By Marcia Riefer Johnston published April 9, 2015

Intelligent Content — What Does ‘Structurally Rich’ Mean?

IC_Structurally-01

Unless you’re new to intelligent content, you’ve probably run across this definition, crafted by Ann Rockley, author of Managing Enterprise Content and founder of the annual Intelligent Content Conference:

Intelligent content is content that’s structurally rich and semantically categorized and therefore automatically discoverable, reusable, reconfigurable and adaptable.

This article looks at the definition’s first element: structurally rich. 

This article draws from conversations with Ann Rockley and from her book, co-authored with Charles Cooper, Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: New Riders, 2012). At Ann’s request, I have changed the original phrase unified content to intelligent content.

Even if you don’t plan to implement intelligent content as an approach immediately, you can benefit from exploring the meaning of “structurally rich content” since restructuring content is the first step toward making it discoverable, reusable, reconfigurable, and adaptable. And restructuring requires no special tools; you can start rethinking your content structures today.

Why does ‘structurally rich’ come first?

“Structurally rich” comes first in the definition for a reason. All the other elements of the definition depend on rich structure: consistent, logical, useful organization. It’s structure that enables automation. And it’s strategic automation that makes content intelligent.

As Ann Rockley says, without structure “it’s almost impossible to automate content assembly and delivery processes.” To make your content structurally rich, “you need to remove formatting (look and feel) from source files and add structure: predetermined organizational patterns supported by metadata tags.”

As we talked to fellow attendees and listened to presentations at the Intelligent Content Conference 2015, the importance of structure (in many respects) was a common theme – and something people wanted to learn more about.

A couple examples

Let’s look at the ICC website as an example. It provides an agenda, session descriptions, and speaker information. Various pages use the same content elements: photo, name, business title, bio, session title, session description, etc. Content elements like these are not, in themselves, intelligent. But combined with skilled content engineering and a solid strategy, they lend themselves to intelligent uses.

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Structurally rich content
This example from the ICC Speakers page displays each speaker’s photo, name, and business title in a consistent structure that has value for prospective attendees. This simple example of how content might be structured hints at the kind of complex, sophisticated, standardized structures that can be put in place on or off the web, on a small scale or a large scale – even across an organization or a group of organizations – to create data-powered efficiencies.

Here’s another example. Information architect Karen McGrane describes how National Public Radio (NPR) uses structured content. As you read the excerpt below, don’t worry if you don’t know anything about APIs (application programming interfaces). The main thing you need to know is that APIs enable computers to share information directly – programmatically – with each other.

[NPR has] set up an API that allows them to take content from a variety of different providers. They can take content from content providers; text from a variety of different sources, from all their member stations. They can take music content from a variety of different providers. And … they run that through an API, which allows them to have access to clean, well-structured content that then can be queried by these individual platforms. So [they] get their content out onto a wide variety of different devices and platforms very easily…
[NPR is] not dependent on custom development to go and get access to that content. So anytime they want to release a new application, anytime they want to get their content out onto a new platform, whether that’s an iPhone app, iPad, a mobile website, an Android app, they want to build a new HTML5 site, they can do that quickly, sometimes in a matter of weeks, because they have put the effort into having a clean, well-structured base of content to work from.

Since implementing this approach, NPR has seen its page views increase by 80%.

Why does structurally rich content matter?

Structurally rich content matters for a number of reasons:

  • It makes content flexible.
  • It can be mapped to styles appropriate to delivery channels (for example, one style for desktop, another for smartphone screens).
  • It reduces costs because it is easier to create, manage, and deliver.
  • It facilitates content creation because authors have a pattern to follow, helping reduce the guesswork of what content to include.
  • It enables components to be reused more efficiently.
  • It offers predictability and consistency, enabling computers to apply stylesheets and automate processes, and enabling consumers to use the content with more ease, confidence, and understanding.

It’s inefficient – even impossible – to handcraft content for each web page or each output type individually, to tweak each deliverable until we get that perfect fit. To treat content as a business asset, we need to determine what content is required, by whom, when, in what circumstance, and in conjunction with what other content. And then we need to develop structured content models accordingly.

What do content models have to do with structure?

Structurally rich content adheres to a content model, which Cleve Gibbon defines as “a formal representation of structured content as a collection of content types and their interrelationships.”

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Example of a content model
(from the Language of Content Strategy project)

A content model can be represented in many ways. This example shows one way to visualize the content model for the Language of Content Strategy project, which involved creating multiple deliverables – a print book, a card deck, a website, a set of audio files, and an e‑book – from a set of reusable, reconfigurable modules of content from a single source.

Content models enable automation. As Scott Abel points out in a comment on Natalya Minkovsky’s article Content Models: Getting Started with Structured Content, incompatible content models create some of the biggest challenges for organizations trying to make their content processes more efficient. When information flows between inconsistent content models, organizations incur delays and costs.

Scott goes on to say that in order for content to reach its intelligence potential, related content models must be compatible. If you use a content model that clashes with content models used by other departments in the same organization – or by partner organizations – you have a problem: Computers can’t easily aggregate, compare, and act on all that content in meaningful, business-critical ways.

Scott says compatible content models, on the other hand, can drive applications, power transactions, enable commerce, update inventories, create invoices, process and collect payments, arrange for and instigate delivery of electronic and physical goods, and more.

He puts it this way:

The overarching value of content modeling is … the creation of hyper-efficient, data-powered business that leverages the power of a common model to describe our content – what it is (and what it isn’t), what it means (context), how it will be represented, and what other types of content are related to it.

Content models – and the rich structure they are based on – guide authors, facilitate reuse, and create the basis for all the business advantages that intelligent content can yield.

Conclusion

Technology can do its magic only after structure is put in place. Technology doesn’t create the structure; people do. We could restructure our content today without buying a single tool. When we move to intelligent content, we must start with structure.

What lessons have you learned about the importance of rich structure in your organization’s content?

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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.

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