WHITE PAPER: Ten reasons to structure your content

Adobe’s frequent guest, Scott Abel (The Content Wrangler) recently authored a highly useful white paper as a follow up to his July webinar with us, “Ten reasons to structure your content.” You will want to view the webinar recording (by clicking the title in the previous sentence) and also give this white paper a thorough read. This compelling white paper was co-written by Emma C. Hamer , Human Performance and Organizational Change Management consultant.

This blog covers highlights and key points in the white paper, but is no substitute for reading the entire thing. We’ve included several relevant quotes to give you a sense of just how rich the information in this publication is.

You may download the white paper by going to the following URL: http://adobe.ly/10EG8Di — once there, use your Adobe.com credentials to log in. Then select the white paper shown in the screen capture below:

Where did structure come from?

Scott Abel makes it clear that structure isn’t new. It’s most dramatic genesis was with the STOP (Sequential Thematic Organization of Publications) initiative in the early 1950s at Hughes Aircraft. Content creators working on typewriters had to find a way to make responses to proposals more consistent by working in a more modular way. This method as well as other historical precedents are illustrated in the white paper.

Why should your business consider structuring its content?

To quote the author directly:

Creating, approving, and deploying content costs more today than ever. To compete as a modern information provider, you must treat your content as a true business asset. In other words, you must structure your content. You must design it with modularity and user intent in mind, automate its repackaging for each delivery medium, and deploy it systematically.

#1 — You can publish to multiple platforms—automatically

Several quotes from Charles Cooper of The Rockley Group makes it clear why we can no longer publish only to print, or have separate process for each output. Again, to quote Scott:

Modern organizations demand publishing approaches that support the timely delivery of information to print, PDF, and the Web, as well as to a panoply of mobile devices, smartphones, and eReaders. Structured content plays a critical role in the ability of an organization to quickly prepare and publish information in any form, on any device.

#2 — Your content becomes more consistent, lowering costs and increasing flexibility

Just a small sample of the benefits discussed in this section may be found in the following quote from the white paper:

With structured content, metadata tags—like <title>, <product type>, and <booktitle>— add semantic richness and consistency to a set of information components. A tagged component identifies its function and perhaps its audience. It can declare its relative importance. It can declare its membership in various classes or product groups. It can declare its language, its translatability, and even whether the text flows left-to-right or right-to-left. When needed, it can declare what platform it is designed for, and so on. Structured content, with regular patterns of markup and text, code lists and controlled vocabularies, and well-documented semantics, facilitates the entire editorial, testing, quality, production, and maintenance workflows.

#3 — Your authors can get back to what they do best – creating quality content

Traditional DTP (desktop publishing) still prevails in many authoring environments, wherein the author determines content and formatting during content creation. Besides the many inefficiencies (e.g. consistency from one author to another) in this workflow, it is very inefficient when all of the deliverables (e.g. some new tablet or mobile device) are often unknown when a project starts.

Several challenges are discussed, including the overcoming the hurdles of writer adjusting to new roles and realizing that they are not “giving something up” when they discontinue format control as they write.

Again, to quote the author:

Structured-content authoring tools can be configured to enforce structural and editorial guidelines, enabling authors to focus on content. Pull-down lists of allowable options, code items, and product names reduce opportunity for entry errors and enable authors to concentrate on what they do best: creating usable information.

Authoring environments can be configured to approximate target delivery scenarios so that authors get feel for how the content will appear. As authors discover the ways that structured content improves the usability of their information products, they are motivated to learn more about leveraging the power in their hands.

#4 — Your content becomes more predictable and, therefore, more usable

To quote from the white paper again:

Usable information is clear, concise, relevant, findable, accessible, and easy to scan. Many of these qualities depend on predictability. Readers do not read every letter in every word; they scan for familiar word shapes or even document shapes. For example, we might recognize an invoice as an invoice at a glance without reading a word. The more
often we see to a given layout, the more readily we recognize its pattern.

Structured content, by its nature, follows a strict model that offers the consistency needed to develop efficient processes to produce predictable information delivery results. When all part numbers and part names are identified as such in the source content, they can be presented consistently in any delivery medium.

#5 — You can integrate information flows for more accurate, complete content—and better products

It is critical to avoid creating structure for the sake of structure, as revealed in the following excerpt:

“Structuring content for its own sake makes no sense; companies need a rationale—a purpose—to guide the structuring effort,” says Joe Gollner, director at Gnostyx Research. “In practical terms this means that companies need an application that will do something with the content. When companies invest in structured content, they must also invest in the technology applications that will use that structured content.”

Gollner is an advocate of what he calls Just Enough Technology (JET) as a way to emphasize the need for a balanced approach to investments in technology applications and structured content. In his experience, the best outcomes are achieved when technology applications and structured content coevolve over a period when they are being actively used. He advises companies to avoid going overboard, breaking down their content to “almost insane levels of structure” (something he refers to as “going semantic”). Instead, he recommends concentrating on how and where the content will be used—and, of course, why.

#6 — You can automate and improve your business processes

In this section, author Scott Abel turns to Michael Boses, principal consultant with the Contelligence Group for supporting examples of this benefit:

“An online form that requires the user to fill in information is basically just ‘digital paper’, and it’s just as dumb as paper,” says Boses. “Structured content allows for the creation of intelligent XML documents that become governance documents, which can automate deliberation and approval because the data input is directly linked to business rules.”

#7 — Your content becomes intelligent, supporting more targeted marketing

This section discusses in detail the benefits of adaptive content and responsive design. (All terms are defined at the top of the downloadable white paper.)

Together, adaptive content and responsive design constitute intelligent content: content that behaves as if it knows about likely target audiences, related information, and so forth. Obviously, adding intelligence to information enables targeted marketing, namely, the distribution of information that consumers are likely to value based on who they are, what they like, etc.

Supportive evidence is added through credible testimony from Ann Rockley of The Rockely Group.

#8 — You can use a content management system for unprecedented efficiencies

Under this benefit, Scott gives a good example why content management can be “as good as gold.”

Consider a website that lists the current spot-price of gold on every page. It’s more efficient to record that value in your content management system once when the market opens and then store each new value during the day rather than retrieving those values on every page separately. The CMS can be configured to keep a record of every change in price.

While information backup and reuse are important aspects of a content management system, so is the ability to track the development and use of information assets. Keeping track of the changing price of gold can be useful if you need to publish historical charts. Effective use of CMS logs and reports facilitates content inventories and content audits.

#9 — You can personalize your content, increasing response rates

The key to this benefit is making your content “findable” through personalization:

Consumers don’t find content valuable unless it meets their individual needs. They don’t want to receive mass-marketing messages masquerading as personalized content.

Companies need to get to know their customers better if they want to exceed the 2-5% response rate that traditional targeted advertising typically yields. If 2-5% is the most you can hope for, you waste 98-95% of your advertising dollar.

#10 — You can reuse your content, lowering costs while improving quality

Content re-use isn’t limited to the authoring process (e.g. reusing the same topic or component to achieve consistent wording.) Many times with training materials or similar projects, there can be a great deal of content reuse driven by customers who need to retrieve artifacts or project components on an “as needed” basis.

Two examples from ASTD are shared, which show the versatile ways that your consumers may continue to reuse your content in ways that you haven’t imagined.

How many reasons do you need?

Without structured content, none of the competitive advantages described in this paper can materialize. But with it, all possibilities for making your content more relevant and useful to your customers are within reach.

About the authors

Known as the Content Wrangler, Scott P. Abel is an internationally recognized global content strategist and a vibrant speaker. He’s frequently employed as a featured presenter at content industry events. Scott’s message is clear: Content is a business asset worth managing efficiently and effectively. He works to help content-heavy organizations adopt the tools, technologies, and techniques needed to connect content to customers. Scott is a founding member of Content
Management Professionals and co-produces the annual Intelligent Content Conference and Content Strategy Workshops. In addition, he writes regularly for content industry publications and was listed by EContentmag.com as one of the top 50 content marketing resources on Twitter.

Emma C. Hamer is a Human Performance and Organizational Change Management consultant, with 25+ years of senior and executive management experience, and 12+ years of coaching experience, in Europe and in Canada/US, with a special focus on Enterprise Content Management and Information Management.