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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
How does an organization form a content strategy? How does it know what it should be doing differently with its content? Content strategy can be more than just a program to improve the performance of content. It can be a part of business strategy and help to inform how a firm should compete.
As content becomes an increasingly important element in business, it moves beyond being a support activity like human resources or accounting. It becomes a core activity, and joins the ranks of cost, technology, service, logistics and design as a potential source of differentiation and competitive advantage. By competitive advantage, I am not referring to simply outperforming a competitor at a given time, perhaps following a content refresh in response to an assessment of competitor content. I am referring to a more systematic approach to finding profitable opportunities relating to content that competitors aren’t pursuing.
Many content strategists associate strategy with planning and process. A number of popular definitions of content strategy mention planning as the engine driving content strategy. You need a plan: you can’t just wing it. Yet in business theory, the notion that strategy is synonymous with planning has become dated. The business strategy guru Henry Mintzberg wrote an influential book in the 1990s on the decline of strategic planning. He considered the centrality of objectives and programs in strategic planning as a frozen perspective, placing an unrealistic emphasis on control. Elaborate planning has fallen out of favor as businesses confront an increasingly unpredictable environment.
Michael Porter, another business strategy guru, criticized the view of strategy as “benchmarking and adopting best practices.” He argued that strategy should be based on delivering something others can’t.
Planning and process are used to execute a strategy, but they don’t define a strategy.
Popular Perspectives on Strategy Today
Many content strategists present content strategy in terms of a circular diagram. It starts with discovery and planning, proceeds to creating content, and then moves to assessment before starting a new cycle of discovery and planning. Many more steps may be involved in this cycle, with more specific descriptions, but the basic pattern draws on classic Plan-Do-Check-Act process for process improvement developed in the 1950s by W. Edwards Deming. The image is so generic that it’s become a standard PowerPoint template that countless people fill in for business review meetings, a sort of mental comfort food. No one will disagree with a circular diagram: it doesn’t say where you are going, so there’s nothing controversial about it.
Content strategists also emphasize an organization’s mission and values. Strategy is more than mission and values. One needs these things, and it’s important that all content conforms to them. But values by themselves won’t suggest how to proceed into an unknown future.
Most discussions of content strategy don’t talk about how strategy is formed. They reference the need to establish goals and to have content strategy reflect those goals, but don’t discuss how decisions are made, and what criteria are used to establish goals.
Three popular ideas color discussions about strategy. Because they are so familiar, people rarely question their limitations.
The first idea is optimization. Optimization assumes analytics will tell you where you should be heading. If you apply best practices, you can incrementally improve performance. It assumes what you are currently doing is basically sound; it just needs tweaking. Sometimes this concept is referred to as performance-based strategy. But as mentioned earlier, following best practices isn’t a genuine strategy. By definition, best practices are the same tactics that countless others are using. With its focus on incremental improvement, optimization can result in a blinkered perspective, where brands myopically follow the same basic course of action even as the operating environment shifts dramatically. Optimization doesn’t tell us what we should be doing differently with our content, except in the most limited manner.
The second idea is growth hacking. Here, the approach is trial and error. Firms try something that’s been done by someone else, and sees if it works for them. If not, they try something different. Many start ups embrace this approach. They have a core idea, but have no idea how to make money from it, so they keep trying different things, pivoting along the way. At its worst, growth hacking provides customers with an exhausting stream of alpha release products based on the hunches of alpha males. User needs are stress-tested rather than solicited as design inputs. When big organizations try this approach at scale, it can result in wild gyrations, and can hurt the brand’s standing and customer retention, as high profile initiatives are suddenly and publicly abandoned when they don’t produce their expected magic.
The third idea is goal-setting. The necessity of having a vision and goals seems self-evident. Airport kiosks are full of books promising a better tomorrow by setting goals. TED talks exhort us to ask big questions, and be driven by big ideas. Why are we here? What do we want to become? A goal fetish, however, can generate vague, wishful thinking, along the lines of “we want to be awesome so we can help our customers be awesome.” Unless the goal is viable, building a strategy off it is pointless.
Goal Viability: the Critical Success Factor
Finding the right goals is key: goals that are both achievable and have competitive impact. If your goals are tired, or ill- defined, pursuing them won’t result in a big difference. Tired goals are those that reflexively follow past practices, target obviously achievable outcomes, or simply imitate what others are doing. Ill-defined goals are those that vague and aspirational without sufficient consideration of constraints and tangible outcomes. Promising goals, in contrast, blend both realism and imagination.
Conventional thinking about strategy is anchored in the notion that goals shape the strategy, which is the foundation for the plan (Goals > Strategy > Plan). Strategy based on goals communicates the idea that “failure is not an option,” since the goal is not questioned once selected. Consequently, the goals are often either safe or fuzzy, since no one wants to fail. There is plenty of need in our personal lives for both safe and fuzzy goals: to exercise three times a week, or to try to be a better parent. But large organizations face different needs: to find goals that can transform their practices when there’s no obvious script to follow. They need to change, but don’t know exactly what are the right changes to make.
Rather than have goals determine strategy, it may be more insightful to reverse the process. We need to create a strategy that can identify viable goals we can plan around. In this revised formulation, the strategy drives the discovery of goals (Strategy > Goals > Plan). We then stop thinking about strategy as a declaration, and start thinking of it as a discovery process. Strategy becomes a way of finding viable goals to pursue.
Viewing strategy as a way to choose goals means the emphasis is on making appropriate decisions. Strategy is ultimately about making the right choices. We need a framework for making decisions.
Two themes dominate recent strategic business thinking: the rapid and unexpected changes that can occur outside of organizations from technology, competitors, and consumers, and the vast volumes of data being generated that are difficult to interpret. These themes impact all areas of business, the field of content included. In 2011, the World Economic Forum (the Davos conference for global CEOs) sponsored a review of the Future of Content to try to make sense of some of these changes. The review examined the need for organizations to adopt “transformative business models” to address changes in the content landscape.
Content strategy can draw on recent thinking in business strategy, particularly ideas relating to options thinking and hypothesis testing. These tools can help organizations answer what they should be doing differently with their content. Strategy should generate interesting and worthwhile options to pursue. Options need to be tested for their viability. Viable options can be put into the plan, after which they are executed and optimized. In this formulation, the front-end of strategy formation involves the discovery of viable goals, and the back-end involves the testing, selection and implementation of these goals into plans.
“One of the toughest strategy challenges is still the creation of options—creating them is the black box of strategy. It’s easy to write ‘diverge’ on the strategy-process map, but it’s darned difficult to create truly innovative strategy options.” Dan Simpson (Clorox) in the McKinsey Quarterly
Goal-finding: Generating Options
Three approaches can generate innovative content strategy goals that can be evaluated for their viability. These are:
Hidden value opportunities
Refinement of beliefs concerning differentiation
Each of these approaches can identify and develop specific goals that seem viable — levers that provide leverage. Dilemma exploration looks at where to put emphasis. Hidden value exploration looks at opportunities to offer things differently. Belief refinement is about tightening up beliefs about the capabilities of the brand, and behavior of audiences, so that goals are more specific and potentially achievable. All three approaches help brands to develop fresh ideas that might become candidate goals. Candidate goals can then be expressed as hypotheses that can be tested to see if they hold.
Dilemmas are about choices, where two or more options seem desirable. Strategy is similarly about choices: what to emphasize, to the exclusion of something else.
Organizations face resource trade-offs. The choices they make when allocating resources can impact their overall effectiveness with content. While it is easy to allocate content spending in direct proportion to revenues from lines of business or customer segments, doing so might overlook the possibility that a different mix might yield a higher overall impact from content.
Some trade-offs are global ones relating to approach, such as whether to emphasize:
Breadth of content, or more limited but highly produced content
Targeted content addressing specific niches, or content with wide appeal
Succinct, compact content, or expansive content using rich media
Brands need to know where to spend their money. Let’s imagine that 25% of a budget were devoted to discretionary spending on content: some forms of content receive special emphasis, with the intention that such content would be unique and distinguished from the general content offered by competitors. What should that emphasis be? Is it better to do a few splashy things that will get the attention of a particular group, or to try to broaden the reach by creating content more targeted to various specific interests? For example video is more expensive to produce than written content. It might yield higher engagement from people not ready to buy, compared with those doing serious comparison shopping, who are reading detailed specs. Does the attraction of video outweigh the thoroughness of detailed product information?
The interesting thing about such dilemmas is that there are answers, but they are not obvious. The answers are situationally dependent. No one can know in advance what the best choice will be, because of the many variables. There is no best practice that everyone in the industry is following, so there is an opportunity to make a choice that is different from one’s competitors, and potentially benefit from this choice. As soon as conventional wisdom takes hold about what’s the best approach, the competitive advantage disappears — unless conventional wisdom is wrong and one tacks differently. Dilemmas therefore are a rich area to explore: decisions with two or more tempting choices that sound promising, but only one of which will yield the biggest overall payoff in terms of value for spending.
Trade-offs also exist concerning whom to target, and which lines of business to emphasize. This is especially urgent for areas of emerging interest that look promising, but where no reliable information is available. For example, firms may need to decide whether it is better to emphasize:
Segment A (single millennials who travel) or segment B (home-oriented millennial families)
Product C (cashless payments) or product D (social lending)
Platform E (Apple watch) or platform F (large wall public displays)
Marketing theme G (the future) or marketing theme H (nostalgia)
Many marketing campaigns are pitched around a tidy story about how various choices will synergistically work together to yield a perfect outcome — without addressing missed opportunities. Campaigns may fail or succeed without any clear understanding as to why, and with no learning that can be leveraged later.
All well-considered alternatives offer some value, so it is important to understand the potential value of each. The benefit of dilemma exploration is to determine which alternative provides the most leverage. Brands may be tempted to try to do everything to some degree, but that would provide no emphasis, and would simply dissipate efforts. Unfortunately, trying all options at once won’t work. Dilemma exploration is unlike the superficial comparisons of options done in much A/B testing. A/B tests generally compare only minor differences, rather than more fundamental differences in emphasis. Exploring options associated with a dilemma can entail a small special project. Test an option by making a guess as how big an impact it might offer, and comparing the actual result. This provides a baseline to know if the option performs better or worse then expected. Rotate options to try different possibilities and develop a comparison between them.
Discovery of Hidden Value
Hidden value exists when the brand and audience both derive value from a change. Such value can be discovered when one questions the assumptions embedded in the existing brand-audience value exchange.
Start by asking a probing question: What does the customer want from us that we aren’t providing? The answer to this question, if grounded in user research and customer feedback, can uncover unmet needs.
Next, respond to each customer “ask” with a question from the brand: What does the brand want from the customer? To be insightful, the question should be answered candidly, revealing both ideal outcomes and feared ones.
An example will illustrate how hidden value discovery can be applied to content. Suppose your customer insights indicate that customers are frustrated by your complex terms and conditions. You benchmarked your terms and conditions, and found them no more onerous than your competitors. Nonetheless, customers want more clarity in the terms and conditions. While not at a disadvantage, the brand isn’t using terms and conditions as a competitive advantage either.
When the question is turned on the brand — what it wants from the customer — two themes emerge. The brand is concerned about possible legal actions from customers, or bad PR if they seem to over promise. The wordy and weasely terms and conditions are a way to discourage too much attention to what is promised. The brand’s ask of consumers is: Don’t sue the brand, and don’t create negative PR.
Once the needs of both sides are explicit, one can see common ground that adds value to both parties. Simpler, clearer terms and conditions would benefit customers, who will then trust the brand more. Such trust could also benefit the brand, by encouraging more sales. The brand could feel confident simplifying terms and conditions if it improved its risk management, perhaps by assigning warranty fulfillment to a third party or improving communication regarding scheduled maintenance. The simplified terms would then be a competitive advantage.
“Framing questions is the other tough challenge, and it’s one of the most important yet under appreciated parts of strategy development. Questions are the lens by which problems are defined and addressed. Generating great answers to bad questions is all too common and not all that helpful in strategy.” Dan Simpson (Clorox) in the McKinsey Quarterly
Beliefs about Differentiation
Everyone wants to be different and special: brands and consumers alike. Differentiation is a major motivation in strategy. Companies want a competitive advantage compared with their peers, and content needs to stand out in some special way for it to get noticed by audiences. Differentiation attempts to address two issues simultaneously: things that a company can do that will benefit them but that their competitors are not doing, and things that audiences want but are not getting from the industry segment.
How can the brand be more relevant to customers than other brands? Unlike the optimization approach, differentiation does not simply ask how to become better than one has done in the past: it asks how to be better than anyone else.
Three core questions are at the heart of differentiation:
Why this? What’s really unique about the product or service, and in what ways is existing product discourse commodified?
Why us? How do people compare vendors and brands, and where are these factors being addressed inadequately?
Why now? How might content influence the readiness of the customer to take action?
The product and vendor questions are familiar to those involved with market positioning. Because of their familiarity, it takes a special effort to break free of routine points of comparison: features, benefits, and likability. Last weekend I walked by a shop in Rome I assumed was a jewelry store. Something was intriguing about it, so I stepped inside, and realized it was a pastry shop. The shop had redefined pasty as jewelry: precious and regal, simultaneously reframing my conception of the product, and what a pastry vendor can be.
Brands less often think about how to position their communication with customers to bridge the gap between the customer’s readiness to act, with the brand’s readiness to meet pre-purchase and post-purchase customer needs. Most brands behave by assuming customers will decide when they decide; the brand keeps badgering them in the meantime to stay top of mind, without probing into how customers decide. But content has tremendous potential to close the gap between customer readiness and action. It can simplify choices, help customers evolve their preferences over time through dynamic customization, and address buyer concerns about risks and future needs for change.
Refining Beliefs and Testing Hypotheses
Being different can involve having a different set of beliefs from the rest of the field. We embrace various beliefs about what differences make a difference. Perhaps beliefs about what makes a company successful: Companies that do certain actions achieve outcomes as a result. Or beliefs about how customers and audiences behave: Audiences that receive content with certain characteristics will behave in a certain way.
Beliefs about both industry behavior and audience behavior can be expressed as hypotheses that are testable. With a hypothesis, it becomes possible to refine ideas and determine what precisely might be successful. Consider the area of content marketing. Content marketing is common: many brands are doing it. At the same time, there is widespread debate about how effective content marketing actually is. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some firms in some sectors can benefit using content marketing with some customer segments. But there is no consensus that simply doing content marketing is valuable — it may be a waste of money, or even counterproductive if it prompts segments to opt out.
Beliefs many times reflect a hidden goal or wish the believer desires. Consider some beliefs brands may hold:
Customers who share content from a brand are likely to become repeat buyers
Our brand can create content for customers that will encourage them to identify with us
Our brand can gain new customers by producing non-sales oriented content
People who do not typically use our brand may be willing to read helpful content from us if it was available
People want to be entertained, and will think highly of us if we provide them with content they enjoy
Storytelling is the most effective way to reach customers
People expect brands to provide advice about daily life issues, and want such information from our brand
These beliefs vary in their generality and plausibility. Some may be true in some circumstances, but deserve to be teased apart to appreciate different dimensions involved. Sweeping generalizations are rarely true in all cases. Some beliefs involve a leap in logic, and should be unpacked to identify intermediate causal dimensions. Some beliefs may raise a “so what?” response: they sound good, but it is not explicitly clear what the broader benefit is. Umbrella beliefs about firms and customers can be compared with available cross-industry evidence to see what general patterns and special circumstances may apply, if solid data exists at all. People can falsely assume their beliefs about one industry or segment are valid for different sector or segment. People may miss the possibilities of borrowing ideas from a seemingly unrelated area. Once beliefs are expressed as a statement specific to a brand, or to an audience segment, they can actually be tested.
This kind of rigorous examination of beliefs helps find the kernels of truth in various beliefs that can be usefully developed into hypotheses that can be tested. Once several plausible beliefs about industry behavior and audience behavior are identified and woven together, the brand has a unique proposition that it can explore. Examples might be:
If our brand creates stories about fun romantic holidays that prospects like (hypothesis 1: brand can successfully create fun romantic holiday stories), they will book more travel services with us (hypothesis 2: bookings influenced by stories).
Millennials need, but can’t find, information about their long term disability risks (hypothesis 1: unserved need for content on millennial long term disability risks exists). If we provide them with relevant information (hypothesis 2: target millennials, and see if they find information relevant), we will make gains with the millennial demographic selling insurance related to this. (hypothesis 3: some sales activity results).
In the second example, we still see signs that wishful thinking might be at work, but we don’t know for sure. If people can’t find content that doesn’t exist, that doesn’t mean it is needed or wanted. What’s seen as relevant information may depend on the segment. Insurers might consider information relevant to a segment, but the target fails to be interested by it. Perhaps the insight gained from the hypothesis testing is that targeting millennials is not productive, but targeting their parents about the financial risks of a long term disability to their twenty-something year old children is effective. In this fictitious example, the pursuit of a hypothesis leads to a genuinely novel goal to execute.
Goals Worth Pursuing
I’ve presented a range of approaches on how to identify fresh ideas that could have strategic value. There is no need to pursue all these approaches at once, but each might be useful at different times when reviewing high level content goals. By having tools that invite questions, the development of goals can happen continually, rather than being tied to an event trigger such as a content audit or redesign.
The process for testing and evaluating hypotheses is similar to processes used when monitoring analytics and optimizing content. Unlike with optimization, a specific answer is sought. One is looking for confirmation of an effect, rather than just trying to improve what’s happening. In this sense it resembles the experimentation of growth hacking, although it is focused on innovative ideas screened based on their suitability to the challenge, rather than on copying and trying out marketing tactics widely used by others to see if they fit the problem. Since the option was chosen because it looked promising, it should show some confirmation that it’s a viable goal, even if it has room to improve. Testing a hypothesis triggers a decision: whether to keep the candidate goal and try to develop it further, or drop it and try a different candidate.
One benefit of having strategy centered on the discovery of viable goals is that it produces many candidate goals. The brand can avoid the temptation to make a big bet on one audacious goal. There are many possible goals worth pursuing, and that encourages creativity and experimentation.
Getting Strategic with Content: the Ultimate Goal for Content Maturity
Many organizations are still trying to close the gap between their current operations, and known best practices. They are playing catch up, and haven’t yet reached the level of maturity with their content to focus on doing things differently, with the intention of out competing their peers. They are understandably focused on improving their operations so they can execute plans and goals effectively.
But as content strategy takes root in organizations, and as processes and planning improve, the work of content strategy will be less reactive to fixing quality and operational problems, and more proactive, searching for ways to offer greater value to the brand and its customers. Firms will stop thinking of content as a commodity to cost-manage, and think of it as a product with defined value. The evolution of content strategy from process improvement to innovation would thus resemble the evolution of product manufactures from their past focus on total quality process improvement as the central competitive concern, toward considering design and innovation as contributing sources of competitive advantage.
All firms, no matter how mature their content operations, face the challenge of uncertainty. They face resource dilemmas, and make decisions based on faulty assumptions. In this respect, all firms need a way to work with imperfect information. They can’t just follow the example of others. They need their strategy to empower them to choose goals that meet their specific needs.
How organizations approach reusing content impacts their publishing efficiency, and their ability to serve audience needs. Four distinct approaches to content reuse exist, each of which focuses on different goals. Due to specialization in the content profession, content professionals may be familiar with only some content reuse approaches. To support broader organizational objectives effectively, content strategists should become familiar with all four alternative approaches to reuse, since each offers each unique benefits.
Why content reuse matters
While content reuse is a topic of active discussion in the content profession, no one definition for content reuse adequately captures its various meanings. In practice, there are four distinct types of content reuse:
Ad hoc reuse of assets
The planned reuse of content components
Enabling reuse of content across channels
Selective reuse through adaptive content
Nearly everyone agrees reusing content is a good thing. Content professionals sometimes invoke the phrase “single sourcing” to suggest the notion that one “source” can serve all needs, both internally and for audiences. What is being reused, exactly? Is the source a database? A file? A finished piece of content?
Many different specialities work with content. Each specialty is working to solve an aspect of reuse and will tend to promote its approach as a solution the core problems associated with poor content reuse. But specialists are not always aware of the larger picture needs of complex organizations or multidimensional audiences. Solution advocacy can sometimes create own silo problems!
When discussing content reuse, it is important to distinguish between reusing as-is content, recycling (repurposing) content, and providing on-demand, customized content. Is the source granular or whole? For example, is the source a whole video recording, or a collection of video snippets? Is the source a document, or a library of documents?
Different reuse approaches reflect different goals. All are valid, but none are complete. At present, no one approach will address all needs faced by enterprise scale publishers.
The term content is abstract and fuzzy, open to various interpretations. Content may be raw or finish, partial or complete. We need to understand different levels or states of content. Fortunately, we can draw on insights from library science to distinguish different levels of specificity by using a concept called the FRBR. 
The FRBR model provides levels to analyze content, divided according to how explicit the description of the content is. The key levels of concern to us are work, expression, and manifestation. If the content item is a book, it might be described as follows:
Expression (King James translation)
Manifestation (1994 Oxford University Press edition)
The work is the raw content, the underlying intellectual property. It might be a class of content such as a novel or symphony. It describes the content or asset.
The expression identifies a version of the content.
The manifestation specifies the content’s specific revision or a rendition, for example, the edition, format, mode of access, or date of publication.
The table below illustrates the hierarchy, with rough equivalents in content strategy.
Level of Identification
Rough Equivalent in Content Strategy
Described by a Title
Assets relating to a topic
Long, unedited video file
Collection of content components relating to a topic
Tagged video clip highlights
Finished content about topic
Linked series of transcript-captioned video segments
Different levels of content reflect different frequencies of change and target audiences. Assets don’t change; they are repurposed. Components can be revised, but there will only be one version of a component at a given time. Content composites seen by audiences may come in multiple versions, which can exist simultaneously.
Rather than describe everything as content, it is more helpful to separate different notions:
content (items audiences consume)
content components (recurring elements incorporated in audience facing content)
assets (intellectual property used to create finished content)
Delivering equivalent content to different platforms: COPE
As content channels have multiplied, publishers have needed to make their content available to different devices and different kinds of content customers. The approach known as COPE (Create Once, Publish Everywhere) addresses the issue. Rather than recreate multiple versions of the same content for different devices or platforms, publishers can use standards and structure to provide the same content through an API that can be accessed by a variety of applications. The same content is used in multiple contexts, often distributed simultaneously. Since reuse can imply using the same content at different points in time, the notion of “content once” being published everywhere may be better thought of as multi-use content distribution.
One goal of COPE is the wide dissemination of content across different channels. COPE started as a technology solution to address point-of-failure concerns when publishing to multiple parties from a single database of content. Over time, it has evolved into an approach to syndicate content to other parties.
What COPE does
In the COPE approach, a central content database provides multiple versions of the same content to different people and devices. The original idea didn’t foresee revisions to the content (hence: create once), and also presumed that core essence within content items pushed to different endpoints would be essentially the same. Different technical packages (formats and associated metadata) allow endusers to consume the version of content they want. Technical endusers (content partners and third party app developers) are able to choose which content items they want, but generally lack the ability to request specific components of content from within an item. The API disseminates a large, structured chunk, but not finely defined, reconfigurable chunks. Content consumers choose which content host to use to access the content. They might use their local radio station’s website, or NPR’s own app to access the same content.
Benefits and limitations of COPE
COPE is an effective approach to disseminate articles to multiple partners and platforms. Because of its push orientation, it is not optimized to offer personalized content that responds to specific requests from content consumers. As originally conceived, the body of the content is static.
Reusing common elements in different content products: the DITA model
While COPE is largely focused on formats and metadata, another reuse approach is focused on reusing components of content within the body-field of an item.
Publishers of technical content have championed reusing specific content components in different items of content. Technical documentation is repetitive. Much writing is redundant, where the same text is being repeated in many places. Technical writers sometimes speak about the ideal of WOOO: Write Once and Once Only.
Component reuse is closely associated with an approach called DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture), an XML schema originally developed by IBM. DITA is designed to address specific publishing issues with user assistance for technical products, though many DITA proponents argue it can be successfully used for other kinds of content.
For the most part, the motivations behind DITA have been writing efficiency and consistency, rather than audience needs. Few individuals will ever read the many minor variations of content possible with a DITA document, and content variations are largely defined by topic variants rather than reflect audience preferences.
Reusing Components through Transclusion
Most approaches that reuse content components rely on transclusion. Transclusion is the process of incorporating content into an item of content from another source by use of a link to that source. In its most simple form, it is similar to when one embeds an item of content in another, such as embedding a slideshow or YouTube video hosted elsewhere in an article you’ve written. In DITA, the process is called a conref or content reference. Transclusion is a core concept not only in DITA but also in MediaWiki, which powers Wikipedia among other sites. Transclusion allows the same content to be used in multiple locations in Wikipedia.
Transclusion can be applied to any item of content: a word or phrase, a paragraph, or a large section.
A related approach is to show and hide components depending on certain criteria, perhaps intended audience segment. Business customers might see a certain paragraph, while consumers wouldn’t see that paragraph. The process of showing and hiding XML nodes is called profiling in DITA. It allows the output of multiple documents (variations on the master document) from a single source.
Benefits and limitations of Transclusion
Reusing components is effective when there is a repetition of messages, and regular variations among specific components. It can provide efficiencies and consistency for content that is highly regular and needs to be delivered in a uniform manner. If business requirements mandate that all customers see the same terms and conditions in the content regardless of what content they see, transclusion can be an effective approach.
The weakness of transclusion is that it is not very flexible. DITA, for example, assumes a linear flow of content from the publisher to the content consumer. It presupposes content elements can be planned and compiled into well-structured formats. That vision implies the presence of regular content entities and that one can anticipate the exact circumstances of when these entities are required by endusers.
Embedding content through link referencing, or hiding content through profiling, is not very dynamic. The process can groan when the variations become complex. It is also difficult for the publisher to confidently say precisely what an audience wants, and so there is a tendency to deliver too much content because it is easy to include it. Transclusion, by itself, doesn’t adapt to specific audience demands for information, or marketers’ desire to change the messaging in response to CRM and real time analytics data. The motivation to write once only doesn’t accord with audience desires to pick and choose what content they want to see at a given time. It is not clear if the XML-based structure of DITA will be up to the demands of real time personalization associated with performance-based marketing.
“Reusing text where you would have been writing substantially the same text anyway is clearly the right thing to do. But taking all the various ways in which you might express an important idea and combining them into one expression is a bad idea. Your idea will have more impact and more reach if it is expressed in different ways and in different media for different audiences, different purposes, and different occasions.”
Asset Reuse: the DAM model
A third approach to content reuse relates to assets. Reusing assets allows organizations to exact more value from their intellectual property. It recognizes that rich assets can be potentially applicable to different contexts at different times. A systematic approach to asset reuse requires a centralized repository for the raw material that authors draw upon to create audience-facing content.
How Asset Reuse works
A growing number of web publishers — though still a minority — have repositories to hold digital assets that are used to create content for audiences. They may use:
A digital asset management (DAM) system for videos, audio, graphics and photos, including brand assets and templates
An enterprise content management (ECM) system for complex documents, such as legal documentation
A database or file server to store code or data files that can be repurposed
Such repositories differ in purpose for content management systems, which are geared toward the creation and management of content for audiences. Unlike a CMS, a DAM may contain content that is neither currently published, nor being readied for publication.
The varied types of assets that can be stored in a repository share certain characteristics. Assets frequently involve complex workflows. They may involve substantial editorial oversight, to produce and prepare for publication. Unique approvals may be required, such as for branding assets stored in a DAM, or legal copy stored in an ECM. Data, perhaps from a periodic customer survey, may be stored in databases that require running structured queries and reports before they can be made available for content authors to use. Photo archives may have permissions and licensing requirements that must be vetted before items are available for publication.
When considering asset reuse, it helps to know how stable the asset is. Elizabeth Keathley distinguishes between static assets and living assets.
Static assets are generally stable and don’t change often. If they do change, there will only be one version at a time, with a persistent ID. These assets may have associated use rights governing when and how they are used, and by whom. The asset creator may have an explicit goal of preventing derivative reuse, such as prohibiting unapproved modifications of brand assets.
Living assets can be repurposed to support different goals, and are sometimes converted into different formats. Living assets are commonly composed of compound asset parts and have elaborate workflows to produce them. They are not simply derivative of other assets but are substantially original. A living asset is broadly equivalent to a work in FRBR terminology. Other items of content are derived from a living asset, and these will have identities separate from the master asset. Because the structure of living assets is complex and irregular, they are not as readily broken into content components, especially if an exact need for elements in the asset cannot be predicted in advance. Also, the nature of repurposing content means that the approval process will be different than it is for content components involving planned reuse for defined purposes.
Benefits and limitations of DAMs
DAMs and other asset repositories can offer authors a richer library of content than available in CMSs. Unlike with a CMS, authors are not restricted to a narrow perspective where they only see and have access to currently published content.
DAMs have challenges as well. Unless actively managed, metadata descriptions can be poor, hindering asset retrieval. Some DAM systems are improving auto tagging of assets to reduce the burden on contributors. Another limitation is that DAM assets are generally not directly accessible by audiences, so audience requirements for access to this content needs to be understood and planned in advance.
A framework for content reuse
The conceptual diagram reflects different content reuse activities according to their purpose. It is not meant to show specific platforms or systems, which vary considerably in practice. Only a few publishers perform all these activities as part of an integrated end-to-end process. The path from potential assets to ready-to-consume content resembles a waterfall: one is dependent on what content is available upstream.
The limits of specialized solutions
Relying on one approach entails various potential pitfalls. Not having a DAM means that potentially valuable content assets are siloed within different organizational departments and not available to authors. A failure to plan for modular reuse of content components hinders efficiency and consistency, and hurts the audience experience as well. Relying on responsive web design might be effective to reach immediate consumers, but won’t allow partners to reuse your content the way an API would allow, and might therefore reduce the total reach of your content.
Many aggravations arise from a poor conceptual understanding of the granularity of content, and how frequently different elements change and are used within the organization. Authors may try to reuse content that is actually a compound object made up of different assets and components. They may actually need to only reuse some parts of the content.
A core issue with reuse is whether the content continues to be up-to-date and accurate. Unfortunately, just because something is currently published does not indicate it should be reused elsewhere. A table that complements an article might be sufficiently current to stay on a website, but really shouldn’t be incorporated in new content without updating. Content created for one audience may seem to offer a good blueprint for new but similar content for another audience. But in the course of repurposing this content, the authors may conclude that revisions are needed for content that is being reused. What is sufficiently current is often a judgment call based on resources and mission importance.
Publishers face another challenge: the tension between content modularity and integration. While technical documentation can generally be disaggregated into modular components, other content is more powerful when tightly integrated. Ideally content elements should support one another, rather than simply be presented together. But cross-dependency among elements make them less attractive candidates to manage as separate components. A reusable, adaptable template may be a better approach when elements tend to occur together in an integrated manner. Authors may want to reuse the structure of the body of the content without reusing the actual content components.
Adaptive content and reuse
The newest approach to content reuse is known as adaptive content. Unfortunately, there is no widely accepted definition of adaptive content, and content professionals tend to speak about adaptive content in different ways. The phrase provokes two obvious questions:
To what does it adapt?
Sometimes people will speak about “the content” adapting to “the device” the individual is using. That interpretation is not much different from responsive web design, and is not very ambitious. It should be possible to have the content itself change based on any number of criteria, such as contextual factors (location, time of day, user status), and various user preferences or behaviors. I would rather define adaptive content in terms of the goal it supports.
content that changes what is presented to reflect the intentions of the content consumer.
How Adaptive Content works
Adaptive content relies on the use of algorithms and audience data to change the content. There are significant differences between preplanned content variations such as are specified in DITA, and enabling dynamic, on-demand variations associated with adaptive content. Adaptive content builds on transclusion and COPE, but extends it.
Content reuse to support adaptive content must accommodate on-demand access to content by individuals, to deliver content composed of components that reflect the interests and needs of an individual when they ask for them.
An early example of adaptive content is the NPR One app for audio content. Individuals indicate what kinds of programming they want, rather than having the publisher deciding that for them. NPR extends its API not only to content partners (local radio stations who add local content), but also to the end consumer of the content, giving them control over what content they receive through likes and shares. The app is adaptive, but not entirely a content on-demand solution, since it is based on streaming.
Benefits and limitations of adaptive content
To realize the goal of having content components available on demand, responding to user preferences in real time, will remove the problems associated with publishers making wrong guesses about what someone wants to view. The limitation of this approach is the complexity it introduces for publishers. They need to think even harder about where the value of their content resides, based on actual use analytics, and structure the content elements to allow retrieval. Web searchers can now cherry-pick information in the search results to get the exact content items they want from articles marked up in schema.org. Such behavior provides a preview of how content will need to become adaptive to user needs.
Content reuse is rich with possibilities. Different content specializations are working to improve reuse. It is useful to understand different approaches. By combining approaches, one can support an integrated strategy that improves both internal goals such as efficiency and governance, and external goals such as personalization and engagement.
— Michael Andrews
FRBR stands for Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records. FRBR’s focus is on bibliographic records for long-form content such as books, sound recordings, and films. Its focus is different from that of content strategy, so it will not be exactly equivalent. It offers helpful insights as long as we don’t expect literal compliance to its terminology. My apologies to librarians if I run roughshod over these concepts. ↩