Good content strategy is like a well organized pantry

This article is based on a presentation given at Lavacon 2011 in Austin, TX.


When you think about content management and content strategy, you start thinking about content components that can be assembled, disassembled, and reassembled into the many output formats and output channels your customers require. It stops being a question of simply “Content Management” but management at the component level. Those who adopt a strategy at the component level tend to experience a higher ROI. Why? Because they are maximizing efficiencies for reuse and they are able to meet the new consumer demand for customized on demand content composition. They are in front of the curve rather than falling behind.

Managing content is everywhere! You are surrounded by it every day.

It is even in your very own home. You cannot escape it. It is almost as if it happens instinctively, without a thought. Socks go in the sock drawer and spices go in the kitchen cupboard (or maybe a spice rack…. or even a spice rack in the kitchen cupboard – the ultimate in component management). You keep your toilet paper in the bathroom and your paper towels in the kitchen. Why? Because it makes good sense. When I set out to make a frittata, I go to the spice cupboard to get out the ingredients I need. I do not look for them in the bedroom or the bathroom.  I source the flour from the pantry where it is conveniently near the shortening – not in the garage next to the oil can wrench.

The same basic form of organization happens in the business world. While at home or in a professional kitchen, we have pantry’s or cupboards, in business we have files and folders stored in a file cabinet. You have product x and you keep all the information for product x in its folder.  When you need to get information on Product X, you go look for the folder then you search inside it.

But what happens as Product X evolves? What happens when Product X goes international? Global? What about other departments with their own information on Product X? Which folder in which cabinet? You may have a file cabinet, but who else has their own file cabinet? Marketing, Sales, Customer Service, …. How about countries? Does each country also manage their own Marketing, Sales, Customer Service…? What about translation? How many file cabinets do you need? How many separate content management situations can you manage?

Before you know it, you have file pandemonium! Born from this obvious demand to put some kind of control in place, Content Management Systems came along.

Many of you have at least CMS system in place, if not more. And, after you put that system in, I bet you breathed a sigh of relief. Finally we have order and control!

But do you?

Not really.

What you do have is a group of siloed solutions all designed for a special purpose. They operate in isolation from each other, with no clear bridge between them. While they do meet a need to control and centralize content, they are effective only for the limited access group. Can you imagine trying to stock a professional kitchen this way? How about your own kitchen? Do you have separate cupboards dedicated to each of the meals you prepare?

In the end, you are still left with inefficient systems unable to take advantage of reuse. You are still left with the obvious question; What is the Truest, Latest, Most accurate source of content? And, how do I get that out to all the right people in all the areas that use it?

Component Content Management is a method of breaking down content to its lowest common denominator. By taking this approach, just like math, it is easier to manage the equation or solve the problem. With CCM we view content a bit differently. It’s not the whole package, it’s all the parts that make up the package.
* True Content Asset Management – all content assets can be stored in one place
* One single source of truth – one repository so no need to replicate content in separate systems.
* Transforming value perception of content – to the parts instead of the finished output

Did you have a meal today? Did you have bread? Muffin? Pasta? Gravy? Cake? Chips? Creamed Soup? Pancakes? Quiche?

All of these share at least one common ingredient (or for our purposes – shared content): flour. In this case, Flour is the lowest common denominator that we can manage at the component level. The professional kitchen would manage one flour for many uses, not the end product. They would not have a separate pantry for Pasta and a separate one for gravy and a separate one for muffins and yet another pantry for bread and another for Quiche and another for desert pies. Chances are there is one big pantry that has flour. It is shared to create the products for all of the customer demands. Aside from the obvious cost and space savings for one centralized repository, you can also manage to deliver the most up to date component for the many outputs. Or the freshest flour.

Flour, first “discovered” around 9000 BC, is used a basic ingredient in many things around the world in just about every culture. Have you have ever tried to get away from flour? A while back, I switched to a diet that forbade any flour of any kind (as well as other carb intensive items) so I had to read labels. It’s everywhere! The reuse potential for flour is phenomenal.

It is like the company information. If it’s done right, you cannot get away from the company contact information. It’s everywhere! Every group uses it. In the old world – they all had it in their own special silo. So what happens in the case of M&A or how about if your company changes their name or any critical contact information? You would have to go into every single instance in all the vast array of silo’d repositories and change the information. If you have a Component Content Strategy in place and a control system that is a true central repository, you only change it in one place and allow the tools to manage the change automatically.

Before you can deliver composed content on demand, you need to get your pantry in order.

Back to the meal you had: The restaurant produced a meal for you based on your request. What did you order? Your order may have been very different than the other people you ate with and those may have been different than other diners at other tables. To produce that final composition – they pulled together ingredients (components) from the pantry (CCMS). You could say a pantry is allot like a CCM. It is one central source of content that can be used to produce many types of outputs in many ways, on demand. It is a shared repository. A single source to provide components for a variety of departments to meet the requests of a variety of consumers. The Pastry chef can use the same pantry as the Saucier, the Sous Chef, the Executive Chef, the Line Cooks, and the Garde Manager,
So how do you get your kitchen in order? A professional pantry, just like any good CCMS, requires careful thought and preparation.

Start by creating one or more process flow diagrams of where content goes and where it comes from.

Your first step in designing your strategy is to analyze your existing content. Who creates it and who consumes it. How many chefs do you have (what departments create or contribute to content? Marketing, Sales, Product development, engineering, HR, tech pubs, Support services ….)? How many different types of customers (internal, external; end users, resellers, field service,)? How many different ways do you serve it up (print, pdf, HTML, On-line help, Social media)? What’s your menu of dishes (products or services you provide)?

Start looking at content to identify things that are common structural elements.

Once you have this foundation. Next you need to look for the common ingredients (shared content). Do you use the same product information? All or part? What parts? These become the flour, butter, eggs, salt of your pantry (the lowest common denominator, the components). The Saucier and the Pastry chef can pull the basic ingredients from the same pantry, combine them with some of their own and deliver very different compositions. While not all of their components are the same, they still share parts. You’re looking for commonalities and differences and starting to see where things have diverged while, at the same time, defining how you want it to be.

Then, start identifying content groupings. Does the content have a specific group that requires it or a specific type of consumer.

Are there legal requirements? Warnings, Cautions, Notes, Disclaimers, Company name, address… the list goes on. Product x vs Product y. Penne pasta vs linguini vs crème brûlée vs pizza vs tomato bisque. Troubleshooting tasks or installation instructions. Serving instructions verses cooking or prepping instructions. Greek flaming Saganki, anyone?

But be careful. Don’t spend all your time preparing and analyzing how to put your pantry together. Most restaurants go out of business their first year and you don’t want to be one of them! Draw your line in the sand and step bravely into the future. Technology, resourcing, and requirements change. All the analysis in the world won’t make you bulletproof against tomorrow’s challenges. Who expected we’d have an iPad and exactly what its format requirements were going to be 10 years ago? Who knows what’s coming next?

Don’t let your restaurant go out of business. Make sure that you learn how to analyze content, how to maintain it, how to expand it when there’s a new product, a new acquisition, a new customer output requirement, so you have the best chance for success.

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Author: Liz Fraley

Liz Fraley has founded two companies, sits on the boards of three non-profits, and is constantly coming up with new ways to share knowledge in the technical communications and content industries.