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About Content Strategy

For a number of reasons I have been thinking about "Content Strategy" lately. One of the reasons came along somewhat unexpectedly in that I was named one of the top 25 most influential content strategists. To be honest, I was a little surprised at the nomination as the phrase "content strategy" has not been one of the many epithets that I have been known to throw around when discussing the ins-and-outs of content. That said, it is true that I have been excavating the concept of content, and the many things we do with it and to it, for essentially 20 years now. It is also true that few people have tortured the term as systematically as I have. All this aside, I was pleased to have my name associated with the still somewhat emergent concept of content strategy.

It would seem fitting then to establish a definition for content strategy, or at least a working description of what it is that content strategists do. As a stepping stone in that direction, I particularly like the visualization provided by Richard Ingram (below).

The World of the Content Strategist

What I particularly like about this representation of content strategy is that it underscores the fact that content strategy is an integrative activity - one that must touch upon and pull together a variety of practice areas and mobilize their respective energies in a way that delivers maximum benefit to an organization and its customers. A content strategy becomes a form of game plan for how an organization will plan, develop and deliver content that helps people perform effectively. More often than not the focus of the content strategist falls on helping people to become customers through the facilitation of a sale and to be satisfied customers once the sale has been made.

It is also pretty hard to avoid noticing that content strategy is predominantly discussed with reference to web content. As I do elsewhere, I tend to look at how these discussions can be generalized so as to apply to all content. This does not take anything away from discussions of content strategy that are very much rooted in web user experience optimization. In fact, I find that web professionals often do a better job than others in foregrounding a strong emphasis upon user success and on leveraging analytical tools and techniques that help make such success measurable.

Now among the other reasons I have been thinking about content strategy lately is the fact that I have contributed to two articles that have appeared recently on this very topic.

EContent 100 2010-2011

In an issue of eContent magazine, I contributed a guest column called "Get Smart: Architecting Content for Maximum Value" (my original title was greatly improved by the addition, by eContent editor Michelle Manafy, of the delightful prefix "Get Smart"). In many respects this article speaks directly to the mission of the content strategist in aligning how content is planned and designed with how it needs to be delivered in order to be effective. It is noteworthy however that the primary focus in this article in fact falls on "content architecture" and its relationship with the "content technologies" that will be deployed to make the entire process scalable and sustainable. The point I would like to make here is that a content strategy does not stand alone and we will return to this later.

American Society for Information Science and Technology

In the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T), I collaborated with Ann Rockley on an article titled "An Intelligent Content Strategy for the Enterprise". My main contribution is a case study that illustrates an intelligent content strategy being applied to the design process for a new aircraft.

Note: I have included excerpts from both of these, together with a few enhancements, as comments appended to this post.

One of the things that stands out for me in any consideration of "content strategy" is that it is centered upon the business goals of the organization. It sounds almost painfully obvious but grim reality shows us that it is not as obvious as it sounds. A content strategy should bring to the fore the idea that the content must be expressly designed and developed so as to address specific business objectives. This content must also, it follows, be designed to work with and leverage the tools that are being used, such as the search technology that a customer or prospect is most likely to call upon when looking for an answer. As we see with Richard Ingram's illustration (above), the content strategist must take on board a raft of considerations and then chart an efficient and effective path of content investment.

That content strategy is focused ultimately on user experience is significant in other ways as well. For one, content strategists in my experience have tended to be people with a strong background in content design and development. They are, simply put, content practitioners who are very close to the business of creating and publishing content. This is one of the key strengths of a good content strategist. This strength, however, is not the only one that an organization will need to tap into if it really wants to take its "content game" to the next level.

I would contend that, while content strategists lead the integration effort from the perspective of the business owner, the content strategist also needs to collaborate with another type of protagonist if success is to be achieved. That other protagonist would be the Content Solution Architect or alternatively the Content Engineer. Important caveat: depending on what jurisdiction you are in, both "architect" and "engineer" are controlled terms and of the two "engineer" tends to be the more tightly controlled - so you should be careful about which of these terms you take up and how liberally you throw it around. Whichever of these terms you adopt, this role will lead the integration and implementation effort from the perspective of the technologies and architectural techniques that will be applied so that the content strategy can find expression in a solution that actually works and that can be sustained and evolved going forward. Where the content environment being considered is large, such as would be found in a multi-national enterprise, the more important this role becomes.

I make the distinction between content strategist and content solution architect or content engineer because the strengths of a good content strategist do not automatically translate into adequate credentials for being a good content solution architect or content engineer. The reverse, I hasten to point out, is even more true. What does need to be acknowledged, however, is the inescapable fact that the technologies and architectural techniques surrounding content have decades of evolution behind them and it would be inadvisable to assume they can be picked up and mastered without systematic exploration and extensive implementation and operational experience. The ideal situation, I would suggest, will match a strong content strategist with an equally strong content solution architect or content engineer. Attacking the problems from both sides, as it were, this combination will achieve the quickest and surest success.

As a specialization of a model that I have used in the past to explore the nature of "content solutions", I am putting forward the following depiction of how the business-oriented content strategy interacts with the content technology and with the operating content process to& form a solution that implements the strategy and thereby realizes its goals. (In an earlier version of this post, the position occupied by content process was held by the puzzling concept of content architecture. Both derive from what I classify, in the parent version of this illustration, as indicative of the "knowledge" perspective and I have come to the view that the content process is a more appropriate part of this content solution diagram. Content architecture remains an interesting, but more than a little esoteric, side alley that looks at how a variety of contending considerations, including the competing demands that are often placed upon content assets, can be worked out and worked out in a way that achieves the highest level of asset and solution persistence.)

Content Solutions

In thinking about the respective roles of the content strategist and the content solution architect or content engineer, I come to the firm belief that these two roles should not be played by one person. There are a number of reasons for this, and some of them we have already touched upon. Among the most important of these reasons is the fact that it will be rare, bordering upon unheard of, for one person to completely straddle all of the requisite domains. Even more important however is the fact that these two perspectives should have strong and clear representation in any project and that, through the interaction between them, an effective balance is realized as the best way to ensure both short term and long term success. In a very practical way, it will also prove critical that a project be able to deal simultaneously with stakeholders from the business community and from the technology infrastructure community. Experience has shown repeatly how important it is for a project to be able to interact with major groups of stakeholders in a way that each of these groups acknowledges as valid (and therefore that they can "hear"). In an ideal world, the different backgrounds of content strategists and content solution architects / content engineers will allow them to fully engage these two important, and very different, communities.

Finally, in line with a basic principle of good governance, it is generally a good idea to separate the two concerns of content strategy (the what and the why) and content engineering and architecture (essentially the how, with implications for the what). This helps to prevent one perspective becoming overly enamoured with its view of things and thus to wander off into an echo chamber of its own interests. Both the community of content professionals and cadre of technology stakeholders have strong isolationist tendencies, so this type of checks-and-balances approach to framing and then realizing content strategies is a good idea. It is hard work, mind you, but any organization that depends on its content, and looks to it as a resource for future improvement, should embrace this more arduous route to success.

In venturing this exploration, with its suggestion that content strategy is only part of the equation, I am launching off from a somewhat specific conception of what is meant by the word "content" and therefore by its management. In this I emphasize that content is an asset because it represents a potential action that will drive a tangible benefit. In this regard, what content has been prepared, and how specifically it has been prepared, is important in part because this will determine how that content can be transformed (published) into one or more information events. I would invite readers to explore more of my posts under the category of "content" with The Truth about Content being a reasonably good place to start.


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Joe Gollner

Get Smart: Architecting Content for Maximum Value (eContent Article)

It sounds simple enough: We'll architect our content to maximize its value to the business. Everyone can get behind that. Of course, it's not quite as simple as it sounds. This would explain why very few organizations actually walk the talk and direct consistent attention, and investment, toward architecting their content with a view to maximizing its value. It's not that most organizations don't see the need or that they don't want to do it. It's just that it has proven remarkably difficult.

There are many reasons architecting content is so hard. One is that the tools and standards that allow us to work with the real complexities of content have only now begun to mature. Another is that the mainstream technology infrastructure has only recently become fully capable of leveraging richly designed content. As examples, the revolution sparked by social media and full-featured mobile devices has recently provided engaging new channels through which to deliver content. With these new channels enjoying high levels of media, and therefore management, attention, many publishing units have been tasked with addressing them as a matter of urgent priority. Finally, it is only with more than 20 years of experience that the community of content practitioners has established the store of lessons learned that can guide how we architect our content and the associated technologies. The good news is that these pieces are now in place, and organizations can now tackle the question of how to best architect their content assets so as to maximize the value being returned.

Content, almost by definition, is what we are trying to communicate. It is the way we deliver useful information. It has always been a challenge to design content that can play this role efficiently and effectively. It was a challenge when all we had to worry about was producing high-quality printed documents. And while we still need to produce good hard copy today, we also need to address a seemingly endless array of new and changing channels. Organizations have come to the realization that we really do need to architect our content differently for today's marketplace.

If I were to summarize in a single word how we need to design our content, I would suggest that it must become fundamentally more "intelligent." We need content that, once it has been prepared, can interact with smart automation to respond dynamically to the many different channels and contexts where it may be used. Content that has been cast into a single physical form, no matter how high its quality, will be seriously limited in its potential value if someone has to intervene manually each time a new demand surfaces. One of the harshest lessons that we have learned over the years is that automation is essential if we want our content investments to scale up to the level of usage where real benefits are generated. And as we have also learned, there is no magic in automation. If we want automation to handle wide-ranging customer requirements effectively, then we need to invest in how the content itself is designed.

It is not simply a matter of embracing a bucket of open standards, as that, by itself, leads nowhere. It is not simply a question of purchasing a given technology no matter how completely it claims to streamline all the tasks revolving around content. What is called for is the adoption of a pragmatic approach to investing in the design of intelligent content and in the smart automation that leverages that intelligence. More important still is the need balancing these investments with a continuous stream of innovations to satisfy customers' needs. Unless we engage real customers doing real things, then all of our investments in intelligent content and smart automation will drift off track. In fact, I would argue that content is only intelligent and automation is only smart when they have been grounded in actual business improvements that validate those investments.

When we survey all the changes happening in the field of publishing, it is difficult not to feel excited. Experience has shown that tremendous things can be achieved when we architect content to be intelligent and leverage that intelligence to realize escalating benefits now and in the future.

This article appeared in the December 2010 issue of eContent Magazine, posted on 22 November 2010. I could not resist adjusting some of the wording (see inline italicized text) in the text to returning it to its original sense.

Joe Gollner

Case Study: Design of a New Aircraft (ASIS&T Bulletin Article)

The business problem. In setting out to design a completely new aircraft, an airplane manufacturer realized that they were faced with both an opportunity and a challenge. The global marketplace for aircraft was changing rapidly, and radically new design concepts were needed. This business environment meant that the very latest in design technologies and manufacturing techniques would be required. One of the key obstacles to be overcome in moving forward, however, lay in the fact that the content sources for the current aircraft designs, and the engineering standards on which all new designs needed to address, existed in a number of different formats, ranging from proprietary databases, arcane desktop publishing files and even custom data structures with their own unique, dedicated compilers. These sources were shared across many aircraft fleets, and encompassed both military and civilian variants. Some of the content sources were even shared with competitors. If the aircraft manufacturer wanted to embrace full-scale innovation in the design of their next generation aircraft, they would need to dramatically increase the level of intelligence exhibited in this bewildering volume of content sources.

Goals and objectives. What was needed was an intelligent content strategy that would establish the authoritative source for all content assets and that would set out a sustainable approach to managing these sources so that they could be used by a massive array of consuming applications.

The solution. The intelligent content strategy needed to accommodate what was termed a multi-dimensional content architecture where content assets would be managed in a way that would simultaneously support many different standards. This goal was accomplished by deploying an extensibility framework based on the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA).

Once in DITA, the content sources would be variously pulled into the three-dimensional design modeling environments, the part selection applications, the product data management systems, and the manufacturing control tools. In all cases, these environments, applications, systems and tools would be operated by different suppliers working in various locations around the world and using software products provided by many different vendors. A sophisticated content-sharing architecture was established where content was dynamically accessed, modified, augmented and monitored across this global network of collaborators. Driving the sophistication of the architecture were considerations such as security, with the entire program operating under strict export controls, and performance, as necessitated by the fact that the design and manufacturing tasks needed to be coordinated on a near real-time basis.

Project success. Leveraging the new level of content intelligence this aircraft manufacturer was able to move ahead with design innovations while at the same time ensuring that the rich design knowledge available within historical repositories could be leveraged. They were able not only to maintain the required levels of control and oversight, but to take them to an even higher level. It turned out that one of the key benefits associated with heightened content intelligence is the ability to apply very precise analytics to every step in the content lifecycle.

The types of aircraft that can be designed and manufactured using an intelligent content strategy are fundamentally superior to anything that has come before. The aircraft being produced are safer, more maintainable and much more economical to operate. And future aircraft design projects will have the benefit of starting from a far more intelligent content repository of historical knowledge, and engineering and regulatory guidance.

Challenges. Finding the authoritative source for any given element of content was far harder than was expected, and once identified, the authoritative content sources were found to exist in a wide range of proprietary formats. Establishing reliable and cost-effective ways to extract the content sources from these legacy formats, and to enrich them with the necessary intelligence, proved to be a challenge. A number of technologies and techniques were introduced to overcome these obstacles. Authors and editors were also going to need specialized tools to handle these complex structures efficiently and effectively. Addressing the authoring challenges relied mostly on the iterative refinement of an authoring version of the content schema so that the markup choices being presented to authors could be kept manageable.

At the end of the project, one of the lead developers working on the solution confessed something to the client: “I have to tell you that many parts of this project were really difficult.” A senior technical representative from the client organization did not hesitate with his answer. “That’s OK, we thought it was impossible.”

I contributed this case study to the article in the Dec 2010 / Jan 2011 Bulletin for the American Society for Information Science & Technology (ASIS&T). I have made a number of additions and revisions (see inline italicized text) in order to enhance the copy retained here. In addition to this case study, I did have a hand in some of the other parts of the article.

Tom George

This is an exceptional post on the topic of content strategy. I see why you got the nomination.

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