The complexity of producing and delivering content has grown exponentially over the past couple of decades, as the demands for content have grown. In simpler times, content was produced as a single-channel deliverable. We would write an article for a magazine, or a user guide, or a maintenance manual. There was one piece of content and one deliverable.
Writing content in simpler times
When the web came along, things changed considerably. We made the transition from writing in the book model for print and chunking the copy up for the web, to writing in topics for the web and then stitching the contents together for the print version that got delivered to customers.
For the most part, we still worked alone on a content deliverable. Each person on a team would be assigned an area to cover. For example, a company that produced a product would have:
- marketing collateral in print done by a marketing team
- marketing collateral on the website done by a digital marketing team
- a user guide done by a technical communicator/technical author
- a maintenance manual done by a different technical communicator
- PDFs of the product material, uploaded (and forgotten) by a webmaster
Content got more complicated
As time went on, content got more complicated. The inconsistencies between digital and traditional channels became more apparent, and less tolerated, by customers. There were more demands on content, and more channels demanding content to fill them. There was not only the marketing funnel waiting to be filled, which makes up about 20% of any large website, but also product support material, the other 80%. Traditional product content was needed, such as quick start guides, user guides, training manuals, and service-center material. New channels also needed content: forums, knowledge bases, social, and so on. This didn’t account for the additional channels for that content, such as tablets, smartphones, wearables, and newer channels such as chat bots.
Multiplicity and the demands on content
Organisations are now in a situation where the volume of content and number of delivery variables means that the complexity of producing and delivering content has reached a tipping point. The demands on the business, the content developers, the technologies, and the content itself have grown exponentially, and it’s harder and harder to keep up.
For a moment, let’s picture 4 unique pieces of content that come together to describe a feature of a product. Now let’s say that that particular feature is used in 4 different product lines; that content is now being used 16 times. Now, imagine that each product line has four products within each line that uses that feature. Those 4 pieces of content get repeated 64 times. Now, multiply by 4 delivery channels, and that means those original 4 pieces of content are used a whopping 256 times. That’s a lot of copy-and-pasting.
This example of multiplicity is not understated. In fact, the phenomenon is all too common. As organisations develop more products and services, they create more content deliverables to support them, and deliver that content through multiple channels. At its best, content re-use is a laborious, time-consuming way to track where content is used and re-used. At worst, the process of tracking content use becomes a maintenance nightmare.
Finding a way to cope
How are organisations coping with this explosion of content? In my experience, not well. Too many clients have finally broken down and sought help because they’ve run out of spreadsheet management capacity – even in environments with a web CMS. Yet the demands on content continue to grow, and a greater level of sophistication is needed to deliver on the value propositions anticipated by the business.
So how can organisations cope? With a CODA (Create Once, Deliver Anywhere) strategy based on the COPE (Create One, Publish Everywhere) strategy used by the US’s NPR (National Public Radio). The basic idea is that a piece of content can be created once, and then re-used through automation, instead of using a copy-and-paste approach.
By pulling content into the many places it gets used, content developers experience a marked decrease in maintenance effort. After all, CODA also means Fix Once, Fix Everywhere. This is because when content is re-used by ‘transclusion’, the original piece of content is the only actual instance of the content. All of the other ‘copies’ are actually only a reference of the original. Fix a typo in the original piece of content, and all of the derivative content is automatically fixed as well.
What goes into CODA
Creating CODA content is based on the principles of intelligent content. This means that content is structurally rich and semantically categorised. The definition, created by Ann Rockley, goes on to say that this makes content automatically discoverable, re-usable, reconfigurable, and adaptable. Those may sounds like technical benefits, so perhaps they are best rephrased in business terms.
- Business efficiency. With less maintenance overhead, content developers can focus less on low-level tasks like searching for duplicate content and filling in spreadsheets, and spend more time on value-add activities. On one recent project, a particular task that took several staff several months to complete could have been completed in a matter of minutes, had the content been highly structured and semantically categorised.
- Accountability. When a CODA framework is implemented well, there is a granular audit trail that would make any auditor swoon with delight.
- Accuracy. Brand, marketing, legal, and compliance are all concerned with content accuracy. Having a single source of truth to draw from means less mistakes, fewer review cycles, and less legal checks before content goes live.
- Personalisation. Whatever personalisation means to your organisation, it is more easily done within a CODA framework. The semantics added to content means the content is adaptive – in other words, it’s easier to change a sentence or two within a message to reach a different audience, to vary an offering, to output specific parts of a block of content to different devices, and so on. This can be done without losing the context, and makes maintenance so much easier.
- Extension of reach. The idea that content can be produced in a tighter way also means that the company can leverage the content in new ways. Going into new markets, adding new product lines, taking new languages on board – all of these are possibilities that can be supported with content. No more lag between the intent and action.
- Dynamic publishing. In companies with large quantities of content, the ability to publish content on the fly, collect existing content into new contexts, and create new assets for customers, whether paid or promotional, becomes competitive advantage.
A logical question is, “If CODA is so good, why isn’t everyone doing it?” The content developers who have been doing CODA for decades ask that question a lot. It’s a technique that has been used extensively for large bodies of content (in all fairness, the technique has traditionally been applied to post-sales content such as technical documentation, customer support content, and training material) to cope with demanding production schedules and a high likelihood of post-publication maintenance.
However, as the complexity of content delivery grows and the demand on content grows with it, the imperative for well-structured, highly semantic content will need to become the norm. It has implications for all areas of business, from how we create content to how we deliver it, and all the steps in between.