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.
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:
- The expected frequency of use
- The expected audience size
- The archival and management approach (which will mirror the expected frequency of use)
- The content production approach (which will mirror the expected audience size)
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.
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