By Marcia Riefer Johnston published December 10, 2015

How to Stop Worrying and Love Content Inventories and Audits

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Content inventories. Content audits. The terms alone can strike fear into the heart of any marketer. Many of us aren’t sure what these inventories and audits look like or why, exactly, they exist.

We sense vaguely that they’re big and messy, like monsters lurking in the closet. We avoid thinking about them, figuring that if they’re important, someday someone will do something about them. Meanwhile, we keep our heads down and make more content.

Let’s throw the door open on that scary closet. As big as those monsters are, you may find yourself agreeing with the many content strategists who consider content inventories and audits their best friend.

I say this with confidence because I recently sent an email poll to some 50 professionals asking which content strategy tools they found most useful. The tool they cited most often is basically two tools in one – the content inventory and audit:

“The resulting knowledge enables you to deliver a more cohesive, connected content experience that drives desired business outcomes.” – Kerry Carnahan Ellis, principal content strategy consultant, Rivetto Marketing

“Without the detailed view that you get from a content inventory and audit, you can’t meet your organization’s big-picture requirements.” – Brenda Huettner, president, P-N Designs Inc.

To explore this topic in the context of marketing, I turned to Paula Land (@plland), a content strategy consultant and entrepreneur whose company, Content Insight (@content_insight), developed the Content Analysis Tool. Paula is the author of Content Audits and Inventories: A Handbook. She answered the questions below via email.

How do you define ‘content inventory’?

Paula: A content inventory is a collection of data about your content. Unlike the content audit, which is qualitative, the inventory is quantitative. It’s a comprehensive list – typically a spreadsheet – of all content assets, ideally across all content types, channels, and distribution formats.

A thorough inventory looks at digital as well as print, enabling you to evaluate across all customer touchpoints. From a marketing perspective, the content inventory enables you to operate from a position of knowledge so that you can make decisions based on data.

What data should a convent inventory include?

Paula: You decide what data to gather based on your content set, your project needs, and your goals. A typical website inventory includes data like this:

  • Location (URL)
  • Type (HTML, video, image, PDF, etc.)
  • Publication date
  • File size
  • Metadata title
  • Metadata description
  • Page title
  • H1 headings
  • Word count
  • Image alt text
  • Analytics (page views, exit rate, bounces, etc.)
  • Links in per web page
  • Links out per web page
  • Images per web page
  • Audios per web page
  • Videos per web page
  • Documents per web page

To set the stage for the audit to come, you also may want to gather custom data like this:

  • Author
  • Business owner
  • Applicable step in the customer journey
  • Applicable personas
  • Recommendation (revise, remove, retain)

How do you define ‘content audit’?

Paula: The content audit is a qualitative evaluation of the inventoried content. You assess your existing content against your customer needs and your business objectives.

Marketers are in the business of selling – products, services, ideas, brands. Content is an important tool for reaching customers and achieving business objectives. A content audit can help you understand which content prompts people to engage with your brand, which content leads them to buy or donate, which content keeps them loyal – in short, which content is performing well (and which isn’t).

Why should marketers bother with content inventories and audits?

Paula:

  1. A content audit enables you to understand your content’s strengths and weaknesses. It helps you make decisions about what to keep, what to archive, and what to make more of to help the organization reach its goals.
  1. Audits and inventories look across all channels. Marketing activities are often cross-organizational, making it even more important to have a horizontal view of all the content published. That means your printed materials, your social channels, and your website – all of it.
  1. Inventories and audits help identify inconsistent content. A cross-organizational view enables the organization to maintain a consistent message because, in a decentralized content-development environment, it’s easy for each team to lose track of what the other teams are doing. An inventory and audit that evaluates all content against the same set of goals and guidelines shows where messages are presented inconsistently.
  1. Audits help content producers know what they have so that they can make smart use of existing content in their plans. This is a great way to reduce inefficiency and conserve resources.

Consider retail stores. Why does a store need to track its inventory? To find out what’s selling, what’s not selling, and what’s the ideal mix of products for its customers.

In the same way, a content inventory allows you to monitor your assets and make smart use of them. Which topics and approaches are “selling”? Which are not? And what’s the ideal mix for your customers?

Do you look at every piece of content or a sampling?

Paula: The best way to determine whether you need to look at every piece of content or a sampling is to establish your goals and your time frame. You probably want to look at each piece of content if you’re doing something big:

  • Overhauling your website
  • Making major changes to your product or service offerings
  • Planning to enter a new global market

In these cases, at least quickly determine whether each piece of content is still relevant and accurate, and decide whether to keep it or retire it.

If you are doing a smaller-scale project, narrow your focus to the content where that change matters most, perhaps your home page, top-level entry pages, your blog, and feature-article content.

Why do a content inventory versus an audit?

Paula: It isn’t an either-or question.

In the inventory, you discover the what. In the audit, you apply your analytical and editorial perspective to figure out the why. Why does this content exist in the first place? What business or user goal was it created to achieve? Why is it not delivering on those goals?

True or false: There’s no such thing as a quick content audit.

Paula: In an ideal world, marketers would always have enough time for a broad and deep content audit, looking at every piece of content and coming up with recommendations. In reality, though, we don’t always have time to do that.

When you’re pinched for time, get lean and mean. Decide on your immediate goal. What prompted the audit in the first place? If you are experiencing lower sales or decreased site traffic, focus on the content most relevant to the customer-engagement funnel. If you are responding to a spate of negative customer feedback about a subset of your content, focus your effort there.

If you have limited time but want to address your content more broadly, look for patterns in your analytics data:

  • Pages with high traffic but low conversions
  • Pages with low traffic
  • Pages with high bounce rates

Analytics can help you find and focus on the areas where you could improve, whether that’s rewriting the content, moving it, or deleting it.

What are the biggest misconceptions?

Paula:
Misconception 1:
Inventories and audits are something you do once and are done.

Reality 1: Content teams need to create inventories and audits regularly.

Misconception 2: Inventories and audits are the sole purview of the content strategist.

Reality 2: Including a multidisciplinary group of colleagues (or clients) in your audit process provides several advantages:

Misconception 3: Creating new content is more important than evaluating existing content.

Reality 3: You have invested in your current content. Your audit tells you whether that content still fulfills its purpose. It takes less effort to update or improve content than to start from scratch.

What common mistakes do people make?

Paula: The biggest mistake is spending time gathering and analyzing information and then failing to turn the analysis into action – or failing to take the analysis far enough.

Your inventory and audit must lead to tactical plans for improving your content and addressing the issues found.

What kind of insights can an audit yield?

Paula: A good audit can help you plan future content, create an environment of ongoing monitoring, and improve your editorial guidelines and processes. Here are some possible insights:

  • Suggestions for updating your style guides and content-production workflows
  • Issues for your brand and marketing teams to address, for example, an audience that is not being reached
  • Findings related to your SEO strategies
  • Ways for your tech team to build workflows into your publishing tools to make sure that content is authored and tagged with appropriate metadata

When should marketers inventory and audit?

Paula: You should inventory and audit your content whenever a new initiative is being planned (a rollout of a new product or publication, a website redesign, an entry into a new global market). You should also inventory and audit when business issues arise (a drop in sales or an increase in customer-support calls).

Otherwise, update your inventories and audits at regular intervals to keep tabs on the effectiveness of the content. This is called a rolling audit. I recommend doing it at least once a year. If you create and update content frequently, then update your inventory and audit frequently, so that you always understand your content set.

Who should lead the audit?

Paula: Content strategists ideally lead a cross-functional team, including content developers, user-experience people, SEO team, marketing team, and support team – everyone who has a role to play in creating and managing your content and who has a stake in the outcome.

What’s your favorite inventory/audit example?

Paula: Inventories and audits can lead to some great aha moments. I have had numerous conversations with clients in which I’ve asked them how much content they think they have – and then shocked them with the actual amount. In every case, they had more than they thought they had.

If the content owners don’t realize how much content they have – if they think they have 1,000 pages when they have 5,000 – then you can bet that most of that content is not being managed and may therefore be ROT (redundant, outdated, and trivial).

It’s similarly illuminating when I ask clients who their primary audiences are, and then I show them how little of their content is suited for those important customers.

How might you determine that a website is such a mess that an audit is not worth doing?

Paula: It’s no doubt true that some sites have been neglected for so long that there’s little of value to retain. But even to assert that a site has insufficient value implies, first, that you’ve decided how to measure value to your customers and your organization, and, second, that you’ve measured that content – even if that meant nothing more than looking at your analytics and seeing that the content is useless.

If you can completely scrap your existing content – or if your business or your target audiences have changed so much that what you have is no longer relevant – then yes, maybe you can skip, or skimp on, the inventory and audit. But if you believe that your content still has value and you don’t have the resources to start over, you’ll find the effort worthwhile.

What tools do you use or recommend for inventorying and auditing content?

Paula: Machines are great at gathering data; humans are better at evaluating it.

Machines are great at gathering data; humans are better at evaluating it via @plland #contentstrategy Click To Tweet

Automating inventory tools can speed up the process of getting the necessary quantitative data in place for immediate analysis and for setting the baseline against which you’ll track and measure success.

The greatest tool for auditing, however, is you. You – informed by the data, immersed in your business context, and familiar with your customers and their needs– are uniquely suited to the task of evaluating your content and making strategic decisions accordingly.

Conclusion

Feeling less afraid of content inventories and audits? Ready to stop worrying and love the monsters? Ready, at least, to reach for the doorknob of that closet door? I hope so. Data hurts you only if you ignore it. Data helps you only if you gather it and analyze it.

As Paul Roetzer said in his talk at Content Marketing World, “Data without analysis is simply noise.”

If you take away only one thing from Paula’s insights, take this: Design your content inventories and audits – yes plural, as in ongoing – to serve your organization’s goals.

Design your content inventories and audits to serve your organization’s goals via @plland #contentstrategy Click To Tweet

The more thoughtfully and strategically you consider the data you need to collect and analyze, using machines to do what they do best (crunch numbers) and using humans to do what they do best (assess qualitative factors), the more useful your inventories and audits will be.

What’s your biggest takeaway from inventorying and auditing content yourself? Please let us know in a comment.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Marcia Riefer Johnston

Marcia Riefer Johnston is the author of Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them) and You Can Say That Again: 750 Redundant Phrases to Think Twice About. As a member of the CMI team, she serves as Managing Editor of Content Strategy. She has run a technical-writing business for … a long time. She taught technical writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University and studied literature and creative writing in the Syracuse University Masters program under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @MarciaRJohnston. For more, see Writing.Rocks.

Other posts by Marcia Riefer Johnston

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  • Sarah L

    I’m just starting a content inventory and audit now for a website design. This article is full of great advice and perspective. Thank you

    • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Sarah, Thanks for taking time to comment. I agree about the great advice and perspective. Paula Land is a treasure. I’m glad that this article reached you at the right time for your own inventory and audit. I’d love to hear from you when you’ve completed it—what benefits come from it, what lessons you learn, etc. Your experience could make an instructive follow-up story. Would you be interested in sharing it?

  • Josh Agusti

    Hi Marcia,

    This is a great read, thank you. I especially like the “Why should marketers bother with content inventories and audits?” section as it really highlights purpose and encourages intelligent content creation. In my experience, and I completely agree with your point, content audits are a tedious process and can be extremely time consuming. But, nevertheless, are necessary. A terrific tool I have been using over the last year that has really cut down the time it takes to do content audits is DYNO Mapper (http://www.dynomapper.com). Input your URL into the system and it will scan thousands of pages on your website showing broken links, metadata, keyword ranking, and even has Google Analytics integration. It has truly changed the way I view the content audit process. Hope this helps!

    • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Hi, Josh. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Finding a tool that automates the inventory process can make a big difference.

  • Thierri Jeff Sanoy

    Hi Marcia,

    This is a great read. Creating content is one piece of the puzzle. Putting a number on it and tying it in the business is as important. I like how you shed light on when to conduct audits and the emphasis on having one interim business growths. Thank you for sharing this.

    • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Thanks for the note, Thierri. I’m glad that you found this piece useful. I’ve learned a lot from Paula.