By Marcia Riefer Johnston published May 5, 2016

From 2 Hours to 2 Minutes: How This CMI Duo Blew Away a Tedious, Unscalable Content Task

cmi-duo-unscalable-content-task

If you’re looking for smarter ways to use content technology in your marketing, I hope that this story inspires you as it has me. It’s about two of my colleagues at the Content Marketing Institute – IT Director Dave Anthony and E-media Manager Laura Kozak – who put heads together to automate a tedious, unscalable website task, saving Laura time and improving the experience for the CMI audience.

The story in a nutshell

Here’s the short version of the story. Dave and Laura figured out how to automate a task that had been getting more and more painful to do manually. Every other month, when a new edition of CMI’s magazine, Chief Content Officer (CCO), came out, Laura would drop everything and spend nearly two hours updating the CMI website.

As part of the running conversation Laura and Dave had for a couple of years about automation opportunities, they took on the challenge to streamline the CCO updating process. Her bimonthly effort now takes two minutes.

What excites me about this story

Before I go into what Laura and Dave did, I want to tell you what makes this story exciting. Its value goes beyond saving a couple of hours every other month. Dave puts it this way:

This project is about more than a specific pain point. It’s the outcome of a mindset.

That mindset is an intelligent content mindset. (In fact, it was at the Intelligent Content Conference that Dave told me this story.)

Since joining the CMI team over a year ago, after working as a technical writer for over two decades, I’ve been looking for marketing stories involving intelligent content – the back end of content strategy. Most intelligent content examples come from technical-communication departments (documentation, support, and training). Those examples, however worthy of attention, don’t resonate with marketers. Marketers need stories that they can map onto to their own goals, processes, and tools.

Dave and Laura’s story comes straight out of content marketing.

Their implementation details look nothing like the DITA/XML details I’m familiar with from my tech-com experiences, but the underlying principle remains the same: When you put computers to use doing what they do best, you free up people to do what they do best.

When you put computers to use doing what they do best, you free up people says @marciarjohnston #intelcontent Click To Tweet

The bottom-line impact in this case is small. In itself, the time Laura saves every two months isn’t exciting. (Well, it is exciting to her and Dave. “Dave saved me,” she says – to which he replies, “Laura’s the real hero. I’m just pushing buttons until cool things come out.”) What’s exciting for the rest of us is the promise that automation holds for streamlining our own content processes.

OK, now for the story. Read on to find out what Laura used to do, what she does now, and how Dave applied intelligent content principles – with a little help from WordPress and some PHP scripting – to practically eliminate her task.

The old (manual) method

“The old way was such a drain on my time,” Laura says. Every time a new edition of CCO came out, she went into the WordPress administrator interface and updated three CMI web pages. Under the circumstances, she was making the updates in the most efficient way possible. The task typically took almost two hours.

Here’s what she used to do.

  1. She opened the CMI home page and swapped in Version 1 of the new CCO cover: tilted, on top of a stack.

Home

“I didn’t mind swapping in this image,” Laura says. The home page’s unique setup made this edit trickier than it would have been on a simple HTML page, but this step in itself didn’t take her long or cause her much pain.

  1. She opened the CCO summary page and swapped in Version 2 of the new cover (no tilt, no stack) and, in two places, updated the link to the new edition.

CCO_Summary

Like the home page, this page (a simple HTML page) took little time to edit. “It was just one more thing on my list,” Laura says.

  1. She opened the CCO archives page and added the latest cover to the prime spot – top left.

CCO_Archives

This was the painful step, the step that prompted Laura to turn to Dave in the first place. Before she could add the new cover, she had to bump down snake-style all the other covers. One. At. A. Time. (If you’ve ever edited HTML tables, you know that they were not designed for efficiency.) She started at the bottom and worked her way up, cutting and pasting the covers from one cell to the next, one cell to the next, one cell to the next. Here’s how she describes this effort:

On a good day, if I did everything perfectly with no distractions, this table took me a half hour. Usually it took more like an hour because I messed up. I pasted something too far down or lost track of where I was and had to start over. It was a nightmare.

And the nightmare grew less and less endurable as the number of covers steadily increased.

To make matters worse, Laura could do none of these three steps ahead of time. Either she dropped everything else to make the updates on publication day or she handled the chore belatedly.

The new (automated) method

Today, thanks to Laura and Dave’s collaboration, whenever a new CCO edition is ready to publish, Laura has to enter only a few bits of information – on one screen, at her convenience. No need to edit multiple web pages. No need to cut and paste. No need to drop everything else on the day of publication. What used to take her up to two hours to accomplish now takes her two minutes.

Here’s the new method:

  1. Laura opens a blank CCO Edition “post” and fills in the year, month, and URL of the new edition. (This is not a blog post but a custom post type that Dave created in WordPress for this purpose, as described under “A geeky peek,” below.)
  1. She sets the “schedule for” date.
  1. She uploads the new cover – one image file – and selects it as the “featured image.”

CCO_EditionPost

Click to enlarge

All information to update the website for this CCO edition is now in one place. In other words, when Laura saves each new edition’s post, that behind-the-scenes post becomes the single source for all the data needed for that update.

When the go-live date arrives, WordPress pulls the information from this behind-the-scenes post into all three user-facing web pages – CMI home page, CCO summary page, and CCO archives page – automatically.

The tilted, stacked cover on the home page no longer needs a separate image. “The background is the fanned stack, and the feature image is laid on top and rotated to fit,” Dave says. “Voilà – no more fanned image!”

This data “also stages the specific CCO editions to be surfaced in ‘related content’ areas of the site,” Dave says. “That’s one of the superpowers of intelligent content.”

A geeky peek

Dave likes the challenge of fully understanding a problem that technology could solve and then figuring out how to solve it. Here’s how Laura describes his approach:

Dave’s good at taking a step back and looking at the larger process. He takes my requests and one-ups them. He gives me solutions I hadn’t even dreamed of. I ask for a, and he gives me a, b, c, and d.

The way that Dave delivered that “a, b, c, and d” was through a PHP script that created two things:

  • A custom post type
  • A layout loop

You can see the full PHP script in black-and-white TXT form here. You can see the two relevant parts separately, in color, below.

About the custom post type

WordPress comes with a set of what it calls post types, including blog posts, pages, attachments, and a few others. (It would be more accurate and less confusing to call post types “content types” since only one of the default post types is technically a post – as in blog post. The misnomer “post type” harks back to WordPress’s origins as a simple blogging platform.)

Anyone can create a custom post type. The CCO Edition post type that Dave created for Laura enables her to simply fill in some data in a few fields (as shown above) instead of updating three HTML pages manually each time a new CCO edition comes out.

Dave defined this custom post type in the first part of his PHP script:

PHP1

Click to enlarge

About the layout loop

The second part of the PHP script constitutes the layout loop – a dozen or so lines of code that enable WordPress to lay out the magazine covers on the CCO archives page automatically.

PHP2

Click to enlarge

The layout loop generates fresh HTML code whenever someone visits the CCO archives page. Well, not every time. People occasionally see a cached version of the page. You get the idea, though: The page is now created on the fly. The old static table with its four cells per row has been replaced by a dynamic set of DIVs, shown below.

Divs

Click to enlarge

For Laura, this approach means no more cutting and pasting; the layout loop does all the work.

Users get a better experience, too. Unlike the old table rows, which always displayed four covers in a row no matter how squished they might get, the DIVs display either four covers in a row or one cover at a time – depending on the size of the browser window or the screen – thanks to the responsive-design instructions Dave added to the cascading style sheet.

covers

Conclusion

Dave and Laura’s collaboration reduced her bimonthly CCO-updating effort by something like 98%, essentially blowing away the task. If you read this whole article, you know how they did it. You also know that, as often happens with intelligent content approaches, users ended up with a better experience as well.

What are your own versions of Laura’s CCO update? What time-sucking manual tasks keep you from doing what your business most needs from you?  What sympathetic IT colleague might help you automate those tasks, freeing you up to do more creative work?

I hope that Laura and Dave’s story inspires you to explore these questions. As you do, you may find yourself in the happy position of having to answer this question: What will you and your content team do for your organization with your new-found time?

Want to boost your content marketing strategy skills or knowledge? Sign up for our Content Strategy for Marketers weekly email newsletter, which features exclusive insights from CMI’s chief strategy officer, Robert Rose. If you’re like many other marketers we meet, you’ll come to look forward to his thoughts every Saturday.

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.

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

    Great use case for automation. This is just the tip of the iceberg as far as intelligent content is concerned.

    My advice: Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

    And do so often, each and every time you spot a task that makes you want to scream, “WTF?” ask yourself “Do we REALLY have to do it this way?” The answer is almost always, “No, you don’t. There’s a much better way to handle it.”

    Invest the time and energy required to overcome the challenges you face. Acknowledge that there’s nothing remotely professional about continuing to utilize outdated, manual processes that prevent us from innovating. There is tremendous value in replacing tedious manual tasks with more efficient automated processes. The time saved can be used to hunt down and tackle challenges you’ve always wanted to tackle, but never had the time to master.

    • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Scott, Thanks for commenting. I would love to hear other stories that help reveal the “iceberg” within marketing.

  • Carlos Abler

    This is a really helpful piece. Thanks so much for it.

  • Craig Gibson

    Great post, Marcia. Love that you guys are sharing more of the technical side of things.

    Out of interest, if you’d created the CCO page as an image/media gallery, would this auto-bump-down function have been in-built?

  • Foamcow

    Sounds like Dave and Laura have cottoned on to how a CMS should be set up. CMS being an abbreviation of Content Management System, not Page Management System.

    Content editors should only need to concentrate on adding, maintaining, and importantly relating, content items and let the site’s logic and templates dictate how that content is displayed. It’s how pretty much every top-tier CMS outside of WordPress works “straight out of the box” and is part of the reason non-Wordpress developers mock it as “a blogging platform”.

    Seriously, take a look outside the WordPress-o-sphere and see what amazing stuff can be done with tools such as Craft or ExpressionEngine (I name them as it’s what I primarily use but there are plenty of others).

    • http://marcusneto.com/ Marcus Neto

      This seriously is so painful to read. How do people use WP? Ugh. And then to stack a script on top of WordPress to solve the issue? Could have just used a real CMS and gotten the same thing.

      • lukeholder

        Yeah, I agree, this is a bizarre thing to read in 2016.