Category Archives: Big Content

Content Velocity, Scope, and Strategy

I want to discuss three related concepts.

First, the velocity of the content, or how quickly the essence of content changes.

Second, the scope that the content addresses, that is, whether it is meant for one person or many people, and whether it is intended to have a short or a long life span.

Lastly, how those factors affect publishing strategy, and the various capabilities publishers need.

These concepts — velocity, scope and strategy — can help publishers diagnose common problems in content operations.  Many organizations produce too much content, and find they have repetitive or dated content.  Others struggle to implement approaches that were developed and successfully used in one context, such as technical documentation, and apply them to another, such as marketing communication.  Some publishers don’t have clear criteria addressing the utility of content, such as when new content is needed, or how long published content should be kept online.  Instead of relying on hunches to deal with these issues, publishers should structure their operations to reflect the ultimate purpose of their content.

Content should have a core rationale for why it exists.  Does the organization publish content to change minds — to get people to perceive topics differently, learn about new ideas, or to take an action they might not otherwise take without the content?  Or does it publish content to mind the change — to keep audiences informed with the most current information, including updates and corrections, on topics they already know they need to consult?

When making content, publishers should be able to answer: In what way is the content new?  Is it novel to the audience, or just an update on something they already know about?  The concept of content velocity can help us understand how quickly the information associated with content changes, and the extent to which newly created  content provides new information.

Content Velocity: Assessing Newness and Novelty

All content is created based on the implicit assumption that it says something new, or better, than existing content that’s available.  Unfortunately, much new content gets created without ever questioning whether it is completely necessary.  True, people need information about a topic to support a task or goal they have.  But is new content really necessary? Or could existing content be revised to address these needs?

Let’s walk through the process by which new content gets created.

Is new content necessary, or should existing content be revised?

The first decision is whether the topic or idea warrants the creation of new content, or whether existing content covers much of the same material.  If the topic or idea is genuinely new and has not been published previously, then new content is needed.  If the publisher has only a minor update to material they’ve previously published, they should update the existing content, and not create new content.  They may optionally issue an alert indicating that a change has been made, but such a notification won’t be part of the permanent record.  Too often, publishers decide to write new articles about minor changes that get added to the permanent stock of content.  Since the changes were minor, most such articles repeat information already published elsewhere, resulting in duplication and confusion for all concerned.

The next issue is to decide if the new content is likely to be viewed by an individual more than once. This is the shelf life of the content, considered from the audience’s perspective. Some content is disposable: its value is negligible after being viewed, or if never viewed by a certain date.  Content strategists seldom discuss short-lived, disposable content, except to criticize it as intrinsically wasteful. Yet some content, owing to its nature, is short lived. Like worn razor blades or leftover milk, it won’t be valuable forever.  It needs to disappear from the individual’s field of vision when it is no longer useful. If the audience considers the content disposable, then the publisher needs to treat it that way as well, and have a process for getting the content off the shelf.  Other content is permanent: it always needs to be available, because people may need to consult it more than once.

Publishers must also decide whether the content is either custom (intended for a specific individual), or generic (intended for many people).  We will return to custom and generic content shortly.

If the publisher already has content covering the topic, it needs to ask whether new information has emerged that requires existing content to be updated. We’d also like to know if some people may have seen this existing content previously, and will be interested in knowing what’s changed.  For example, I routinely consult W3C standards drafts.  I may want to know what’s different between one revision compared with the prior one, and appreciate when that information is called out.  For content I don’t routinely consult, I am happy to simply know that all details are current as of a certain date when the content was last revised.

One final case exists, which is far too common.  The publisher has already covered the topic or idea, and has no new information to offer.  Instead, they simply repackage existing content, giving it a veneer of looking new.  While repackaged content is sometimes okay if it involves a genuinely different approach to presenting the information, it is generally not advisable.  Repackaged content results from the misuse of the concept of content reuse.  Many marketing departments have embraced content reuse as a way to produce ever more content, saying the same thing, in the hopes that some of this content will be viewed.  The misuse of content reuse, particularly the automated creation of permanent content, is fueling an ever growing content bubble.   Strategic content reuse, in contrast, involves the coordination of different content elements into unique bundles of information, especially customized packages of information that support targeted needs or interests.

Once publishers decide to create new content, they need to decide content scope, the content’s expected audience and expected use.

Content Scope: Assessing Uniqueness and Specificity

Content scope refers to how unique or specific newly created content is.  We can consider uniqueness in terms of audiences (whether the content is for a specific individual, or a collective group), and in terms of time (is the content meant to be used at a specific moment only, or will be viewed again).   Content that is intended for a specific individual, or for viewing at a specific time, is more unique, and has narrower range of uses, than content that’s been created for many people, or for viewing multiple times by the same person. How and when the audience uses the content will influence how the publisher will need to create and manage that content.

Scope can vary according to four dimensions:

  1. The expected frequency of use
  2. The expected audience size
  3. The archival and management approach (which will mirror the expected frequency of use)
  4. The content production approach (which will mirror the expected audience size)
How content scope can vary

The expected frequency of use looks at whether someone is likely to want to view content again after seeing it once.  This looks at relevance from an individual’s perspective, rather than a publisher’s perspective.  Publishers may like to think they are creating so-called evergreen content that people will always find relevant, but from an audience perspective, most content, once viewed, will never be looked at again.  When audiences encounter content they’ve previously viewed, they are likely to consider it as clutter, unless they’ve a specific reason to view it again.  Audiences are most likely to consider longer, more substantive content on topics of enduring interest as permanent content.  They are likely to consider most other content as disposable.

Disposable content is often event driven.  Audiences need content that addresses a specific situation, and what is most relevant to them is content that addresses their needs at that specific moment.  Typically this content is either time sensitive, or customized to a specific scenario.  Most news has little value unless seen shortly after it is created.  Customized information can deliver only the most essential details that are relevant to that moment.  Customers may not want to know everything about their car lease — they only want to know about the payment for this month.  Once this month’s payment question has been answered, they no longer need that information.  This scenario shows how disposable content can be a subset of permanent content.  Audiences may not want to view all the permanent content, and only want to view a subset of it.  Alerts are one way to deliver disposable content that highlights information that is relevant, but only for a short time.

The expected audience refers to whether the content is intended for an individual, or addresses the interests of a group of individuals.  Historically, nearly all online content addressed a group of people, frequently everyone.  More recently, digital content has become more customized to address individual situational needs and interests, where the content one person views will not be the same as the content another views, even if the content covers the same broad topic.  The content delivered can consider factors such as geolocation, viewing history, purchase history, and device settings to provide content that is more relevant to a specific individual.  By extension, the more that content is adjusted to be relevant to a specific individual, the less that same content will be relevant to other individuals.

A tradeoff exists, between how widely viewed content is, and how helpful it might be to a specific individual.  Generic reference content may generate many views, and be helpful to many people, but it might not provide exactly what any one of those people want.  Single use content created for an individual may provide exactly what that person needed, at the specific time they viewed the content.  But that content will be helpful to an single person only, unless such customization is scalable across time and different individuals.

Disposable content is moment-rich, but duration-poor.  Marketing emails highlight the essential features of disposable content.  People never save marketing emails, and they rarely forward them to family and friends.  They rarely even open and read them, unless they are checking their email at a moment of boredom and want a distraction — fantasizing about some purchase they may not need, or wanting to feel virtuous for reading a tip they may never actually use.  Disposable content sometimes generates zero views by an individual, and almost never will generate more than one view.  If there’s ever a doubt about whether someone might really need the information later, publishers can add a “save for later” feature — but only when there’s a strong reason to believe a identifiable minority has a critical need to access the content again.

Publishers face two hurdles with disposable content: being able to quickly produce new content, and being able to deliver time-sensitive or urgent content to the right person when it is needed.  They don’t need to worry about archiving the content, since it is no longer valuable.  Disposable content is always changing, so that different people on different days will receive different content.

With permanent content, publishers need to worry about managing existing content, and having a process for updating it.    Publishers become concerned with consistency, tracking changes, and versioning.  These tasks are less frenetic than those for disposable content, but they can be more difficult to execute well.  It is easy to keep adding layers of new material on top of old material, while failing to indicate what’s now important, and for whom.

Content that’s used repeatedly, but is customized to specific individual needs, can present tricky information architecture challenges.  These can be addressed by having a user login to a personal account, where their specific content is stored and accessible.

Strategies for Fast and Slow Content: Operations Fit to Purpose

All publishers operate somewhere along a spectrum.  One end emphasizes quick turn-around, short-lived content (such as news organizations), and the other end emphasizes slowly evolving, long-lived content (such as healthcare advice for people with chronic conditions.) Many organizations will publish a mix of fast and slow content.  But it’s important for organizations to understand whether they are primarily a fast or slow content publisher, so that they can decide on the best strategy to support their publishing goals.

Most organizations will be biased toward either fast or slow content.  Fast moving consumer goods, unsurprisingly, tend to create fast content.  In contrast, heavy equipment manufacturers, whose products may last for decades, tend to generate slow content that’s revised and used over a long period.

Different roles in organizations gravitate toward either fast or slow content.  Consider a software company.  Marketers will blitz customers with new articles talking about how revolutionary the latest release of their software is.  Customer support may be focused on revising existing content about the product, and reassuring customers that the changes aren’t frightening, but easy to learn and not disruptive.  Even if the new release generates a new instance of technical documentation devoted to that release, the documentation will reuse much of the content from previous releases, and will essentially be a revision to existing content, rather than fundamentally new content.

Fast content is different from slow content

Some marketers want their copywriters to become more like journalists, and have set up “newsrooms” to churn out new content.  When emulating journalists, marketers are sticking with the familiar fast content paradigm, where content is meant to be read once only, preferably soon after it’s been created.  Most news gets old quickly, unless it is long form journalism that addresses long-term developments.  Marketing content frequently has a lifespan of a mosquito.

Marketing content tends to focus on:

  • Creating new content, or
  • Repackaging existing content, and
  • Making stuff sound new (and therefore attention worthy)

For fast content, production agility is essential.

Non-marketing content has a different profile. Non-marketing content includes advisory information from government or health organizations, and product content, such as technical documentation, product training, online support content, and other forms of UX content such as on-screen instructions.  Such content is created for the long term, and tends to emphasize that it is solid, reliable and up-to-date.  Rather than creating lots of new content, existing content tends to evolve.  It gets updated, and expands as products gain features or knowledge grows.  It may lead with what’s new, but will build on what’s been created already.

Much non-marketing content is permanent content about a fixed set of topics. The key task is not brainstorming new topics to talk about, but keeping published information up-to-date.  New permanent topics are rare.  When new topics are necessary, it’s common for new topics to emerge as branches of an existing topic.

Fast and slow content are fundamentally different in orientation.  Organizations are experimenting with ways to bridge these differences.  Organizations may try to make their marketing content more like product content, or conversely, make their product content more like marketing content.

Some marketing organizations are adopting technical communications methods, for example, content management practices developed for technical documentation such as DITA.  Marketing communications are seeking to leverage lessons from slow content practices, and apply them to fast content, so that they can produce more content at a larger scale.

Marketers want their content to become more targeted.  They want to componentize content so they can reuse content elements in endless combinations.  They embrace reuse, not as a path to revise existing content, but as a mechanism to push out new content quickly, using automation.  At its best, such automation can address the interests of audiences more precisely.  At its worst, content automation becomes a fatigue-inducing, attention-fragmenting experience for audiences, who are constantly goaded to view messages without ever developing an understanding .  Content reuse is a poor strategy for getting attention from audiences. New content, when generated from the reuse of existing content components, never really expresses new ideas.  It just recombines existing information.

Some technical communicators, who develop slow content, are implementing practices associated with marketing communications.  Rather than only producing permanent documents to read, technical communication teams are seeking to push specific disposable messages to resolve issues.  Technical communication teams are embracing more push tactics, such as developing editorial calendars, to highlight topics to send to audiences, instead of waiting for audiences to come to them. These teams are seeking to become more agile, and targeted, in the content they produce.

As the boundaries between the practices of fast and slow content begin to overlap, delivery becomes more important.  Publishers need to choose between targeted verses non-targeted delivery. They must decide of their content will be customized and dynamically created according to user variables, or pre-made to anticipate user needs.

The value of fast content depends above all on the accuracy of its targeting.  There is no point creating disposable content if it doesn’t resolve a problem for users.  If publishers rely on fast content, but can’t deliver it to the right users at the right time, the user may never find out the answer to their question, especially if permanent content gets neglected in the push for instant content delivery.

Generic fast content is becoming ever more difficult to manage.  Individuals don’t want to see content they’ve viewed already, or decided they weren’t interested in viewing to begin with.  But because generic content is meant for everyone, it is difficult to know who has seen or not seen content items.  Fast generic content still has a role. Targeting has its limits.  Publishers are far from being able to produce personalized content for everyone that is useful and efficient.  Much content will inevitably have no repeat use.  Yet fast generic content can easily become a liability that is difficult to manage.  Recommendation engines based on user viewing behaviors and known preferences can help prioritize this content so that more relevant content surfaces. But publishers should be judicious when creating fast generic content, and should enforce strict rules on how long such content stays available online.

Automation is making new content easier to create, which is increasing the temptation to create more new content.  Unfortunately, digital content can resemble plastic shopping bags, which are useful when first needed, but which generally never get used again, becoming waste. Publishers need to consider content reuse not just from their own parochial perspective, but from the perspective of their audiences.  Do their audiences want to view their content more than once?   Marketing content is the source of most fast content. Most marketing content is never read more than once.  Can that ever change?  Are marketers capable of producing content that has long term value to their audiences?  Or will they insist on controlling the conversation, directing their customers on what content to view, and when to view it?

Creating new content is not always the right approach.  Automation can make it more convenient for publishers to pursue the wrong strategy, without scrutinizing the value of such content to the organization, and its customers.   Content production agility is valuable, but having robust content management is an even more strategic capability.

— Michael Andrews

Content Maintenance: A Framework

What happens to content after its publication seems to vary widely.  Content maintenance is not considered exciting — and is often overlooked.  Even the term content maintenance has no commonly accepted definition. Despite its lowly status and fuzzy profile, content maintenance is a many sided and fundamental activity.  I want to explore what content maintenance can involve, and how to prioritize its different aspects.

An Inconspicuous Activity

Many diagrams showing the content lifecycle have a placeholder for content maintenance.  After creating content and delivering content, content maintenance is required.  But what that means in practice is often not well-defined.    This shouldn’t be surprising: content maintenance somehow lacks the urgency that content creation and content delivery have.  After the adrenaline rush of creating new content, and watching the initial audience response to it, the content is no longer top of mind.

Content maintenance is often a lower priority. The UK's Government Digital Service awaits guidance on the topic.
Content maintenance is often a lower priority activity. The UK’s Government Digital Service awaits guidance on the topic. [screenshot]
In many organizations, content maintenance isn’t planned at all.  Some content gets updated because it is rewritten periodically, while other content is never touched after publication.  The organization may do a cleanup every few years in conjunction with a website redesign or IT upgrade, relying on a tedious content inventory and audit to evaluate how messed up the situation has become — content strategy’s equivalent to doing a root canal.

Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rich, in their popular book Content Strategy for the Web, offer one of the most detailed discussions of content maintenance. They call for a content maintenance plan that reflects content objectives such as assuring accuracy and consistency, archiving or reordering older content, confirming links are working and metadata is current, and removing redundant content.  This is a good list, but in itself doesn’t suggest how to implement a repeatable process for maintenance. These authors further recommend establishing rules to govern content.  Another sound idea.

But critical questions remain: On what basis does the organization prioritize its maintenance plan?  What criteria govern maintenance decisions?

A pivotal issue with content maintenance is defining its scope.  What activities are necessary, desirable but optional, or unnecessary? Does a maintenance task apply to all content, or are there any distinctions in types of content that effect how tasks are allocated?  If there are differences in how various content is treated in maintenance, on what basis are priorities made?  Are they arbitrary decisions made by a committee crafting a plan, or are decisions guided by a stable set of rules that are always dependable?  How do we know we are doing content maintenance effectively, given finite resources?

Decisions about content maintenance can reflect deep convictions about the core value of different kinds of content.  The content maintenance approach of an organization can express unconscious attitudes about content.  One common approach is to make sure that popular content is kept up-to-date.  An exclusive focus on popular content is not a comprehensive approach to content maintenance.

Many people consider content maintenance as a simple housekeeping task.  But it can play a bigger role.   The ultimate purpose of content maintenance is to help organizations use content to grow their engagement with audiences in a sustainable way.  Content maintenance deserves to be reappraised as a foundation of sustainable growth, instead of a zero-sum exercise of pruning and fixing last year’s publications. When organizations understand how content maintenance is essential to making content reach and connect with audiences more effectively, they will place more emphasis on what to do after content’s been published.

Content maintenance serves two functions:

  1. Countering entropy, where published content starts to decay due to various factors
  2. Improving relevance through optimization

Entropy-fighting Maintenance

Keeping content up-to-date often seems like an impossible task because content managers don’t have a good understanding of why content gets out-of-date.  Admittedly, the reasons are manifold.  But a clearer understanding of why content becomes dated will help with the maintenance process.

Recently, some content managers have begun to speak about a concept called content debt.  The concept refers to when there is no plan for the content once it has been published, so that a debt is incurred because the content’s creators have deferred decisions about what should happen to the content in the future.  Many organizations practice bad habits when publishing content.  With so many ways things can be done badly, establishing a robust process to keep content accurate is not an easy task.

We need to distinguish two related concepts: content relevance, and content validity.  Content relevance refers to whether audiences care about the content.  Content validity refers to whether the content is accurate, a subset of content relevance.  When people speak of updating content, they often do not make clear whether they are concerned with fixing inaccuracies in the content, or whether they are assessing how to make it more relevant.  A lack of precision when speaking of updating content can become confusing for those responsible for the task.

Generally, when people speak of updating content, they are presuming the content is intrinsically relevant, but that some aspect of it needs correction. Two types of updating are common:

  1. Content accuracy updating
  2. Technical updating

Content accuracy updating addresses what has changed factually in the content since it was published?  Facts have a tendency to go out of date.  In his book, The Half Life of Facts: Why Everything has an Expiration Date, Samuel Arbesman notes that even scientific facts are not stable, and are subject to revision.

Web content often created around events, past and future.  Some content refers to forthcoming events on specific dates, which may indicate a need to update the content after that date, depending on what the content says.  Other content may have a hidden dependency on events.  A change in executive leadership, product names, or business location may impact many items of content that make reference to these now-changed facts.  To some extent, content referring to internally determined facts can be managed utilizing content structure and metadata.

When content refers to facts that change due to external factors, the maintenance process can be messier.  Content may refer to whether products comply with certain regulations that may be subject to change but that could not have been fully anticipated when the content was created.  Service providers such as airlines may need to update content to indicate changes in factual information reflecting service disruptions due to external factors such as strikes or volcanic eruptions.  Organizations should map how content accuracy may be dependent on external events, and plan for how content will be updated in such scenarios.

Technical updating can be challenging for organizations that have a lot of legacy content.  The web is over 20 years old, and has become our external memory of what’s happened in our world.  Many people expect to find something they saw in the past, but how that content was constructed from a technical perspective may not be compatible with current web standards.

External developments are often responsible for technical decay.  Broken links referring to third party content are the most obvious example.  The more pervasive problem arises when technical standards shift, and the content is not renewed to conform to the new standards.  Two examples of standards shifts are changes in markup standards, such as the growth of semantic search markup, and changes in media format standards, such as the recent demise of the Flash format for video.

Updating content requires content professionals to think about the content lifecycle more globally.  The content lifecycle depends on the event lifecycles to which the content refers and relies on.  The content is part of a larger story: the story of how a product is managed, how an organization evolves, or how an enabling technology is used.  The specifics and timing of these events may not be known, but the broad patterns of their occurrences can be anticipated and planned for.

Popularity as a Factor When Updating Content

Deciding what content to update is an essential part of content maintenance.  It often involves judgment calls, which take time and do not always result in consistency.  In the search for rules that govern what content to update, some content professionals have been advocating content popularity as the criterion for deciding what content to keep, and hence keep current.

Paul Boag has suggested a traffic-based approach to managing legacy content.  Gerry McGovern has written extensively about the value of using traffic to guide content decisions.  McGovern’s writings on the importance of content popularity have become popular themselves, so I want to examine the reasoning behind this approach.  He uses the “long tail” metaphor of content demand first popularized by former Wired columnist Chris Anderson, but draws different conclusions.  McGovern differentiates the “long tail (low demand or no demand stuff) and the long neck (high demand stuff). The long tail has been seen as a major opportunity, but it can become a major threat.”

The Long Tail concept of content popularity, where many items are of interest to few people.
The Long Tail concept of content popularity, where many items are of interest to few people.

McGovern considers the popularity of content in terms of the distribution of page views.  He contrasts the head of the distribution, where the top ranked pages get a high volume of views, with the many low ranking pages in the tail that get few views.  McGovern says: “Much of the long tail is a dead zone. It’s a dead and useless tail full of dead and useless content.”  In contrast, content in the head of the distribution (the top-ranked pages) get the lion’s share of views.  How much of total demand is attributable to the head is not always clear.  McGovern has cited the figure that the top 5% of content generates 20% of demand; the next 35% of content (what he calls the body, though this is not a standard term used in head/tail distributions) accounts for 55% of demand; the remaining 60% is basically useless, accounting for only 20% of demand.  More recently, McGovern has featured the success stories of various organizations when they removed 90% of their content, implying that only the top 10% of content viewed is worth keeping and maintaining.

McGovern’s argument is that low traffic content gets in the way of people accomplishing their “top tasks,” which are represented by the highest volume content.  Moreover, long tail content is difficult to maintain.

McGovern makes some excellent points about the costs of low usage content, and the importance of making sure that frequently accessed content is easily available.  Unfortunately, his formulation is not a reliable guide to deciding what content to maintain because it doesn’t distinguish different content purposes.  McGovern considers all content as task-oriented content.  But content can have other roles, such as being news, or providing background information for educational and entertainment purposes.

Let’s assume, like McGovern, that all content follows a head/tail distribution.  With task-based content, the rank ordering of popularity is stable over time.  If all the content is task-focused, then the ranking of pages in terms of their popularity won’t change.  We can argue how many pages deserve to be included —that is, how many tasks should be supported —but the customer’s prioritization of what’s important is not impacted by when the content was created.

In other cases, when the content was created can have an impact on how important consumers consider the content, even when the age of the content has no bearing on the accuracy of the content.  In these cases, relevance is a function of time.

Comparison of how content popularity might change over time, according to the content's purpose.
Comparison of how content popularity might change over time, according to the content’s purpose.

The most obvious case is when popularity of content decays over time because it becomes less topical.  Any informative content that might be considered news, such as high profile product announcements or announcements of changes to membership services, might become less popular over time.  News oriented content becomes less relevant over time, but old news content is not intrinsically irrelevant.  The need to keep legacy content will depend on the organization’s mission, and the utility of the information in the future.

A different example of content is so-called evergreen content — content that will have a long shelf-life (even if it isn’t truly maintenance-free).  Often such content is created to build awareness and interest in a topic, and isn’t tied to a specific event.  The content may debut with a low ranking, but gain views as awareness builds.  It may gain exposure through a promotional tie-in, a third party’s endorsement, or relevance to some event that wasn’t foreseen when the content was created.  After gaining in popularity, its popularity may settle back down into the long tail.  The popularity of such content can yo-yo over time.

Without considering the purpose of the content, it is difficult to know what content to maintain.  Relying solely on content age or content popularity can result in a meat cleaver approach to content maintenance.  While content that is jettisoned does not need to be maintained, the content that is kept does not all need to be treated the same way.  Sometimes content is intentionally kept in an archive, with a minimum of maintenance promised or provided.

Content Maintenance as Quality Improvement

A very different view of content maintenance considers maintenance as continuous improvement.  Instead of just keeping content up to date, content is actively managed to become better.

Gerry McGovern touches on this approach when discussing what he calls “top tasks”.  He says: ”Continuously improve your top tasks. The Long Neck [top-ranked pages in the head of the distribution] is made up of a small set of top tasks and it’s important to manage them through a process of continuous improvement.“

Continuous improvement can be applied to any content, not just content supporting common tasks.   The purpose of such activity is to make the content more relevant to audiences.  It is a form of content optimization, a term most often used to refer to far narrower dimensions of content, such as search engine positioning or call-to-action behavior.

Optimizing content — in the broader sense of making it more relevant for audiences — involves two sets of decisions:

  1. Deciding what content to optimize as part of an ongoing evaluation program
  2. Making choices about evaluation methods, and assigning resources to support such activities

Optimizing content is often associated with A/B testing.  But the range of approaches available to improve content relevance are diverse, and include:

  • Analyzing content usage and actions
  • Surveying attitudes and preferences relating to content
  • Testing content comprehension and receptivity

Behavioral outcomes can certainly be tested, but content testing and analysis can probe more upstream factors such as how audiences evaluate the content prior to considering taking action, and suggest more fundamental changes that could improve content relevance to audiences.

Some techniques available to improve content relevance can be done prior to publication. The question arises of what content should continue to be evaluated after publication with the aim of improving its performance? If the content was well thought out before its publication, why does it need optimization after publication?  Any evaluation and enhancement activities that are done multiple times will require additional commitments of resources.   What content justifies the extra attention?

Business critical content will be the best candidates to optimize through continuous improvement.  Business criticality will reflect the reach of the content (amount of views), its importance to audiences, and its influence on business outcomes.  It may be content that comprises part of a funnel, but not necessarily.  In some cases, it might be key content that provides the first impression of an organization, product or topic that will have long term impacts in terms of future behavior or social influence.

Strategic Content Maintenance

Content maintenance involves many aspects, and content with different characteristics and purposes must be prioritized differently.  Maintenance-free content is a myth, but not all content requires the same level of maintenance.

Many times organizations jettison content for the wrong reasons. Content should be retired because it is no longer relevant, not simply because something about it, factually or technically, has become dated through neglect, and it is now too much effort to update it given the volume of content that’s in a similar state. Manage content based on current and potential relevance, and plan to maintain the relevant content. Jettison content that’s no longer relevant, and unlikely to be relevant again.

While having less content can be easier to maintain than having large volumes of content, one shouldn’t base one’s content strategy on operational convenience.  Small, tightly focused websites can be the right choice for smaller, tightly focused organizations, who can devote their energies toward optimizing the entirety of their content.  But for larger organizations with diverse missions, imposing a rigid content diet — say restricting the website to 50 pages — may help the web operations run smoothly, but at the cost of preventing the organization from fully serving their audiences, and allowing the organization to meet their wider digital objectives.  If the breadth of content offered is insufficient to satisfy the needs of audiences, the content published will sustain neither the audience’s interests, nor the mission of the organization.  The organization needs to understand what effort is required to maintain what it decides is relevant content, and then plan how to maintain that content appropriately.

No one-size strategy for content maintenance is right for all organizations.   But  organizations can use a framework to help them prioritize their content maintenance, in terms of identifying differences in content, and different approaches to maintaining such content.  The end goal is to find the right balance.  As alluded to earlier, content maintenance is about delivering sustainable growth.  It is about fostering a pool of content that can establish, maintain, and even expand its relevance to audiences without being a drag on operations.

The matrix considers content according to two properties.  First, it considers how popular the content is over a defined time period, say six months.  Second, it considers two broad approaches to maintaining content: through continuous optimization, and basic updating.  The goal of the matrix is to encourage content managers and owners to characterize the kinds of content that belong in each quadrant, and decide how they will manage such content.

The filled out framework is illustrative.  This strawman framework is intended to spark discussion rather than dictate action.

A matrix that can be used as a framework for considering different dimensions of content maintenance.
A matrix that can be used as a framework for considering different dimensions of content maintenance.

It is important to note that what’s low traffic content today may not be so tomorrow.  Organizations also need to consider the diversity of their mission or corporate strategy when making decisions about how to maintain content that gets less traffic.

What Happens After Publication?

Ideally, every item of content published should belong to a specific content maintenance category.  At the time of publication, it could be slugged with the category that best represents how it will be maintained in the future.  Doing so can help support of the operational processes associated with maintenance: for example, determining how long it had been since the last update for items associated with a certain category.

Content requires maintenance, and maintenance requires process, not just willpower.  Rules, criteria and plans are helpful to ensuring that content maintenance happens.  The challenge is connecting these rules and plans to the larger purpose of the organization’s content strategy.  Content maintenance needs to be upgraded from its status as a boring chore, to being seen as a contributor to sustainable growth in audience engagement.

— Michael Andrews

Adaptive Content: Three Approaches

Adaptive content may be the most exciting, and most fuzzy, concept in content strategy at the moment.  Shapeshifting seems to define the concept: it promises great things — to make content adapt to user needs — but it can be vague on how that’s done. Adaptive content seems elusive because it isn’t a single coherent concept. Three different approaches can be involved with content adaptation, each with distinctive benefits and limitations.

The Phantom of Adaptive Content

The term adaptive content is open to various interpretations. Numerous content professionals are attracted to the possibility of creating content variations that match the needs of individuals, but have different expectations about how that happens and what specifically is accomplished. The topic has been muddled and watered-down by a familiar marketing ploy that emphasizes benefits instead of talking about features. Without knowing the features of the product, we are unclear what precisely the product can do.

People may talk about adaptive content in different ways: for example, as having something to do with mobile devices, or as some form of artificial intelligence. I prefer to consider adaptive content as a spectrum that involves different approaches, each of which delivers different kinds of results.  Broadly speaking, there are three approaches to adaptive content, which vary in terms of how specific and how immediately they can deliver adaptation.

Commentators may emphasize adaptive content as being:

  • Contextualized (where someone is),
  • Personalized (who someone is),
  • Device-specific (what device they are using).

All these factors are important to delivering customized content experiences tailored to the needs of an individual that reflect their circumstances.  Each, however, tends to emphasize a different point in the content delivery pipeline.

Delivery Pipelines

There are three distinct windows where content variants are configured or assembled:

  1. During the production of the content
  2. At the launch of a session delivering the content
  3. After the delivery of the content

Each window provides a different range of adaptation to user needs.   Identifying which window is delivering the adaptation also answers a key question: Who is in charge of the adaption?  Is it the creator of the content, the definer of business rules, or the user themself?  In the first case the content adapts according to a plan.  In the second case the content adapts according to a mix of priorities, determined algorithmically.  In the final case, the content adapts to the user’s changing priorities.

Content variations can occur at different stages
Content variations can occur at different stages

Content Variation Possibilities

Content designers must make decisions what content to include or exclude in different content variations.  Those decisions depend on how confident they are about what variations are needed:

  • Variants planned around known needs, such as different target segments
  • Variants triggered by anticipated needs reflecting situational factors
  • Variants generated by user actions such as queries that can’t be determined in advance

On one end of the spectrum, users expect customized content that reflects who they are based on long-established preferences, such as being a certain type of customer or the owner of an appliance. On the other end of the spectrum, users want content that immediately adapts to their shifting preferences as they interact with the content.

Situational factors may invoke contextual variation according to date or time of day, location, or proximity to a radio transmitter device. Location-based content services are the most common form of contextualized content.  Content variations can be linked to a session, where at the initiation of the session, specific content adapts to who is accessing it, and where they are — physically, or in terms of a time or stage.

Variations differ according to whether they focus on the structure of the content (such as including or excluding sections), or on the details (such as variables that can be modified readily).

Different point of content adaptation
Different forms of variation in content adaptation

Customization, Granularity and Agility

While many discussions of adaptive content consciously avoid talking about how content is adapted, it’s hard to hide from the topic altogether. There is plenty of discussion about approaches to create content variations, however.  On one side are XML-based approaches like DITA that focus on configuring sections of content, while on the other side are JSON-based approaches involving JavaScript that focus on manipulating individual variables in real-time.

Contrary to the wishes of those who want only to talk about the high concepts, the enabling technologies are not mere implementation details. They are fundamental to what can be achieved.

Adaptive content is realized through intelligence. The intelligence that enables content to adapt is distributed in several places:

  • The content structure (indicating how content is expected to be used),
  • Customer profile (the relationship history, providing known needs or preferences)
  • Situational information from current or past sessions (the reliability of which involves varying degrees of confidence).

What approach is used impacts how the content delivery system defines a “chunk” of content — the colloquial name for a content component or variable. This has significant implications for the detail that is presented, and the agility with which content can match specific needs.

Different approaches to delivering content variations are solving different problems.

The two main issues at play in adaptive content are:

  1. How significant is the content variation that is expected?
  2. How much lead time is needed to deliver that variation?

The more significant the variant in content that is required, the longer the lead time needed to provide it.  If we consider adaptive content in terms of scope and speed, this implies narrow adaptation offers fast adaptation, and that broad adaptation entails slow adaptation.  While it makes sense intuitively that global changes aren’t possible instantly, it’s worth understanding why that is in the context of today’s approaches to content variation.

First, consider the case of structural variation in content. Structure involves large chunks of content.  Adaptive content can change the structure of the content, making choices about what chunks of content to display.  This type of adaptation involves the configuration of content.  Let’s refer to large chunks of content as sections.  Configuration involves selecting sections to include in different scenarios, and which variant of a section to use.  Sections may have dependencies: if including  one section, related detailed sections will be included as well.  Sectional content can entail a lot of nesting.

Structural variation is often used to provide customized content to known segments.  XML is often used to describe the structure of content involving complex variations.  XML is quite capable when describing content sections, but it is hard to manipulate, due to the deeply nested structure involved.  XSLT is used to transform the structure into variations, but it is slow as molasses.  Many developers are impatient with XSLT, and few users would tolerate the latency involved with getting an adaptation on demand.  Structural adaptation tends to be used for planned variations that have a long lead time.

Next, consider the assembly of content when it is requested by the user — on the loading of a web page. This stage offers a different range of adaptive possibilities linked to the context associated with the session.    Session-based content adaptation can be based on IP, browser or cookie information.  Some of the variation may be global (language or region displayed) while other variations involve swapping out the content for a section (returning visitors see this message).    Some pseudo personalization is possible within content sections by providing targeted messages within larger chunks of static content.

Finally, adaptive content can happen in real-time.  The lead time has shrunk to zero, and the range of adaptation is more limited as well.  The motivation is to have content continuously refresh to reflect the desires of users.  Adaptation is fast, but narrow. Instead of changing the structure of content, real-time adaptation changes variables while keeping the structure fixed.

It is easier to swap out small chunks of text such as variables or finely structured data in real-time than it is to do quick iterative adaptations of large chunks such as sections.  JSON and Javascript are designed to manipulate discrete, easily identified objects quickly.  Large chunks of content may not parse easily in JavaScript, and can seem to jump around on the screen. Single page applications can avoid page refreshes because the content structure is stable: only the details change. They deliver a changing “payload” to a defined content region.  Data tables change easily in real time.  Single page applications can swap out elements that can be easily and quickly identified — without extensive computation.

Conclusion

Content adaptation can be a three stage process, involving different sets of technologies, and different levels of content.

The longer the lead time, the more elaborate the customization possible. When discussing adaptive content, it’s important to distinguish adaptation in terms of scope, and immediacy.

A longer-term challenge will be how to integrate different approaches to provide the customization and flexibility users seek in content.

— Michael Andrews