Sara Wachter-Boettcher is a content strategy consultant, author, and editor. Her company provides strategic consulting and training to in-house teams and facilitates workshops and advising sessions. Sara is author of the book "Content Everywhere: Strategy and Structure for Future-Ready Content."
I invited Sara do a Q&A in advance of her upcoming webinar, Beyond the Website: How to Make Your Content Future-Ready
Content That Does More
I’ve heard you say, "We don't need more content. We need content that does more." Tell our readers what you mean by this?
Over the last few years, I’ve heard lots about content marketing and most of that conversation has been focused on publishing increasing amounts of content: We need more blog posts! Let’s make infographics!
Sometimes, publishing more makes sense for a business. But what I have seen is actually that many organizations are already creating tons of content -- it’s just that their content isn’t being made strategically, or it’s disorganized, or it’s not written for real users.
Instead, dozens or even hundreds of people in a company are often publishing content haphazardly: posting new pages all over the site, duplicating one another, writing new content rather than pointing users to something that already exists
All of this takes lots of time and money. Instead, I think we could stand to spend more energy and thought building systems and structures for content that enable that content to be more valuable to our organizations: making it reusable, making it accessible -- and enjoyable! -- on all kinds of devices, and making it available wherever a user needs it.
That’s what I mean by content that does more -- content that is:
Modular: written in small chunks that work on mobile (or anywhere) and can be displayed in many formats.
Structured: so, not just written in small chunks, but using repeatable patterns. For example, every time you have a product listing, that product listing would have the same basic content components, like a short description, detailed specs, etc. This reliability in your content model will make your content more reliable, meaning you can trust that all content of a given type will work in a given display.
Meaningfully tagged with metadata, so it can be called up and used based on its facets, such as extracting only content related to a specific topic or location, based on its tags.
I've been reading about the Intelligent Content Conference. How is your "content everywhere" vision similar (or dissimilar) from intelligent content?
I think the concepts of "intelligent content” are definitely in line with what I’m talking about -- I’ve just never used that term, because I guess I don’t really see the content itself as being smart! I tend to look at the content systems and business rules we build as being the drivers for getting our content where it needs to go.
That’s a human thing. But I definitely agree with much of what’s coming out of the Intelligent Content Conference -- though, I would say that many people imagine IC as being, basically, about personalization.
I think that’s wrongheaded -- personalization ends up being a shiny object for so many companies, because it’s actually very difficult to do well. And doing it poorly? Well, then you’re basically like the email my friend got from her OBGYN on her birthday the other day: unwanted, useless, and only “personal” in the creepy sense.
The Value of Structured Content
Let's say you're speaking to a marketer who's not familiar with structured content. In 2-3 sentences, how do you convince them of the value?
Structured content allows you to get more mileage out of the content you create, and makes it more accessible and usable by the people you’re sending it to. By creating repeatable patterns and modular chunks, you’ll have content that works wherever users are, on whatever devices they’re on.
It’s also the foundation of personalization -- because you cannot match content to your users unless you’ve chunked and tagged your content in such a way that you know which content matches to which users.
Common Mistake with Structured Content
What common mistakes are people making when moving to structured content?
Trying to do it all at once! If you publish many types of content, and have been doing it for a while, it is easy to get bogged down trying to perfectly structure all your content in one fell swoop -- it’s expensive, and it requires not just CMS changes but also changes to the way people do their jobs. Instead, I’d suggest working on it iteratively.
There are a couple of ways of doing this: for example, you might pick your top one or two content types, and start by investing in modeling that content out, and then adapting what you have from big blobs to structured chunks.
If you’re working with an existing CMS and platform, you might find that that’s the best plan. However, if you’re also doing a major re-design or re-platforming, that’s often a great time to do more extensive content work, and to start applying at least a light set of structure across all your content -- even if you just build out very simple content models, rather than going deep on every content type.
Emerging Challenges with Structured Content
What are some emerging challenges related to structured content that people aren't yet talking about?
I still maintain that most of the challenges are people, not technology.
It’s hard to change the way you work, and a great many organizations are still honestly struggling to adapt to the web, much less mobile.
[Photo via user "Eyesplash" on flickr.]
So the people within those organizations are still writing these very print-centric, long documents, and this new way of working hasn’t clicked yet.
As a result, it can be hard to get people to see the benefits of structured content, or if they can, it can be hard to get them to actually do structured content consistently and continually.
This can result in broken systems -- because content lacks metadata, or wasn’t written with the model in mind. There’s no easy fix for this, just like there’s no easy fix for any part of digital transformation, but I think the more we help people see their content differently and imagine it working on multiple devices, the closer we will come.
Definition: Editorial Eye
I've heard you mention the concept of an "editorial eye." What is it and how does it relate to structured content?
Content modeling isn’t new -- it’s something people have been doing for decades. But typically, those conversations have been lumped in with database discussions, which means they’ve been led by developers -- and content people might not be involved at all.
This is a problem, because developers rarely come to the content with an editorial eye. What I mean is that modeling and structuring content effectively means understanding what that content is and means:
What makes a blog post different from a feature article?
What are we hoping readers do with our product pages?
What’s most important in this content, and what’s a nice-to-have?
These are editorial questions -- which means someone with editorial expertise needs to be involved in answering them. That doesn’t mean that there needs to be an ownership battle over this work, though --- more that it’s a collaborative process, where people who understand the technology and people who understand the content and its users need to learn more about each other’s perspectives, and work together.
Internet of Things
What role does content play in the emerging Internet of Things?
When we hear about the IOT, we don’t hear much about content -- it’s all about smart, connected devices.
But ultimately, we’re talking about devices that, quite often, display content on some type of screen, or read content out loud to users.
[Photo via Kars Alfrink on flickr.]
So, these devices need structured content as much if not more than anything else. You’re not going to get big pages of web content -- or, even worse, PDFs -- through your internet fridge.
You’re going to get short chunks of information. Well, that will only work if that content already exists within a format that enables small chunks. That’s structured content.
Granted, we may never actually care about getting content from our fridge -- many of these IOT fads will end up fading -- but wherever we end up with devices, I guarantee we are going to need content that can go with us.
Thanks for this Q&A, Sara. We’re looking forward to the webinar!
My pleasure. Looking forward to it as well.
Presentation on Future-Ready Content
Have a look through Sara's presentation on how to make your content future-ready.
How to Make Your Content Future-Ready from DNN