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.
In the first part of this two-part post, “Why your content is never up to date,” I discussed how common approaches to managing out-of-date content are focused on first searching for content that’s dated, and then updating it as appropriate. In this post, I want to explore how to prevent content from being becoming out-of-date. Making sure content is always current requires more than willpower. It requires more sophisticated tools than are widely available today.
Unfortunately, for all the bells an whistles in many content management systems, they are generally poorly designed to support real-time enterprise management of content’s “nowness”. The intelligence of what’s up-to-date resides in the heads of the content creators, and the CMS is largely oblivious to what is involved with that judgment. The cognitive load of having to keep track of how up-to-date content is, and why, is doubtless one of the frustrations that contributes to user disillusionment with CMSs.
Due to the limitations of existing tools, I will propose some new approaches. In some cases, organizations will need to build new software tools and business processes themselves to enable proactive management of content. While this option is not for everyone, it is clear to me that content innovation comes from publishers and not from the CMS industry, and that content leaders are often the ones who build their own solutions.
The solutions I propose fall in three main areas:
understanding the temporal lifecycle of content elements
developing more robust business rules for content
building intelligence into content workflows
Why does content change?
Few organizations at the enterprise level have a good understanding of why their content changes over time, and how often. Since they tend to devolve responsibility to individuals, they don’t monitor this dimension. But without insights into what’s happening, they are unable to manage the process more effectively. They need to understand what elements of content are routinely updated, what business areas those elements relate to, and how often the updates happen.
Organizations need forensic insights into content change. Content can go through at least three patterns of changes in state:
content that is thrown away because it is no longer useful
content that is temporarily replaced by other content before returning, such as when a limited time offer replaces the standard offer
content that is updated, and evolves from one state to another
The difference between throw-away content and revisable content may not be clear cut. Sometimes content is thrown away because it is too burdensome to revise. Other times content looks like a revision when in reality is a repurposing of content about one product for use about another (a forking or mutation change). It’s valuable to know what kinds of content change often (or should change often), and what about the content changes, to anticipate what is a problem area in terms of generating out-of-date content, or generating revision effort.
Gaining an understanding of what content changes is not typically developed during a content inventory, which is one of the few times organizations ever thoroughly examine their content.
Another challenge is to understanding change is knowing what level of detail to examine. Even interviewing content owners about change will not necessarily reveal all the changes that happen. Owners will likely focus on changes specific to their content, and then only the most substantive ones. But changes relating to specific details can happen on a global basis, and can become tedious or worse. The VP for Customer Relations, for example, one day may decide that henceforth all customers will no longer be described as “members” but instead as “guests.”
Most CMSs are not robust tracking the many content components that can change, such as the terminology used to describe a customer. Content strategists often advocate structured modularity in content to help manage such issues. Modularity can be helpful, but is infrequently practiced when it comes to embedded content — content within content. (Notable exception: CMSs optimized for structured online catalog content.) Some CMSs don’t support modular component embedding, and of those that do, they are often cumbersome for endusers. To avoid having unstructured content embedded with larger content, some strategists recommend avoiding embedded content all together, for example, never having links in-line with the text body. But scattering content elements in different places can degrade the audience experience. Content creators reflexively embed content in other content to create a more naturalistic content experience, publishing content that feels integrated rather than fragmented.
A key need is to understand changes that happen within embedded content. Most CMSs don’t offer good visibility into how pervasively specific content components, structured or unstructured, are used across digital publications. Conducting an analysis of how these components change will help your organization manage them better.
Ideally, a reliable and repeatable process for understanding change will involve something like this:
a snapshot is taken of a consistent representative sample of content at different time intervals
the sample snapshots are compared using file comparisons to identify what aspects of the content have changed over time
the text of content that is found to have changed is analyzed as to its type, meaning and purpose
patterns of change for components of content are identified according to element and the context in which it appeared, to provide a basis for developing content business rules
Another area where most CMSs are weak relates to versioning content, especially at the component level. There isn’t much intelligence relating to versioning in most CMSs. Typically, the CMS auto-creates a new version each time there’s a revision, for whatever reason. The version number is meaningless. The publisher can “roll back” the version to a prior one in case there was a mistake, but you can’t see what was different about the content three versions ago compared with the current version. Even for the few CMSs that let you track changes over time, there is no characterization of what the change represents, and why it was made. A few CMSs let the author add comments to each version, but such free text entry is generally going to be idiosyncratic and not trackable at an aggregated level. Comments might say something like “Revised wording based on Karen’s feedback” — meaningful in a local workgroup context perhaps, but not meaningful elsewhere.
At a minimum CMSs need to provide publication date-based version management, so that administrators can easily identify what content about a topic was published before or after a certain date. This capability allows one to at least see how much content may be impacted by an event-driven change. This is basic stuff, and easy to do, but it falls short of what’s actually needed. It would be helpful to be able to apply conditions to such search, such as finding items published prior to a date with content containing some variable.
An even better solution would provide an easy way to record the business reason for the update. These could be formalized as trackable data elements, that could be applied as a batch when clusters of content are updated at the same time. Examples of reasons you might want to track are: product model change, warranty change, branding update, campaign language revision, etc.
Having such changes tracked will enable organizations to monitor how much updating is happening, and the status of updates. It allows content owners to examine the status of all their content without having to read each item.
More robust business rules
As organizations begin to look at content updating as an organizational issue, instead of as the problem for individual content owners, the opportunity arises that different kinds of updates can be prioritized according to business value. I would be surprised if many organizations today have an explicit policy on how to prioritize the updating of content. Instead, it is common for updating to be based either on what’s easy to do, or what seems urgent based on immediate management prerogatives.
While any content that is out-of-date should be updated, provided the content has continuing value, it’s obvious that some content is more important than others. Broken links are always a lousy experience, but unless they are on a high traffic page that’s a key part of a conversion funnel, they probably aren’t mission critical.
Different kinds of updates need to be characterized by their business criticality, and an estimation of effort involved with the update. Errors and changes to regulatory, legal and price related content are business critical. Changes to unstructured content, such as branding changes involving photographic imagery, often take longer when done on a large scale. Each organization needs to develop its own prioritization based on its business factors and content readiness.
Once an organization has a better understanding of what drives content updates, it can begin to define business rules relating to content so that it is kept current. The goal is to formalize the changes of state for content, so it can be better managed.
The content update analysis performed earlier will provide the foundation for the development of business rules. To do this, map the content changes you observe against the content contexts (larger content containers) and against a timeline. Map what changing content elements (fragments of text, images, whatever) are associated with content types and topics. Identify common patterns. Some content elements will be used many places. Some topics or types of content will have multiple changes associated with them at a given time, others will only experience minor changes. After you have performed this analysis (using either a computer-based cluster tool, or doing it manually through affinity diagramming), you should start to see some common scenarios. If it is not obvious why the updates occurred, work with content owners and other stakeholders to reconstruct what happened. You should end up with a series of common scenarios that describe cases where your content requires updating.
From the scenarios, you will want to identify specific triggers that generate the need for updates. This will be internal or external events that impact the content, or situations where some variable relating to the content has changed.
In the case of situational change (e.g., something changed, but the actor or the timing is not well defined), it is important to understand how small scale change can ripple through content. Perhaps a product line has been renamed, or messaging has been revised slightly. When such details impact many items of content, they should be managed through content templates where such details are structurally controlled. There is always a trade off between the overhead of managing components and the efficiency of updating them. Having a solid grasp of the relative frequency of items, their prevalence of use, and frequency of updates will allow content designers to strike an appropriate balance. Even if such content elements are not all centrally managed, it is important to know where they are being used.
In the case of event triggered change, it is useful to characterize the types of events and associated actors, and the elements typically updated as a result. Triggers can be internal, such as a new marketing campaign, sale of a division, the introduction of a new product line, or a new partnership. Triggers may also be external: a new regulation, a dramatic market shift, or the adoption of third party guidelines. Such events potentially impact multiple content elements, and involve more complex coordination. By identifying typical events that impact content, as well as major corporate-level changes that may be less frequent but have huge consequences, you can build workflows needed to assure necessary updates happen.
These recommendations may appear simply to follow the principles of good content design. But effective content design also needs to be transparent, so all stakeholders can understand the linkages, and status of updates. Such visibility is essential to being able to revise the model as business requirements change. Unfortunately, even in well designed content implementations, it is often difficult to understand what’s under the hood, and know how the pieces fit together.
Implementing a more intelligent approach
Content administrators, content owners, and the executives who depend on content to deliver business outcomes have common needs:
knowing what to do when updating is needed
knowing the status of updates
being sure their effort is efficient and effective
An effective process needs to accommodate the various parties who are involved in content updating. One approach would be to empower a central team with lead responsibility for major update initiatives. It might involve a command center or newsroom, where company initiatives that impact company content are identified, and the updates needed cascade through the organization. Suppose the company announced a new initiative, or a change in policy. The central command center would query a database of content to identify impacted content. If the changes were global, they could make the updates themselves. If the changes impact selected content, the team would identify the specific content and send a notification to the content owner to make revisions. The notification would include a message about the business criticality of the update, the reason for needing the update, and an estimation of effort. As updates are made, the team would monitor progress on a dashboard. This approach assumes a degree of central management of content within an organization.
Another situation is when large scale content changes are unplanned. Such changes might be harder for a central team to identify, especially if they arise from a peripheral division that doesn’t have a close relationship with the central team. Suppose a content owner initiates an update that has an impact on other content she does not own. Assuming this owner has authority to make such an update, there needs to be a way to alert other parties of the change. Ideally, the content system will be smart enough to have a file conflict detection capability, so that it could spot a conflict between the revisions the content owner has made, and other similar instances of content. The inspiration for this approach is the conflict detection capability in repositories such as GitHub, though the user experience would need to be radically simpler and more informative. Complex, marked-up content is unquestionably more elaborate that the flat files managed in file repositories. The task is not trivial, and there could be a lot of noise to overcome, such as false alarms, or missed alerts. Having good taxonomic structure would be imperative. But if it could work, the alert would serve two functions. First, it would make the content owner aware that the change will make her content out of sync with other content, and ask for conformation of intent. Second, it would trigger notification of the central team and affected content owners that updates are necessary.
Costs and opportunities of an intelligent process
The vision I have outlined is ambitious, and requires resources to realize. No doubt some will object to its apparent complexity, the expense it might entail, the uncertainties of trying an approach that hasn’t already been thoroughly tested by many others. Some CMS vendors might object that I undersell their product’s capabilities, that I am exaggerating the severity of the problem of keeping content up-to-date. I can’t claim to be an authority on all the 1000+ CMSs available, but most I see seem to emphasize making themselves appear easy to use (“drag and drop inline editing!”), aiming to convince selection committees that content management should be no more complicated than an iPad game. Vendors deemphasize harder questions of enterprise level productivity and long term strategic value. Once installed, few endusers find their new CMS nearly as fun as they had hoped. The emphasis on eye candy is an attempt to deflect that enduser unhappiness.
As I noted in the my earlier post, relying on existing approaches is simply not an effective option for large organizations. It’s costly to always be playing catch up with content updates and never be on top of them. Organizations that are always behind on updating their content miss business opportunities as they exhaust their staff. It’s risky not to know that all your content is even up to date: an expensive lawsuit could result. Playing catch up impairs a business’s ability to operate agilely.
Yes resources are required to develop the capability to proactively update content before it becomes out-of-date. But content has no value unless it is up-to-date, so there is little choice. In this era of mining big data and precision enterprise resource planning, it’s not unrealistic to expect more granular control over one’s content. It’s not acceptable for large organizations to be presenting information to their customers that’s not the newest available.
I don’t assume my suggestions are the only approach to making the process more intelligent, but radical change of some kind seems needed. If you agree this is a problem that needs new solutions, I encourage you to share your views on your favorite social media channel and encourage the development of something better.
Audiences need to feel confident that content they are viewing is active — current, accurate and relevant to the moment — and not dead. They expect to view the newest information. A robust process for keeping content up-to-date has never been more important, but existing approaches fall short of that ideal. In part one of this two part series, I will examine why common approaches for updating content can create problems. In part two, “Making content updates an intelligent process,” I will suggest alternatives. First, let’s look at why the current situation is a problem.
Audiences can punish brands on social media when content’s dated and inaccurate. Even content with minor blimishes, such as copy that simply looks outdated, can influence the perceived credibility of the content. People don’t want to think they are getting something that’s old and stale, something that makes them feel they aren’t a priority. Numerous studies have shown that audiences evaluate information for being up-to-date ahead of any other factor. Current content is also essential for SEO. SEO experts believe Google gives priority to most recent content, and content that appears more recent will probably have higher click through rates (CTRs).
Brands still face major challenges fighting the problem of dead content, even though everyone agrees on the value of keeping content up-to-date. Why is this? The old model of “publish and forget” is no longer acceptable. Previously, brands might publish something, then mentally throw it away after it was no longer desirable or needed, without actually taking steps to retire the content. Now, content will often have at least a notional expiry date associated with it. Deadlines sound serious, as long as people believe in them. But many times the content updating process is built on wishful thinking.
Common approaches to updating
The current approach to preventing dead content is what I will call “publish and be vigilant.” This approach involves several tactics that rest on two core values: discipline, and accountability. The vigilant approach depends on the heroism and foibles of people. It can work well in some situations, especially when there is a small group of content creators who regularly revise content. But a process based on vigilance is not effective or sustainable for large scale content management. To understand some the elements of the vigilant approach, we will look at the content governance advice of the U.S. Government (as of this writing in early 2014). I’m using this example not because it is notably good or bad, but because it is representative, and provides a rare glimpse into an internal organizational policy.
The above screenshot shows the basic process. The key recommendation is to set up a review process: content owners follow a list of criteria to check that the content is readable and functional, and conduct reviews on a quarterly basis, with all content reviewed once a year. This advice is consistent with recommendations commonly offered by content strategists, and is sound as far as it goes. These things do need to happen, even if they may need to be done differently than the basic guidance would suggest. But the larger problem is to assume doing these things alone will be sufficient to keep your content up-to-date. The real world of content is far too messy to be managed by simple rules.
Hope #1: Content ownership
All content needs an owner — that’s the standard advice. Here’s what noted content consultant Garry McGovern says: “Anything that does get published must have an identifiable owner. That owner must commit to regularly (every six months at least) checking their published content. It is absolutely no excuse for them to say they don’t have time. Don’t let them publish if they don’t have time to review and remove.” But McGovern also notes “It’s very hard to review and remove. Not alone does it take time, it also takes skill and authority.”
While having an owner is essential, it’s not a panacea. McGovern highlights the skill and time issues associated with ownership. The problems get even bigger when looked at across the entire organization. The reality is that content ownership is almost never distributed on the basis of resources available to support the content. People are content owners because they want political ownership, or are the subject matter expert, or else they were the unlucky inheritor of content no one else wants to own. Some people are owners of a few items that aren’t burdensome but are largely irrelevant to their main job functions, and hence a low priority. Other people “own” piles of content they can’t hope to manually review on a regular basis. Simply devolving responsibility for managing the dead content problem is not a viable solution.
Hope #2: Content reviews
Another tactic that often fails in practice is setting up a content review schedule. The content owner, who has moral responsibility for keeping his content up-to-date, even if he has no staff hours budgeted to do so, is expected to review all his content on some arbitrary schedule: quarterly, semiannually or annually. During this review period, all other of their work obligations will presumably pause. Of course, few modern organizations have fallow periods available for spring cleaning. But even if an organization did prioritize content review, doing it on an arbitrary timeframe makes no sense. Such arbitrary schedules are not based on the underlying characteristics of the content, and do not reflect any solid business requirements.
Content varies in its shelf life. Some content has a short shelf life: it needs to get updated more frequently than once a quarter, and probably does get updated, because it is front of mind. Other content has a long shelf life. It may need updating at any time, but when that will be is unpredictable. If change is infrequent, then reviews will either result in wasted time checking ok content, or allowing a long time to lapse before something that has become outdated is revised.
Content management systems promise to manage the problem by including an expiration date on the content that sends a alert to the content owner. While tying an expiration date to an item of content does have the advantage of distributing when different content is reviewed, it doesn’t change the the fundamental problem of date-based reviews: they are predicated on an arbitrary timeframe, a guess of when to look at something again. In the case of a CMS expiration, there may even be a tendency to overestimate how long a piece of content will stay current, since we all like to believe in the lasting value of our efforts.
Scheduled reviews aren’t efficient or effective. There needs to be better methods tied to actual business requirements. Use scheduled reviews only as a fall back until you’ve implemented more robust solutions.
Hope #3: Kill unused content
A third tactic, borrowed from the realm of content auditing, is to get rid of content once it’s not being used. This is essentially a Darwinian approach: if content isn’t being viewed, it isn’t of value to audiences or the organization, so it doesn’t deserve a home any longer. And, unsurprisingly, much content that isn’t viewed is in fact out of date. So utilization can be a proxy for out-of-datedness.
Paul Boag suggests this approach as being both labor efficient and skirts some of political squabbles surrounding content retirement: “An alternative to time based review points would be traffic based. This is designed to remove content that is not really used by users rather than out-of-date content. This review point would be triggered if the traffic to a page falls below a certain threshold over a given period. This would indicate that the page is of little interest and is simply making it more difficult for the majority of people to find what they are after.”
Boag recognizes the human resource bottleneck of manual reviews, and his proposal is elegant. But killing unused content is both reactive and unstrategic, and could result in some bad outcomes. The goal should be to keep content up-to-date, not simply to get rid of old or underused content. Those two goals are not equivalent.
Unfortunately, web traffic is an imprecise measure of the topical value of content. It merely records what content has been viewed, not the actual interest of audiences in the topic itself. One can imagine several scenarios where content that should be of interest to audiences and is strategically important, is not getting expected traffic:
Content on important topics may be poorly written; such content should be improved, not eliminated.
The lead subject matter expert for a hot, fast moving topic may have left the organization and could not be replaced right away: the content got old and stale, and traffic fell. Again, eliminating such content will only weaken public perception of the organization’s expertise about the topic.
Perhaps more unsettlingly, web traffic analysis may not catch out-of-date content when traffic is high. Content may be out of date and contain errors, but still gets lots of traffic due to its keywords or placement. Instead of flagging the problem, the analytics team is blissfully unaware that they have a large scale issue until customer service complaints start coming in.
Analytics should be part of the tool set, but remember that they are looking backward, and can miss some blind spots. Analytics don’t answer what content the organization should be emphasizing in the future from a business perspective, it only addresses what content audiences have found popular in the past.
Why the status quo needs disruption
The approaches I’ve critiqued do have merits: all are conceptually simple, all are necessary, and in many cases they are the only options organizations currently have to address content that’s gone out-of-date. Organizations are not wrong for using these approaches. But relying on these approaches alone will never solve the problem that content goes out-of-date, and organizations only discover this fact after it has happened, sometimes a long time after. These approaches are about how to resuscitate content that has died, about applying CPR to content that’s stopped breathing.
Every year organizations publish more and more new content, and every year they have more and more legacy content they need to look at to make sure its not out-of-date and in conflict with all the new stuff. Every year, customer toleration of old content lessens, as people expect faster updates, and get more frustrated encountering legacy content that hasn’t been updated. A process based on discipline and threats can’t cope with these trends.
To review some of the problems with the status quo:
content owners are often not aware their content is out-of-date for long periods
other members of the organization may not know of the problem either
web analytics won’t necessarily flag the problem
What’s been missing in the content strategy toolkit are ways to anticipate when content will go out-of-date, and make revisions to the content before the content becomes overtaken by new events. In the second part of this article, I will explore ideas for improving an organization’s anticipatory capability to make content changes when they need to happen.