Structured-content authoring (“intelligent content”) is a well-established practice in industries such as aerospace, pharma, intelligence, and medical device manufacturing. In this type of architecture, content is not managed as documents, or web pages, but as reusable modules. These modules can be dynamically assembled and delivered (as a Word/PDF file or a Web page) at the moment of consumption. This ensures that the text-based content is current and consistent among all publication channels.
Recently, there has been a concerted effort by some of the big names in technical communications to evangelize these modular-content strategies in non-traditional areas such as marketing. This is way overdue. The modular-content architecture and XML-based technology that have proven successful in TechComm have merit in MarComm, where there is no shortage of repeatable content.
Your Brand Security Risk
The industries that gravitated toward modular content designs did so for several reasons. Atop the list: content that was inconsistent (thus confusing or contradictory) presented a security risk. Ensuring the consistency among all publication channels, is the best way to mitigate this risk.
I realize that not every industry is like aerospace or intelligence, but all organizations are deeply concerned with their brand. Text-based and visual content that is inconsistent among channels is not only confusing, it also dilutes your organization’s brand. What is the cost of recreating a logo, because you can’t find the original? Or the cost of discovering that your company founder’s name is misspelled in dozens of locations throughout your public-facing sites?
If your logos, slogans, or mission statements are inconsistent, you have created brand security risk. What is the cost of that?
Creating Content is (T0o) Easy
To many people the term “content” refers to formatted text with inserted graphics created by a word processor, publishing program or Web editor. For decades, tools like Word, InDesign (Pagemaker), Dreamweaver, etc. have offered a convenient means to create content quickly. If we need to move a large portion of content, we can copy and paste into its new location, or 10 or 12 locations. If a document needs be visible in multiple repositories, it’s easy enough to copy it, or e-mail it to somebody who can upload to the required places.
Content Reuse or Content Recreation?
Though when (“when” not “if”) the content becomes outdated, do you know whose job it is to remember those 10 or 12 locations, three months or two years from now? Or if your contacts retire, or go on vacation, do you know who has access to all those repositories where the documents were uploaded? If disclaimer copy changes on a whole product line, will you be able to track down all the packaging, advertising, and web sites where it appears?
If you can’t find content, who will recreate it? If a vendor recreates it, whose budget pays for their time? When you recreate content, are you a little anxious that it might not be accurate? You should be.
If content has to be recreated, because it can’t be found, which account executive is going to tell the client that it has to be recreated. My suspicion is none of them, it’s likely that your company is going to eat the cost, to fix the content, with fingers crossed, under the radar.
My assessment of most organizations, is that often project teams, reviewing content-management platforms aren’t really aware of the whole content picture. Often these people, who aren’t in the content trenches, don’t have a feel for the content complexity. Because the mechanical process of creating content (typing, copying/pasting, adding an image..) is rather simplistic, isn’t it?
However, that ignores the whole arduous process: strategy, original photography and talent fees, writing (not typing), illustration, design, quality assurance, customer approval….
A Single Source of Mistakes
In a recent post, I wrote that a downside of digital content production is that while we can make content faster than ever, we can make mistakes faster than ever, too. The Internet ensures that we can share our mistakes with the whole world.
In the content management industry, you will often hear the term “a single source of truth,” meaning that content objects are stored in a centralized repository and expressed in multiple channels throughout the organization. This “create once publish everywhere” (COPE) model may sound cool, but do your organization’s (or client’s) decision makers really see the utility of this? Really?
If they don’t , they not might be aware of the costs or risks associated with recreating content. If they aren’t, perhaps the value of such an architecture to them is the rapid response to incorrect, or outdated content. Don’t be shy about sharing horror stories, like the time that an art director recreated a one-word banner ad and misspelled the one word and the mistake was caught the client’s CEO. Or the time that an IT manager sent a company history by email to a consultant and a misspelling of the founder’s name was published in dozens of places. (Both of these examples actually happened during my previous engagements).
Mistakes are going to happen. Though we can make fewer mistakes by focusing on CREATING and REUSING content rather than RECREATING content. With a single-source content strategy you can respond quickly when mistakes are discovered: revising content in one place that will updated everywhere you had published it.
Your ultimate goal: to have a single source of your mistakes (that’s not as weird as it sounds). We won’t ever eliminate mistakes completely (though isn’t it pretty to think so?). However, a single-source content strategy will ensure that you can correct your mistakes quickly and completely.
The underlying problem with discussions of single source ‘content ” is that there are many different content types and they have different management and delivery needs. There are no platforms that will handle all of them, at least none that will handle them all well.
Photographs and digital illustrations have resolution (dots-per-inch) and color model needs that are very different in print than they are screen-based vehicles such as tablets or phones. Yet, the print, broadcast and web versions of an image can all be derived from the same source file, commonly known as “the digital master.” A digital master file should be composed of sufficient individual colors (millions) and resolution (100’s of dots per inch) such it can be down sampled into print- and screen-appropriate formats. The practice and technology associated with management of these rich media files is known as “digital asset management” or “DAM”.
(If there is nothing else that you take away from this post, you should start using “DAM” as an adjective—That DAM software, The DAM server—because it’s awesome. Use the term early and often: throughout the whole DAM project, and into DAM operational phase.)
In technical communication circles, practitioners adopted intelligent content that was component-based. In such an architecture each of these content components can stand on its own, but are designed to be joined with other components (like so many content LEGO blocks).
Think of repeatable content “chunks” throughout your organization. It’s likely that in your current systems, to update one word or letter in your disclaimers, (company history, mission statement…) you would have to open many documents, and web sites to make a slight change throughout your content collections.
This type of content management is a bit more esoteric than DAM, but “component content management systems” (CCMS) have been commonplace in the tech communication for some time. There are well-established architectures that facilitate the granular-level management of text content, most notably, DITA, a framework developed by IBM to address their own content reuse challenges.
DAM and CCMS are both mature disciplines, but neither by itself will be able to help to eliminate your brand security risk.
Be The Change
As stated above structured text-based content and image-based content have very different management and delivery needs. There are products and consultants that are capable of addressing single-source design and delivery of rich media and others that are savvy in the architecture of component-level content management systems. However, in the interest of brand security there needs to more cooperative efforts between these two camps.
In my opinion, recent efforts by the technical communications titans to move into non-traditional areas such as marketing, and corporate communications will have only limited success until some of the channel-specific issues for rich media are addressed.
In short, there needs to be better interoperability between these two types of platforms DAM industry and those in the CCMS space. (See? ‘CCMS’ not nearly as fun to say as ‘DAM’). Such innovations might come from the software or consulting industries, but fastest path to industry-wide innovation is demand from the customers.
If you are evaluating DAM or CCMS for the first time, or seeking to replace your incumbent platforms, ask the companies on your short list about their experience with integration of DAM and CCMS. At the proof-of concept stage ask them again, and compel them to prove their claims, or to provide you with a clear plan on how they would approach such an integration.
These platform integrations, and vendor partnerships will be slow to happen without your persistence efforts to ensure your own brand security.