By Michele Linn published March 1, 2015

The Next Generation of Content Marketing: 6 Insights About Intelligent Content

Linn-Intelligent-Content-CoverIn a few of the interviews I have done recently, people have asked some variation of the question: What gets you most excited about content marketing these days?

While I’m constantly interested in and thinking about content, one of the ideas that excites me most is intelligent content and the conversation that surrounds it.

Yes, it may seem like the company line, as Content Marketing Institute recently purchased Intelligent Content Conference, but I’ll be honest. When I heard the acquisition news, I wasn’t all that excited. I thought the topic of intelligent content would be boring – not to mention that it wasn’t immediately evident to me how it tied in with content marketing. And, to be even more frank, I was a bit hesitant to dive into a world that I thought would be very technical and heavily focused on things like DITA and XML.

But you know what? The more reading I do and the more I talk to people, the more excited I become. Yes, I’m a content nerd by nature, but I truly believe that intelligent content is “next generation content marketing.” It’s an ideal way to get smarter about the content we spend so much time and money to produce.

Intelligent content addresses a key content marketing challenge

Before we delve into what I find so fascinating about intelligent content, I think it’s important to understand why CMI is so passionate about this evolution. Joe Pulizzi recently shared:

As I sat back, looking at the organized Post-It® notes that became the final speaker lineup [for Content Marketing World 2014], I started to count the number of content marketing projects and case studies that actually positioned content as an asset for the company. How many of these projects could scale? How many of these content projects could be easily reused by other divisions or departments? How many could be repurposed without major human intervention? How many could even be found after the campaign was over? Sadly, there weren’t many.

While I have only been learning about the field of intelligent content for a few months and am far from an expert, I have had many lightbulb moments that are reshaping how I think about content marketing – and, more importantly, about how marketers can truly create value for their audience (which is what we want to do with our content, regardless of what we call this).

If you want your customers to have a good experience, you need intelligent content

I highlighted this passage from Ann Rockley’s book, Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy, which is my go-to resource for intelligent content:

When information exists in multiple areas, it often differs based on content, style, tone, and message. Customers don’t know which one is correct, most up to date, or comprehensive. When customers encounter these inconsistencies, they become understandably confused. Sometimes confusion leads to aggravation. Inconsistency damages customer experience.

This is one of those things you likely know, but do your customers have a consistent experience with your organization or are they confused? What are you doing to make that experience better? Consistency in content, tone, and message is becoming increasingly important. If your customers are at the center of your marketing – and business – this is critical.

Content silos are a HUGE issue

Getting everyone to sing from the same page is a challenge when you want to execute a content marketing program in a large organization, but it’s even more of a challenge when you are working through intelligent content issues. Everyone I talk to mentions the challenge of getting buy-in, especially when so many groups are involved.

While this issue is complex and difficult to solve, here are some suggestions on how to get everyone on your team on the same page as we learned in our executive research:

  • Get buy-in from the teams who play a role in the content process (from executive management to subject-matter experts to IT).
  • Have collaborative, in-person workshops to foster camaraderie and ownership.
  • Have consistent goals across the organization – and continually provide updates on progress.
  • Start by creating pockets of success so you can show early victories and build out the program.

Intelligent content is not all about XML and DITA

If you are like me, your eyes may glaze over when you read or hear about XML and DITA. So when Marcia Riefer Johnston (our fabulous managing editor for the ICC blog) and I were talking with Ann Rockley a few weeks ago, I was thrilled to hear Ann tell us that we need to shift the conversation away from XML and DITA and focus on the concepts of intelligent content. In fact, she said many of her clients use something similar to Microsoft Word for their intelligent content projects. This leads me to my next aha moment.

As Marcia explains in her post, Intelligent Content: The Elephant and Its Parts:

Technology can do its magic only after the structure has been put in place. Technology doesn’t create the structure; people do. You could restructure your content today without buying a single tool.

While technology is absolutely critical, start by understanding the concepts of intelligent content instead of focusing on the technology behind it.

(That said, if you do want a peek into the inner workings of an intelligent content project that uses XML, check out this post from Richard Hamilton that digs into the process and technology behind The Language of Content Strategy.)

Intelligent content is not “all or nothing”

Shifting my focus away from XML right now, I have started to think about the concepts of intelligent content and how we can apply them to our content marketing strategy at CMI.

As one example, we collect content marketing examples from several different places: our blog posts, the #CMWorld Twitter chats, emails received, etc. Instead of looking for examples in an ad-hoc manner, we now collect specific information for each example (company, description, etc.) and then tag it for various characteristics (industry, tactic type).

While I would not classify the way we collect this information as intelligent, it’s our start of beginning to think in that direction.

Here is another quote from Ann’s book that captures this insight:

To find content, authors have to know exactly what they’re looking for and where it’s likely to be stored. If an organization does not have a content document management system, the content is seldom organized or classified with reuse in mind, so authors may have to search through volumes or incongruent information to identify the piece they want to reuse.

Intelligent content makes it easier for your customers to find what they need

In an ideal world, marketers would be able to deliver the right content to the right people at the right time. But how often do you see this in practice?

If you want your prospects and customers to find the information that will truly help them (and in turn make them consider you to be a valuable resource), you need to be deliberate with how you structure and tag your content. Applying intelligent content principles will help us get there. As Ann explains:

It’s not just about the format. If we’re to truly make our content accessible to customers, it has to be discoverable. When you have unstructured, untagged, unintelligent content, the information you or your customer are looking for is very hard to find.

Structure enables freedom

This may seem counterintuitive, but the more structured your content is, the more creative you can become (the same thing applies to your editorial process, by the way). I love this insight from Natalya Minkovsky in her article on getting started with content models:

Every website has content that’s begging to be set free through structure. Yes, set free. Structured content implementation could come with some new rules and restrictions for authors and managers, like shorter character limits and more required fields. But rather than constrain the content, structure enables – frees – that content to be used automatically across multiple channels and devices and in a variety of previously impossible contexts.

Natalya’s post is not only worth a read, as it explains a key principle, but it also shares a classic example of intelligent content: a recipe site.

Where do we go from here?

Of course, all of this is tip-of-the-iceberg learning and insights, and each of these ideas can be explored in much more depth. If you want to join us on this journey – and I hope you do – sign up for our weekly Content Strategy for Marketers newsletter. Not only will you receive our new posts, but you’ll also get an exclusive article from Robert Rose each week.

Cover image by SplitShire via

Author: Michele Linn

Michele Linn is the co-founder and chief strategy officer of Mantis Research, a consultancy focused on helping brands create and amplify original research they can use in their marketing. Before starting Mantis, Michele was head of editorial at Content Marketing Institute, where she led the company's strategic editorial direction, co-developed its annual research studies, wrote hundreds of articles, spoke at industry events and was instrumental in building the platform to 200,000 subscribers. In 2015, she was named one of Folio's Top Women in Media (Corporate Visionary). You can follow her on Twitter at @michelelinn.

Other posts by Michele Linn

  • Ross

    Hi MIchele –

    Great read. Content silo’s seem to be one of the biggest restraints I am experiencing right now. I am gearing up for a major website redesign at our University and I know that content strategy is something we don’t have, but desperately need. One obvious reason is that the University breaks down into colleges, departments and then programs. There exists our content silos on every level where the the great stories and rich content exists. As part of this project, we are also taking our decentralized model of content management and making it so our office is responsible for all updating across the website. A large undertaking to say the least. In doing so, we will make sure that all of our web content has the tone and message that it needs to reflect the University’s value proposition. This will help us avoid your mentioned quote:

    “When information exists in multiple areas, it often differs based on content, style, tone, and message. Customers don’t know which one is correct, most up to date, or comprehensive.”

    Getting that content in a content documentation system is going to be important for our social media .

    Thanks –

    • Michele Linn

      I like your thinking around this, Ross.

      I think about that quote from Ann Rockley often — and as such, like you, am considering better ways to become more consistent tone and message across all of CMI’s websites and channels. It goes far beyond blog posts and other educational content.

  • David Butler

    Hi Michelle,

    We share a passion in intelligent content! This is an excellent read. I changed my CMO career to develop a cloud software application to help CMO’s and their content/marketing teams create intelligent content strategy and stories. To achieve this, I believe we need a platform to help us create story level team visibility, organization, and content positioning. We need to be on the same page as far as ideation and for sure on the same wavelength about the story. For example: Ross’s situation needs an Intelligent Theme that creates stories and intelligent content for colleges, departments, and programs. Marketers need to have a common understanding of the audience, the context/persona, and the audience needs. The marketing team needs to be able to log into an application environment that orchestrates this level of smarter ideation at the story level so that all the key ideas, assets, and sharing is consistent and reusable. Thanks for your article(s) on this topic. Keep them coming! I hope we can help marketing teams become intelligent content story providers.

    • Michele Linn

      Thanks for the comment, David. Have you found the right platform “to help us create story level team visibility, organization, and content positioning”? Would love to learn more of your take on intelligent content as well. Let me know if you want to connect and chat about this some more.

      • David Butler

        I would love to discuss this and get your review on it. Sounds great.

  • jeff fagel

    Michelle – Nice post

    Your point about ‘In an ideal world, marketers would be able to deliver the right content to the right people at the right time. But how often do you see this in practice?’

    Agree, we need to shift the conversation beyond data, targeting – It seems like the weight has shifted toward distribution and the plumbing and away from creativity. With a reliance on these complex distribution platforms to do the heavy lifting. Intelligent content will fail unless we move beyond expected, boring. Bringing creative and content to the forefront will separate success from mediocrity with programmatic.

    By marrying scale, efficiency and targeting of programmatic buying with a more
    relevant message –it makes intelligent content and programmatic buying a lot more effective. I have a bunch of examples where B2C brands are finding a way to marry the two.

    • Michele Linn

      I would LOVE to see your examples, Jeff. It could also make a great post for CMI or ICC. Let me know if you’re interested.

      FWIW, I don’t think intelligent vs creativity is an either/or proposition. That is actually one of the questions we’ll be discussing during this week’s #CMWorld chat (sorry — shameless plug). But, honestly, if you can join us at noon on Tuesday, I’m positive our community would appreciate your insights (as would I).

      Regardless, thank you for commenting and adding to the conversation.

      • jeff fagel

        Thanks Michelle – Sent Lisa D my post today, I was working on it already and then saw your post today, perfect timing — you’ll see examples within there + I’ll join #CMWorld chat Jeff

        • Michele Linn

          Fantastic, Jeff! Truly appreciate it.

  • B. Noz Urbina

    Hi Michelle,

    Excellent post. For someone who has only been learning about Intelligent Content for a few months, just running down your headings, you’ve really picked up some key and salient insights. Happy to see this here on the CMI blog. Look forward to seeing you at ICC2015!

    • Michele Linn

      My learning has been in no small part to you and others in the intelligent content community, so thank you. I look forward to seeing you in a few weeks as well!

  • Matt LaClear

    Have we moved beyond the understanding that beyond all things—content has to be effective? The focus on intelligent content alone, if it isn’t producing effective content, might let the foxes in the henhouse. In fact, intelligent content is only relative to the audience and the folks who are privileged to stick a label on the content.

    So, with respect to any audience, we have to make sure our content is effective. You might even say “intelligently effective.” Your timely information helps the marketing teams to collaborate their efforts.

    • Michele Linn

      I agree that marketers need to focus on content that is effective, and by that I mean it positively impacts business goals that management and content teams agree on. Honestly, I don’t think that is a given at this point. Our research shows that Many marketers are struggling to track the ROI of their efforts, and many are challenged with measuring what is (and isn’t) working.

      (If helpful, here are the four things I think marketers should be focusing on:

      I consider intelligent content to be a more scalable approach to creating content, but the principles of measurement and effectiveness need to be applied to the output just as you would to any content marketing effort.

      Thanks for adding to the conversation, Matt.

      • Matt LaClear

        Having been a SEO vendor for years I can guarantee you that most business owners (at least my clients!) at first aren’t checking ROI on the content they produce.

        Also for years I wrote content for the algorithm and not for effectiveness. Though at the time I would of retorted that the effectiveness of the rankings were the only proof needed that I was using the right content to get the job done. And I would of been arrogant about the fact as well.

        Again, thanks for the great info.

        BTW…That bonus link you shared is broken for me Michelle. Could your repost it?

        • Michele Linn

          Hi Matt — I hear what you are saying loud and clear. You’re right that people need to focus on effectiveness.

          I checked the links and I don’t see one that is broken. Can you please let me know where you are having an issue, and I’ll get you the link? Thanks!

  • Mike Myers

    Great summary, Michele. I think I’m in about the same place you are…realizing that intelligent content is probably the next big thing, excited about that prospect (and, in my case, scared at my lack of preparation). It helps to know I’m not alone in my somewhat silent panic. 🙂

    We’ve been referring to some of these concepts (like structure, taxonomy, indexing, etc.) as ‘Content Management’ here but, whatever you call it, it’s coming.

    Looking forward to learning more on the #CMWorld chat tomorrow! Thanks again.

    • Michele Linn

      We are indeed similar on this topic, Mike, I’m really looking forward to the chat tomorrow so I can learn from the community and see where people are having questions. So glad you will be joining as well!

  • Doug Kessler

    Great post, Michele.
    The learning curve for content marketing never seems to flatten out!
    This is an exciting (but sometimes tricky) concept and your post brings it into focus.

    • Michele Linn

      It never gets boring, does it, Doug?

  • Hana Abaza

    Love this post Michelle. We’re seeing our customers having the exact issues you described above (particularly Content Silos) – great that CMI is speaking about this.

  • NenadSenic

    Michele, I may be in your first phase as reminisced in your post. I’d like to admit I am scared. I am scared b/c the majority still has troubles with basics of (content) marketing. Content marketing seems like a buzzoword (we know it’s not), b/c it looks like everyone now wants to do it and so many claim they’re experts. But my experience shows this is a painful battle. That’s why I am so scared of making the whole thing so “complicated”. Intelligent content, content marketing, content strategy… It’s like us adding new stuff, it’s like a small group debating and enjoying the debate, and there’s the rest of the world. I am just really afraid that we don’t screw up this wonderful thing. Do you know what I mean?

    • Michele Linn

      I absolutely know what you mean, Nenad. But, while many people still need to understand the basics (and we cover those), I don’t want to get stuck there. I think our industry is going to evolve with or without us, so it’s useful to look forward and anticipate how we can shift to help consumers the most. I also think there are basic concepts — such as considering your content in “chunks” so you can more easily reuse them — that is useful regardless of how mature your efforts are.

      But, yes, I don’t want to get hung up on a semantical debate. I want to understand what helps marketers serve their audience and learn how to do that.

    • B. Noz Urbina

      Hi Nenad,

      As one of the ol-skool IC crowd, this (completely justified) feeling is one of my primary concerns these days. I’m concerned it feels to the practioner in the street like we’re just pelting modifiers at the word “content” (the ones you mentioned, and then you’ve got structured content, adaptive content, content with agility, nimble content, contextual content, content personalisation, semantic content…arguably you could add multichannel and omnichannel content).

      We tried to clean and clear things up with the book “The Language of Content Strategy”, but I think there’s lots of work left to do to make this forest of terms easily navigable by the community.

      seen so many waves overtake content professionals (mobile,
      multiscreening, even the web itself after print) that we need to
      realize: change is not stopping. This has led to the world I call the ‘extreme bell curve’. A few small, sparky, whip-smart companies are innovating, and major multinationals are investing heavily in massively advanced solutions. The whole middle of the bell curve – *everybody* else in the rest of the world – is still making sense of modern digital fundamentals.

      I’m a futurist, and have been for a while
      as a sort of hobby. In 2014 I just decided to flat out recommend to
      everyone in content to become futurists too. This market is
      moving SO fast that if you want to really thrive, you need to be
      watching what’s coming down the pipe and trying to anticipate. We need to plan future-ready approaches
      that are agile enough to cope with significant change.

      My main points in all this are: it’s perfectly justified to feel this rift in the market between those who are pushing the envelope of tomorrow and those still trying to get their clients into the world of today. However, this is not academic debate. Intelligent content solutions have been going into production for 1-2 decades, around the world. This is not a community debating complexity for fun and complexity’s sake. It’s a group who have been working on solutions for brands that really needed them. The needs of a multinational in 2000 are becoming the needs of every brand in 2015. Hence the sudden rise in popularity of these concepts.

      We all love content. IC is not about ruining content by making it unnecessarily complex just for the cool factor. It’s about making content more complex because *the market* is more complex than it used to be; and it’s becoming more so every year. IC exist to save content from getting ruined by a disconnect between content supply and consumer demand.

      • Michele Linn

        What a fantastic way to articulate the need for intelligent content. Thank you, Noz!

        • B. Noz Urbina

          My pleasure. : )

  • GoPromotional

    Agree with you Michele. Intelligent content is more than a buzzword, the reinvention of the way people create, share and consume content to better serve the needs of content consumers inside the corporation are more importantly to better serve prospects and customers. This is a great post!

  • Susan Muegge

    The debate about words is going on in a community that loves them, so naturally we have a lot to say. Sometimes, I miss the days when a talented writer would be successful, but the field has changed so that the knowledge of the craft includes much more than semicolons and gerunds. It’s an exciting time to be in marketing, and you captured that energy and passion here. Well done.