By Chuck Frey published July 15, 2014

How Engineering Principles Can Revolutionize Your Content Strategy

scott abel-rahel anne bailie-authorsContent marketers spend countless hours handcrafting content that’s designed to inform and persuade customers. Scott Abel, “The Content Wrangler,” believes he has a better way: Content engineering, the application of engineering principles to the creation, management, and delivery of content.

Recently, Scott and his co-author Rahel Anne Bailie used a content engineering methodology to create a printed book, eBook, website, and a deck of cards entitled The Language of Content Strategy, all from a single source of content. These works all revolve around a set of 52 definitions for content strategy terms and serve as a common lexicon for content strategists and brand marketers. 

What is content engineering?

While content marketing analysis and planning is focused on creating excellent content that resonates with your target audiences and deciding upon the channels and formats you’ll use to deliver it to them, content engineering leverages technology and structured processes to automate this distribution. In other words, content engineering enables marketers to focus on creating outstanding content instead of the process of manually converting it into dozens of different formats to meet the needs of different media and channels.

“Content engineering determines how content travels through systems, what happens to it, and how it gets to the right person, at the right time, in the language they prefer, on the device of their choice,” Scott explains.

As content grows in importance to organizations, Scott believes that manual content formatting needs to go the way of the dinosaurs. “Content marketers cannot continue to operate as a cottage industry, handcrafting individual deliverables one at a time using their favorite proprietary tools. Such a manual approach doesn’t allow them to scale up to meet the demands of the rapidly expanding digital, global content economy,” he adds.

The book as a proof of concept

Scott and Rahel created The Language of Content Strategy to prove that two individuals could leverage a content engineering methodology to create multiple products from a single database. And as Scott is quick to point out, if they can do it with a very limited budget, any brand marketer with a much larger budget definitely can.

“Our goal with this project is to help content marketers and brand strategists to think differently about content,” Scott explains. “They can use it to provide the right content to the right audience under the right circumstances. They can leverage the same concepts and technologies we used to deliver customized, dynamic content that is personalized to their target audiences, on demand.”

The mechanics of the book

To produce The Language of Content Strategy, Scott and Rahel reached out to 50 experts and assigned a term to each of them via a wiki within a web-based collaboration tool called Atlassian Confluence. Experts were then asked to submit three pieces of information:

  • A definition of the term
  • A description of why it is important
  • A 250-word essay that tells marketers and strategists what they need to know about it

Scott and Rahel also contributed one term each, bringing the total number of definitions in the book to 52.

The wiki stored the definitions in XML, an open-source format that separates data from its presentation. XML tags identify specific types of information and are both human- and machine-readable. Why is that important? Because it’s critical for automated sorting, filtering, importing, data mining, semantic searching, and dynamic web publishing, according to Scott.

For example, the data for a tweet can be automatically pushed to a Twitter client without human intervention. Scott says XML has been adopted by thousands of large organizations worldwide and has become the de facto language of content.

XML was used to export the data needed for each type of output. CSS stylesheets were created to automatically style the print book, the eBook and the website. The XML content was imported into Adobe InDesign to create the card deck.

“This gave us a lot of flexibility. We could include some elements in one deliverable and exclude them from others,” he says. For example, the website contains hypertext links to additional resources on the web as well as audio files, which were not included in the other output formats.

“The important thing to note is that all of the words of this project only existed once,” Scott emphasizes. “You won’t catch us creating one document and then doing a ‘save as’ or copying and pasting content to repurpose it. The goal was to publish the content we gathered systematically to the different platforms.”

For more information about The Language of Content Strategy project, view Scott and Rahel’s case history on SlideShare.

What can content marketers and strategists learn?

Scott is convinced that content marketers focus too much time and effort creating content, and not enough developing efficient content production processes.

“If you take an honest look at your content marketing program, I think you’ll find there’s a lot of waste,” he cautions. “Most marketers invest a lot of time handcrafting content that is only published once, and then is quickly forgotten about. Why not invest a fraction of that time modifying an XML script and producing and repurposing the same content in multiple formats much faster?”

He explains how the database created for The Language of Content Strategy could easily be used to auto-generate tweets, slide decks, and other forms of content from its XML database. “The other beautiful part is that once you create an XML content model, you can use it over and over again on other projects. That lowers your costs for future projects and enables you to implement them faster.”

Early results from The Language of Content Strategy

hand holding title-language of content strategy

Scott reports that the book and card deck are currently in use at hundreds of companies around the world.

“We have sold out the book already and have ordered a second run. The vocabulary flash cards are being purchased in bulk by agencies and content marketing and content strategy pros for use in getting everyone on a project on the same page,” Scott says.

As the co-authors talk to content marketers and strategists, both camps seem to be relieved that someone created a common set of definitions they could benefit from. The book is being used as a reference and teaching tool, while the cards have been very useful in planning meetings among content strategists, brand marketers, and their agencies. “When a question comes up about a specific content strategy term, someone can just pull out that card and read it to the group,” Scott says.

Where can brands find content engineers?

Where can marketers find content engineering expertise to help them achieve similar results? Scott suggests looking to the authors who contributed to the book, because each one is a domain expert about the term they authored.

How can you identify candidates who have the necessary skills to help your brand with content engineering? Scott recommends that you ask them these questions:

  • Do you have experience solving multi-channel publishing problems?
  • Do you work with XML content (creating content models, document type definitions [DTDs], schemas, and stylesheets)?
  • Can you train others how to write modular content for reuse?

“Anyone who is able to do this work is likely working and very active in online communities where these subjects have been talked about for 15 years. Look for a candidate who has published articles and papers on the subject or has spoken extensively about multi-channel publishing and related topics at conferences. This is one area where real expertise is required. You can’t B.S. your way through a content engineering project,” he cautions.

The big takeaway

At its core, content engineering is all about developing efficient, scalable processes for producing, managing, and distributing content. This requires some serious analysis of existing methods and procedures.

“Most content marketers have never invested any time in making sure that they have the most optimal content process available,” Abel says. “The bigger message of the book is this: If you were to have someone take an honest look at how you create, manage, and deliver information, they would be shocked at how much waste there is.” What’s needed is a repeatable system for creating, managing and delivering content, regardless of the product or service you’re trying to promote. “What’s most important is the thinking process behind it.”

Scott believes the investment of time to engineer your content can have a fairly quick payoff in terms of productivity. In addition, it can help your team focus more time creating killer content that helps you accomplish your brand objectives. “My mantra is write it once and use it often,” he concludes.

You can view the definitions and purchase the book and card deck on The Language of Content Strategy website.

To learn more about content strategy, join Scott Abel as he takes the stage at Content Marketing World 2014, September 8–11, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. Register today! And if you are interested in learning more about the Intelligent Content Conference, bookmark our website to find the latest information. Call for Presenters is now open and event registration opens September 1, 2014. 

Author: Chuck Frey

Chuck Frey is the director of online training for the Content Marketing Institute. He is also the founder and author of The Mind Mapping Software Blog, the world's leading website covering visual mapping. In addition, he blogs about creativity, productivity and personal development strategies on his personal blog ChuckFrey.com. He has extensive experience in public relations, online marketing, content development and marketing, business strategy and creative problem-solving techniques. He is an avid photographer. You can follow him on Twitter @ChuckFrey.

Other posts by Chuck Frey

  • http://marketecture.com Scott Tillman

    This is really fascinating. I think Scott is spot on, there is a ton of waste in content production. Which is really a shame, especially if the content is polished and useful to the masses. Understanding better ways to get it out there and reaching more people would be incredibly useful.

    • http://www.thecontentwrangler.com/ Scott Abel

      Waste is easy to spot. What’s hard to find is someone willing to stop the hemorrhaging of time and money. I’m working on that right now.

  • Abey Mathew

    The idea of an XML content model is very interesting. Thanks Scott.

    • http://www.thecontentwrangler.com/ Scott Abel

      You are welcome!

  • Jitendra Padmashali

    Nice post, Every page of content you publish has a job it needs to accomplish. Double check your content landing pages to make sure each one has a specific purpose for existing, and a call to action that helps it get achieved.

    • http://www.thecontentwrangler.com/ Scott Abel

      Agreed. And, realize that not all content exists on a page.

  • http://abiro.com/ Anders Borg

    XML is not a format to work with directly. You need tools for both creating and using the data. Also, different uses/expressions might need different parts of the data. E.g. a PC site can show all the data for a message, including pictures, a list of news in e,g, an e-mail newsletter might only show title and summars, an SMS might only show the title and a link to the full message etc, a poster might need a very high-res picture and the full text, including a template for the layout etc etc. How well is the market served with such tools? Any business opportunity here?

    • http://www.thecontentwrangler.com/ Scott Abel

      Oh, there are tools that do this and they are all learning about marketing. But, as long as marketing believes they are different, the tools will not be able to help them overcome the challenges. What’s needed is a unified customer experience based on content. It’s a great topic and I expect to see it blossom in the coming years.

      • http://abiro.com/ Anders Borg

        Maybe a new meaning for CMS: Create once, publish as PC web, mobile web, e-mail, SMS, social, app etc.

  • Lou Covey

    I don’t disagree with reuse of content. I don’t disagree that too much time is spent on creating content. However I don’t agree that there is too much time sucking the value out of content. Take the common press release. Over 40 years I’ve watched companies spend 90 percent of the time developing a release focused on the quote from the CEO (and making sure it has no substance) and on the headline, ensuring it is filled with superlatives… and no substance. There is not ENOUGH time spent in the content development process determining what the audience would find valuable. That’s where engineering takes a greater importance than in figuring out how it should be distributed.

    • http://www.thecontentwrangler.com/ Scott Abel

      Well, that’s interesting. But, we’re really talking about the re-imagination of content (including press releases). There’s no way to effectively determine what an audience wants (audience is plural, unless you have an audience of one). Psychic power has been used for far too long to try and determine WHAT audience members want to read without any regard for the fact that the audience members are each different from one another. If you solve the distribution challenge first, you can leverage data and tools to help you decide which pieces of content would be interesting to me, but not to my neighbor. Handcrafting has it’s place, but it’s time to rethink how we do everything we do instead of try and protect old school ideas and encode them in new technologies.

    • leenjones

      Hi Lou – Just a quick note that I agree content development also needs more attention. Your press release example is classic!

      The thing with reuse is that if the content you’re reusing is crap, then you are simply reusing and amplifying crap. It’s the shi* hitting the fan concept. So, reuse actually intensifies the need to have excellent content development.

  • http://www.urbinaconsulting.com/ B. Noz Urbina

    [Full disclosure: I am one of the 52 contributors to the book]

    • http://www.thecontentwrangler.com/ Scott Abel

      Amen! Well said, Noz.

  • http://xmlpress.net Richard Hamilton

    Great article. (Disclosure: my company, XML Press, is the publisher of The Language of Content Strategy, and we did the XML work for the project.)

    There is one point worth emphasizing that also touches on Anders’ comments. While XML was used on the back end to generate the book, ebooks, cards, and a glossary that will be used with other books in a new series on content strategy, the people who contributed terms did not use XML directly; they authored in a wiki (Confluence, with plugins from K15t Software) or, in some cases, provided content directly to the editors, who then used the wiki. In addition, the editors, reviewers, and indexer also worked in the wiki, rather than directly in XML.

    The single source is kept in the wiki and is used to generate the web site (thelanguageofcontentstrategy.com). The wiki exports XML for the other deliverables.

    It’s also worth noting that these techniques have been used by technical communicators for years, and the current crop of tools are best suited to that application. However, as interest in these techniques grows in the content marketing community, I would expect tools to evolve to better address the needs of marketers.

  • leenjones

    Handy, succinct article on both the book and the concepts of content architecture and content engineering, Chuck. In contributing one of the 52 chapters, I hoped content marketers would benefit from these concepts. Thanks for taking a huge step in making that happen.

    For marketing, I see two levels of content architecture and engineering being of value. One is planning content “chunks” or components to reuse through XML. That’s relatively straightforward within one content management system or for a small-to-midsize company.

    The other level I see is enterprise content architecture and engineering. This level involves figuring out all the different technologies (marketing and otherwise) that need to use the content, identifying where technologies might need to better integrate to reuse content properly, and so on. Usually, this level involves thinking about what content would be handy at each stage of the complete customer lifecycle, not just sales lead generation. (An associate at my company, Kevin Howarth, wrote a nice introduction to content engineering here: http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2013/09/nikon-content-engineering/)

    I find that distinction helps content marketers decide their focus–where they can get the most bang for their buck.

  • Mark Lewis

    Products are engineered. The content development lifecycle
    can be aligned with the software development lifecycle… with product
    engineering processes. This is already being done. For example, in software
    companies, it’s becoming more common to see Documentation walking alongside Engineering
    and following the Agile methodology. This can help better align content with
    the software and better align content development with software development…with
    product engineering. Content creators can follow the lifecycle phases of
    requirements, design, implementation and test. “Content engineering”
    should align with product engineering to produce the best product possible.

    The book team determined the requirements and design to
    enable “writing for reuse”. I like to call this approach
    “designing for reuse”. I believe this approach is the heart of their
    success.

    Mark Lewis – contributing author

  • http://www.contentstrategyinc.com Melissa Breker

    Great post! Sadly, content engineering is often neglected. From an organizational perspective, content workflow ends up being one person throwing content back over the wall to another person. What is often ignored is the hard cost for each interaction.

    It’s a crime to neglect content engineering – from both a cost and efficiency stand point! You wouldn’t cut an orange in half, squeeze it once, then throw it out! Yet many content creators do just that. They don’t take the time to define the content models, schemas and structure content to meet the needs of future content use.

    Apply critical thinking to define and set the rules for content. Look at both your business and audience objectives, then ask:

    What other ways can we get our content to work for us?
    How else can our content be interpreted?
    What else do our customers ask for?
    What other sources of information could be source content for re-use?

    Although very high level, these questions can start to shift the conversation to “designing for reuse” (thanks Mark Lewis).

    As Scott mentioned, find the right resource to help you through the process.

    As the saying goes, sometimes it’s challenging to “see the wood for the trees”. Having a professional who has the experience, insight, and knowledge can improve your outcomes and boost adoption.

  • http://www.kanbansolutions.com Philip Wisniewski

    The nature and liveliness of these comments on the role of content engineering is a testament to the relevance of the topic. Content engineering did not benefit from this level of exposure 12-18 months ago – thank you everyone for contributing to
    this.

    Adding to the discourse is the budding relationship between the growth in marketing technologies and the processes, standards and engineering principles supporting the role of content. Not only are marketing teams facing the daunting task of “owning” technology decisions (and in more and more cases, budgets), but they now have the OPPORTUNITY to align that with their focus on content strategy and content marketing.

    The noted technologies (ie XML, component content management) are just part of the modern day marketing technology ecosystem that supports the content lifecycle. Add digital asset/video management, caching/CDNs, eCommerce, analytics, responsive/presentation frameworks, campaign management, social media monitoring, testing & personalization, marketing automation…and the architecture and roadmap can quickly unravel into a hot mess.

    Applying a content lens to how the technologies, systems and processes within this ecosystem work together, share data and enable content-rich experiences is the real promise of content engineering.

    I hope to explore this topic at the panel on content engineering at Information
    Development World (https://www.eiseverywhere.com/ehome/86671) this fall (full disclosure, I’m a member of the panel).

    Hope to see you all there!
    Cheers – Philip

  • Don Day

    Innovation growth can be bidirectional: outwardly, from the content owners wondering what new things they can do with the content, and inwardly, from the readers on the other side of the glass, wishing they do more with the interactions that have been sometimes miserly afforded to them. While surveys have their place as a means of gathering requirements, users don’t always see the question that *they* wish they could respond to. Content architectures are not only about driving the business, but also about improving the customer experience with the content–affording them more interaction with it. So as content architects and engineers design content to drive the business, they should aspire also to helping readers to engage with the content: to find, scope, organize and use it in the ways they need, not just in the ways we presume they want it. We may be seeing more about “content smorgasbords” as we enable our content to be consumed in smaller portions.