 7 Minutes

hand-on-keyboardWhen I ran a ten person digital agency, we worked with lots of clients in the oil & gas service industry. We tackled everything from campaign sites, through to complete website redesigns.

There were always plenty of different challenges to face on each project, however, without fail, content would always cause a hiccup…

Although we would take clients through a process, they were much more excited about the final result than developing out the content. That’s OK though, they were clients. They were paying us to get them that result.

In hindsight, the content-related challenges we faced during those projects were usually self-inflicted; our lack of planning and expectation setting, failing to support the client through to the all important launch day (which would inevitably be pushed back due to late content!)

Enough was enough. With delayed site launches at an all-time high, and content-related unbillable time creeping up, how could we overcome the content challenge?

The answer was content strategy.

Why Content Strategy is the Key

Content strategy is a relatively new, exciting and massively broad discipline that can take many forms. The goal, according to Kristina Halvorson’s definition, is to help plan for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content. It became the new line item on our website design proposals.

As an agency it’s wildly unrealistic to expect a client to fully jump onboard with a content strategy across it’s entire organisation, however, there’s no reason why we can’t use the tools it gives us to help guide a project.

That’s what we did.

Content strategy, for us, was the opportunity to improve our entire web development process. Putting content first meant that we made operational efficiencies and our clients weren’t subjected to the usual content chaos that ensued our redesign projects.

Stop for a minute and think. Have any of these issues ever impacted your projects?

  • Have your launch dates been delayed due to content being late? If so, has this ever affected your payments due to the site not being live on the date you had planned in your cash flow?
  • Do your clients ever fail to up-keep their websites after launch? Would you say this was because you over-designed them?
  • At the last minute, has the signed-off content gone into your beautifully designed templates and just not worked? Did you have enough time to re-do the templates?
  • Do you often use Lorem Ipsum because you have nothing else to work with?
  • Generally, on your projects, have the team ever experienced content-related problems during the final stages?
  • Have you (or someone on your team) ever had to pull together content from multiple sources and paste it into the CMS? If you have ever been on the tail-end of this, I know exactly how you feel!

If you haven’t come across any of these humps, please let us know exactly how you run things in the comments!

Before I started selling a content-first approach into my clients, it was important to have my agency team onboard.

How to Convince Your Team

It’s always difficult to get everyone to agree on a process change in your team. Some of the results that we experienced may help you to make the case, if you come across any contentions.

Some of the benefits we saw included;

  • Less projects were being delayed because of content
    • By thinking about content first, we were better prepared when it was time to start getting content together. This was the biggest revelation and helped us significantly with cash flow management because we were more in control of delivery dates and the final payments which were contingent on launch.
  • We didn’t waste time and budget producing templates that didn’t suit the final, signed-off content
    • Having real (ideal) or proto (second best!) content together before we started designing meant our designers reduced back and forth with the client. This made our process way more efficient.
  • We achieved a better user experience because design decisions were content-led
    • This speaks for itself if you are an advocate of UX.
  • Our clients started to do a great job of sustaining their sites after launch.
    • Because we were realistic with our clients about how much time *actually* goes into creating and maintaining content we were able to help deliver long-term success for them. In the agency world, good work always builds trust and often wins repeat business – perfect if you’re waiting to close a retainer contract. We found that it became much easier for our account manager to go in and upsell further campaign work or maintenance retainers to clients who had been through our ‘content-first’ approach. When the site was manageable for the client, in their eyes, that made it a success.

You can see that these benefits are undeniably a good thing for any web agency that runs redesign projects. This should be enough to convince the most skeptical of skeptics!

How to Convince Your Clients to go Content-First

My experience tells me that clients love to look at mock-ups. Mockups where you’ve magically figured out all of their problems, the ones where they feel like they don’t have to think any further… until you launch and see a site riddled with issues.

As an agency, this approach just didn’t work for us.

But, from the clients’ perspective, why should they buy into your new, less visual, content-first process?

I distilled down the most important benefits to my clients so that I could help them to understand the thinking behind our new approach:

  • We only design and build the templates you need for your content so the overall cost to you will be less. In the past we had to allocate budget to multiple revisions but these revisions are fewer on a content-first project.
  • When we have real content to work with we can design faster. This means that we can get your site launched sooner.
  • Your team won’t be demoralised by struggling to produce all of the site’s content in a big rush at the end of the project. Now you can spread the effort over a longer period and we will support you through that to make sure things stay on track.
  • Now the risk of a delayed site launch and the implications of missing the target (like going over budget) are unlikely. We will have everything we need, when we need it so we can get on with the job.
  • The final result will be a site that you can manage to sustain, with the resources you have available. This is important because it will help you avoid reputation damage with outdated and irrelevant content. The site will work harder for you in the long-term because you will be able to nurture the content and improve, rather than drown in it.

How to Sell and Kick-off Your Content-first Approach

When we made our switch to content-first, we wanted to set our clients’ expectations from the get-go. This meant being very clear from day 1 of our sales process in both our meetings and proposals.

Whether our clients were already aware of the complexities content brought to a project from past experience, or not, we found that it was actually pretty easy to convince them our approach made sense.


We updated our standard proposal template to put an emphasis on the content process and why we valued it.

We already had a section in our proposals which explained our discovery process and detailed the tools we would use for their project; Basecamp, GatherContent (the tool I created specifically for aiding content-first agencies), Expression Engine etc. By adding more information in this section about our initial content kick-off meeting, what it entailed (more on that later), plus some of the benefits of going content-first, we helped to bring clarity to our process and dispel any client confusion.

We also had a *slightly* salesy section which explained as a content-first agency we would;

  • Respect the effort and commitment for you to produce and sustain good content
  • Audit your current content to discover insights that will help us design a site that better meets your business goals and user needs
  • Guide you through the demanding content production stages to greatly reduce the risk of late content delaying the launch
  • Ask you to start producing content earlier in the project to give you more time

We felt that this blurb did a good job of showing clients we would really prioritise their content investment if we won the work. It was also a nice way to stand out from other agencies who weren’t thinking about content as an asset back at that time.

A few of our clients gave us testimonials praising the process which were a juicy bit of proof to back everything up on our website.

Content Kick-off Meeting

A critical step in setting our clients on the content-first path was to do a content kick-off meeting. We merged this into our discovery meeting so that clients didn’t think it was an optional cost that they could try and negotiate off of the project total (this happened far too often, I’m sure you’ve been there!) Thankfully, their expectations about what was involved had already been set through the details in the proposal.

Typically we asked these questions;

  • Do you know how much content you have on your current site?
  • Have you (or will you) audit the content on your existing site?
  • Are you archiving poor quality and old content on your existing site?
  • Do you know who is going to write the content for your new site?
  • Does someone internally have overall responsibility for content quality during the project and beyond?
  • Do you know roughly how many hours per week will be dedicated to maintaining content once the new site is live?
  • Does the current site have dedicated subject matter owners?
  • Do you know if any content is syndicated from other systems?
  • Do you have a digital style guide?

The purpose of the questions was to gauge our clients’ understanding of what is involved in creating and maintaining content. It also gave us an opportunity to educate anyone who had different views of the process which could jeopardise the project and post-launch maintenance.

Secondly, it was an opportunity for us to upsell content-auditing and copywriting services by making the client understand where and why they were crucial to the process, rather than wheeling them in as proposal items with no additional context.

There will be other questions that are more relevant to your projects so I recommend that you tweak these based on your client and agency.

It would take me too long to go into detail about the way we managed the content production process, beyond discovery, with our clients but if you’re interested in further reading or just want to compare notes, I’ve helped write a guide on it called Content Production Planning for Agencies.

Frustratingly, there isn’t a silver bullet when going content-first, but, my experience is that if you put content at the heart of all project activities and set expectations, then you have a better chance of success. This will be good for your agency, your client, and, most importantly, the end users of your clients’ sites.

Have you experienced better results by taking a content-first approach with your clients? Were there any challenges or contentions along the way?

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by James Deer
James Deer is passionate about content strategy and has distaste for unorganized content. He’s the founder of and previously founded a small digital agency in Scotland. He loves his wife, two pugs and snowboarding. Connect with @jamesdeer on Twitter.