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How to dig out of content debt

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Does your site contain articles from decades ago? Can you still find a bio for the CEO who left four years ago? Overlooked legacy content can create more business issues than you might think. Whether it’s outdated pages, disorganized site structure, broken links or bloated images, it all adds up to what’s known as content debt. Find out how to streamline your site with active content management and get your business clear of the costs that come with carrying too much content debt.

Like any financial portfolio, digital properties need to be regularly monitored and maintained for maximum value. Too much neglect leads to content debt, which can inflate costs, detract from your audience's experience and even add to your organization's water and carbon footprint.

Eradicating content debt—and preventing it in the first place—requires active content management, which is a lot easier with the right content management system (CMS). This issue is especially important to look at when you're considering any major change to your digital properties, whether it's a site redesign, a platform update or a restructuring. But tackling content debt is also relevant right now and every day, regardless of where you are in the process of building digital experiences.

We think carefully about the content we create and try not to produce pieces of content that are just essentially single-use. We want longer-term value.
Stephen Zorio, editor for Amazon Science
Stephen Zorio, editor for Amazon Science

What is content debt?

Content debt refers to every digital asset that your company is hosting without deriving value from that asset. Redundant articles, duplicate images, mislabeled videos, expired campaigns, old or outdated blog posts, needlessly large file sizes, buried documentation, undiscoverable archives of content… all of these are examples of what content debt looks like on a website.

It's not surprising that many organizations find themselves carrying content debt. Team after team spent the last two decades establishing an internet presence and adapting that presence to serve different audiences and channels over the years. The good news? Today, you might well be sitting on quite a robust ecosystem of content. The not-so-good news? Only a fraction of it might be delivering any return on investment.

Accordingly, among a panel of industry experts that we convened last year from the worlds of editorial, digital product and marketing, content debt emerged as a top content trend to watch.

Why is content debt a problem?

The more you accrue content debt, the more likely your organization is to experience consequences across a wide range of important measures, from lead conversion to workplace satisfaction. Here are a few ways content debt can hurt your brand and your business:

  • Confused, frustrated visitors. A slow homepage. Broken links. Hard-to-find resources. These and other artifacts of content debt make audiences turn away.
  • Search irrelevance. Are people landing on the right content for the right keywords? If you've amassed a bunch of disorganized and poorly labeled content, chances are, the answer is no.
  • Ineffective teams. Without active content management, staff tend to duplicate effort or spend too much time wading through assets to find what they need. Valuable assets that can be repurposed across channels get lost.
  • Higher costs. Aside from losses in productivity and audience engagement, an overly heavy site may leave you paying for cloud services and storage that you don't need.
  • Compliance issues. Without a mechanism for vetting content regularly and pulling expired assets, you run the risk of violating licensing agreements.
  • A negative ESG effect. Inefficient content management adds to your water and carbon footprint over the long term, given the energy and water needed to power and cool the servers that host your content. It can create accessibility barriers for audiences with slower connectivity and those who are visually or hearing impaired. It may also hinder efforts to surface important legal and sustainability statements. Content debt compromises your environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategy across the board.

What to do about content debt

Whether you are in the midst of a site overhaul or simply looking for better ways to manage the site you have, consider these ways to prevent content debt, improve website efficiency and take a more active content management approach.
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Conduct a content audit
Build a comprehensive picture of the content you have and how audiences are engaging with it. Once you have an idea of which pieces are succeeding and which ones are nothing more than dead weight, you can decide how to prioritize cleaning up and optimizing your site. Learn more about what you can expect to get out of this process and the four main components of a quality content audit here.
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Evaluate your CMS
In a survey Brightspot commissioned from Forrester Consulting, four out of 10 professionals across digital marketing were dissatisfied with key aspects of their CMS's performance, including scalability and the ability to manage multiple technology systems. Informed by your content audit, determine whether your CMS has the features you need to manage all of your assets efficiently—and whether you're using them effectively. Can you easily preview and revise content? What about assigning and assessing metadata? Can you automatically sunset time-sensitive campaigns or licensed pieces? Are your teams able to collaborate and manage documentation libraries, if needed? These and other aspects of a modern CMS can make preventing content debt seamless.
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Cultivate active content management
Create a strategy for how you produce and manage content, including multimedia assets. What are your metrics for success, and how will each piece of content contribute to those metrics? Assign clear responsibilities across teams. Decide how and when you will evaluate content goals. But most importantly, see content for what it is: an investment. "We think carefully about the content we create and try not to produce pieces of content that are just essentially single-use," said Stephen Zorio, editor for Amazon Science, in a Brightspot-hosted webinar on content trends. "We want longer-term value."
Cropped shot of two young businessmen working together on a laptop in their office late at night

Content debt: A recap

What is content debt?

Content debt relates to all the digital assets that exist in your digital footprint that are costing your business instead of delivering active value. Outdated articles, pages that have outlasted their intended use, broken images or links, poor site pathing or journeys that lead users to dead end or useless content—it all adds up to what's called content debt. The costs could come from poor user experience, inaccuracies or misinformation that affect your brand, or even the expense of taking up server space and capacity that costs cents and eventually dollars over time.

Why is content debt a problem?

The more you accrue content debt, the more likely your organization is to experience consequences across a wide range of important measures, from lead conversion to customer dissatisfaction to site performance issues. At a macro level, content that's wasting space or affecting the user experience could negatively impact your brand online. It also costs money to host as well as disproportionately impacts communities with slower connectivity but who still need access to accurate and performant digital information.

How to address content debt?

The solution to content debt is to take a more active role with your content management. This includes auditing and improving your existing content pages and assets. Better site hygiene equals better site experiences. Modern content management systems come with a variety of tools to update, manage and monitor large libraries of digital content to ensure your content "credit score" stays healthy and as high as possible.


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