By Marcia Riefer Johnston published December 17, 2014

Intelligent Content: The Elephant and Its Parts

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Coming to terms with the robust definition of intelligent content reminds me of the blind men describing an elephant:

“It’s like a rope.”

“It’s like a tree.”

“It’s like a wall.”

We need to get a sense of each part of intelligent content before we can step back and see the whole critter.

Ann Rockley, the mother of content strategy, explains that intelligent content is content that’s structurally rich and semantically categorized and therefore automatically discoverable, reusable, reconfigurable, and adaptable.

Who among us wouldn’t want our content to have all these fine-sounding qualities? But what do these words mean? Stepping in close, here’s a peek at the anatomy of intelligent content.

Structurally rich

Structure comes first. It’s necessary so the system can be automated. The more consistent the structure, the easier for readers and authors alike, as Rockley points out in the second edition of Managing Enterprise Content. (Ann Rockley and Charles Cooper, Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy, 2nd ed., Berkeley: New Riders, 2012)

Here’s how she explains it in “What Is Intelligent Content?”: Without structure it’s almost impossible to automate content assembly and delivery processes. To make your content structurally rich, remove formatting from source files and add structure with predetermined organizational patterns supported by metadata tags.

Rockley says that structurally rich content does the following:

  • Makes content flexible.
  • Can be easily mapped to styles appropriate to delivery channels (for example, one style for desktop, another for smartphone screens).
  • Reduces costs because it is easier to create, manage, and deliver.
  • Is faster to create because authors have a pattern to follow, eliminating the guesswork of what content to include.
  • Enables components to be reused efficiently.
  • Offers predictability, which drives consistency. It’s easier to create stylesheets and automated-process instructions for controlled structures than for ad-hoc structures.

The main point: Technology can do its magic only after structure has been put in place. Technology doesn’t create the structure; people do. You could restructure your content today without buying a single tool. Chances are, you should. If you move to intelligent content, you must.

Semantically categorized

Content is “semantically categorized” when it’s tagged with metadata that identifies what kind of content it is, according to Rockley’s Managing Enterprise Content. With semantically categorized content, people—and machines—can do things that would otherwise be impossible, like retrieve content about a particular product even if the product is never mentioned in the content.

The term semantic isn’t as fancy as it sounds. It means “related to meaning” (as opposed to, in the case of text, “related to appearance”).

Here’s how Rockley explains this concept in “What Is Intelligent Content?”:

“Semantic metadata can give sophisticated behind-the-scenes clues as to how information might be mixed and matched, combined and recombined, supporting the automatic building of customized information sets.

Here’s an example at the simplest level. The metadata tag < italic > is not semantic; it describes appearance, presentation. It leaves no room for intelligence; italic is always italic. On the other hand, the metadata tag < emphasis > is semantic; it describes a quality. Text marked for emphasis may be italicized for print and extra loud for audio. Smart!”

 The main point: Your content development team needs to get tight with tagging.

Automatically discoverable

A structurally rich process and semantically categorized content make it easier for customers and systems to find what they want—they can discover it automatically. “The addition of semantic tagging makes it possible to zero in on the required content,” Rockley writes in Managing Enterprise Content.

The main point: When you tag your text, images, video, audio, etc. with appropriate semantic metadata in a well-structured automated system, that content can be easily discovered by machines and, ultimately, by your customers. In a Google world, findability is all.

Reusable

“Content reuse is the practice of using existing components of content in multiple ways,” Rockley writes. Creating modular structures and semantically rich content allows the content to be easily retrieved manually or automatically for reuse, as Rockley explains in Managing Enterprise Content.

Automatic content reuse offers substantial benefits, including these, as paraphrased from Rockley:

  • Reduces development, review, and maintenance costs. When content is designed for reuse, authors and reviewers don’t have to reinvent content wheels. No more endless cycles of rework (copy, paste, re-review, re-edit). Content-development teams can focus on developing new content. Also, existing content can be updated automatically everywhere it appears. In addition, a smart CMS makes it possible to update content selectively.
  • Reduces translation and translation-review costs. These costs are reduced by the percentage of content reuse (typically at least 25%). “Post-translation formatting is typically reduced by 30 to 50%. If four or more languages are translated, often all costs can be recouped in less than 18 months (including the cost of purchasing a CMS),” Rockley says.
  • Increases consistency and quality. Automatically reusable content remains the same every time it’s published, eliminating the possibility of errors or inconsistency that can arise when content is reused or updated manually.

The main point: Content reuse rocks. Do it right and you might finally get that raise.

Reconfigurable

“Reusable content is modular content,” Rockley writes in Managing Enterprise Content, making it easy for organizations “to rapidly reconfigure their content to meet changing needs.”

As products and customer requirements change, organizations can rapidly reconfigure their content—add new modules, exclude modules, and rearrange modules to build new information products to meet new needs, Rockley explains in “What Is Intelligent Content?

The main point: What could be cooler than combining your content components this way or that way to give people just what they need?

Adaptable

“When we know the structure and semantics of the content, we can output that content to multiple channels, adapting it to best meet the needs of the channel,” Rockley writes in Managing Enterprise Content.

She says the benefit of automation is that content can be adapted with little or no human intervention. “When a new device comes along, it’s a simple matter of creating another set of rules that adapts the source content to the new device. Gone are the days of handcrafting deliverables and reworking content,” Rockley explains.

The main point: No one can keep up with the ever-increasing variety of devices. The intelligent way to proceed is to develop content that can be easily adapted for output to any device.

Conclusion

Having looked closely at the parts of the elephant that is intelligent content, do you see the animal taking shape? Caution: This beast  is easier to describe than to tame. If you decide to climb on, hold tight. You’re in for a wild ride.

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Author: Marcia Riefer Johnston

Marcia Riefer Johnston is the author of Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them) and You Can Say That Again: 750 Redundant Phrases to Think Twice About. As a member of the CMI team, she serves as Managing Editor of Content Strategy. She has run a technical-writing business for … a long time. She taught technical writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University and studied literature and creative writing in the Syracuse University Masters program under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @MarciaRJohnston. For more, see Writing.Rocks.

Other posts by Marcia Riefer Johnston

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