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A component approach to content

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This article appears in the issue January 2009, [Vol 18, Issue 1]

In the multichannel, customer-driven world in which we live, the pressure to meet ever-increasing information demands has never been more acute or complex. Yet, the birth of the Extensible Markup Language (XML) file format and the component content management (CCM) systems that leverage XML provide us with the tools to meet those demands. But tools are just that, tools to be used, and without a broader understanding and strategy for their use, they are of little value. In this article, we hope to provide some insight into the value of a customer-centric approach to managing information, an approach that best leverages component level content.

Organizations create huge amounts of customer-facing content and put considerable time and effort into managing their customer relationships, whether they are legal clients or buyers of widgets, or internal or external customers. Yet those same organizations allow content to be siloed, thereby failing to provide maximum value to customers. The content is hard to find and lacks consistency from one silo to another.

The content does not contribute to business objectives because it is difficult to align all aspects of an initiative to the goals and marketing strategies underlying it, and to do it across the silos. Often, there is no customer-centric content strategy across the Web, let alone across all the other points at which the organization can touch customers with messages, content or functionality.

When there is no customer-centric strategy, it is often because authors creating the content are working in isolation from other authors within the organization. Walls are erected between content areas and even within content areas, which leads to the need to create and recreate the content multiple times, often with changes or differences at each iteration.

In this multichannel world, customers want to receive information on their mobile devices as well as on the Web and in print. And it’s not just about how the customer wants to interact with an organization; it’s about all the opportunities the organization can use to communicate with the customer. Each additional channel makes the content more accessible to customers, and linked channels can reinforce the message. Touchpoints in one channel can be used to guide customers to other channels for added value.

Multichannel distribution of content, however, isn’t just identical content in multiple channels (e.g., the same content as print converted to a PDF on the Web, or with a "save as" conversion to HTML), it is about content being optimized for the channel. It is necessary to identify content that is appropriate to the channel. For example, content destined for wireless is brief, concise and chunked into small bite-size pieces for small-screen viewing, while content for the Web can be more verbose, and content for print even more so. Organizations tend to recreate content for each channel, but that comes at great expense to the organization. Content written once, but designed for multichannel delivery is a requirement. Content optimized for multiple channels is no longer a nice-to-have perk, it is an expectation.

Creating structured content that is optimized for multiple channels results in a number of benefits:

  • Speed. It’s faster to create content when we have a pattern to follow. It takes a lot of the guesswork away from trying to figure out structural rules like whether "every task has an introductory paragraph." Having a structure guides us through creating the content that we need.
  • Consistency. Humans tend to be creatures of habit. When we are reading or using content, we get used to seeing the same sorts of information in the same place. When things change—the formatting or structure is different—and there is no obvious reason for the change, it slows down our comprehension. We wonder about the change. What is different here? What am I missing? Unexpected or unexplainable change reduces the usability of the information. Developing comprehensive, effective structures can eliminate the inconsistencies that drive users mad.
  • Reuse. Content that is reused in multiple places must be written and structured consistently. Structured content ensures that reusable components are truly reusable, that their reuse is transparent, and that all content appears unified, whether it is reused or not. Inconsistently structured content stands out as being
    different, jarring and hard to understand. It’s a bit like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole; they weren’t designed to fit together. Structured content is designed to "fit," no matter where it is reused.
  • Predictability. Predictability follows from consistency. When information is consistent in presentation and structure, users can get used to the patterns and structures they see. They can find information faster and understand it more easily because of its predictability. For example, if all product feature Web pages follow the same structure, users will be able to anticipate the information they will find when comparing features. Or, if they need to find a specific piece of information, such as the system requirements in a technical brochure, they will be able to quickly navigate to the information, if it’s always in the same place or same order.

Predictability is not just important for customers, it’s also extremely important for automating publication. It’s easier to create style sheets and automated processing instructions for controlled structures than it is for ad hoc structures. For ad hoc structures, we’ll have to write extra code for handling the possible variations we might encounter, and because the variations are boundless, well, let’s just say that there is a reason why HTML browser software code is something on the order of 60 percent error-handling code.

Component content management systems manage content at a granular (component) level rather than at the page or document level. Each component represents a single topic, concept or asset (such as an image or table). Components are assembled into multiple content assemblies (content types) and can be viewed as components or as traditional pages or documents. Each component has its own life cycle (owner, version, approval, use) and can be tracked individually or as part of an assembly. CCM is typically used for multichannel, customer-facing content (marketing, usage, learning, support). CCM can be a separate system or can be a functionality of another content management type (such as enterprise content management).

However we look at it, pressure is increasing to create more content faster, in more languages, and to deliver that content to more channels, simultaneously doing so faster and cheaper than before. To do that, we must adopt new tools and, just as importantly, new disciplines. The tools are there and the best practices exist to follow and adopt the new disciplines quickly and effectively, yet not everyone knows that. Those who do are not only stealing an advantage over their competitors, but also providing the foundation for a much more efficient and customer-centric publishing system for the future. 


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