What is Content Debt and How do I Avoid it?

03-24-21 Kaitlyn Nielsen

Sites with a lot of content are at risk for content debt. Learn what content debt is and how to manage your blog to avoid it.

Here at Sparkbox, we have been publishing consistently on our blog, The Foundry, since January of 2011. Our team has grown to nearly 50 people, which also means that we have increasing amounts of content being published. This archive of shared knowledge is the culmination of multiple voices, perspectives, topics, and styles.

The Foundry has over 650 posts as of November 2020.

Yes, you read that right. Over 650 posts—trust me and don’t take the time to count them. For the majority of The Foundry’s life, these posts have been initially edited and posted but never touched again. They’ve just lived out there for everyone to see—errors and all. Almost two years ago, Sparkbox hired additional support for our Communications Team (made up of me and Naomi to tackle a variety of projects—including this content debt that has built up.

Wait, Content Debt?

If you are in the web industry, you have probably heard of the term technical debt? Well, the same principle also applies to content.

Content debt is the cost of rework associated with initially choosing an easy content solution rather than a more complicated process that focuses on longevity and a content updating strategy. Content debt can develop from producing duplicate content, creating low-quality content, letting content get old without updates, or publishing irrelevant content.

This term has been slowly gaining attention as it becomes more frequently used and adopted by more organizations. There are many articles on how content debt affects you and how to prevent content debt.

How to Avoid Content Debt

The good news is there are steps you can take to actively avoid content debt in the first place.

Focus on Writing Evergreen Content

Evergreen content is about a topic that has consistent interest over time. This type of content does not go out of date, which makes it easier to manage in the long-run. Writing this type of content does not work for all content creators (if you write about cutting-edge tech, it likely won’t have consistent interest in the future), so make sure to think through what kinds of topics would work best for you.

Have a clear system for publishing and updating content

This might seem very obvious, but it’s not always easy to implement—especially if you are managing a site with a lot of content (like Sparkbox). For publishing new content, your organization should create a standard, including a style guide and brand voice guidelines, to ensure consistency in all content and styles—although freedom should be given to the author to share their voice where appropriate. To update existing content, you should create a strategy to routinely audit what’s on your site and determine what may need adjustments.

Remember, it’s ok to say goodbye to old content.

This can be the hardest part. Some content is so old or irrelevant that you have to be comfortable deleting or significantly altering it. However, as the one making those decisions, it is important that you contact the author and make the decision with them on what to do. Remember, these authors spent time writing and creating something, so make sure to practice empathy when discussing deleting content with authors.

So how do I know if I am in content debt?

You could have gotten into content debt for various reasons, but here are three questions to ask yourself that can indicate if you are already in content debt.

Do you have a writing standard for new content?

Creating content is great and necessary on a website, especially if there is a blog. But be aware that different people naturally use different voices when they write. Here, we have approximately 50 individuals contributing articles to The Foundry each year—talk about a variety of voices! Although authors get freedom in many ways to still sound like themselves, they also need to reflect the voice and values of the organization: otherwise conflicting messages or voices could be harming your organization’s authority and branding.

Does someone have ownership over updating old content?

If you cannot easily identify who is responsible for updating your site’s content, you might be acquiring content debt. Updating old content is just as important as publishing new content. On The Foundry, we have a lot of articles about specific technologies that have changed over time. This kind of content can become outdated or irrelevant, hurting your organization’s authority. Time-sensitive content especially needs someone regularly assessing and working to update it.

If a potential new client saw this, would you be embarrassed?

This question is the most important when thinking about content debt. We know that some clients learn about Sparkbox from reading our blog, so keeping outdated content can be misleading to new readers. It does not represent our employees as the web experts they are, and it harms Sparkbox’s authority.

If you answered yes to any of these questions above, you are probably already in content debt.

What if I am Already in Content Debt?

Stay tuned to The Foundry! I will be sharing how we are addressing our content debt on our blog and the steps we are taking to update our content.