By Marcia Riefer Johnston published August 3, 2017

Want Content That’s More Usable & Reusable? Chunk It

content-usable-reusable-chunk-itAs a marketer, you want to provide the most usable – and most reusable – content possible, saving your team time as you increase the value your audience gets from your assets. But how do you do that?

Here’s one way: Chunk it. In other words, create your content in chunks – think of them as components or modules – according to the types of information you want to convey.

“Chunk” is an abstract word by necessity. A chunk is simply a discrete unit of content. It may be as small as a bullet point or as big as a book. It may be a paragraph, a section, a chart, a table, or an entire deliverable. An infographic, for example, is a content chunk itself even as it may be part of a bigger chunk (a blog post, say) and even as it contains chunks (like tweetable graphics) that you could lift out and reuse out of context.

The point is to constantly ask, “What types of information do we want to convey here, and what’s the best way to keep those types of information separate?”

This article was inspired by a talk given by content strategist Noz Urbina at the Intelligent Content Conference: How to Create Topical and Evergreen Content From the Same Content Assets.

Case for chunking your content

If you don’t think about information types, you’re likely to mix them up or smoosh them together – the opposite of chunking. As a result, your audiences may find your content difficult to use and your content teams may find it difficult to reuse.

If you don’t think about info types, your content may be difficult to use & reuse. @nozurbina #intelcontent Click To Tweet

Here, with slight modification, is an example from Noz. He picked an esoteric example on purpose. You don’t have to read it to see that the revised version is more usable.

Noz chunking example

In the original version, you must read the text, possibly multiple times, to figure out it includes both a description and a method. In the revised version, even if you don’t read the text, you can tell you’re looking at distinct information types.

Reuse potential: With the information types separated, not only do readers have an easier time, but content creators also have more opportunities for reuse. Imagine, for example, that your repository contains lots of reports like this. You could mix and match those chunks to create new content deliverables. For example, you could pull the descriptions into a catalog and leave out the method sections. That kind of reuse, whether manual or automated, becomes possible only when your teams keep information types separate.

Chunking examples

Let’s move to a couple of examples from CMI – an e-book and a pair of blog posts. Keep in mind that you can chunk any kind of deliverable – infographics, webinars, and more.

Example 1: Chunking within an e-book

Noz points to the CMI playbook as an example of content that has been chunked according to information type. This e-book looks at 21 tactics used by marketers. Each tactic includes four chunks:

  • Description
  • Stats on use
  • Guidelines for use
  • Example

playbook example

Reuse potential: While these four chunks are arranged from left to right to create a spread in the playbook, they could be reused on their own or mixed and matched any number of ways to form new deliverables.

Content chunks can be reused on their own or mixed w/ others to form new deliverables. @nozurbina #intelcontent Click To Tweet

Example 2: Chunking into separate blog posts

Last year, as I was writing up Ardath Albee’s ICC 2016 talk for what I thought would become a single blog post, I noticed that she covered two types of information: descriptive and how-to. Since Ardath had a lot to say, I created separate posts for each information type – Buyer Personas You Want to Use: The 9 Essential Parts and How to Build Buyer Personas That Build Sales.

2 persona posts

These two posts work separately or as a set. The titles indicate the overall type of information. Within each post are more chunks. For example, the first post starts with a definition of the term “persona” and moves on to recommend nine best practices.

Reuse potential: Chunked content is potentially reusable content. For example, if you had a bunch of definitions of “persona” sprinkled throughout your content repository, you could compile them in a list.

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Information types to consider

Noz suggests chunking your content in terms of the Precision Content® information types: concept, task, reference, process, principle, narrative, and ornamental. The main thing to notice about these is that each answers a unique type of question.

CMI_ChunkingContentChart

Bonus question: What information type is this table itself? The first one to enter the correct answer in a comment wins bragging rights.

This information-typing framework was developed by Noz’s partners at Precision Content based on a long tradition of chunking best practices for post-sales and policy information. Noz has been working with Rob Hanna at Precision Content to extend the types to cover the needs of marketing content as well.

Other information-typing frameworks exist, for example, DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture), which includes five standardized topic types: concept, task, reference, glossary entry, and troubleshooting.

Even if you don’t want to use the names or types recommended in the table above, this framework and others like it can get you thinking about a framework that would work for your team.

Task: An information type that marketers neglect

Noz says that “a lot of content marketers underestimate the value and potential of task information,” which “helps audiences get things done and advance their objectives, creating real value in their lives.” He quotes Robert Rose: “Overt selling has given way to problem-solving.”

Overt selling has given way to problem-solving, says @robert_rose. #intelcontent Click To Tweet

As an example, Noz mentions Pocket’s explanation of how to use email to save a link to the app. Here’s a snippet from that piece of content (information type = task):

pocket-email-example

You may say that this is documentation, not content marketing. And yes, this page is on help.getpocket.com. But consider that this is the seventh most-saved article in Pocket’s trending tech articles. It has been saved 20,000 times – more than stuff by Feedly, Life Hacker, Vox, and Search Engine Land – because it’s good, value-added content that helps users accomplish an objective. It gets brand awareness. People are engaged with it. They will share it.

Value-added content helps users accomplish an objective, says @nozurbina. #intelcontent Click To Tweet

In a This Old Marketing podcast last year, CMI founder Joe Pulizzi says marketers pay too little attention to post-sales content:

Our research shows that the lowest percentage of marketers are focused on loyalty and retention. If we would focus more on that, we’d have less heartache … Focus first on customers that already know you and have already purchased from you.

The lowest % of marketers are focused on loyalty & retention, says @joepulizzi via @cmicontent #research. Click To Tweet

Consider all the untapped value of all the features that go unused in products simply because the how-to information is lacking or poor, Noz says. Consider how your brand might benefit if your marketing team created more task information aimed at delighting loyal customers. As Joe says, “Don’t ignore current customers at the expense of top-of-the-funnel activities.”

Task information is one of the most untapped content chunks, says @nozurbina. #intelcontent Click To Tweet

Conclusion

If you want to create the most usable and reusable content possible while boosting customer retention and loyalty, take these tips from Noz:

  • Determine your most commonly used information types and consistently chunk your content according to those types.
  • Consider adding more how-to information to your mix.

What information types does your content team plan for? How much of your content helps people with tasks? Let us know in a comment.

Here’s an excerpt from Noz’s talk:

Sign up for our weekly Content Strategy for Marketers e-newsletter, which features exclusive stories and insights from CMI Chief Content Adviser Robert Rose. If you’re like many other marketers we meet, you’ll come to look forward to reading 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.

Other posts by Marcia Riefer Johnston

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  • heidicohen

    Marcia–

    Great article!

    Chunking content is a key way to create content that is easy to consume and reuse.

    BUT the biggest problem is that most marketers don’t think in this way. They just in and tell a linear story.

    Another benefit of chunking allows you to change your story for different presentations without always having the same linearity. This is key for interactive content as well as for reaching a broader audience.

    Happy marketing,
    Heidi

    Heidi Cohen
    Actionable Marketing Guide

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

      Heidi, I’m intrigued by your observation that chunked content gives people flexibility to change a story to have a different linearity according to the audience. Would you give an example of when and why you might do that and what it might look like? Same question goes for your point about interactive content.

      Thanks for taking time to comment!

      • heidicohen

        Marcia–

        We’ve been conditioned to tell stories with a beginning, middle and end (or as marketers with a problem, action and result). Stories are important to make your content memorable (Hat tip: Chip & Dan Heath-Made To Stick.)

        But think like a film maker and you’ll find that movies are told out of order with flashbacks and from different points of view.

        As content creators, we must look at the different story components to determine which order will be most interesting and relatable to our audience. You can use wireframing or post-its to test different story lines.

        When creating interactive content, you have to consider the different ways that your audience wants your information. Then develop the content to offer them these options.

        Happy marketing,
        Heidi

        Heidi Cohen
        Actionable Marketing Guide

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

          Thanks for this clarification, Heidi.

          • Jeremy Jones 🌤️

            Heidi has brought up an interesting discussion point. While reading it I began to think like a fiction author, and that might help content marketers.

            Fiction authors who write at various lengths think of characters and worlds as components which have life beyond the current story. As a result it’s not uncommon to find the world of a novel placed in a short story or novella with different characters, or the same characters from the novel in a different environment.

            Short stories have often developed into longer, novel-length stories as well.

            How can we apply this to content marketing? We write with a clear beginning, middle and end. But suppose we take an element of that story and develop it further, producing a smaller chunk. That’s a good way to slice content.

            I could riff all day on this idea. Need to corral my thoughts.

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

            Hi, Jeremy. I’d like to hear more about how content marketers channel fiction writers in creating content chunks.

  • Heather Molnar

    So timely for me as I’m starting to train authors to apply structure to their content (DITA) and think in “chunks”. Also, I think the table is a reference info type. 🙂

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

      Heather, I like your phrase “think in chunks.” It is a distinct way to think. I was part of a group that switched to DITA, and that change took some getting used to. As for that table… Ding ding ding ding ding! Reference info type it is. Here’s your bragging-rights crown.

  • David Bennett

    This is interesting – however the first thing that occurs to me coming from an SEO standpoint – is won’t this create a duplicate content issue if these “chunks are reused?

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

      David, I wonder what Noz and Rob would say. Will forward your question to them.

    • Rob Hanna

      That’s a great question that comes up often when we talk about reuse and intelligent content. The answer lies in thinking about content reuse differently. Not so much on how we reuse content within a single deliverable but across deliverables and across time (longitudinal reuse). Noz’s presentation at ICC focused on the difference between evergreen and topical content. Evergreen content represents opportunities for longitudinal reuse of core content, such as product features or instructions. This content can be combined with more topical content for added context and audience impact. I hope that answers your question.

      • http://www.urbinaconsulting.com/ Noz Urbina

        Hi David, Rob,

        Although core content does include product features or instructions, I try not to use those same examples consistently because it starts to limit the reuse discussion to that one scenario. I worry it short-cuts the discussion to “Oh, he means reusing from product information… we don’t really do that right now.” You may want to do that, but that’s only one application of chunking and reuse.

        Content that is widely reusable also includes things like case studies (a combo of reference, process info types), or best practice tips or advice (principle info type). These are highly reusable. I laud Marcia’s choice to focus on chunking and reuse in this article because tackling that and evergreen vs topical in a written format would’ve been quite a lot.

        Coming back to your original question on SEO, David, I get that question a lot. The simple answer is that reuse is only a concern after a certain percentage. Google is smart (I’m going to use “Google”as short-hand of “search engines” for the rest of this reply). They’re not expecting you to never repeat yourself (think bios, quotes, product names, overviews and descriptions, etc), and they understand that the web is going “chunky” and “dynamic”.

        For example, the “call-to-action” boxes for promos or related content that appear all over website to take you from point A to point B. They contain a header, a text blurb, an image, and a link. They are repeated frequently because they’re core items that often are the underlying reason content exists – they got you there with good content and then they want to tell you where they’d think you might want to go next, often at a profit. No one questions that duplication. My last SEO-specialist percentage was that up to 1/3 of a page can be duplicate without Google thinking your starting to “game it”, but you should check into this for fresh numbers as with all SEO tips.

        The #1 SEO rule is, “Create what people want”. If you reuse content chunks to give people a personalised experience on custom URLs that address their interests, you will come out ahead in the long run.

        If you are doing this, the other thing to ask your SEO guru about is: are canonical URLs right for you? A canonical URL is some hidden metadata in the page that says, “This page is a version of this other page, go index that”. This allows you to have as many versions of a page as you like, and Google will know that you’re creating “flavours” are *not* attempting to game the system. Instead you’re telling Google you’re creating intentional variants and the one “main” version should be treated as the original (canonical) reference article. This canonical article and its variants are then treated differently when it comes to ranking. The best way to do this for your strategy is something you, a content strategist, and an SEO specialist should go over together so everyone is clear and chasing the right goals.

        • David Bennett

          Thanks Noz – not too long at all. I will use it as a blog ha ha – no just kidding. Thanks again.

      • David Bennett

        Yes it does answer my question – Thanks

  • https://www.upwork.com/fl/navinmirania Mirania (Virtual Assistance)

    Brilliant article! never thought chunking content could be that useful. Its surely going to help my business of virtual assistance (MDSOnline), thanks for the information!

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

      You’re welcome, Mirania. Glad to hear that you found this info useful.

  • Jeremy Jones 🌤️

    The “7 Information Types” table is a Reference information type.

    Said bragging rights may be delivered to me by email. 🙂

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

      Your bragging rights are in the mail, Jeremy.

  • Simply Doug

    Of course chunking was one of the principles of Information Mapping where I was CEO for 24 years. With the spinout of Simply XML from IMI after the acquisition, we immersed ourselves in the DITA and XML world for the past few years. I have come full circle to the need to reinforce the importance of both structured writing and structured mark-up (XML). Over the summer, I’ve been thinking through the next level of structured writing and technology. My current thinking is that non-technical organizations need to implement standards that involve 8 areas… Topic-based writing, Information Typing, Authoring Principles (of which modularity/chunking is one), XML as an architecture, Metadata and Attributes, Larger Document Sets (Maps), Reuse, and Multi-channel publishing. I would be happy to engage in a further discussion with anyone interested. Thank you for your timely post.

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

      Thanks for your comment, Doug. Standards in all those areas would make a big difference.

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

    Jeremy, Thanks for that intriguing example.