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Divorcing Content from Form: A Major Perspective Shift for Marketers

images (1)Why isn’t syndicating content across different web channels and platforms easier? Are we really expected to create separate websites for a multitude of devices?

Are we asking ourselves the right questions? Perhaps our discriminating eyes should rest upon deeper, more systemic issues with content norms.

Content strategists have split into different camps to find solutions to the issue of diverging platforms. Among the hottest buzzwords is responsive design, a practice that has been embraced by the design world as a heady alternative to costly mobile and tablet site development. Responsive design is a practice that adapts the presentation of your website to fit the size of the browser — an effective way to make sure content is simple to read on different devices.

But experts argue there’s more to it than that. They say its time to change our perspective on content creation. And to change, we have to deconstruct where accepted best practices for creating content come from: print.

Since the social web exploded, publishing moved online following print best practices. According to Karen McGrane, CEO of Bond Art + Science, savvy publishers and marketers are mediating a nasty divorce between content and presentation. So who gets the house?

Decoupling content from presentation

According to Karen, “Everyone is justifiably freaked about the challenges we’re going to face getting the entire web onto a bunch of different devices: not just phones and tablets, but TVs, refrigerators, LCD watches, football stadium scoreboards, you name it.”

Increasingly fragmented channels for viewing content require publishers and marketers to get back to basics. A “content first” approach is stronger than mobile-, desktop- or app-first — what she calls “the marriage of content and form.” As a result, publishers must be willing to decouple the content from the presentation, freeing it for dissemination through different devices and platforms.

What exactly constitutes a “content first” approach? Marketers tend to think more about how content appears to the reader, especially when it comes to mobile and tablet browsing. We often create content for desktop browsing and then find ways to adapt that content for other browsing experiences. Sometimes, this approach even requires us to create new content that fits a new presentation based on the device.

“Content first” means structuring content for the audience, not the device, and loosening its formatting and presentation chains to make it flexible for other platforms. Therefore, we must trash “desktop first” or “mobile first” perspectives and learn how to communicate with the audience as quickly and effectively as possible.

Consider a typical word processor like MS Word. You can create headlines, title the document, input an author name and date and add pictures — all of which use Word’s native formatting. When you copy-paste the information into your CMS’s text editor, you lose much of that formatting.

“In short, we need content that’s structured into meaningful chunks, not giant blobs of text and formatting,” Karen elaborates. “To get there, we’re going to have to change the way content creators think about writing — and the secret to that is having better content management interfaces and workflows.”

In an ironic twist, “freeing” your content may require more structure. How do you make sure author, date, time, title, headline, media, and intro bits of content maintain their integrity when pushed to the mobile browser or republished through a partner website or microsite? Thinking about the content first is the solution.

Even some of the biggest names in publishing have missed the point — many of which made their names in print. Karen cites The New York Times as a major offender, explaining how the publication’s Sunday Review began with the print publication before it made it to the web. Digital teams are forced to deal with unstructured content, creating hours upon hours of extra work to reformat the content and protect the integrity of its message.

“This is an experience for an organization that is saying, ‘Let’s design something for print. And then let’s figure out how we’re going to shove it onto the desktop website. And once we’ve got it on the desktop website, let’s figure out how we’re going to shove it onto mobile,’” McGrane elaborated at MoDev UX. “It’s thinking first about the display platform, then figuring out how you can recycle it.”

Back to our MS Word example. Printing out your new document maintains content integrity, clearly displaying font and paragraph formatting. But when you’re ready to repurpose that content on the web, its integrity is violated. Either content displays incorrectly through other platforms or you’ve just piled a bunch of extra work on yourself and your team. Whichever way you slice it, it’s a lose-lose scenario. And that’s exactly what The New York Times does when it primps content for print before handing it off to digital teams.

In an automated world, why would you waste precious time restructuring content for every display channel? Do the work once at the beginning and push to your channels, secure in the knowledge that your content is safe.

Okay, so The New York Times is a dinosaur. Which publishers make the transformation to web seamlessly?

NPR strikes content gold

Look no further than divergent strategies by NPR and Conde Nast to understand the impact a “content first” strategy can have in publishing flexibility.

For the last five years or so, NPR has evangelized its COPE (Create Once, Publish Everywhere) philosophy, most vocally by Daniel Jacobson, former NPR Director of Application Development.

“Separating content from display is one of the key concepts supporting COPE,” Daniel wrote in late 2009. “In the most basic form, this means that the presentation layer needs to be a series of templates that know how to pull in the content from the repository. This enables the presentation layer to care about how the content will look while the content can be display-agnostic, allowing it to appear on a website, a mobile device, etc.”

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His advice couldn’t have been more timely: Apple announced the iPad the following January, and NPR was well prepared to take on its launch.

Publisher Condé Nast, on the other hand, had different ideas. To combat a new platform, each publisher took a different approach.

  • NPR used a free-form content strategy for the launch of the iPad, creating singular blocks of content that were free to publish everywhere through an API. The same content is disseminated to desktop, mobile, tablet, radio and apps. The strategy paid off, resulting in an 80 percent increase in page views.
  • In contrast, Condé Nast took a print-first approach in an attempt to replicate the traditional magazine experience. The strategy ate up design time and actually resulted in declining iPad sales.

Condé Nast changed its approach at the beginning of the year. But the damage was certainly done. In the meantime, NPR continues to thrive on its COPE model.

For marketers, this information hits close to home. It could redefine how you look at your own content strategy and may even require you to build a new plan from scratch.

Worried you’re suffering from locked-in syndrome with your content? Here are a few places to cast a wary eye.

  • Make sure you’re using your CMS to its fullest: Does your CMS give you the ability to structure content for easy reuse? If you aren’t sure, it’s probably a good idea to find training resources and reeducate yourself on the capabilities of your software.
  • Take stock of platforms: Do a bit of introspection. Take a look at the platforms your organization uses to display content. For instance, do you have an app? Does content require restructuring and manual re-input between your website and your app?
  • Look at your mobile strategy: If you’ve invested heavily in a mobile strategy over the past few years, you might want to consider going straight to the root of the problem to free content and simplify how you publish to disparate platforms.

If you do locate symptoms of the problem, you still have quite an essential road ahead.

Battling resistance to change

A “content first” approach may require a fundamental perspective change, both on departmental and personal levels. Stressing now over adjusting could save a gaggle of future headaches.

According to Karen, a tough challenge facing organizations is what values and guidelines should change to refine how they create and deliver content. “For example, I talked to a client this week who asked, ‘So, we’re going to have to get over the fact that sometimes blocks of content will end in an orphan [meaning a single word left hanging on a line by itself]. We’d never allow that in print.’ That’s a simple example, but it shows how some deeply ingrained practices have to change when you move to more flexible, dynamic content.”

Marketing departments considering a shift from “print first” to “content first” should turn an introspective eye. Ask yourself questions like:

  • How do we approach content? If you’re designing different presentations for platforms like desktop, mobile and tablet, you probably aren’t taking a “content first” approach. Look at your strategy first and decide whether you need to start encouraging a new perspective.
  • Are we using the right CMS? The wrong content management system can be an obstacle to decoupling content from presentation. Are you using a flexible CMS or are you locked in with proprietary technology?
  • Who do we look to for inspiration? A marketer-turned-publisher usually has strong sources of inspiration for how she plans content strategy. Are your sources of inspiration marrying content and form or embracing an open approach?
  • What process do platforms have to go through to translate our content? The basis for every strong marketing plan is testing. Even if you think you have control of your content, testing your content through each different channel is essential to understanding your content strategy.
  • How is our content structured? CMS platforms like Drupal offer a stronger basis for categorizing pieces of content (like headlines, subheaders, authors, dates, etc.) and maintaining that structure for simple syndication to other platforms, websites and channels. Does your content appear in “blobs” or “chunks”? If the answer is “blobs,” the content probably won’t display correctly through other channels.

What strategies has your organization put in place to free content for divergent platforms? Let us know in the comments.

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