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How Engineering Principles Can Revolutionize Your Content Strategy

scott abel-rahel anne bailie-authorsContent marketers spend countless hours handcrafting content that’s designed to inform and persuade customers. Scott Abel, “The Content Wrangler,” believes he has a better way: Content engineering, the application of engineering principles to the creation, management, and delivery of content.

Recently, Scott and his co-author Rahel Anne Bailie used a content engineering methodology to create a printed book, eBook, website, and a deck of cards entitled The Language of Content Strategy, all from a single source of content. These works all revolve around a set of 52 definitions for content strategy terms and serve as a common lexicon for content strategists and brand marketers. 

What is content engineering?

While content marketing analysis and planning is focused on creating excellent content that resonates with your target audiences and deciding upon the channels and formats you’ll use to deliver it to them, content engineering leverages technology and structured processes to automate this distribution. In other words, content engineering enables marketers to focus on creating outstanding content instead of the process of manually converting it into dozens of different formats to meet the needs of different media and channels.

“Content engineering determines how content travels through systems, what happens to it, and how it gets to the right person, at the right time, in the language they prefer, on the device of their choice,” Scott explains.

As content grows in importance to organizations, Scott believes that manual content formatting needs to go the way of the dinosaurs. “Content marketers cannot continue to operate as a cottage industry, handcrafting individual deliverables one at a time using their favorite proprietary tools. Such a manual approach doesn’t allow them to scale up to meet the demands of the rapidly expanding digital, global content economy,” he adds.

The book as a proof of concept

Scott and Rahel created The Language of Content Strategy to prove that two individuals could leverage a content engineering methodology to create multiple products from a single database. And as Scott is quick to point out, if they can do it with a very limited budget, any brand marketer with a much larger budget definitely can.

“Our goal with this project is to help content marketers and brand strategists to think differently about content,” Scott explains. “They can use it to provide the right content to the right audience under the right circumstances. They can leverage the same concepts and technologies we used to deliver customized, dynamic content that is personalized to their target audiences, on demand.”

The mechanics of the book

To produce The Language of Content Strategy, Scott and Rahel reached out to 50 experts and assigned a term to each of them via a wiki within a web-based collaboration tool called Atlassian Confluence. Experts were then asked to submit three pieces of information:

  • A definition of the term
  • A description of why it is important
  • A 250-word essay that tells marketers and strategists what they need to know about it

Scott and Rahel also contributed one term each, bringing the total number of definitions in the book to 52.

The wiki stored the definitions in XML, an open-source format that separates data from its presentation. XML tags identify specific types of information and are both human- and machine-readable. Why is that important? Because it’s critical for automated sorting, filtering, importing, data mining, semantic searching, and dynamic web publishing, according to Scott.

For example, the data for a tweet can be automatically pushed to a Twitter client without human intervention. Scott says XML has been adopted by thousands of large organizations worldwide and has become the de facto language of content.

XML was used to export the data needed for each type of output. CSS stylesheets were created to automatically style the print book, the eBook and the website. The XML content was imported into Adobe InDesign to create the card deck.

“This gave us a lot of flexibility. We could include some elements in one deliverable and exclude them from others,” he says. For example, the website contains hypertext links to additional resources on the web as well as audio files, which were not included in the other output formats.

“The important thing to note is that all of the words of this project only existed once,” Scott emphasizes. “You won’t catch us creating one document and then doing a ‘save as’ or copying and pasting content to repurpose it. The goal was to publish the content we gathered systematically to the different platforms.”

For more information about The Language of Content Strategy project, view Scott and Rahel’s case history on SlideShare.

What can content marketers and strategists learn?

Scott is convinced that content marketers focus too much time and effort creating content, and not enough developing efficient content production processes.

“If you take an honest look at your content marketing program, I think you’ll find there’s a lot of waste,” he cautions. “Most marketers invest a lot of time handcrafting content that is only published once, and then is quickly forgotten about. Why not invest a fraction of that time modifying an XML script and producing and repurposing the same content in multiple formats much faster?”

He explains how the database created for The Language of Content Strategy could easily be used to auto-generate tweets, slide decks, and other forms of content from its XML database. “The other beautiful part is that once you create an XML content model, you can use it over and over again on other projects. That lowers your costs for future projects and enables you to implement them faster.”

Early results from The Language of Content Strategy

hand holding title-language of content strategy

Scott reports that the book and card deck are currently in use at hundreds of companies around the world.

“We have sold out the book already and have ordered a second run. The vocabulary flash cards are being purchased in bulk by agencies and content marketing and content strategy pros for use in getting everyone on a project on the same page,” Scott says.

As the co-authors talk to content marketers and strategists, both camps seem to be relieved that someone created a common set of definitions they could benefit from. The book is being used as a reference and teaching tool, while the cards have been very useful in planning meetings among content strategists, brand marketers, and their agencies. “When a question comes up about a specific content strategy term, someone can just pull out that card and read it to the group,” Scott says.

Where can brands find content engineers?

Where can marketers find content engineering expertise to help them achieve similar results? Scott suggests looking to the authors who contributed to the book, because each one is a domain expert about the term they authored.

How can you identify candidates who have the necessary skills to help your brand with content engineering? Scott recommends that you ask them these questions:

  • Do you have experience solving multi-channel publishing problems?
  • Do you work with XML content (creating content models, document type definitions [DTDs], schemas, and stylesheets)?
  • Can you train others how to write modular content for reuse?

“Anyone who is able to do this work is likely working and very active in online communities where these subjects have been talked about for 15 years. Look for a candidate who has published articles and papers on the subject or has spoken extensively about multi-channel publishing and related topics at conferences. This is one area where real expertise is required. You can’t B.S. your way through a content engineering project,” he cautions.

The big takeaway

At its core, content engineering is all about developing efficient, scalable processes for producing, managing, and distributing content. This requires some serious analysis of existing methods and procedures.

“Most content marketers have never invested any time in making sure that they have the most optimal content process available,” Abel says. “The bigger message of the book is this: If you were to have someone take an honest look at how you create, manage, and deliver information, they would be shocked at how much waste there is.” What’s needed is a repeatable system for creating, managing and delivering content, regardless of the product or service you’re trying to promote. “What’s most important is the thinking process behind it.”

Scott believes the investment of time to engineer your content can have a fairly quick payoff in terms of productivity. In addition, it can help your team focus more time creating killer content that helps you accomplish your brand objectives. “My mantra is write it once and use it often,” he concludes.

You can view the definitions and purchase the book and card deck on The Language of Content Strategy website.

To learn more about content strategy, join Scott Abel as he takes the stage at Content Marketing World 2014, September 8–11, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. Register today! And if you are interested in learning more about the Intelligent Content Conference, bookmark our website to find the latest information. Call for Presenters is now open and event registration opens September 1, 2014.