When I say intelligent content, what jumps to your mind? A content engineer might think of the textbook definition: content that’s structurally rich and semantically categorized and therefore automatically discoverable, reusable, reconfigurable, and adaptable. A marketer or user-experience professional might call up this often-touted description: content that’s delivered to the right people, at the right time, in the right format, in the right media, in the right language, in the right version.
Here’s another way to think of intelligent content: the best dinner party ever.
It’s no accident that we use the term consume to describe what people do with both food and content. In both cases, the effects on the consumer are similar: trust or disdain, appetite or loss of it, delight or distaste, satiation of having our needs met, or the bitter taste of dissatisfaction.
Imagine a dinner party. What do you envision? The food! But not just the food – the entire experience. Your dinner-party host could have purchased the best raw ingredients, but those ingredients need to be prepared and combined in order to get to the optimum dimensions, texture, and taste. Without the right kitchen appliances to properly prepare and cook those ingredients, the food may not be palatable. And even the most skilled chefs can end up with a culinary disaster (and I speak from experience, as I was once married to someone who had trained as a French chef) if they don’t follow the right processes for preparing the ingredients to get their dishes just the way they want them.
Come into the content kitchen for a look at how good ingredients (the raw content), good tools, good processes, and delivery all contribute to creating a satisfying experience.
Start with quality raw ingredients
Of course, the basis for any good dining experience is quality ingredients. What’s the first thing we do with our ingredients when we begin to cook? We unwrap them. We take them out of the pretty packaging and lay them out to be sliced, diced, pureed, grated – whatever we need to do for the particular meal we are about to prepare for our guests.
In our analogy, the fresh, healthy, delectable ingredients are, of course, chunks of useful, well-formed content. Like master chefs, content professionals need to unwrap the content from its formatting, and use it in its cleanest form. We want the finest ingredients possible. We would never attribute the quality of the packaging to the quality of the ingredients. The raw content must stand on its own, ready to give the best possible flavor to a variety of dishes. (In case you wonder what I mean by unwrap, I’ll bring this up again in an example.)
Choose the right tools for your content kitchen
When cooking, we know that in order to make a tasty dish, we need to prepare our ingredients with the right tools: sharp knives, a good food processor with the right attachments, an oven that bakes at the right temperature.
Take eggs. Will you scramble them (with a whisk and a bain-marie on the stove)? Poach them (in an egg poacher on the stove)? Hard boil them (in a saucepan on the stove)? Whip them for meringue (using an electric mixer, then a cookie sheet in the oven)? Bake them (in ramekins in a cake pan in the oven)?
You get the idea. You can cook eggs in many ways, each method requiring the right tools.
In the content kitchen, we also need to be sure we have the right tools to process our content for numerous “recipes.”
Take titles. Our content chunks may need several titles:
- An on-page title may be long and descriptive.
- A navigation title (for breadcrumbs and taxonomy categories) may be brief.
- A search title may be short and click-compelling.
We can choose the tools to use only after we know how the content needs to be processed for its final output.
In other words, asking What is the best content management system? is like asking What is the best food processor? This is the wrong question.
To choose the right food processor, a cook needs to ask, What kind of ingredients do we need to process? For whom? How much will we process per day? What will we do to it: chop it, grate it, mix it? How skilled are the members of the kitchen staff? Only then does it make sense to ask, What tools can help us do what we need to do in the most efficient and effective way?
Similarly, to choose the right CMS, we need to ask, What content do we need to deliver? To whom? In what channels? In what ways? How skilled are the members of the staff? Only then does it make sense to ask, What tools can help us do what we need to do in the most efficient and effective way?
Follow standards and proven processes
Using a recipe means having some commonly understood measures: a cup, a tablespoon, an ounce. These standards enable us to follow a recipe in a way that lets us create the perfect dish for our guests – an airy soufflé rather than a deflated omelet. Similarly, content must conform to standards to ensure that we can deliver the desired content experience. Are we using the right processes for our content so that computer systems can parse our content and mix and match it with other pieces of content in other systems?
In today’s pressure cooker of content delivery (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun), we need to have more than a passing familiarity with the processes and standards that have such a strong influence on the end experience.
Pay attention to delivery
How are organizations using intelligent content to deliver a better user experience – to serve a scrumptious “meal” to their information-consuming guests?
It’s easy to tell when intelligent content principles are not being deployed. The content feels wrong, or is too bulky, or it is obviously meant for a different audience or for a customer at a different point along the customer journey. It’s delivering a brand experience that makes people get animated … and not in a good way. Think of all the customer service debacles you’ve followed on Twitter that ended with a link to the “proper” instructions or the “real” information, when that information should have been obvious without intervention. It’s like a meal gone wrong, where the host has mixed the dessert in with the appetizer and poured in a bowlful of sugar, too, because there was no sugar bowl.
On the other hand, it’s not easy to detect when intelligent content principles are being deployed. Why? Because the content just works. As people go about their research, their purchasing, or whatever tasks they’re doing, they are shown the content they happen to need, in the right context, so that they can do what they need to do without hassle. The appetizer is served, then the main course, then dessert, and the coffee is served in cups, with the cream and sugar in their proper containers.
Example: The City of Vancouver, British Columbia
For an example of intelligent content principles in action, check out the City of Vancouver website (vancouver.ca). For each “article,” the content is brought in from multiple components that could be used in multiple contexts and channels. Each web page is then dynamically generated with supplemental information that adds context and tells a bigger story.
If you were to look into that content management system – a sort of giant pantry – you would see that a given piece of content has multiple versions of its title: a long title for big screens and a short title for search engines or small devices. You would see that each topic has been assigned a metadata “summary,” text that appears in search engine results and on other pages within the website to give readers a preview of what they will find when they go to that page. You would see semantic tags (for example, “Hastings Park” or “events”) associated with each piece of content, enabling location-appropriate, timely content to auto-populate the web pages.
Example web page from the City of Vancouver website.
Intelligent content practices “behind the kitchen door” create a delectable content experience for Vancouver residents and visitors. (vancouver.ca)
Here’s another example of intelligent content in action on the same website: a fire-safety image referred to by the development team as the “mouse house,” as shown here.
The web page holding this image automatically adapts to assistive technology.
Intelligent content practices make it possible for people to interact with this “mouse house” image even if they have no way to click. Doing the extra planning required to accommodate various interaction needs is like caring enough to prepare vegan and gluten-free dishes for your dinner guests, making sure that everyone goes home satisfied. (Common Home Fire Hazards, City of Vancouver website.)
Hover text (also called mouseover text), appears whenever someone moves the cursor over one of the rooms in the mouse house. This screenshot was created when the cursor was hovering over the kitchen, prompting the text “Safety tips for your kitchen” to appear.
But what if you had no way to click this image? What if, for some reason, you needed to interact with your computer using only your ears and your voice? The team that designed this page built in intelligent ways to enable the system to detect assistive devices and then communicate with them using content standards so that more people could get access to the same information.
Remember when I referred to “unwrapping” the raw content? I mentioned the importance of separating content from its formatting as part of enabling that content to support intelligent uses. The mouse house is one example. In this image, the text string “Safety tips for your kitchen” appears as hover text on the screen (one kind of wrapper) in one context, and it appears in other ways in other contexts – maybe becoming text that someone hears when a screen-reading device reads it aloud.
Only when the content is stored and tagged in ways that support a variety of formats and interaction models can it become truly intelligent.
Accommodating people’s varying information needs is comparable to preparing a meal for a large group of guests and going to the trouble of offering something that your vegan and gluten-intolerant friends can eat. When you cook in this “intelligent” way, everyone goes home happy.
Intelligent content principles enable organizations of all sizes to break down their content into reusable components that can be mixed and matched across multiple products and product lines, published through many channels, from websites to wearables, to (yes, still) print. Ideally, those organizations take as much care in putting that content together as a chef would in preparing a meal for a dinner party, doing the following – with every “diner’s” experience in mind:
- Start with quality raw ingredients (content)
- Choose appropriate tools
- Follow standards and proven processes
- Pay attention to delivery
Why do organizations need to make their content intelligent? Because intelligent content leaves our content consumers thinking, Delicious! When’s your next dinner party?
What do you do to make sure that the content “meals” you serve leave people feeling satisfied – and eager to return for more?
Want to learn more about cooking up intelligent content? Here are three things you can do right now:
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Title image courtesy of Joseph Kalinowski, Content Marketing Institute