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Published on March 6th, 2008 | by Rahel Bailie


Content as asset – and why its management is more critical than ever

Content producers are coming into interesting times, to adapt the popular saying, with the dawning of The Age of Content. Industry is discovering that content is not a liability, but an asset, and just like the assets that sit, like the inventory in their warehouses, but in their databases. These assets have value, and as anything in a company that has value, these assets must be stored, managed, and valued, and possibly insured, so that it can be measured, monetized, guarded.
The rules around content and its perception are changing fast. The new rules are not just for the high-profit content like movies and music, which have always been subject to commoditization. What have traditionally been seen as the lowliest form of commercial content within an enterprise – technical manuals, support documentation, and other business content – are starting to take their place alongside the other valued corporate assets. If this has not happened yet in your company, it will eventually. The same market forces that propelled other technological advances will also push companies to stay in line with their competitors.

The drivers for content convergence
As companies produce more products for more markets in more countries and more languages, the need to use our content assets in more efficient ways becomes a profitability factor, in the following ways. Think of it as a parallel to the “green” movement: reduce, re-use, recycle.
Reduce. The efficiency factor drives an impetus to reduce the amount of content manipulation. Automate content processing so that content can be integrated and syndicated, be portable and convergent, freeing up content producers to concentrate on aspects of content development needing a human touch, and letting technology take over rote tasks such as formatting pages and tracking translation versions. This affects hard costs, so efficiency is a very compelling reason to update a content strategy.
Re-use. The consistency factor is another driver is that has organizations re-using content rather than re-creating it. The more that content is manipulated, the more risk of a critical change, which increases the risk management aspect, potentially dilutes brand, as well as increases translation costs. Consistency is achieved on a number of levels. Beyond consistency at the cognitive level consistency, which affects readers’ perceptions of brand, is consistency at the structural level, which affects how much of the content processing can be automated.
Recycle. The cost of producing content is too much to treat as a “single use” product. Well-written, well-formed, consistent content can integrated from multiple sources, such as multiple databases, into a single repository where it can be sorted, searched, retrieved, syndicated, re-integrated, re-published, and so on. That’s a smart use of content, and a much smarter use of valuable assets.
As we enter The Age of Content, we have to start thinking of content in a different way. In a Web 2.0 world, we have to move to Content 2.0, and Content 2.0 levels the playing field in more ways than one. It’s not the size of the organization that determines the success of a content convergence strategy, but the advance planning that goes into the content and into the strategy. Perhaps most importantly, it’s the simple willingness to explore the potential of internal and customer-facing content assets and find ways to exploit that potential.

Some ways that content convergence solves business problems
Forward-thinking companies have been finding ways to converge and syndicate content for a number of years, with new ways of content convergence being announced virtually daily. Here are some examples:

– Inside a corporation, technical documentation, engineering specifications, Illustrated Parts Breakdowns, Parts Assemblies, and other technical aids all converge into the knowledge base used by the call center to answer telephone queries. The information can also be syndicated out to travelling service technicians, whose laptop databases are automatically updated as soon as they log into their accounts every day.
– A consumer site provides a combination of articles and products to a vertical market. Through their social network, they gather content from their communities, and the high-ranking consumer-generated content gets integrated and shown along with their professionally-written articles. This closes the circle for the community, and provides the authenticity the consumers want, and retains their confidence in the site.
– A start-up software development company uses a combination of company-generated documentation and developer-generated content to populate their knowledge base. The balance builds a sense of community amongst the developers, contains the cost of documentation development – the tech writer became more of an editor, and enriches the document set, as developers come up with ideas that the software house had never dreamed of.
– A tourism site has a budget to create a certain amount of content in certain languages, but cannot afford to create enough original content in all the target markets to keep their site fresh. By partnering with several other sites, they can bring in content in the other languages, and syndicate their content to those other sites, creating a win-win situation for all the sites involved in the content trade.

The importance of standards
The challenge, then, becomes how to make content convergence possible. In a Content 2.0 world, content has to conform to standards on two distinct levels.
First, there is a need to ensure that the text within the file is suitable for integration and syndication. Because a content “chunk” may get separated from the great context, it is important to establish standards for how the content will be treated, and what information must be present inside each content chunk. For example, saying that an event will take place on “June 8th, 6 PM, at 511 Main St., London” becomes relatively meaningless unless we know a year, time zone, province, and country. Blog posts live on forever, and information relevancy becomes a huge problem.
Second, there is a need for technology to automate the processing of the content. Microformats, widgets, XML schemas, and other standards allow content to be interpreted by multiple systems. For example, a job posting on a large job site can be syndicated to other job sites because they all use a common format that allows content to be exchanged in a fully automated way.

Convergence and integration is just the beginning
Once the corporation has taken the big leap to using content to solve business problems, and treating content as an asset instead of a liability, it is a short hop to the next level. This gets into the creative use of content to solve problems not yet identified as problems. Once the content conforms to a standard that enables the content to be integrated with content from other sources, the content can also be syndicated or, if the data is suitable for public use, rich internet applications can be built on it. The number of applications that use mash-ups of Google Maps plus data from another source – for example, real estate data or shopping locations – have created many valuable software applications that feed the Web 2.0 world.
In a single organization, content could be used to:

– Have technical content from various sources converge in a customer service database, to leverage existing content for new business purposes within the company
– Integrate procedures into technical training courses, to reduce the training development cycle and to ensure that the content is always up-to-date from its sources
– Have product features integrate with marketing copy on the company web site, so marketing communicators don’t have to locate or recreate that copy
-Syndicate product updates out to customers, so customers can be assured they are current with your product changes
– Syndicate comments in from product discussion forums through a notification mechanism, to stay on top of what your customers (and competitors) are saying about you
– Notify internal stakeholders of critical-path changes through an RSS feed, instead of using the less reliable and less customizable group email method for notifications
– Download technical updates automatically to remote laptops; instead of periodically emailing a CD to remote technical or sales reps, which may be inaccurate even before the CDs reach them, an option for content updates can offered at appropriate connection times
– Provide personalized marketing information to potential customers who subscribe to a newsletter, to ensure they receive content tailored to them, and prevent the email fatigue that causes unsubscribes
– Publish standards-based (microformat) content such as events, jobs, and news releases automatically to other sites, to save staffers the rote work of copy-and-paste to multiple sites
– Pushing variations of Web content out to mobile devices, so users can get content on their phones and PDAs that is readable and usable in the small-screen format.

Consequences, intended and unintended
Content convergence and integration may be the key to the next Internet wave, called Internet 3.0 by technology guru Salim Ismail, but it is not yet a well-understood concept to those outside the industries where the technologies get discussed. Content producers learn a bit about XML here, a bit about content management there, a bit about customer relationships there, and until now, have had to leave the overall strategy in the hands of the IT folks who may not have been included in the overall content strategy, if the organization has one. This spring, the first conference on this topic, Content Convergence and Integration, is taking place March 12-14, 2008, where content producers and their managers can congregate to learn about the various aspects of producing portable content, learn the power of the technologies and how they can be applied to solve business problems, and learn some of the ways that these strategies can impact your business processes, your customers, and your brand. It’s through integrated discussions like this that we learn to capitalize on the content we produce and garner the respect it deserves.

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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,

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