By Marcia Riefer Johnston published February 1, 2018

How to Set Your Content Free for a Mobile, Voice, Ready-for-Anything Future


Do you tune out when people talk about structured content? The conversations can get stunningly abstract. Stodgy even. And the way some people talk about structured content, it can come off as a miracle cure: Lower costs! Happier audiences! Efficiency! Accuracy! Consistency! Set your content free!

Hard to picture? Sound too good to be true?

Having worked with structured content as a technical writer (creating user manuals for medical devices), I’m here to tell you this approach can deliver on its promises. Yes, you must update your processes. Yes, you must determine what kind of structure makes sense for your content and your customers. Yes, you may need a new CMS and maybe even new team members.

And yes, you may look back and declare all those changes worth making.

In her Content Marketing World talk, Structuring Content for Dynamic Storytelling, content strategist Carrie Hane details what it means to set your content free by structuring it – and why marketers should care. In this post, I share some of her insights.

Structured content: A recap

As Carrie defines it, structured content is “information that is planned, developed, and connected outside of an interface.” It’s ready to be used in any interface with any style. It enables both people and machines to manipulate and consume content.

Rather than create content in a formatted blob, as shown in this typical blog-post entry screen …


… you create content in unformatted, labeled chunks that resemble fields on a form.

Structured content is unformatted, label chunks that resemble fields on a form, says @CarrieHD. Click To Tweet


In Carrie’s structured example, the system recognizes the text string “Kristina Halvorson” as the name of a conference speaker. That chunk of content may appear in any number of places on the conference website, formatted independently each time. Same goes for all the other labeled chunks in this example: bio, session title, description, takeaways.

With structured content, those content chunks are like pieces in a Chinese tangram that can be configured in various ways. Imagine the text string “Kristina Halvorson” as a red square, her bio as a yellow circle, her session title as a green parallelogram. Those atoms of content can show up any number of places throughout a conference website, fitting into a different configuration each time.


This metaphor quickly reaches the breaking point – and it’s wonderful that it does. Tangrams are not single sourced. You can’t modify one red square (let’s say you want a white stripe down the middle) and have all the other red squares instantly reflect that change.

But with structured content, that’s exactly the kind of efficiency you get. If you need to update Kristina’s bio, you make the change once and the update appears instantly everywhere.

Structured content means you can make one change and it updates everywhere that content appears. @CarrieHD Click To Tweet

Another way structured content breaks the tangram metaphor is that, while tangram pieces have a fixed format (size, shape, and color), structured content is unformatted. Carrie calls this approach “resource before representation.” When you create structured content (the resource), you don’t concern yourself with the look and feel of the various outputs (representation).

If you think, ‘Oh, we need a web page on x,’ you’re thinking about representation first. If you think, ‘Our customers need a way to find out about x,’ you’re thinking about the resource first.

As James Mathewson, a speaker at 2017 Intelligent Content Conference, says,

By structured content, we mean small content modules that are tagged for use by different devices, applications, or media types. Structured content is fast emerging as a necessity for content marketers.

Structured content is fast emerging as a necessity for content marketers. @James_Mathewson #contentstrategy Click To Tweet
HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT: Getting Started With Structured Content

Why would content marketers need structured content?

Structured content scales. It makes business sense. By getting content out of silos, Carrie says, this approach “reduces duplication of the effort and cost to create and publish content.”

Content marketer Henry Kogan identifies five benefits of structured content:

  • Publishes to multiple platforms automatically
  • Provides innovative ways to monetize
  • Simplifies the translation process
  • Enables readers to discover info more easily
  • Enables content to adapt to the needs of the person consuming it
Structured content enables readers to discover info more easily, says @henrykogan. Read more >> Click To Tweet

Example: Let’s say you have a collection of pieces of gated content – e-books, maybe. Imagine that each e-book includes a summary paragraph. If the e-book is structured, you can use each summary as a standalone chunk. You might post each summary on a web page as an ungated enticement to download the whole (gated) piece. You might also create a list of summaries of all your e-books. Those summaries could show up any number of places throughout your digital repository, always pulling from the same source, automatically formatted to fit each context.

The more you nod your head at the following questions, the more likely your company is to benefit from structured content:

  • Do you need to give people access to your content the way they want it on whatever device they’re using without having to recreate it for each type of output (a web page, an app, a watch, Alexa, and so on)?
  • Is your content translated into other languages?
  • Could many of your topics be organized into template-like structures?
  • Can you envision chunks of your content being reused in various outputs, mixed and matched, and single sourced so that any changes you make ripple automatically through your content set?
If your content is translated into other languages, you would benefit from structured content. @marciarjohnston Click To Tweet

How structure sets your content free

Most content strategists, at least those who concern themselves with the CMS back end, eventually say something like this: Structure sets your content free.

Carrie is no exception. And no wonder. Structure liberates content from formatting and device-specific constraints. She makes this point with a Dr. Who reference:

 You create flexibility by breaking content into chunks. Then it can travel through time and across space and wherever it needs to go, and it doesn’t even need a Tardis.

Structure enables the same bit of content to be delivered to your wrist (via a smartwatch), to your living room (via a chatbot like Alexa, Amazon Echo’s voice-driven assistant), or to anyplace else you choose to receive information via a nearly infinite number of channels and devices.


Where could your content go if it were that free?

Structure sets your content free, says @CarrieHD. #contentstrategy Read more >> Click To Tweet

Example in the wild: BBC Nature website

What symbolizes freedom more perfectly than a butterfly? Carrie chooses such a creature in giving us a peek into the BBC Nature website.

With a website as sprawling as this one, it’s easy to imagine a vast resource of nature-related content chunks – videos, photos, titles, descriptions, scientific names, and so on –  that appear on any number of pages as needed, assembled dynamically in each moment of use.

For example, the Peacock butterfly page (shown below) includes most of the content chunks listed above, arranged the same way as all the pages in the wildlife collection. Notice that the letters in “Peacock butterfly” are white so that they stand out against the black background.


When you go to the mountain grassland page (shown below) and scroll down, you see the same photo and the title “Peacock butterfly.” In this case, the letters come up as green text on a white background.


When you go to the collection sensational summer wildlife (shown below), you find yet another content chunk related to the peacock butterfly: a video. Every page that mentions the peacock butterfly has autopopulated content pulled from a rich underlying structure for each topic in the repository.


What opportunities do you see for creating rich cross-references like those on the BBC Nature site – cross-references that would keep your viewers engaged in your site longer and maybe even make your content more bingeable?


While structured content has, for decades, proven its value in technical documentation, many marketers are now awakening to the potential it has for their content.

If you’re already structuring your content, what lessons have you learned? How have your audiences – and your company – benefited from your content being set free by structure?

If you’re not structuring your content, what’s holding you back? What would you like to hear about in future posts that would help you see the value of this approach for your team?

Here’s an excerpt from Carrie’s talk: 

Get more serious about educating yourself on structured content and the many opportunities it presents for your content marketing program. Attend Intelligent Content Conference March 20-22 in Las Vegas. And join us at Content Marketing World this September.

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

  • Vinish Garg

    Superb as it helped me revisit my talk on ‘content models’ at tcworld India 2014. To plan structured content (content types, metadata, taxonomy, and then the content models) is something I totally love doing, every time.

    • Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Hi, Vinish. Glad you found this piece helpful for your own talk. Thanks for the note and for the enthusiasm you bring to this topic.

    • Carrie Hane

      Hey Vinish – I run into you everywhere! You’re doing great work – keep sharing your ideas!

      • Vinish Garg

        Thanks Carrie, I appreciate your kind words on my work. 🙂

  • Sean Cassy

    Are there some tools that you recommend to keep, tag and organize all the content pieces… and even push and publish?

    • Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Sean, that’s a natural question to ask and a huge one to answer. So much depends on what kind of content you have and what you want to do with it. I’m not a tool expert. I know enough to know that the available tools are evolving and changing fast, and finding one that fits your needs can be a tall order. Many have invested in expensive tools only to find out after the fact that the reality doesn’t match the dream.

      I’d love to hear how others would reply. Who’s got a story from the marketing trenches?

    • Carrie Hane

      Well, those are all things a content management system should do. All too often, though, the CMS is set up to publish web pages and doesn’t support the structure. The good news is that most of the modern CMS products can be used to manage structured content so there isn’t a need to invest in a new tool, but to rework it so it focuses on content first, with a interface layer on top of it.

      On the other hand, if you’re talking about the editorial process outside of where the content gets published, GatherContent is a great content production tool that works no matter what CMS you use – and even has connections to many CMS products.

      Does any of that help?

  • Susan Silver

    I know this is an older post, but I want to give credit to Sara Wachter-Boettcher who wrote a whole book on this topic. Love and re-read often. She was talking about this all the way back in 2012! It is only more relevant now.

    • Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Susan, Yes, indeed. Count me as a member of Sara’s fan club. For anyone reading your comment and curious, the book you’re referring to is “Content Everywhere: Strategy and Structure for Future-Ready Content.”

      Of course props also go to others who’ve been thinking about and implementing structured content for decades. Among those who’ve led the way are Ann Rockley, founder of the Intelligent Content Conference and author of “Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy,” Scott Abel, JoAnn Hackos, Michael Priestley, Noz Urbina, Rahel Bailie, Charles Cooper, Joe Gollner, Andrea Ames, Jack Molisani, all the folks who developed the DITA standard … the list goes on and on.

      Hats off to everyone named here and all the rest of those who’ve played large or small parts in revolutionizing the way machines and content play together.

      • Noz Urbina

        Thanks for shout-out. Sarah definitely deserves a lot of credit for timing, execution, and targeting of this important message. I remember being part of her research for the book, as were Ann, Rahel, and many more. I’m proud of our work laying the groundwork for today’s mainstream adoption of structure in marketing. It was so many years of effort that I don’t know what I would have done if it never caught on! The first true structured marketing projects I remember having an view on were KBC Bank and Deutsche Bank. It was around 2001/2002. KBC had a wonderfully slick wizard-driven interface that guided users through the introduction of product description copy that could then be reused and reformatted as needed. Back in my techier days I made up a little button for Deutsche Bank to be able to embed one reusable component inside another as they composed content.

        I remember in 2010 talking with Ann, it had been 3 years we’d been trying to get cross-traffic of Marketers to X-Pubs, the structured content conference we had been running since 2006. I said I was frustrated and confused at the response. I said “I feel like those who come love it, but we have to just keep repeating the introductory stuff because there’s always brand new people getting on board!” She smiled knowingly and said she’d been doing “introductions to structure” since I was in high school. So, when Sarah’s book introduced a new batch of content professionals to structure, I was on the other side of that same smile. Another generation hears the Led Zeppelin for the first time. “Dad, this music is AMAZING! You can’t imagine!” You’d be surprised…

        Fun nerd fact: Did you know that the language of the entire internet (HTML) – the language of the pages you’re reading right now – shares a common language ancestor with the little known and nerdy DITA? HTML is DITA’s aunt. Their (great) grandmother is GML, a language developed in 1970. DITA is on the structured side of the family, HTML went down the unstructured path, and we’ve been trying to talk sense into her ever since! 🙂

        • Marcia Riefer Johnston

          Noz, Spoken like a true leader in this community of content professionals!

          • Noz Urbina