Monthly Archives: July 2017

Content & Decisions: A Unified Framework

Many organizations face a chasm between what they say they want to do, and what they are doing in practice.  Many say they want to transition toward digital strategy.  In practice, most still rely on measuring the performance of individual web pages, using the same basic approach that’s been around for donkey’s years. They have trouble linking the performance of their digital operations to their high level goals. They are missing a unified framework that would let them evaluate the relationship between content and decisions.

Why is a Unified Framework important?

Organizations, when tracking how successful they are doing, tend to focus on web pages: abandonment rates, clicks, conversions, email opening rates, likes, views, and so on. Such granular measurements don’t reveal the bigger picture of how content is performing within the publishing organization. Even multi-page measurements such as funnels are little more than an arbitrary linking of discrete web pages.

Tracking the performance of specific web pages is necessary, but not sufficient. But because each page is potentially unique, summary metrics of different pages don’t explain variations in performance.   Page-level metrics tell how specific pages perform, but they don’t address important variables that transcend different pages, such as which content themes are popular, or which design features are being adopted.

Explaining how content fits into digital business strategy is a bit like trying to describe an elephant without being able to see the entire animal. Various people within an organization focus on different digital metrics. How all these metrics interact gets murky.  Operational staff commonly track lower level variables about specific elements or items. Executives track metrics that represent higher level activities and events, which have resource and revenue implications that don’t correspond to specific web pages.

Metadata can play an important role connecting information about various activities and events, and transcend the limitations of page-level metrics.  But first, organizations need a unified framework to see the bigger picture of how their digital strategy relates to their customers.

Layers of Activities and Decisions

To reveal how content relates to other decisions, we need to examine content at different layers. Think of these layers as a stack. One layer consists of the organization publishing content.  Another layer comprises the customers of the organization, the users of the organization’s content and products.  At the center is the digital interface, where organizations interact with their users.

We also need to identify how content interacts with other kinds of decisions within each layer.  Content always plays a supporting role.  The challenge is to measure how good a job it is doing supporting the goals of various actors.

Diagram showing relationships between organizations, their digital assets, and users/customers, and the interaction between content and platforms..

First let’s consider what’s happening within the organization that is publishing content.  The organization makes business decisions that define what the business sells to its customers, and how it services its customers.  Content needs to support these decisions.  The content strategy needs to support the business strategy.  As a practical matter, this means that the overall publishing activity (initiatives, goals, resources) needs to reflect the important business decisions that executives have made about what to emphasize and accomplish.  For example, publishing activity would reflect marketing priorities, or branding goals.  Conversely, an outsider could view the totality of an organization’s content, by viewing their website, and should get a sense of what’s important to that organization.  Publishing activity reveals an organization’s brand and priorities.

The middle layer is composed of assets that the organization has created for their customers to use.  This layer has two sides: the stock of content that’s available, and digital platforms customers access.  The stock of content reflects the organization’s publishing activity .  The digital platforms reflect the organization’s business decisions.  Digital platforms are increasingly an extension of the products and services the organization offers.  Customers need to access the digital platforms to buy the product or service, to use the product or service, and to resolve any problems after purchase.  Content provides the communications that customers need to access the platform.  Because of this relationship, the creation of content assets and the designs for digital platforms are commonly coordinated during their implementation.

Within the user layer, the customer accesses content and platforms.  They choose what content to view, and make decisions about how to buy, use, and maintain various products and services.  The relationship between content activity and user decisions is vital, and will be discussed shortly.  But its importance should not overshadow the influence of the other layers.  The user layer should not be considered in isolation from other decisions and activities that an organization has made.

Feedback loops Between and Within Layers

Let’s consider how the layers interact.  Each layer has a content dimension, and a platform dimension, at opposite ends.  Content dimensions interact with each other within feedback loops, as do platform dimensions.  The content and platform dimensions ultimately directly interact with each other in a feedback loop within the user layer.

On the content side, the first feedback loop, the publishing operations loop, relates to how publishing activity affects the stock of content.  The organization decides the broad direction of its publishing. For many organizations, this direction is notional, but more sophisticated organizations will use structured planning to align their stock of content with the comprehensive goals they’ve set for the content overall.  This planning involves not only the creation of new content, but the revision of the existing stock of content to reflect changes in branding, marketing, or service themes.   The stock of content evolves as the direction of overall publishing activity changes.  At the same time, the stock of content reflects back on the orientation of publishing activity.  Some content is created or adjusted outside of a formal plan.  Such organic changes may be triggered in response to signals indicating how customers are using existing content. Publishers can compare their plans, goals, and activities, with the inventory of content that’s available.

The second content feedback loop, the content utilization loop, concerns how audiences are using content.  Given a stock of content available, publishers must decide what content to prioritize.  They make choices concerning how to promote content (such as where to position links to items), and how to deliver content (such as which platforms to make available for customers to access information).  At the same time, audiences are making their own choices about what content to consume.  These choices collectively suggest preferences of certain kinds of content that are available within the stock of content.

When organizations consider the interaction between the two loops of feedback, they can see the connection between overall publishing activity, and content usage activity.  Is the content the organization wants to publish the content that audiences want to view?

Two feedback loops are at work on the platform side as well.  The first, the business operations loop, concerns how organizations define and measure goals for their digital platforms.  Product managers will have specific goals, reflecting larger business priorities, and these goals get embodied in digital platforms for customers to access.  Product metrics on how customers access the platform provide feedback for adjusting goals, and inform the architectural design of platforms to realize those goals.

The second platform loop, the design optimization loop, concerns how the details of platform designs are adjusted.  For example, designs may be composed of different reusable web components, which could be tied to specific business goals.  Design might, as an example, feature a chatbot that provides a cost savings or new revenue opportunity. The design optimization loop might look at how to improve the utilization of that chatbot functionality.  How users adopt that functionality will influence the optimization (iterative evolution) of its design. The architectural decision to introduce a chatbot, in contrast, would have happened within the business operations loop.

As with the content side, the two feedback loops on the platform side can be linked, so that the relationship between business decisions and user decisions is clearer.  User decisions may prompt minor changes within the design optimization loop, or if significant, potentially larger changes within the business operations loop.  Like content, a digital platform is an asset that requires continual refinement to satisfy both user and business goals.

The two parallel sides, content and design, meet at the user layer.  User decisions are shaped both by the design of the platforms they are accessing, as well as content they are consuming while on the platform.  Users need to know what they can do, and want to do it.  Designs need to support users access to content they need when making a decision. That content needs to provide users with the knowledge and confidence for their decision.

The relationship between content and design can sometimes seem obvious when looking at a web page.  But in cases where content and design don’t support each other, web pages aren’t necessarily the right structure to fix problems.  User experiences can span time and devices.  Some pages will be more about content, and other pages more about functionality. Relevant content and functionality won’t always appear together.  Both content and designs are frequently composed from reusable components.  Many web pages may suffer from common problems stemming from faulty components, or the wrong mix of components. The assets (content and functionality) available to customers may be determined by upstream decisions that can’t be fixed on a page level. Organizations need ways to understand larger patterns of user behavior, to see how content and designs support each other, or fail to.

Better Feedback

Content and design interact across many layers of activities and decisions. Organizations must first decide what digital assets to create and offer customers, and then must refine these so that they work well for users.  Organizations need more precise and comprehensible feedback on how their customers access information and services.  The content and designs that customers access are often composed from reusable components that appear in different contexts. In such cases, page-level metrics are not sufficient to provide situational insights.  Organizations need usage feedback that can be considered at the strategic layer.  They need the ability to evaluate global patterns of use to identify broad areas to change.

In a future post, I will draw on this framework to return to the topic of how descriptive, structural, technical and administrative metadata can help organizations develop deeper insights into the performance of both their content and their designs.  If you are not already familiar with these types of metadata, I invite you to learn about them in my recent book, Metadata Basics for Web Content, available on Amazon.

— Michael Andrews

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