Content Maintenance: A Framework

What happens to content after its publication seems to vary widely.  Content maintenance is not considered exciting — and is often overlooked.  Even the term content maintenance has no commonly accepted definition. Despite its lowly status and fuzzy profile, content maintenance is a many sided and fundamental activity.  I want to explore what content maintenance can involve, and how to prioritize its different aspects.

An Inconspicuous Activity

Many diagrams showing the content lifecycle have a placeholder for content maintenance.  After creating content and delivering content, content maintenance is required.  But what that means in practice is often not well-defined.    This shouldn’t be surprising: content maintenance somehow lacks the urgency that content creation and content delivery have.  After the adrenaline rush of creating new content, and watching the initial audience response to it, the content is no longer top of mind.

Content maintenance is often a lower priority. The UK's Government Digital Service awaits guidance on the topic.
Content maintenance is often a lower priority activity. The UK’s Government Digital Service awaits guidance on the topic. [screenshot]
In many organizations, content maintenance isn’t planned at all.  Some content gets updated because it is rewritten periodically, while other content is never touched after publication.  The organization may do a cleanup every few years in conjunction with a website redesign or IT upgrade, relying on a tedious content inventory and audit to evaluate how messed up the situation has become — content strategy’s equivalent to doing a root canal.

Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rich, in their popular book Content Strategy for the Web, offer one of the most detailed discussions of content maintenance. They call for a content maintenance plan that reflects content objectives such as assuring accuracy and consistency, archiving or reordering older content, confirming links are working and metadata is current, and removing redundant content.  This is a good list, but in itself doesn’t suggest how to implement a repeatable process for maintenance. These authors further recommend establishing rules to govern content.  Another sound idea.

But critical questions remain: On what basis does the organization prioritize its maintenance plan?  What criteria govern maintenance decisions?

A pivotal issue with content maintenance is defining its scope.  What activities are necessary, desirable but optional, or unnecessary? Does a maintenance task apply to all content, or are there any distinctions in types of content that effect how tasks are allocated?  If there are differences in how various content is treated in maintenance, on what basis are priorities made?  Are they arbitrary decisions made by a committee crafting a plan, or are decisions guided by a stable set of rules that are always dependable?  How do we know we are doing content maintenance effectively, given finite resources?

Decisions about content maintenance can reflect deep convictions about the core value of different kinds of content.  The content maintenance approach of an organization can express unconscious attitudes about content.  One common approach is to make sure that popular content is kept up-to-date.  An exclusive focus on popular content is not a comprehensive approach to content maintenance.

Many people consider content maintenance as a simple housekeeping task.  But it can play a bigger role.   The ultimate purpose of content maintenance is to help organizations use content to grow their engagement with audiences in a sustainable way.  Content maintenance deserves to be reappraised as a foundation of sustainable growth, instead of a zero-sum exercise of pruning and fixing last year’s publications. When organizations understand how content maintenance is essential to making content reach and connect with audiences more effectively, they will place more emphasis on what to do after content’s been published.

Content maintenance serves two functions:

  1. Countering entropy, where published content starts to decay due to various factors
  2. Improving relevance through optimization

Entropy-fighting Maintenance

Keeping content up-to-date often seems like an impossible task because content managers don’t have a good understanding of why content gets out-of-date.  Admittedly, the reasons are manifold.  But a clearer understanding of why content becomes dated will help with the maintenance process.

Recently, some content managers have begun to speak about a concept called content debt.  The concept refers to when there is no plan for the content once it has been published, so that a debt is incurred because the content’s creators have deferred decisions about what should happen to the content in the future.  Many organizations practice bad habits when publishing content.  With so many ways things can be done badly, establishing a robust process to keep content accurate is not an easy task.

We need to distinguish two related concepts: content relevance, and content validity.  Content relevance refers to whether audiences care about the content.  Content validity refers to whether the content is accurate, a subset of content relevance.  When people speak of updating content, they often do not make clear whether they are concerned with fixing inaccuracies in the content, or whether they are assessing how to make it more relevant.  A lack of precision when speaking of updating content can become confusing for those responsible for the task.

Generally, when people speak of updating content, they are presuming the content is intrinsically relevant, but that some aspect of it needs correction. Two types of updating are common:

  1. Content accuracy updating
  2. Technical updating

Content accuracy updating addresses what has changed factually in the content since it was published?  Facts have a tendency to go out of date.  In his book, The Half Life of Facts: Why Everything has an Expiration Date, Samuel Arbesman notes that even scientific facts are not stable, and are subject to revision.

Web content often created around events, past and future.  Some content refers to forthcoming events on specific dates, which may indicate a need to update the content after that date, depending on what the content says.  Other content may have a hidden dependency on events.  A change in executive leadership, product names, or business location may impact many items of content that make reference to these now-changed facts.  To some extent, content referring to internally determined facts can be managed utilizing content structure and metadata.

When content refers to facts that change due to external factors, the maintenance process can be messier.  Content may refer to whether products comply with certain regulations that may be subject to change but that could not have been fully anticipated when the content was created.  Service providers such as airlines may need to update content to indicate changes in factual information reflecting service disruptions due to external factors such as strikes or volcanic eruptions.  Organizations should map how content accuracy may be dependent on external events, and plan for how content will be updated in such scenarios.

Technical updating can be challenging for organizations that have a lot of legacy content.  The web is over 20 years old, and has become our external memory of what’s happened in our world.  Many people expect to find something they saw in the past, but how that content was constructed from a technical perspective may not be compatible with current web standards.

External developments are often responsible for technical decay.  Broken links referring to third party content are the most obvious example.  The more pervasive problem arises when technical standards shift, and the content is not renewed to conform to the new standards.  Two examples of standards shifts are changes in markup standards, such as the growth of semantic search markup, and changes in media format standards, such as the recent demise of the Flash format for video.

Updating content requires content professionals to think about the content lifecycle more globally.  The content lifecycle depends on the event lifecycles to which the content refers and relies on.  The content is part of a larger story: the story of how a product is managed, how an organization evolves, or how an enabling technology is used.  The specifics and timing of these events may not be known, but the broad patterns of their occurrences can be anticipated and planned for.

Popularity as a Factor When Updating Content

Deciding what content to update is an essential part of content maintenance.  It often involves judgment calls, which take time and do not always result in consistency.  In the search for rules that govern what content to update, some content professionals have been advocating content popularity as the criterion for deciding what content to keep, and hence keep current.

Paul Boag has suggested a traffic-based approach to managing legacy content.  Gerry McGovern has written extensively about the value of using traffic to guide content decisions.  McGovern’s writings on the importance of content popularity have become popular themselves, so I want to examine the reasoning behind this approach.  He uses the “long tail” metaphor of content demand first popularized by former Wired columnist Chris Anderson, but draws different conclusions.  McGovern differentiates the “long tail (low demand or no demand stuff) and the long neck (high demand stuff). The long tail has been seen as a major opportunity, but it can become a major threat.”

The Long Tail concept of content popularity, where many items are of interest to few people.
The Long Tail concept of content popularity, where many items are of interest to few people.

McGovern considers the popularity of content in terms of the distribution of page views.  He contrasts the head of the distribution, where the top ranked pages get a high volume of views, with the many low ranking pages in the tail that get few views.  McGovern says: “Much of the long tail is a dead zone. It’s a dead and useless tail full of dead and useless content.”  In contrast, content in the head of the distribution (the top-ranked pages) get the lion’s share of views.  How much of total demand is attributable to the head is not always clear.  McGovern has cited the figure that the top 5% of content generates 20% of demand; the next 35% of content (what he calls the body, though this is not a standard term used in head/tail distributions) accounts for 55% of demand; the remaining 60% is basically useless, accounting for only 20% of demand.  More recently, McGovern has featured the success stories of various organizations when they removed 90% of their content, implying that only the top 10% of content viewed is worth keeping and maintaining.

McGovern’s argument is that low traffic content gets in the way of people accomplishing their “top tasks,” which are represented by the highest volume content.  Moreover, long tail content is difficult to maintain.

McGovern makes some excellent points about the costs of low usage content, and the importance of making sure that frequently accessed content is easily available.  Unfortunately, his formulation is not a reliable guide to deciding what content to maintain because it doesn’t distinguish different content purposes.  McGovern considers all content as task-oriented content.  But content can have other roles, such as being news, or providing background information for educational and entertainment purposes.

Let’s assume, like McGovern, that all content follows a head/tail distribution.  With task-based content, the rank ordering of popularity is stable over time.  If all the content is task-focused, then the ranking of pages in terms of their popularity won’t change.  We can argue how many pages deserve to be included —that is, how many tasks should be supported —but the customer’s prioritization of what’s important is not impacted by when the content was created.

In other cases, when the content was created can have an impact on how important consumers consider the content, even when the age of the content has no bearing on the accuracy of the content.  In these cases, relevance is a function of time.

Comparison of how content popularity might change over time, according to the content's purpose.
Comparison of how content popularity might change over time, according to the content’s purpose.

The most obvious case is when popularity of content decays over time because it becomes less topical.  Any informative content that might be considered news, such as high profile product announcements or announcements of changes to membership services, might become less popular over time.  News oriented content becomes less relevant over time, but old news content is not intrinsically irrelevant.  The need to keep legacy content will depend on the organization’s mission, and the utility of the information in the future.

A different example of content is so-called evergreen content — content that will have a long shelf-life (even if it isn’t truly maintenance-free).  Often such content is created to build awareness and interest in a topic, and isn’t tied to a specific event.  The content may debut with a low ranking, but gain views as awareness builds.  It may gain exposure through a promotional tie-in, a third party’s endorsement, or relevance to some event that wasn’t foreseen when the content was created.  After gaining in popularity, its popularity may settle back down into the long tail.  The popularity of such content can yo-yo over time.

Without considering the purpose of the content, it is difficult to know what content to maintain.  Relying solely on content age or content popularity can result in a meat cleaver approach to content maintenance.  While content that is jettisoned does not need to be maintained, the content that is kept does not all need to be treated the same way.  Sometimes content is intentionally kept in an archive, with a minimum of maintenance promised or provided.

Content Maintenance as Quality Improvement

A very different view of content maintenance considers maintenance as continuous improvement.  Instead of just keeping content up to date, content is actively managed to become better.

Gerry McGovern touches on this approach when discussing what he calls “top tasks”.  He says: ”Continuously improve your top tasks. The Long Neck [top-ranked pages in the head of the distribution] is made up of a small set of top tasks and it’s important to manage them through a process of continuous improvement.“

Continuous improvement can be applied to any content, not just content supporting common tasks.   The purpose of such activity is to make the content more relevant to audiences.  It is a form of content optimization, a term most often used to refer to far narrower dimensions of content, such as search engine positioning or call-to-action behavior.

Optimizing content — in the broader sense of making it more relevant for audiences — involves two sets of decisions:

  1. Deciding what content to optimize as part of an ongoing evaluation program
  2. Making choices about evaluation methods, and assigning resources to support such activities

Optimizing content is often associated with A/B testing.  But the range of approaches available to improve content relevance are diverse, and include:

  • Analyzing content usage and actions
  • Surveying attitudes and preferences relating to content
  • Testing content comprehension and receptivity

Behavioral outcomes can certainly be tested, but content testing and analysis can probe more upstream factors such as how audiences evaluate the content prior to considering taking action, and suggest more fundamental changes that could improve content relevance to audiences.

Some techniques available to improve content relevance can be done prior to publication. The question arises of what content should continue to be evaluated after publication with the aim of improving its performance? If the content was well thought out before its publication, why does it need optimization after publication?  Any evaluation and enhancement activities that are done multiple times will require additional commitments of resources.   What content justifies the extra attention?

Business critical content will be the best candidates to optimize through continuous improvement.  Business criticality will reflect the reach of the content (amount of views), its importance to audiences, and its influence on business outcomes.  It may be content that comprises part of a funnel, but not necessarily.  In some cases, it might be key content that provides the first impression of an organization, product or topic that will have long term impacts in terms of future behavior or social influence.

Strategic Content Maintenance

Content maintenance involves many aspects, and content with different characteristics and purposes must be prioritized differently.  Maintenance-free content is a myth, but not all content requires the same level of maintenance.

Many times organizations jettison content for the wrong reasons. Content should be retired because it is no longer relevant, not simply because something about it, factually or technically, has become dated through neglect, and it is now too much effort to update it given the volume of content that’s in a similar state. Manage content based on current and potential relevance, and plan to maintain the relevant content. Jettison content that’s no longer relevant, and unlikely to be relevant again.

While having less content can be easier to maintain than having large volumes of content, one shouldn’t base one’s content strategy on operational convenience.  Small, tightly focused websites can be the right choice for smaller, tightly focused organizations, who can devote their energies toward optimizing the entirety of their content.  But for larger organizations with diverse missions, imposing a rigid content diet — say restricting the website to 50 pages — may help the web operations run smoothly, but at the cost of preventing the organization from fully serving their audiences, and allowing the organization to meet their wider digital objectives.  If the breadth of content offered is insufficient to satisfy the needs of audiences, the content published will sustain neither the audience’s interests, nor the mission of the organization.  The organization needs to understand what effort is required to maintain what it decides is relevant content, and then plan how to maintain that content appropriately.

No one-size strategy for content maintenance is right for all organizations.   But  organizations can use a framework to help them prioritize their content maintenance, in terms of identifying differences in content, and different approaches to maintaining such content.  The end goal is to find the right balance.  As alluded to earlier, content maintenance is about delivering sustainable growth.  It is about fostering a pool of content that can establish, maintain, and even expand its relevance to audiences without being a drag on operations.

The matrix considers content according to two properties.  First, it considers how popular the content is over a defined time period, say six months.  Second, it considers two broad approaches to maintaining content: through continuous optimization, and basic updating.  The goal of the matrix is to encourage content managers and owners to characterize the kinds of content that belong in each quadrant, and decide how they will manage such content.

The filled out framework is illustrative.  This strawman framework is intended to spark discussion rather than dictate action.

A matrix that can be used as a framework for considering different dimensions of content maintenance.
A matrix that can be used as a framework for considering different dimensions of content maintenance.

It is important to note that what’s low traffic content today may not be so tomorrow.  Organizations also need to consider the diversity of their mission or corporate strategy when making decisions about how to maintain content that gets less traffic.

What Happens After Publication?

Ideally, every item of content published should belong to a specific content maintenance category.  At the time of publication, it could be slugged with the category that best represents how it will be maintained in the future.  Doing so can help support of the operational processes associated with maintenance: for example, determining how long it had been since the last update for items associated with a certain category.

Content requires maintenance, and maintenance requires process, not just willpower.  Rules, criteria and plans are helpful to ensuring that content maintenance happens.  The challenge is connecting these rules and plans to the larger purpose of the organization’s content strategy.  Content maintenance needs to be upgraded from its status as a boring chore, to being seen as a contributor to sustainable growth in audience engagement.

— Michael Andrews

Calls to Action: Compelling or Inviting?

Many publishers are obsessed with developing the perfect call-to-action (CTA).   That obsession can end up being a turn off for some audiences.  Audiences don’t necessarily want to feel compelled to act, or feel rushed into making a decision.  In certain circumstances, publishers can ultimately achieve more by making their CTAs less compelling, and more inviting.

There’s little argument that CTAs matter.  A well optimized CTA can have real world consequences.  The UK government experimented with how to word a call to get people to donate their organs.  The best performing option yielded a significant increase over the worst option, and may be indirectly responsible for saving more lives.

But even the best performing CTAs are ignored or rejected by many if not most visitors.   Those visitors might not be ready to act, and the publisher can’t assume they’ll return to the website once they are ready to act.  They may head elsewhere.

Traditional CTAs, focused on urging the reader to do something specific, are not the only path to forming a relationship with audiences, nor are they necessarily the most appropriate path.  Publishers’ emphasis on action can sometimes presume a desire for commitment by readers that really isn’t present. When readers click, they are often not taking action as much as they are “poking” at the content, and seeing what happens.  They explore topics incrementally.  Their actions are tentative as long as they are still deliberating.

Before plotting the ways CTA buttons can wield power over readers to get them to comply with our wishes, content designers should consider how content users evaluate these buttons.

CTAs are most often crafted to support transactional content that discusses why a certain choice is a good one.  With transactional content, all the information needed to make a decision is right there.  The only unknown is whether the reader is sufficiently persuaded to act.

But much content is geared to building interest, instead of supplying cold hard facts or making bold assertions.  Such content is deliberative rather than transactional: it helps audiences think through a range of issues they need to consider before they are ready to make a decision.  When perusing deliberative content, readers often encounter CTAs that ask them to make a decision based on incomplete information.  What kind of CTA is appropriate to present when audiences aren’t ready to take action?

In many cases publishers serve up pushy CTAs while users of content are still trying to understand and evaluate a topic.  They aren’t yet sure how interested they are. A CTA is seen as pushy when the next step proposed is not aligned with the next step the user would be likely to take.   CTAs shouldn’t jump ahead of where the audience is likely to be after reading the content.  CTAs need to match the intention of the audience.

Getting CTA Alignment Through the Audience Perspective

The conventional advice about CTAs is to not offer choices to online visitors.  They will only get confused, distracted, or riven with doubt, according to this advice.  They won’t take action, and the outcome will be failure.

But a CTA that isn’t aligned with the visitor’s readiness is also a failure.  No matter how visible and clear the CTA, or how compelling the benefit, if the reader doesn’t feel ready to act, the call will be ignored.  No amount of  behavioral economics theory will nudge the viewer of the content across the chasm between figuring out their level of interest, and being ready to take action.

Choice Architecture in CTAs

Most CTAs shy away from offering readers any choices, but some exceptions exist.  The most common case is when a CTA for buying a service offers more than one package at different price points.  There may be a starter plan, a value plan (positioned in the center of the price spectrum and shown larger), and a deluxe plan.

Brands often offer multiple CTAs when the content system does not have sufficient information to segment the visitor accurately.   A website may not be able to assume everyone has the same reason for visiting and that everyone is seeking to do the same thing.  Uber’s homepage, for example, might include two calls-to-action: one seeking new drivers, and the other inviting new customers to join.  A common segmentation question is whether someone is an existing customer, or a prospective one.  Visitors are given a choice: to sign up for a service (new customers), or to sign in (existing customers).

The most common CTA that truly cedes decisions to visitors is used in product explorations.  Many landing pages give visitors the option of a trial or a tour.  They can choose to make a deeper commitment immediately, or they can explore the product more superficially with less effort.

CTA Variables: Payoffs and Obligations

Most CTA research focuses on wording changes.  For example, a marketer might test “Get your free evaluation” and compare it to “Download my no-cost evaluation.”    The wording is different, but the net outcome for the user is identical.  They are testing variant presentations of the same CTA, instead of offering alternative actions reflecting genuinely different choices.

Rather than focus entirely on wording, CTAs can be more dynamic and powerful when the outcome for the user is variable. Users then have more of a stake in what they are deciding.

Readers consider two aspects in a CTA: What do they get, and what kind of commitment are they making?  In both cases, CTAs are frequently vague on these points — often intentionally.  Here, the reality of CTAs collide with the lip-service many marketers pay to the concept of “value exchange” — that customers get something valuable in return for providing their personal details.  Customers need to trust that the publisher will give them something worthwhile in return for their effort.

The Reader’s Perspective on CTAs

Audiences encountering CTAs consider how the CTA meets their needs now, and in the future.  Past experiences with prior CTA interactions can influence these decisions, sometimes subconsciously.  A extended loop of micro-interactions with content shapes how valuable audiences believe the exchange with a brand will be.

Audiences may ask themselves:

  • What do they get now, and how valuable will it be?
  • What might they get in the future, and will it be valuable or not?
  • What personal details do they need to supply to get this information?
  • If they change their mind, how easily can they change the arrangement?

At the heart of the reader’s decision is an assessment of how much control they have in the process.  By clicking that button, what kind of commitment are they signing up for?

Commitments can be:

  • One time transaction [exchanging personal data for a defined information product]
  • Temporary commitments can be reversed [usage-based trial]
  • Commitments for a predefined time period [time-based trial]
  • Indefinite commitments with periodic windows inviting adjustment [open ended advisory relationship].

The reader wants to know how much of the content they will be able to experience immediately, verses how long they will need to wait to experience the full value of content offered.  Savvy readers are aware that signing up can involve an escalation of interaction from a brand.  They will get more messages from the brand unrelated to their specific request, and these will involve pitches for other informational products, requests for more personal data, and attempts to sell the brand’s product directly with offers.

As they are second-guessing what they may be committing to, audiences may simultaneously be unsure what they really want.  When brands focus exclusively on trying to get readers to agree to a specific proposition, they can loose sight of whether that proposition truly reflects what an individual wants.   Let’s assume the individual is interested in getting further information related to content they’ve read online.  The brand has successfully built sufficient interest to encourage the individual to listen to more of what the brand has to say.  Yet the presence of interest does not mean that the brand can simply craft some kind of “get more info” CTA and satisfy the individual.  The individual may be thinking the the current content is good for now, but not exactly what they want moving forward.  If the brand truly wants to build interest, they need to accommodate the preferences of readers, not just pressure them to take action.  Audiences may want options relating to:

  • Scope of the content — electing for broader or narrower content, based on what they consider more and less valuable in what they are reading
  • Pacing of the content — electing for more or less frequent content, based on how urgent or important the topic is to them at the moment
  • The convenience of the content — choosing formats based on convenience of consuming (such as audio podcasts) or sharing with others (such as worksheets and templates that can be repurposed).

The invitation to choice

Providing options signals to the reader they are important, and not just a means to an end for the brand.  Consider the case of the online political news publication, Politico.  They offer a premium service called Politico Pro that costs many thousands of dollars a year to subscribe to.  One of the key features the premium service offers over the free one is that readers can specify specific topics to track and get alerts when news is published about these topics.  That customization is simple, but provides enough value that thousands of readers elect to buy the premium service.

Instead of trying to control user behavior, calls to action that invite choice can help uncover what people really want.  That can be a key benefit when trying to understand the motivations of readers who might be interested in the product or service of a brand.  By inviting readers to request more tailored information, the content supplier can be more targeted in what they highlight.

The invitation approach is an alternative to the next-action approach, where readers are exhorted to “convert” by signing up, or at least reading one-more-thing while they are on a website.

What kinds of invitations are possible?  Brands can invite readers to indicate their interests by asking how the brand can be of help.   “How can we help you?” is not common wording in CTAs.   CTAs are generally geared to acquiring prospects and customers, and accordingly have a decisional orientation.  An invitational orientation steps back and emphasizes the relating and confirming stages of interaction with the audience.

How CTAs differ in deliberative and transactional content
How CTAs differ in deliberative and transactional content

Many kinds of companies can help readers by offering content options.  Some typical scenarios where readers can be asked for their interests could include:

  • Let me know when new information is available about [choices presenting informational topics of potential interest].
  • Suggest solutions that let me [choices presenting outcomes of interest]
  • Show me current offers on [choices presenting packages of services]

Better Content, Better Knowledge of Customers

Publishers can move beyond the passive feedback of click-based analytics by giving readers an active role in specifying their interests.  Behavioral analytics rarely answer why users take actions, and user motivations must be inferred from behaviors driven by a mix of factors.  When offering users choices, publishers get active feedback on the appeal of their content, and understand the motivations of their readers much better.

Publishers can gauge the depth of interest by providing audiences with choices.  Some readers may want to expand the range of topics the content addresses.  Other readers may want more focused content.  Some will indicate a continuing interest in the content, provided there is genuinely fresh material to see.  Such indications provide tangible information for publishers about the readiness of readers to consider actions.

This approach can be particularly useful in contexts where the factors involved with making a decision are complex, and the lead time for consideration can be long.  B2B marketing is one example, as are high stakes consumer decisions such as where to attend university.

All successful CTAs rely on experimentation and testing.  Introducing choices into CTAs brings a richer layer of information with which to experiment.  The specific options that customers care about, and ultimately act upon, might not be obvious until different variations are implemented and tested.  Only some options will perform above expectations: the challenge is uncovering which options matter the most to both audiences and the business of the publisher.  Content about high interest options may become more extensive and frequent.  Content about options that are of interest only to select groups may be offered less frequently or extensively, while low interest content can be withdrawn.

Providing precise, relevant content depends on publishers knowing their audiences.  Publishers prepared to make such an effort will gain far richer insights into the customer journey beyond what is conveyed through more generic approaches to modeling how people make decisions.

— Michael Andrews

From Labor Intensity to Value Intensity

Writing is at the core of nearly all content.  That’s true for articles, but also for video, and even the explanations that accompany a photo essay.  Writing is labor-intensive, and labor is expensive.  Many firms try to control labor costs by hiring writers willing to work for less.  But depressing wages is not the path to quality content.  The smarter approach is to focus on ways to reduce unnecessary labor when producing content.

When a process is labor-intensive, it is hard to develop sustainable value.  Each project involves dedicating people to produce something, and starting anew with the next project.  Content strategy fundamentally is about streamlining the costs associated with the labor-intensity of producing content.  Each item of content should ideally become less labor-intensive to produce.

Content strategy relies on three approaches to reduce the labor-intensity of content:

  1. Process Efficiency
  2. Prioritization
  3. Automation.

Process Efficiency

The first task is to ask how an organization may be wasting time producing content.  What unnecessary steps are being taken?  Sometimes inefficiency is the result of a badly set up infrastructure.  Perhaps a content management system requires authors to jump through too many hoops to get something published.  But more often the culprit is organizational.

Content strategists examine process efficiency as part of workflow analysis and governance development, but those descriptions can disguise the true nature of the problem, which is often political.  Many organizations have too many people involved in the production of content, involving too many steps, because they are unable to assign responsibility to the proper staff.  They may be risk averse, and consequently add unnecessary steps to the process.  They may be unwilling to empower staff to make decisions themselves, because they are unwilling to pay to hire sufficiently competent staff to do the work on their own.  These problems may manifest themselves as functional deficiencies, where people complain they lack the right tools for editorial review or collaborative editing, instead of asking why those steps are necessary at all.

Prioritization

The second task is to ask what time is wasted on producing content that delivers little value.  This involves assessing both the effort involved to create different content, and the value that the content delivers.  Some content may be deemed necessary, but delivers limited business value, so ways to streamline the creation of it are merited.  And some content may ultimately be deemed unnecessary, especially when it involves much effort to create and maintain.

The effort to create content reflects both how much labor is involved with creating the content, and how much time is required to keep the content up to date.  An e-commerce site might have a size converter to help foreign customers.  Even if foreign customers represent a small portion of sales, the effort to create the size converter is minimal, there is no maintenance involved, and so the incremental benefit is positive.  The same site would be ill advised to offer advice on customs duties for different countries, since these are complex and always subject to change.

Effort must be evaluated in terms of the business value of the content.  Content’s business value reflects the strategic goals that the content supports, combined with how the content performs in practice.  Determining business value of content is complicated.  It involves setting expectations for what the content is intended to achieve, based on its visibility and the critical impact it is expected to contribute.  The performance of the content reflects its actual contribution to business goals.  The interplay between expectations and current reality leads to a process of calibration, where content is evaluated according to its contribution and contribution potential.  Underperforming content must be examined in terms of its realistic potential contribution, weighed against the effort involved creating and maintaining the content.

Automation

The final task is to ask how to reduce duplication of effort when creating and maintaining content.  Duplication is evident when organizations produce many variations of the same content, but do so in an unsystematic and unplanned manner.

Content provides more value when a single item of content can support many variations.  One can distinguish two kinds of variation: vertical and horizontal.  Vertical variation looks at different ways to tell the same story.  Content about a topic is broken into modules that can be combined in various ways to present the topic.  Horizontal variation looks at how different stories on similar but different topics can be generated from the same basic content framework.

When duplication in content is understood, it can be planned around.  Content can be reused, and the maintenance effort associated with content is reduced.  Automation performs the donkeywork of piecing together the different variations as they are needed.

Value Intensity

Writing is hard work. Unnecessary writing, reviews and rewriting are a waste of money.  In order to get better value from content, one must first recognize how labor-intensive it can be.  Only then can one consider how the make the creation and maintenance of content less labor-intensive, and discover how to be more productive when producing content.

In an ideal situation, an item of content requires little effort to produce, but delivers critical business benefits.  The path to achieving that ideal is to develop a streamlined process centered on producing prioritized content that can be assembled from reusable components.

Value-intensive content delivers incremental benefits that exceed to the incremental effort required to create and maintain it.

— Michael Andrews