Editor’s note: This article was originally published October 10, 2003.

At one time or another, every Web developer has been in a production meeting and heard this: “We’re waiting on copy from the client.” In my experience, text, or lack thereof, has consistently been the number one reason for delayed site launches and late deployments.

Despite best intentions and the fact that site structure is one of the first steps in the development process, text always seems to lag. Structure is critical to a Web site, but, without content, it’s just an empty shell.

Why do clients drag their feet on copy? Learn why text is a problem and what you can do to solve it.

The problem with text

The first step in dealing with this issue is to understand some of the underlying reasons why text is always a hang up. A number of aspects make text a particularly dicey part of the Web development equation.

If a company is going through a rebranding or communications/marketing exercise (which a Web development project ultimately is), the company will be rethinking its positioning, marketing, and message. This takes time, and all the resulting copy is subject to multiple opinions and layers of approval.

Then, of course, there’s the issue that text is, well, text. Everyone thinks he or she knows how to write. Clients may not know how to design or code, but many nonwriter types are willing to jump into the fray and commit to creating text for their Web projects. Sometimes it works, but mostly it’s just another time-consuming issue for the client to deal with.

If your project champion at the client is an MIS or other technical type, this person has to get approval and text from marketing or corporate communications, which adds time as well.

I once worked at an agency where the principal would go into a tirade usually every second or third production meeting about why it takes so long to get text. He came from the newspaper world, where deadlines are real, and things are done on time, or they’re just not done. With many clients, there is not always that sense of deadline urgency and that contributes to delays in getting text, too.

Strategies to get text sooner

Getting sites planned and built as efficiently as possible is a goal of all Web developers, and you can use a number of strategies to expedite the text part of the process. Consider the situation, the underlying reasons for the delay, and the personalities of the people involved before selecting a tactic (or combination of tactics) to use.

Create a content brief at the start of the project

As part of the initial project start-up, prepare a content brief that includes a summary description of the content that is to be included with each page. Have your client sign off and approve the brief before design concepts are presented. You can use the material in the brief as a placeholder until the actual content is fleshed out.

Do a content inventory to identify reusable elements
Work with your client to compile a content inventory. Identify all the content currently available in all of its forms (print, video, Web, etc.) and determine what can be used on the site, instead of developing something new. Many clients are surprised at the volume of legacy materials that are available to them.

Content can and should be reused where appropriate. A term I’ve often used with clients is “Webify” — or make existing content Web ready, in terms of tone, style, and length.

Write it yourself

You’re not a writer, but you can contract one as part of the project plan and include in your total estimate the cost to complete the required writing. When you have more control of the process (and the writer), you can move things along a lot faster — especially if you tell your clients that they’re being billed hourly.

Link copy to the production schedule and the payment schedule

Include the completion of copy as a critical predecessor milestone item on your project plan. If you can, work out a progressive billing plan so that if the client provides materials on time, your price is slightly discounted. (You can work this into your original cost equation.) If materials are delayed, cost increases. There’s nothing like money to motivate a client to get copy delivered faster.

Create “Under Construction” pages

This is a bit of a cop out, but it is an option in a pinch. If your client just can’t get it together, for whatever reason, you can always create a placeholder page. I don’t like them, and there was a time when I strongly opposed them, but some clients never get it together.

Remind your client that Web content is easily and quickly changed

Some clients need a gentle reminder that the Web is not print. Site copy is not etched in stone, and it can be changed after launch and any time after that.

Manage your clients wisely to get text on time

Text doesn’t have to be the reason for a project delay. Keep on top of it from the very beginning and be sure to talk to your client about the importance of timely delivery. Getting text is as much about client management as anything else. Understand their issues and help the clients meet your deadlines.

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