Have you ever examined how your company creates, publishes and distributes all the content that goes into selling and servicing your products? Chances are, it’s a pretty complex process, especially if you’re a large organisation. And if your content development system is inefficient, it could be negatively impacting your employees’ productivity and the return on investment on your content.
Symptoms of an inefficient content development system include silos between departments that create content. It also includes outdated practices such as crafting content for one output channel at a time. Not only are these methods unscalable, they also contribute to a waste of time and money.
Does any of this sound familiar? If your answer is yes, you’re not alone. In fact, it’s very easy to fall into the pitfalls of inefficient content workflows, as I’ve learned through my Content Strategy master’s program.
As part of the program, my colleagues simulated what it’s like to develop content for complex environments. They were split into 8 “departments.” Each department had to create one content type for a product — covering everything from marketing content, to user guides, user interface strings and chat bot scripts. And at the end of the project, all of the content had to be merged for reuse across multiple outputs.
To better understand the challenges my colleagues faced, I conducted a survey that uncovered a handful of prominent themes. Needless to say, this was not an easy project to accomplish:
- Around 63% of the students rated the task “difficult” to “very difficult”.
- Of those students, roughly half said their biggest challenge was not knowing exactly what they needed to do. The other half cited collaboration as their biggest challenge.
- There appeared to be a link between how difficult the task was and how much the departments needed to align when creating the content.
- For example, a student from the “technical content” department said they were “dealing with hard facts [so] communication with other teams was quite easy.”
- 82% of the students said they later discovered that there was a mismatch between their understanding of the task and what it really entailed.
- For example, one student said: “That it is not enough to create these parts yourself, but that you also have to adhere to certain specifications and guidelines. And these must then also still coordinate with other groups.”
- Another student explained: “Our team struggled with defining the 5 content pieces, because of the interdependence with the other teams. We defined some topics as the other teams did not yet come up with their topics. When they did, we adjusted our content pieces. So, the coordination was the main factor required. This also included the elaboration of the styleguide, which took some time”.
- When asked what their key takeaway was, most of the students listed communication and alignment as being crucial for this type of project to work, especially at the very beginning.
What makes content development so complex?
This experiment revealed just how difficult it can be to simultaneously develop content across multiple departments.
Firstly, you need to ensure everyone knows what everyone else is doing and how each department’s work may impact the others’. Secondly, you need to manage deadlines and deliverables. And thirdly, you need to assign owners for output to be streamlined and coordinated.
So clearly, there’s a significant project management component to developing content for complex environments.
Then there’s the content itself. In a complex environment, you’re probably dealing with different content genres being produced by different departments, with different outputs. And to get it right, the content needs to be consistent, factual and relevant. It also needs to sound like it comes from the same organisation. After all, your customer does not know (or care) that department A created one piece of content, while department B created another.
From a business perspective, content production should be as efficient and effective as possible. This means it should be easy to manage, update and reuse if needed.
In this article, I provide a high-level approach to developing content for complex environments. Content project management and governance are large topics for another piece.
Cue intelligent content
Imagine launching a marketing campaign and only needing to create one piece of content that can be adapted to each of your channels and platforms. Or developing content that you can readily reuse across your product pages, user guides and frequently asked questions section. This is intelligent content.
Content strategy expert Ann Rockley explains that:
“Intelligent content is designed to be modular, structured, reusable, format free and semantically rich, and as a consequence, discoverable, reconfigurable, and adaptable.”
Rockley’s definition covers several characteristics of intelligent content. To understand what intelligent content is, let’s examine each of these characteristics in more detail.
The characteristics and benefits of intelligent content
Structured, semantically rich and discoverable
If you’ve created content, you’re familiar with some of the most common tags we use to give a document structure:
<h1>content</h1> a heading 1 on a page.
<p>content</p> a paragraph.
<ul>content</ul> an unordered list…
…and so on.
But how do you give this content meaning so that machines can understand what is in an h1 versus what’s in a paragraph? Intelligent content makes this possible by providing more specific tagging and semantic categorisation.
By adding specific metadata to your tags, you ensure the content is easy to find. Metadata gives the information meaning and enables machines to process the content with more specificity:
<h1> does not mean much to a computer.
However, the semantic tagging <productListing title=“ProductName”> provides additional information.
By giving the content more structure and meaning: <Heading=”ProductName”>, the software system now has more information to find the content.
Intelligent content is also discoverable even under different contexts.
Try a google search for “pizza”. The majority of your search results will most likely cover places where you can eat pizza. But when you choose the “shopping” tab, you start to see listings of products for making pizza such as pizza ovens or trays.
The same search yields different results depending on what you are looking for. This is an example of intelligent content in action, because thanks to semantic metadata, Google is able to understand what your request means depending on the context.
Modular and reusable
For content to be efficient, it needs to be easy to repurpose and deliver across multiple channels. Intelligent content must be reusable.
Think of the last time you created content for a product page. You probably had different content pieces like facts, figures, product descriptions, images and user interface strings. Would you be able to reuse each of these items without additional work?
Modular content enables you to do just that. Modular content comprises small chunks or components of independent, self-contained information. You can use the various content components you develop as building blocks to create different bodies of content as needed.
One of the biggest advantages of working with modular content is that it is reusable, meaning that you end up saving time and money, especially when it comes to translations.
Format free and reconfigurable
If you shop online, chances are you’ve come across the same product being sold on more than one platform. But each platform typically has its own look and feel.
So how do you ensure that the content you deliver to multiple platforms can be displayed according to the platforms’ display standards?
Intelligent content is reconfigurable because it is not bound by format. In fact, formatting is entirely separate from the content and is only applied at the output level. So things like font size, colour and spacing are not part of the content, making it easy to reconfigure.
Intelligent content can be adapted to the medium where it is being shown. So if you publish articles that your audiences can read on a desktop browser as well as on mobile, the content should adapt accordingly. You might see the entire article on desktop, but just a snippet or summary with progressive disclosure on mobile. Adaptability is a very important aspect of intelligent content, because it means you do not have to manually create content for each channel or platform.
Making your content intelligent
There are several techniques you can apply to optimise your content. In addition to adding structure and making your content semantically rich as discussed before, try using editorial techniques to increase your content’s reusability and scalability.
1 — Develop a style guide that your content creators can use to reflect consistent tone and voice, terminology and editorial standards. A style guide acts as a source of truth for everything from your brand’s tone and voice, to your standards for writing, formatting and designing your content. If adhered to, style guides ensure that your content is consistent across all your platforms and channels, regardless of which department created the content.
2 — Use plain language to craft modular content. Plain language removes the rigidity and complexity that makes it difficult to break up your body of content into smaller chunks that can be reused across several channels. Plain language is also easier to translate and localise, making your content more scalable.
- Write short sentences with simple structures. Be straight to the point and make sure each sentence is focused on one message.
- Avoid using jargon and idioms because they might mean different things to different people. Besides, jargon and idioms can make translation and localisation more difficult.
- Use active voice to make your message clearer.
Content is often one of the last pieces of the product development puzzle to be considered. Perhaps that is why so many large organisations have outdated, inefficient, inflexible content development methods and workflows. But if you do the maths, you will quickly start to see just how much these inefficiencies could be costing you on a day-to-day basis.
When content is reusable, adaptable, reconfigurable and easy to find, it becomes a lot easier to create, manage and deliver. This saves you time and money and reduces the complexity of creating content across multiple departments.
Intelligent content also allows you to delight your users. Think of all the seamless user experiences you could create if your content was consistent, discoverable and adaptable to any channel or platform within your ecosystem.
Note: I’d like to give a huge thanks to my instructor Rahel Anne Bailie for the wealth of knowledge on intelligent content, which I heavily drew from for this article.
Rockley, Cooper, and Abel, Intelligent content
Rahel Anne Bailie, “Developing content for complex environments session 1”