Spreading the Word and Getting It Done
So the experts are convinced. But what about your average John Doe content creator? Well, he may be familiar with the concept-but that’s about it. “I think that if you asked [people if they see the value in future-proofing] in a way that people understood, they would think about it and say yes, they see the value in it,” Bailie says. “But that’s only as a conceptual question, like asking someone who doesn’t know about air freight shipping, ‘If I explained to you the benefits of shipping goods by air instead of by truck convoy, can you see the value in it?’ They’d say yes. But if you asked those same people how it could be done, they’d have no clue. In that context, there are far too few people who really understand how to manage content so that it is future-proofed.”
Nichols agrees-getting the “what” across is one thing, but the “how” is something else. “I think people understand [future-proofing] in concept, just as they do performance-driven content,” he says, “but I don’t think organizations-particularly larger ones-are set up to execute it. Or most likely understand that to execute it properly requires changes in business processes, governance, and the manner by which content is designed.”
Nichols recommends that content delivery processes be set up in terms of a “closed-loop lifecycle.” What he means is that “once you publish the content, you continuously measure performance and optimize accordingly.”
“Each content type your organization produces should adopt a lifecycle that is performance-based,” he elaborates. “This requires technology but also people and governance to support it. It also requires that content is structured and tagged in a way to support reuse and scalability, such as multichannel publishing and the ability to change in the future. If you set up a performance-based model properly, you are going to have the benefit of a future-proofed solution.”
As for Bailie, she feels one of the best ways of future-proofing content is going “back to basics”-and that entails, she says, paying attention to the editorial and the technical sides of content. “On the editorial side, you will want to have content that hangs together consistently, so in the future, when you combine content created at different times, they will sound coherent,” she says. She stresses using the principles of “minimalism, topic-based writing, controlled vocabulary, plain language, translation-friendly authoring, and creating structured content-and applying them with some common sense in our particular circumstances.”
Bailie also champions using content reuse techniques, such as “putting reference markers into content for things like brand names, so that when the reference text gets updated in the future, you update it in a single place, and all of the references are updated.” That is actually a technique called “transclusion,” which she says has been done for decades in technical communication, but is “not widely known outside of that profession.” She describes it as a “powerful” technique, one that can be used with sentences, paragraphs, and even whole topics that need to be reused.
Bailie also stresses separating content from format. “Desktop publishing has been the most damaging practice when it comes to future-proofing content, particularly when inexperienced users employ line formatting instead of style sheets to control the look of their text,” she says.
Bailie says she once interviewed someone about a “huge project” he had worked on. He told her “the content migration went incredibly smoothly, and it was because the organization had bypassed the desktop publishing stage altogether. Because the content wasn’t tangled up in meaningless style tags, his team could read the structure and migrate the content into the new software.”
Instead of focusing on style tags, Bailie says it’s important to have content “semantically structured and tagged,” as this “helps computers understand how to process your content in more precise ways.” She offers as an example having a product description “that works for the web-long and descriptive-but doesn’t work for mobile, where it needs to be short and to the point. You could structure and tag your content to isolate which sentence or two is to be used on smaller screens or other applications, perhaps on the control panel of a piece of equipment.”
It’s Not About Technology
Of course, you can totally understand the concept of future-proofing and why it needs to be done-and still not do it the right way. “There are so many ways that I’ve seen people try to future-proof content that haven’t really panned out so well,” Bailie says. “I think the biggest mistake is leaving the problem for the technologists to figure out. They will treat the content like data and put it into a database, or hard-code it into the software code, and use some script to push in replacement words.”
This, she says, may seem as if it is a good idea, “but it backfires when content then gets out of sync or the needs change a bit, and they can’t accommodate. Not only can they not accommodate, they have no project code, budget, or desire to go back and redo work from the past.”
Nichols says poorly done future-proofing fails “to account for users, technology, and internal processes. Generally, people think future-proofing is largely a technology solution. I argue that the technology is there to support business and user needs and requirements. You must look at all three.”
Future-proofing, he continues, “is much more than technology.” Nichols wrote a book on enterprise content strategy, Enterprise Content Strategy: A Project Guide, which he says informs readers “what type of framework is required for standing content up for success.”
“The model assumes a future-proofed solution,” he says, “but it requires a performance-based content strategy framework, optimized content lifecycles, governance structure that enables ongoing content evaluation, and the tools and processes to evolve a content ecosystem. Thus, I would say that there are several inputs required for effective future-proofing.”
Bailie agrees that future-proofing involves more than just proper use of technology. “It’s how you plan your content,” she says. “It’s how you model your content and your repository; it’s how you write your content and how you store it; it’s the technology you use to manage your content; it’s how you parse your content for delivery. Each of these affects the outcome, and sometimes, it’s how these things work together.”
But since technology obviously plays a big role, Bailie offers some basic tips. She says the best option is to use a component content management system (CCMS) to manage content, independent of any other systems, “and then push the delivery-ready content to whichever system needs it to position it for publishing.”
Bailie points to photographers who are given a specialty tool, such as Photoshop, to do their power-editing, and then they save their finished product and upload it to a web CMS.
“The power-editing environment for text-based content developers is an XML editor interface, powered by a CCMS,” Bailie says. “It’s always surprising to me how many teams in technical environments have never heard of this. Take my word, though, that this allows some pretty powerful manipulation of content, with the addition of rich semantics.”
In closing, Bailie offers some advice for content creators who are new to future-proofing. “Future-proofing content is not for the faint of heart, particularly the first time,” she says. “Once you’ve seen it in action a few times, the techniques seem fairly obvious. But until you’re familiar with all of the techniques, there are too many things that could go wrong. It’s important to get help setting up the framework, at least the first time around, before going the DIY route.”