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April 13, 2015

Content strategy: What’s your exit strategy?

You’ve probably heard the announcement countless times: “Please locate the nearest emergency exit.” Chances are you ignore these exits most of the time, but you feel safer knowing they’re there. You wouldn’t go to a restaurant or movie theater or travel on public transportation that didn’t have an emergency exit—so why would you develop a content strategy without one?

In a recent blog post, Alan Pringle brought up the the importance of having an exit strategy, and I wanted to expand on that idea. Without a plan for what to do if your implementation doesn’t go as expected, your company could face tremendous costs—in terms of both time and money—trying to move on to a system that works.

We’ve had some organizations come to us for help when they ended up stranded without an escape. This tends to happen as a result of some common content strategy mistakes:

Exit strategy plus extra legroom. flickr: Kevin Jaako

Exit strategy plus extra legroom.
(flickr: Kevin Jaako)

  • Choosing the wrong tool for the job. It can be difficult to resist trying out that shiny new tool that claims to do it all. Maybe you think it will provide a simple, all-encompassing solution to your content creation problems. Maybe your time for implementation is limited, so you don’t dig any deeper to make sure this tool really is the best choice. It’s not until after you’ve installed and begun using it that you realize it doesn’t serve your needs, after all. Now, you need to find another solution that will work—and, in some cases, deal with the painful process of extracting your content from your new tool.
  • Making hasty decisions. Your manager has agreed to help your department produce content more efficiently, but you only have a few weeks before you’ll lose your funding. With the deadline looming, you can’t stop and think about an exit strategy when you come up with a plan to move to a new system. Then, after you start trying to create new content—and after you’ve blown your budget—you discover that the new workflow actually has more problems than the old one, and you need a way out.
  • Not customizing your strategy to your needs. It’s good to pay attention to industry trends, but before you decide to follow along with them, you need to consider the issues your company is facing. Maybe you notice that all of your competitors are migrating to a certain content management system or using a new tool with great success. Before you jump on the bandwagon, do enough research to determine whether this is really the right solution for you. Remember that every company is unique, and if you measure your business by others’ standards, you may end up making a decision you regret.

While you should always have an exit strategy in place, you can reduce your chances of having to use it by being more careful in your content strategy planning:

  • Put your requirements first. Instead of buying a new tool and hoping it will solve everything, identify your current issues, needs, and goals and then choose your tool(s). Tool selection should be the last step in your equation, not the first. Keep in mind that you may need a combination of tools or services that provide your optimal workflow, rather than a single “fix-all” tool.
  • Think about the long term. A “quick fix” solution may help you in the short term, but if it doesn’t address the root of your problems, it won’t be sustainable. If you don’t solve the larger issue, you’ll be more likely to need an emergency exit in a few years (or even months). Your short-term solution could even fail altogether.
That didn't go so well—I'm outta here! flickr: Lord Jim

That didn’t go so well—I’m outta here!
(flickr: Lord Jim)

Exit strategies aren’t just helpful for dealing with the fallout of an implementation gone awry—they’re also a vital part of planning for your company’s future. Your content production process may need to scale up if your company grows larger or expands to serve an international audience. You may have to adapt your process to a company buyout or new management structure. Whether your company goes through major changes or not, you can always count on advances in technology affecting content development. In any of these situations, you’ll eventually need a way out of your old system, and planning for that in advance will help things go more smoothly when it happens.

Here are a few exit strategies you can put in place:

  • Keep your content in a standard format. Avoiding proprietary formats and sticking to standard ones (such as XML) will help ensure that your content is still usable in the event of a company buyout or major technology overhaul. It also means that you can transfer your content from one authoring tool or content management system to another without a painful, expensive conversion process. Along those lines…
  • Choose tools you can get out of easily. When evaluating tool choices, eliminate any that would be difficult to change if you realize they don’t work as well as you’d hoped. Watch out for strict file format requirements, workflow issues, or contractual obligations.
  • Try a pilot project. Instead of jumping headfirst into implementing your new content strategy, use a representative subset of your content to test things out on a small scale. That way, you can get a better idea of what works well and what needs changing before you make the full switch to a new system.

Even the best content strategies can end in failure. No matter how well your plan may be tailored to your needs, you could run into all sorts of unexpected roadblocks when you try to put it in place—change resistance, learning curve, or budget cuts, just to name a few. Before you implement a new system, you need to account for what could go wrong, and be prepared for what you will do if that happens. Don’t forget to build in those emergency exits. Otherwise, you could find yourself stuck in a system you can’t get out of.