In our first podcast episode of Season 2 of the Content Matters podcast, we had the opportunity to talk with Scott Abel, CEO and Chief Wrangler of the Content Wrangler. Abel is an expert on content strategy, working with organizations to develop strategies to create, maintain, and deliver their content across channels.
Abel is a popular speaker on content strategy, and he’s the co-author of Intelligent Content Management: A Primer and The Language of Content Strategy, and the creator of the Content Strategy Series of books from XML Press.
Scott and I talked about many things related to content strategy, including the challenges companies face, the key elements and roles involved in developing and managing your content strategy and content operations, and the role of a unified content hub. Here’s a summary:
Defining Content Strategy
“In my book, content strategy is basically the analysis phase of some kind of business problem that you have. Your job as a strategist is to determine how content can be improved, either on the editorial side, by maybe tweaking its voice and tone, or its consistency, or on the technical side by structuring it so that it can meet business goals...”
The problem, Abel said, is that most people tie content strategy to their jobs, making it a tactical problem when it’s really a business problem.
“I guess if you were going to say it a different way, you'd say that content strategy is a practice. And the practice’s aim is to help an organization improve its content performance, what that content does for the organization. And those improvements are obtained primarily through some sort of analysis of the existing content systems that are in place, and then making a development plan for improving those things to meet the goals that the organization has for its business.”
Who Owns the Content Strategy?
Considering content is created throughout an organization, from marketing to sales, customer support, and other departments, who should own the content strategy? And is it even possible to define a strategy that can work across the entire organization?
“The Holy Grail is to have an experience that the humans that you're interacting with at the other end deem as authentic and relevant, and you know, all those things that make people happy when you're communicating to them so that they feel valued and respected. And so Enterprise Content is the goal to have everything across your every touchpoint be unified.”
Scott worked with Ann Rockley to write a book on this subject back in 2001: Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy (revised and re-released in 2011). The book mapped out a process that creates a strategy that branches across silos in an organization. This unified content strategy provides faster time to market, better use of resources, reduced costs, and improved the quality of the content created.
And while some organizations are trying to do this, it doesn’t typically happen this way, Abel explained. Instead, the strategy is taken on by a single person who isn’t powerful enough to affect the changes needed across the organization. The process tends to happen more on an interdepartmental level.
“The managers are savvy enough to get together and realize that some of their problems are overlapping. And if they were to make the argument together, they might be able to sell the value to upper management to get investment and make improvements in the way that they manage and create their content so that they can deliver better experiences and show the value across three or four teams. If you can do that, then maybe you can convince somebody to scale up and kind of go across the enterprise.”
We’ve always tied the creative aspect of content and the structure of that content together. That’s the way it has always been, Abel said, and now we’re trying to undo that and getting push back. Marketing thinks you’re trying to take their creativity away, as an example.
But the separation of content structure from its look and feel is even more critical now. We need to share the content across departments and channels, but also with machines that talk to other machines.
“...we rely on machines to process it, categorize it, to organize it, to deliver it, to archive it, to destroy it, to protect it for security. All those things have to happen. And if we're relying on a bunch of handcrafted solutions, they're not going to work together.”
Becoming an Information Enabled Organization
Every organization can become information enabled, but they have to undo everything they are doing to make that happen.
“And it's a transformation. And what I mean by that is that transforming an established, but inadequate approach to your content production is challenging if you're trying to do what's needed. And what's needed is, you really need a lean, mean content producing factory. And the demands of a factory are different than the demands of the individual handcrafter. […] So we need to adopt some kind of content production processes and tools that provide us with the capabilities required to do those things at scale. So when organizations become information enabled, they're trying to find ways to leverage the information they have to accomplish the business goals that they've set out to do. And they're trying to do it in a more efficient and effective way, leveraging technology to augment the human labor that they have, and to perhaps, offer something that they couldn't offer without the technologies help.”
Essentially, Abel said information enablement is about creating an environment that supports the interoperable use of that content – either to a human or to a machine that communicates with a human or another machine. It’s called ‘content-as-a-service.’ To do this effectively, you have to associate content with metadata that tells the computer the intent behind a word or piece of content.
The Technology to Support Intelligent Content
Abel said there are different approaches to manage content. There are different technologies, and a lot of marketing speak that is confusing the situation simply to differentiate themselves from the competition. One example is a brand that uses the term “smart content” in replace of “intelligent content.”
The CMS has gone through evolutions too, and it’s not the same solution it was years ago.
“They're not web tools. First of all, the web is the output channel. It's not some kind of magical thing. And I think we have to figure out how to manage all the content the same way that computer programmers manage their code, and documentation teams manage all the information about their products, which is in a systematic way, with repurpose-able format, separated from repurpose-able content, so you can borrow information from one repository and move it to another.”
Abel said you could weave systems together to give you a centralized view of your information. But that requires human standardization and in their efforts to differentiate, some technology vendors can’t do that. Abel talked about vendors that act as integrators (or middleware), helping one system talk to another, then there those that provide an API for another system to request the content they store. However, all these things require structured content.
“Content management systems are often seen as tools that solve problems.” But, Abel continued, they are not. “They are systems that you can program to follow specific rules. You can enforce some workflow and some access controls. It has the roles and responsibilities that humans used to have like keeping track of changes, verifying that that is the valid and approved piece of content in compliance-oriented organizations. So you can see the content management system has really a whole lot of business roles that it plays, but we see the output on the web and so it becomes web content.”
And things are continuing to change. Chatbots, voice – new ways of communicating are changing the way we will store and deliver content. And that means it’s becoming even more critical to provide metadata that explains what a piece of content is.
Building Your Content Operations
Abel is producing a conference called Information Development World, happening this month. He said you could retitle it, “why your company should adopt content operations.”
Content operations, said Abel, is about making things work together in an efficient, effective, seamless way that is replicable.
“I don't think that the business driver for an entire organization should be what the marketing department thinks. Now, if the marketing department is leading the way and generating revenue, they should have a big, strong voice in it. But we have to make sure that the decisions that are made by marketing don't somehow negatively impact the people prior to the marketing department’s involvement, and after the marketing department’s involvement in the creation of content. So, we're after a system that works for everyone that optimizes every department, so that everyone is used to the best of their capability and that the machines that are there, empower them to do better and work faster than the competition.”