By Marcia Riefer Johnston published May 25, 2015

Intelligent Content: What Does ‘Reusable’ Mean?


Content reuse. It’s one of the main themes in any conversation about intelligent content.  It’s a key part of 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 fourth element: reusability.

Even if you don’t plan to implement intelligent content immediately, you can benefit from exploring the meaning of reusable content. Content reuse is “the practice of using existing components of content in multiple ways,” as Ann describes it. Well-structured, semantically rich content can be easily retrieved – manually or automatically – for reuse.

When the reuse is automated, this kind of strategy is called COPE: create once, publish everywhere.

A reuse strategy may define the following:

  • Where to reuse the content
  • The forms of reuse
  • Which content units are locked and which are editable
  • The size (granularity) of the content units
  • The reuse governance strategy (who makes what decisions)

Reuse can be manual or automated. In manual reuse, authors find a component, retrieve it, and reuse it. In automated reuse, the system reuses content based on content models, metadata, and business rules.


Reusable content
On the Intelligent Content Conference website, every speaker’s page displays the speaker’s name, bio, session title, and session date and time. These elements were not copied and pasted onto this page. Each element is reused – automatically pulled from a single source. The photo is stored in one place, the speaker’s name is stored in one place, and so on. If you change a photo, name, or session title, you change it at the source, and that change then appears everywhere. On a small scale, this kind of efficiency is nice to have. On a large scale, it’s mandatory. Content not set up for reuse gets messy fast.

You can reuse any kind of content, including images. For example, I’ve used the screenshot you see here in three places so far: in a SlideShare presentation, in our Getting Started With Intelligent Content  e-book, and here. I had reuse in mind from the beginning. I knew all along that I wanted to drop this image in everywhere – the preso, the e-book, this blog article, and anywhere else the CMI team might want to use it.

Confession: I didn’t plan for reuse as well as I could have. Ideally, I would have worked with the graphic designer to create an image (a whole set of images, in fact) that we could use everywhere without changing a thing. That’s the true spirit of content reuse. I didn’t do that. I ended up having to tweak the image to fit the style of each deliverable. For this article, for example, I changed the callouts from red (as they were in the e-book) to orange (our standard treatment on this blog).

To get maximum efficiency from your reuse strategy – for example, to avoid the time-sapping chore of making tweaks for each channel or format – you have to think beyond the project at hand. You need a big view of the whole content set, buy-in from the whole team, and discipline on everyone’s part to reuse the content as is.

In the case of this article’s image, should we have made those callouts orange in all deliverables and eliminated the tweaking? Maybe. Maybe not. Designing for reuse isn’t always the right choice. It depends on the business case. The point is, questions like that are worth asking, and the earlier the better. When reuse is the right choice, it can have big benefits for your organization and its customers.

The benefits of reuse

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

  • Reduced costs of development, review, and maintenance. When content is reused, authors and reviewers don’t have to reinvent content wheels. No endless cycles of rework (copy, paste, review, edit, repeat). Content-development teams can focus on developing new content. Existing content can be updated automatically everywhere it appears. And a smart content management system (CMS) enables selective content updates.
  • Reduced 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),” Ann says.
  • Increased consistency and quality. Automatically reusable content remains the same every time it’s published, eliminating the errors or inconsistencies that can arise when content is copied and pasted or manually updated.

Reusable pieces of content are ready to grab and go, mix and match. Better for content creators. Better for content managers. Better for content consumers.

Forms of reuse

Ann identifies several forms of reuse:

  • Identical reuse. Content is reused without change. It may be locked or editable.
  • Section-based reuse. A group of components is reused as a unit.
  • Component-based reuse. Content components – like topics – are reused.
  • Conditional reuse. Within a component, authors provide content that applies only under certain conditions – for example, when one product model has a feature that other models don’t have.
  • Fragment-based reuse. A small element – such as a paragraph or a bullet item – is reused.
  • Variable-based reuse. The reused content includes a variable – for example, a product model name.

Don’t worry if some of these content types make no sense to you or don’t apply to your situation. Your form of reuse may be as simple as storing a bunch of approved, standalone pieces of content in a single source – a centrally located spreadsheet, say – such that a team of content creators can dip in and copy those pieces and then paste them into various deliverables: blog posts, e-books, magazines, newsletters, etc.

Even though that example of reuse isn’t automated, widespread, or controlled – it’s manual, small-scale, and uncontrolled – it’s still intelligent content, or, you might say, more intelligent content. It’s on the intelligent content continuum. It saves content teams from having to recreate, revise, and reapprove the same information over and over. And it increases consistency.

Want an example? The Content Marketing Institute recently set up a spreadsheet as a single source of content marketing examples that anyone on the team can reuse, manually, across any channel or deliverable. See our article Content Reuse: A Super-Simple Way to Get Started. 


While not every piece of content can be reused, and while reuse isn’t appropriate everywhere, the more reusable your content, the more it becomes a strategic asset. And the more intelligent – automated, widespread, and controlled – your reuse, the more benefits your organization realizes.

Granted, you’ll never see an email (or a tweet or a Facebook rave) from a customer saying, “Hey, this caption over here exactly matches that description over there! You didn’t confuse me! Yay, you!” But what CEO wouldn’t love to see a drop in the number of phone calls (or tweets or Facebook rants) saying, “Hey, how come Your Company claims this over here and that over there? Which am I supposed to believe? Why can’t Your Company get its act together?”

Yeah, boss. Fewer complaints. Take that to the bank.

How about you – what kind of content reuse has turned your boss’ head? We’re looking for a few good stories. Tell us yours in a comment below. We just might reuse it.

Love geeking out about intelligent content and content strategy? Sign up for our Content Strategy for Marketers weekly email newsletter, which features exclusive insights from CMI Chief Strategy Officer Robert Rose.

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.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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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