Monthly Archives: December 2013

Resolved: better content governance

As we head into a new year, it’s a time for reflection on the past, and resolutions for the coming year.  A perfect time to consider content governance.  Content governance involves developing goals, policies, processes and standards to improve the quality, efficiency and effectiveness of content across an organization.  At its core, content governance is about managing change: changing individual perceptions and practices, changing how individuals and departments work with others, and dealing with the external technological, social and market changes that make habitual ways of working increasingly difficult.

Like many things involving change, content governance is not easy.   Social media has exposed cracks in the apparent coordination of organizations.  As people talk back to organizations, organizations find they have trouble telling their story and listening to their customers at the same time.  The forces of change affecting content can test the conventional responsibilities of marketing and IT and customer service.  Governance grows in importance as the range of internal stakeholders affected gets more diverse, and as business processes and audience needs become more inter-related.

There are various activities and outputs associated with establishing content governance, such as setting up a committee, selecting priorities, and developing plans.  (For more on the basics of governance, see chapter 17 of Ann Rockley’s Managing Enterprise Content.)  Owing to the variation in organization structures, types of content contributors, categories of audiences, and forms of content, there is no one “best practice” for implementing content governance.  If there were, content governance wouldn’t be the thorn it often is.  Some organizations use governance to define details at the working level, others focus on a more strategic level.  Some provide toolkits and guidance, others demand compliance.  Each organization needs to develop and evolve its own practices in the context of their capabilities and objectives.  Rather than provide a tour of the procedural side of content governance, I offer some propositions to help you think about how to get value from your content governance, whatever model you adopt.   These propositions are meant to stimulate deeper thinking about your content governance, to think beyond fire fighting, and ask what’s lacking, and what more could one be doing.

1.  Lead by showcasing excellence.  Set up a center of excellence (CoE) relating to content, as suggested by Michael Brito.  There are many ways to do this, but the key thing is to find an aspect of your content practice that’s underperforming but critical, and explore options for improvement, either through looking at practices elsewhere or trying internal experiments.  These learnings can be refined into inspiring examples to showcase, and into new practices to use.  In the role of solution finder and advocate, a CoE can raise the profile of content strategy, and build buy-in for governance.

2.  Start a content innovation program, focusing on your collaboration capability.  The world moves too fast to plan for every contingency.  Organizations need to get better at improvisational responses that offer both reliable outcomes, and are repeatable.   Being able to respond to diverse and sometimes nonstandard situations requires a high degree of collaboration.  Model some “special” scenarios that could happen that deviate from the norm, and brainstorm how you’d like to handle those.  Identify situations where collobaration is needed to get the right solution.  There needs to be enough leeway in processes to allow for such collaboration, without undermining the standard process.  Having an innovation program will help maintain a balance between being overly loose and overly tight.  You don’t want workflows that freeze up or act stupidly at a critical moment.

3.  Love silos for what they are, not what you want them to be.  Silos (or in some networked organizations, pods) are very real, but it’s easy to dismiss them with clichés.  “Break down silos” is a tired phrase that doesn’t suggest a path forward.  Silos reflect responsibilities and expertise, and provide for accountability in organizations. Content governance won’t make generic bureaucracy go away, even if there is too much of it.  Silos need to be more content aware, but don’t expect them to become content centric, making content their top priority — that’s the responsibility of your content-focused silo.  Each silo is optimized to deliver specific outcomes.  Work with all of them to develop success metrics for content that can relate to their success metrics.  Content is a cross-cutting function, but so are many others, and the content champion needs to understand all these priorities.

4.  Denominate the value of content in customer terms.  Unless you are selling content, it can be hard for everyone to see its value the same way.  Frame the value in terms of the customer relationship.  Who owns the customer relationship? — Everyone.  What are each of these people responsible for offering customers?  And how does content relate to that?

5.  Do a swim lane audit.  Elaborate processes can give a false sense of quality.  They often slow down agility.  Inclusive, internal process check points convey the appearance of stakeholder buy-in, but may signal stakeholder over-involvement.  Consider your entire content supply chain, from ideation to distribution.  Examine the resource costs and value of each step.  What low value activities can be streamlined, what tedious and time-consuming ones can be automated?

6.  Account for parties outside your organization.  Partners, vendors, and customers need to be considered in your content governance — you will need to rely on them in some way, at some point.  Role play their interests, and imagine asking them for things that would help you help them.

7.  Partner with content experts, but don’t outsource your critical capability.  When things don’t work well, it can be tempting to sweep them under the rug.  Outsourcing critical content operations can help improve outcomes in the short term, but it can also hide structural issues.  Governance requires engagement by senior management so they know how robustly the content capability is operating, the commitment of different stakeholders to the content process, and how content capabilities can support the evolution of the brand.

8.  Find common cause with distant relatives.  Many organizations can seem like sprawling families, divided between immediate family and distant relatives.  Reach out to people further afield. Work with other business units and geographic units outside your immediate organization to identify common issues, and see if you find goals you share.  Even if you end up pursuing different approaches, it can add to learnings, and evolve into similar parallel practices.

9.  Separate content governance from other governance initiatives. It’s hard to do, but you need to.  There is no question that content depends on other functions.  For example, how the IT department procures systems may impact the capabilities of your CMS, and what it can deliver.  There’s a temptation to fold content governance into website governance, marketing reviews, social media policy, or IT planning.  You will quickly get off topic, and unable to develop a governance framework specific to content. The strategic value of content gets swallowed up by tactical decisions relating to peripheral dimensions.  Get a robust content governance established, demonstrate the value of content in its own right, then address harmonization with other initiatives.

10.  Don’t mix up planning and execution — give both strategy and tactics their due.  Planning for governance can be slow and deliberative, execution must be agile.  Don’t rush planning — it is the basis of having a strategic direction, setting your headline objectives.  Don’t turn execution issues, such as how to reduce the time to publish, into a strategy exercise.  Strategic planning helps identify the competitive elements of your content offering and capability based on business value and brand differentiation.   Once you have clarity on the essential elements needed, you can package these elements into a process that can be done agilely, and fine tune how to best execute workflow and delivery.

11.  Practice deep introspection about what your organization knows, and what it is sharing with customers (extra credit).  Here’s a paradox: organizations often publish too much content (in terms of value to customers), but sometimes have stuff of potential value that is not available to customers.  Organizations typically only audit what they’ve published, not what they know.  There may be useful information somewhere on your organization’s IT systems that is not published that could benefit your customers — especially if you are a B2B.  Content may be in documents, or in databases.  Think about your knowledge as a brand differentiator, and dig deeper to see what kinds of expert content you have hiding on internal servers that could refashioned into something consumer facing.  Because such content may seem “unusable” in its current form, it may seem like junk.  But usability does not necessarily equate with value.  Inaccessible content may have potential value.  Organizations sometimes publish usable, easily accessible content that offers little value.  The task is to get potentially valuable content into usable formats so it can deliver actual value.  If you have nothing hiding that others would want to access, congratulate yourself.

Some people expect 2014 will be a breakout year for omnichannel content, where organizations can relate to their customers through any channel.  Apart from the technical and information challenges, a key requirement to deliver on this vision will be well-functioning content governance.  There has never been a better time to confront the structural issues holding you back.

— Michael Andrews

Seven examples of content behavior design

Content behavior design promotes the discovery of content.  It is different from information architecture, which is focused on global information organization and navigation, and on offering users tools to specify what they are seeking.  Content behavior design anticipates what content might be interesting for users, and decides what to display based on that.  Rather than assume the user is necessarily looking to find a piece of information, content design assumes that the user may not be consciously looking for a piece of information, but would be happy to have it available if it were relevant to core content she is viewing.

In some cases, content behavior design can help people discover things they were not seeking.  In other cases, additional content provides more clarity.  Effective designs give audiences more context, making the content richer.  Here are six examples to illustrate how content behavior can work for audiences.

Real time content aggregation (Kayak)

kayak flight

Many bits of information are associated with a single label (a flight number) representing a single object (a plane).  This example brings together real time information about the flight, showing information about three locations (departure, current, and arrival) and timing information about events associated with these locations.  The aggregation of many pieces of real time information makes this powerful.  Real time information is compelling because it changes and gives audiences a reason to check for updates.  One could imagine this example being even more useful if it included weather related information affecting the flight, especially any weather conditions at the arrival destination that could impact the projected arrival time.

Content about related actions (ESPN)

espn tickets

In interaction design, it is helpful to highlight a next action, instead of making the user look elsewhere for it.  In this example from ESPN, the column on the far right allows the user to order tickets for a basketball game.  But instead of simply saying “order tickets,” it provides information about how many seats are available and the costs.  Incorporating this content is successful for two reasons: 1. It gives people interested in ordering tickets an idea of their availability; and 2. It gives people not interested in attending the game in person a sense of how anticipated the game is in terms of attendance.  Based on the number of tickets sold, and the prices of tickets, do fans expect an exciting game?

Tracking components of collections (Paprika)

paprika shopping

Digital content curation is an important development.  People collect content items that have associated metadata.  As they assemble items into collections, the metadata can be combined as well.  In this example from the recipe manager app Paprika, the ingredients from two recipes are combined into one shopping list, so that the user knows how many eggs in total he needs to make both dishes.  The content is smart enough to anticipate a need of the user, and perform that task without prompting.   Another example is the app Delicious Library, which can track the replacement costs of books one owns.  Designers use content behavior for applications focused on the “quantified self”— the collection of information about yourself.  For example, a design could tell the user what night of the week she typically sleeps best.

Audience activity insights (Economist)

economist readers

What audiences are interested in is itself interesting.  The Economist has adapted the concept of a tag cloud to listen to reader comments on their articles.  The program listens for keywords, newsworthy proper nouns or significant phrases, and shows relative frequency and extent they coincide.   It’s a variation of the “most commented” article list, but shifts the focus to the discussion itself.  Audiences can see what topics specifically are being discussed, and can note any relationships between topics.  For example, Apple is being discussed in the context of China, rather than in the context of Samsung.  Users can hover over to see the actual comments.  It provides a discovery mechanism for seeing the topicality of the week’s news, and provides enough ambiguity to tempt the reader to explore more to understand why something unfamiliar is being discussed.

Data on content facets (Bloomberg)


Content can have many facets. Faceted navigation, which takes the user to other content related to that facet, is a well established navigation technique.  This example from Bloomberg, in contrast, brings the content to the user.  As the interview is happening, users can get more information about things mentioned in the interview.  Without leaving the interview, the user can get more context, viewing real time information about stock prices discussed, or browsing headlines about companies or industries mentioned.  The viewer can even see how often the person speaking has appeared on the show previously to get a sense of their credibility or expertise.  Even though some of this information is hidden by collapsible menus, the user does not need to request the system to pull this information – it is provided by default.

Data-driven leaderboards (IMDb)

imdb leaderboard

Lists are a helpful navigation tool, but they are more valuable when they have interesting data behind them.  Unlike tables of data, which require users to sort, leaderboards provide automatic ranking by key criteria.  In this example from IMDb, animation series and titles are ranked by user rating and gross revenues.  The ranking provides the casual viewer a chance to gauge relative popularity before clicking on one for more information, while the core fan might check the list to see if their favorite film has moved up in the rankings.

Content recommendations (Netflix)

netflix recommendation

There are growing numbers of content recommendation engines, covering articles, books, music, videos and even data.  They rely on different inputs, such as user ratings, user consumption, peer ratings, peer consumption, and imputed content similarity.  In many respects, content recommendation engines represent the holy grail of content behavior design.  The chief problem for users is understanding and trusting the algorithm.  Why am I being told I would like this?  Netflix provides a rationale, based on prior activity by the user.  It’s probably a simplification of the actual algorithm, but it provides some basis for the user to accept or reject the recommendation.  I expect recommendation engines will evolve further to provide better signals that suggestions are a good fit (no risk), and that they aren’t too narrow (the filter bubble problem).

Ideas for thinking about behavior

In choosing what content to present, it helps to ask:

  • what else might someone find helpful that is related to what is being presented?
  • what aspects of content are notable, changing, and newsworthy, and how can you highlight these aspects?
  • how can you present content elements so they are interesting, rather than simply informative?
  • if you are trying to encourage audiences to act, how can real time content to used to support that?
  • how do different audiences relate to the content, and can you provide something that appeals to different segments?
  • what content could the system automatically provide that is laborious for someone to do themselves?

Designing content behavior is central to content engagement.  Try out ideas, and test them to see what works for your audiences.

— Michael Andrews

Content as a dynamic resource

Few content contributors understand how technology transforms content.  They focus on getting content to fill an existing product such as a newsletter or mobile app, but don’t see the other potential ways the content could be used.  As raw material content has many possibilities.  Publishers don’t always appreciate these possibilities.

Historically, content professionals have focused on the desirability of separating content from its presentation so that content can be managed more effectively, and visual design can be managed more consistently.  Content is stuff marked up in XML, while presentation determines how the audiences actually see the stuff.  Recently, content professionals have been writing more about content behavior.  Mark Baker for example champions a concept he calls “content engineering” and has written a terrific article on the need to separate content from behavior.

Authors have trouble thinking about content as raw material because they tend to view publishing as an event, rather than as an ongoing process.  I want to propose three pillars to help to clarify the many possibilities for content.  These pillars are

  1. content stock
  2. content presentation
  3. content behavior

Content stock is what many people just call content.  The distinction I am making is that the stock of content is always available and ready to morph into something else, even when it appears finished and ready to be consumed.  Content stock is not an end product, but a resource, much like stock photography.  It may be created for immediate or later use, or acquired from third parties.  Content stock is mediated by APIs sourcing content from elsewhere, and CMS and DAM platforms managing content assets owned by the organization.  Metadata gives content stock meaning that is intelligible to computers, which determine which parts are most relevant to an audience.   Examples of content stock include

  • articles
  • text streams such as comments in social media
  • text descriptions from catalogs
  • tabular data
  • audio such as interviews and music
  • video
  • imagery such as photos and graphic illustrations
  • user profile information
  • display ads
  • re-usable slogans and messaging

Content presentation determines how the selected content is presented to end users.  There are a number of ways that code can change how content is presented.  Even though code separates content elements from their presentation, the relationship between content and presentation is often a source of grief because digital content behaviors differently from analogue content.  Code can, for example, provide some amazing transition effects, at the same time it struggles to offer some of the layout precision found in print media.  Content presentation can influence the meaning audiences derive from content.  Subtle clues about the importance and relationship between items can be conveyed through hierarchy and the separation or association of different content elements.   Publishers can use presentation frameworks to change how different audience segments view or experience content.  Some content presentation frameworks include

  • visual styling frameworks, codified in CSS
  • media format frameworks, such as text to speech capabilities or image animation
  • language and wording customization, such as applying audience specific terminology
  • data visualization frameworks, such as widgets that can display variable data
  • templates for content presentation for different devices
  • emerging frameworks such as CSS filters and WebGL

Content behavior design is about what content is presented, rather than how it is presented.  It treats the content to deliver has a variable that will change according to the circumstances or audience needs.  Content systems can adapt content to address changing needs of audiences, and in so doing, become much more anticipatory.  Recommendation engines are an example of content behavior design.   Some other examples of content behavior design include

  • varying the length of content through automated summarization or content augmentation
  • location-aware content that changes depending on the user’s location
  • time-adaptive content, showing content based on time of day, date, or season
  • content offering real time data, such as data driven journalism
  • content about user activity such as trending content or sentiment
  • query-driven, criteria-based content, such as IF content has certain characteristics, THEN find notable related content with similar dimensions
  • calculated content, such as displaying inflation adjusted values

Moving beyond COPE

Focusing on content behavior moves us a step beyond COPE, the “create once, publish everywhere” paradigm first developed at NPR.  The original idea for COPE was to get “the same NPR story displayed in a wide range of platforms.”  COPE is a revolutionary concept that most organizations are still struggling to deliver.  It is a good fit for a news organization like NPR, which creates content serially and generally does not revise content once it’s published.  But for other publishers, especially those creating evergreen content or looking to re-use themes and assets, it can be more useful to focus on the process of content assembly than a discrete event of content publishing.  Their stock of content may contain many stories, not just one.  Content behavior design allows elements in one’s stock of content to be utilized repeatedly and be available on demand as needed.  It can also provide a richer content experience for audiences.  The more dynamic the content, the more dynamic its presentation can be as well.

— Michael Andrews