Landscape of Content Variation

Publishers understandably want to leverage what they’ve already produced when creating new content.  They need to decide how to best manage and deliver new content that’s related to — but different from — existing content. To create different versions of content, they have three options, which I will refer to as the template-based, compositional, and elastic approaches.

To understand how the three approaches differ, it is useful to consider a critical distinction: how content is expressed, as distinct from the details the content addresses.

When creating new content, publishers face a choice of what existing material to use again, and what to change.  Should they change the expression of existing content, or the details of that content?  The answer will depend on whether they are seeking to amplify an existing core message, or to extend the message to cover additional material.  That core message straddles between expression (how something is said) and details (specifics), which is one reason both these aspects, the style and the substance, get lumped together into a generic idea of “content”.  Telling an author to simply “change the content” does not indicate whether to change the connotation or denotation of the content.  They need more clarity on the goal of the change.

Content variation results from the interaction of the two dimensions:

  1. The content expression (the approach of written prose or other manifestations such as video)
  2. The details (facts and concrete information).

Both expression and details can vary.  Publishers can change both the expression and the details of content, or they can focus on just one of the dimensions.

The interplay of content expression and details can explain a broad range of content variation.  Content management professionals commonly explain content variation by referring to a more limited concept: content structure —  the inclusion and arrangement of chunk-size components or sections.  Content structure does influence content variation in many cases, but not in all cases. Expressive variation can result when content is made up of different structural components.  Variation in detail can take place within a common structural component.   But rearranging content structure is not the only, or even necessarily the preferred, way to manage content variation.  Much content lacks formal structure, even though the content follows distinguishable variations that are planned and managed.

The expression of content (for example, the wording used) can be either fixed (static, consistent or definitive) or fluid (changeable or adaptable).  A fixed expression is present when all content sounds alike, even if the particulars of the content are different.  As an example, a “form” email is a fixed expression, where the only variation is whether the email is addressed to Jack or to Jill.  When the expression of content is fluid,  in contrast, the same basic content can exist in many forms.  For example, an anecdote could be expressed as a written short story, as a dramatized video clip, or as a comic book.

Details in content can also be either fixed, or they can vary.  Some details are fixed, such as when all webpages include the same contact details.  Other content is entirely about the variation of the details.  For example, tables often look similar (their expression is fixed), though their details vary considerably.

Diagram showing how both expression and details in content can vary (revised).  NB: elastic content can also fluidly address a diverse range of details, but its unique power comes from its ability to express the same fixed details different ways.

Now let’s look at three approaches for varying content.  Only one relies on leveraging structures within content, while the other two exist without using structure.

Template-based content has a fixed expression.  Think of a form letter, where details are merged into a fixed body of text.  With template-based content, the details vary, and are frequently what’s most significant about the content.   Template-based content resembles a “mad libs” style of writing, where the basic sentence structure is already in place, and only certain blanks get filled in with information.  Much of the automated writing referred to as robo-journalism relies on templates.  The Associated Press will, for example, feed variables into a template to generate thousands of canned sports and financial earnings reports.  Needless to say, the rigid, fixed expression of template-based writing rates low on the creativity scale.  On the other hand, fixed expression is valuable when even subtle changes in wording might cause problems, such as in legal disclaimers.

Compositional content relies on structural components.  It is composed of different components that are fixed, relying on a process known as transclusion.  These components may include informational variables, but most often do not.  The expression of the content will vary according to which components are selected and included in the delivered content.  Compositional content allows some degree of customization, to reflect variations in interests and detail desired.  Content composed from different components can offer both expressive variation and consistency in content to some degree, though there is ultimately a intrinsic tradeoff in those goals.  Generally the biggest limitation of compositional content is that its range of variation is limited.  Compositional variation increases complexity, which tends to prioritize creating consistency in content instead of variation.  Compositional content can’t generate novel variation, since it must rely on existing structures to create new variants.

Elastic content is content that can be expressed in a multitude of ways.  With elastic content, the core informational details stay constant, but how these details are expressed will change. None of the content is fixed, except for the details.  In fact, so much variation in expression is possible that publishers may not notice how they can reuse existing informational details in new contexts.  Elastic content can even morph in form, by changing media.

Authors tend to repeat facts in content they create.  They may want to keep mentioning the performance characteristic of a product, or an award that it has won. Such proof points may appeal to the rational mind, but don’t by themselves stimulate  much interest.  To engage the reader’s imagination, the author creates various stories and narratives that can illustrate or reinforce facts they want to convey.  Each narrative is a different expression, but the core facts stay constant.  Authors rely on this tactic frequently, but sometimes unconsciously.  They don’t track how many separate narratives draw on the same facts. They can’t tell if a story failed to engage audiences because its expression was dull, or because the factual premise accompanying the narrative had become tired, and needs changing.  When authors track these informational details with metadata, they can monitor which stories mention which facts, and are in a better position to understand the relationships between content details and expression.

Machines can generate elastic content as well.   When information details are defined by metadata, machines can use the metadata to express the details in various ways.  Consider content indicating the location of a store or an event.  The same information, captured as a geo-coordinate value in metadata, can be expressed multiple ways.  It can be expressed as a text address, or as a map.  The information can also be augmented, by showing a photo of the location, or with a list of related venues that are close by.  The metadata allows the content to become versatile.

As real time information becomes more important in the workplace, individuals are discovering they want that information in different ways.  Some people want spreadsheet-like tools they can use to process and refine the raw alphanumeric values.  Others want data summarized in graphic dashboards.  And a growing number want the numbers and facts translated into narrative reports that highlight, in sentences, what is significant about the information.  Companies are now offering software that assesses information, contextualizes it, and writes narratives discussing the information.  In contrast to the fill-in-the-blank feeding of values in a template, this content is not fixed.  The content relies on metadata (rather than a blind feed as used in templates); the description changes according to the information involved.  The details of the information influence how the software creates the narrative.   By capturing key information as metadata, publishers have the ability to amplify how they express that information in content.  Readers can get a choice of what medium to access the information.

The next frontier in elastic content will be conversational interfaces, where natural language generation software will use informational details described with metadata, to generate a range of expressive statements on topics.  The success of conversational interfaces will depend on the ability of machines to break free from robotic, canned, template-based speech, and toward more spontaneous and natural sounding language that adapts to the context.

Weighing Options

How can publishers leverage existing content, so they don’t have to start from scratch?  They need to understand what dimensions of their content that might change.  They also need to be realistic about what future needs can be anticipated and planned for.  Sometimes publishers over-estimate how much of their content will stay consistent, because they don’t anticipate the circumstantial need for variation.

Information details that don’t change often, or may be needed in the future, should be characterized with metadata.  In contrast, frequently changing and ephemeral details could be handled by a feed.

Standardized communications lend themselves to templates, while communications that require customization lend themselves to compositional approaches using different structural components.  Any approach that relies on a fixed expression of content can be rendered ineffective when the essence of the communication needs to change.

The most flexible and responsive content, with the greatest creative possibilities, is elastic content that draws on a well- described body of facts.  Publishers will want to consider how they can reuse information and facts to compose new content that will engage audiences.

— Michael Andrews