How to Avoid Overwhelming Your Client
For nine weeks we’ve been working on a project with the marketing team of a large organization, developing a content strategy. This project is ghost work, which means we’re part of an agency team that is rebranding a client and developing its new website. As part of the content strategy, we’ve audited thousands of this client’s existing content pages to help them determine what needs to be migrated to the new site as-is, what needs to be revised, and what needs to be archived.
Content Migration Process
This process is usually clear for the client: using our content audit suggestions, they make decisions on each page of content to ensure alignment with their new or revised editorial priorities before migrating it to the new site. There are three possible decisions for each piece of content: migrate the content as-is, revise/repurpose, or archive. Though this sounds simple, it’s usually not about the ease of the task. It’s the necessary time and effort – or a lack of instructional clarity – that gets in the way.
Off to a good start
The agency we’re working with did a phenomenal job scoping the project and executing the discovery phase. This is a solid, mature agency with years of experience and expertise and with an amazing client base. They know what they are doing. Because of their reputation and history, the client has faith in their work and trusts their leadership. Our team was brought on months after project kick-off, and all the signs indicated that this project was being executed and managed perfectly. Additionally, the well-documented communications between the agency and client were consistent and detailed.
Something wasn’t right
Our team was involved for almost two months and there were several subtle signs the client did not fully understand their responsibilities for the content migration step. We’d given them a lot of data, including the content audit findings, and we used some unfamiliar terminology, like taxonomy. One technique I use to gauge whether a client really understands a process is to ask open-ended questions regarding their role within the process, and then I paraphrase their response to confirm comprehension. I did this a few times with the client, but my paraphrasing led them to ask more questions, or give the response: “I’m confused.”
I quietly sounded the alarm with the agency’s business leads, suggesting a working session with the client on how to organize content to prepare for its migration. We created two samples to visually represent how the existing content could be organized. The intent was to give the client small pieces of information presented visually rather than one dense document. The agency arranged the session, and I presented our sample plan for organizing content and the step-by-step process of content migration. Our scheduled one-hour meeting lasted more than two.
Where did we go wrong explaining?
At the meeting, it was clear this was the first time the client realized the quantity of work they had to complete as part of the website redesign. Rather than helping explain, I left thinking that I had overwhelmed the client with the process and tasks that lay ahead. I told my team that it wouldn’t be a surprise if the client just instructed us to migrate all content as-is and they would deal with refreshing or aligning to the editorial pillars at a later date. In other words, it would never happen. I took this personally. If the client doesn’t succeed, I failed. Driving back to my office, I reflected on the meeting— specifically, the stupid things I said and the insights I neglected to share with the client during the meeting.
When we agreed to take on this project, the project manager and I reviewed their ambitious timeline. Having been through this type of work many times, I knew our work on content migration could create a bottleneck, because the actual migration was out of our control. In other words, we could only support the client so far, but then they needed to review all the existing content and decide on its status-migrate, revise, repurpose or archive. And two months in here we were: our project timeline was in jeopardy. Plus, I may have unintentionally demotivated the client by making clear the tasks to be done – and although the magnitude of the task should have already been clear before that, it obviously wasn’t. On top of that, we had already put in more hours than we originally anticipated. However, if we could help the client over this hurdle, I was confident that the rest of the process would be easier for them. I also knew that this organization had a lot of valuable information and research, and a well-built content system would enable them to share it with the world.
We were faced with an enormous challenge and we needed to come up with a strategy.
The client underestimated their time and effort on this project
None of what was happening with this client was surprising. We’ve been on many projects that were similar in scope and, after a few weeks or so, pattern recognition kicks in and it becomes clear that the client underestimated the effort they needed to commit to complete the project.
My top concern (at the moment) was that content migration, even though it would be the most labor-intensive task for the client, was just one piece of the process.
Diagnosing the Issues
Reflecting on my meeting notes from my one-on-one with the client, I was able to determine five issues that needed to be addressed.
The overall issue was the client did not fully understand what they would need to do as part of the rebranding and web redesign. I went back to the discovery deliverables, which included amazing presentations, slides, and documents. The agency did incredible work researching and presenting the necessary information, including the process. For the client, it may have been (1) too much information at (2) a high level which led to (3) cognitive overload. In cases like this, the client’s command of the task shuts down and the client incorrectly assumes that the agency will handle everything because, they may have the impression that that’s what the agency was brought in to do.
Additionally, this client pointed out more than once that they were a (4) small team and this project is (5) one of many they are working on.
I should also note that up until this point in the process, the client was mostly reviewing documents and mock-ups that were prepared by the agency. In other words, previous deliverables required review, comments, and approval. But this deliverable required the client to do work. A lot of work. Reviewing, and possibly revising, thousands of existing pages of content is a slow, deliberate, and some might even say painful process. There is no other way of reframing this necessary task. Of course, one can always take the easy short road and migrate existing content without ensuring alignment with new or revised editorial priorities, but that would be the wrong approach.
Potential corrective actions
Now that I had five issues clearly articulated, I needed to draft some ideas to share with the agency so we could collaborate on developing corrective actions. This is where things can get dicey. The goal is to agree upon the issues and then brainstorm solutions. It’s not an opportunity to place blame or defend previously made decisions.
(1) Too much information – Potential corrective action: Present ideas and approaches visually.
Our brains can process and retain information more effectively if it is visual and in smaller chunks. For example, rather than sending a detailed site map on a spreadsheet, it would be easier for the client to review it as content clusters or a flow chart. Visual representation works best.
Jargon can also fall into the TMI category because it may be new vocabulary the client has to learn. So, we should simplify things.
Recap of steps taken:
- We made the process itself more visual by using a graphical representation of the content arranged by topics (content clusters) rather than a very lengthy detailed site map
- We substituted jargon for more common terms (e.g. audit = assessment, taxonomy = categories/subcategories, tags and metadata) whenever possible.
(2) High-level information – Potential corrective action: Give smaller chunks of information or single-servings of tasks with clear steps rather than showing the entire process.
Of course, we all need to look out the airplane window to view the whole picture from time to time. However, sometimes it’s better if we only have that view at the beginning of the journey to see where we’re going (orientation) and again at the end to see where we’ve been (reflection/lessons learned). That big picture can sometimes be an anxiety-inducing distraction.
In terms of content, the two steps we needed the client to take were (1) content migration and then, once that was completed, (2) implement the content strategy for new material. We placed the latter, new content creation, aside to focus the client on dealing with the existing content.
Here, the first task in order to move forward was to lock the content clusters. Accomplishing this was straightforward, especially since content clusters are organized as topics that represent the answers to our personas’ questions. This project had twelve personas and I needed to show the client that this task was achievable. To do this, I asked the client to brainstorm one specific cluster. The client instantly listed question after question that would be addressed within the cluster. That simple request and their quick responses served two purposes: it showed them that they can quickly complete this step and it instilled confidence. They fully understood their personas and the information those personas needed. By using questions within the clusters, it made it easier for them to understand the process. They could see how the existing content would work in the redesigned site.
Once they locked the content clusters, we could show where existing content would go and build out the detailed site map. The second task within content migration was to have them determine if each piece of existing content would be migrated as-is, refreshed, or archived. To help the client visualize what this process looked like, we decided to create a document showing them step-by-step screenshots of how to accomplish this. This visual approach requires minimal use of text. This visualization was similar to how we addressed our first issue. There, the corrective action to counter too much information was to present ideas or approaches visually. Here I am suggesting presenting steps within task as a visualization.
Once we supported the client through the first steps of content migration, they would be ready to handle content strategy.
Recap of steps taken:
- We only focused on a single task at a time. We would only explain where it fit in the process if asked.
- We created support materials to visually break down each step of a task using screenshots. We had the client work through some of the task while we were present to provide feedback. This increased the client’s understanding and confidence.
(3) Cognitive Overload – Potential corrective action: The steps above addressed this; however, there was something else we considered. Instead of working with the client’s entire marketing team, what if we were to spend some time working with one or two individuals on the more focused tasks and time intensive prep work?
For example, there was one individual who understood what the marketing director needed, the marketing team’s capacities, and the existing content. If we worked with him/her prior to working with the entire team, it could make the process and our time with the marketing director more efficient. I envisioned a sort of one-on-one focus group. I could explain a task, show the process, test the process, and make modifications to how I explain it or the process itself. Once my liaison or early adapter understood what needed to be done and how, he/she could then support the marketing director and the rest of the team in our absence.
Ultimately, for this project we decided this would be a challenge to implement because of the client’s internal organizational structure.
Recap of steps taken:
- We considered an approach that wouldn’t fit this situation but might work in others.
- We realized the cognitive overload was a result of both too much information being given in general and too much high-level information being given at once. By addressing those strategy errors, we would reduce anxiety and help people focus on the one important task in front of them.
(4) The marketing team is small team and (5) is spread across many projects
As to this issue, the size of the team and its workload were mostly out of our control, although both factors impacted our work and needed to be considered. There are two ways to mitigate some of the risk associated with working with a client that has limited resources which are spread thin.
The first step is my odd way of qualifying clients before we take on their project. I basically try to talk them out of doing the project. In other words, before we agree to work with a client, I make it clear that developing a content strategy is a collaborative process with a lot of variables which makes people uncomfortable and, at times, requires a lot of effort to accomplish certain tasks. It’s the intersection of a client’s institutional knowledge and evidence-based content strategy. I then provide a high-level overview of the entire process and leave the client for a day or so to think about moving forward. They usually call us back stating that they thought through the process and identified ways they can see it through to completion. Sometimes, they even share with us how they will get things done which is a clear indicator that they understand the time and effort that will be required.
It is easy for a client to underestimate the time and effort something might take especially one that is already moving at a fast pace with a small staff juggling multiple projects. For this project, we were brought on months after discovery phase, and as I said when I started out, it became apparent as we moved along that this type of early in-depth overview and feedback from the client may have yielded different results.
The second step is to provide an orientation before you start the project. An orientation presents the client with a map to the process and helps frames the proper mindset. Even though these two components are important, it’s making sure the client has the correct mindset that’s critical.
The orientation shows all the steps the client will have to undertake to develop, implement, and manage a content strategy. Again, this is a high-level view of the process that briefly explains each step and the purpose of each step. I recently learned that including the estimated level of effort at each step is also helpful. Presenting a process overview like this is standard and expected, but I suggest kicking off your client orientation by changing the way they view their work. This is where you frame the correct mindset. It doesn’t matter what product or service your client is selling. At the start of every orientation, I make the following statement, “Today you are a media organization and content is your product. “This bold statement is clear and transformational. If my client truly wants to use content to attract and grow an audience, this is the proper mindset. My goal with this statement is to get people to think and act like a content producing media organization.
Attracting and growing an engaged audience is accomplished by seeing content as an asset. This is where the client needs to align with producing and sharing authentic, original content that educates, inspires, and engages rather than producing marketing collateral. This shift will help clients achieve their business goals.
What I detailed here sounds simple, but with every project I struggle when it comes to on-boarding clients. I am constantly facing new challenges – limited resources, internal politics, and fixed mindsets – but, what keeps me motivated is discovering new solutions.