Full transcript of Smart content in unexpected places (podcast)

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Alan Pringle:     Welcome to the Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize, and distribute content in an efficient way. In episode 45, we discover the unexpected places where organizations are using smart, structured content. Structured content isn’t just for (bleep)… Don’t make me laugh anymore. Okay. Structured content isn’t just for technical communication anymore. Hi everyone, I’m Alan Pringle, and today I have with me Sarah O’Keefe.

Sarah O’Keefe:  Hello.

A. Pringle:         And Bill Swallow.

Bill Swallow:     Hi there.

A. Pringle:         Sarah, you wrote a blog post a few weeks ago talking about a content trend for 2019, in which you talked about smart content being in unexpected places. So first, I thought we should probably define what you meant by smarter content.

S. O’Keefe:         Right. So I actually had to go back and reread the blog post because the beginning of 2019 felt like it was approximately five years ago. We seem to be operating in some sort of dog years in 2019. Smarter content. What I’m getting at here is the idea that content is not purpose-built for a specific deliverable or a specific context or a specific place. So instead of, I’m going to write some content and it’s going to become a book or I’m going to write some content for the website, and you just target that thing directly, the idea of smarter content is that it becomes more flexible. It can go in different places. So you don’t really know as you’re getting started, what the end point for that content is. Or maybe there’ll be a new end point that you didn’t even know about before you got started.

S. O’Keefe:         In order to accomplish that, you have to do some of the things we’ve been talking about for years and years and years. You have to break up the content into chunks. You have to separate the content itself from the formatting or the expression or the behavior that it exhibits when you put it on a particular device or a particular deliverable format, and you have to have some sort of metadata, some sort of labels that go on that content that allow you to classify it and remix it and understand what it belongs to.

A. Pringle:         Okay. So let’s talk about these uncharted waters where this smart content is living that’s beyond technical communication, because I think we’ve covered that a whole lot on our blog, even on this podcast, that technical communication has been using what you defined as smart content, for a while. But we want to talk about some of the other places. What’s one of the first places where you’ve seen this that’s not the traditional techcomm arena?

S. O’Keefe:         So the interesting thing about smart content in techcomm, is that techcomm has been largely driven by efficiency. It’s, we need to do this faster, we need to automate the formatting, we need to get the waste out of our production process. And the places where smart content is now going, or the places that are looking at using smarter content, are less interested in the efficiency and more interested in the value of the content. So there’s been this huge shift, which is not to say that techcomm never looks at value, but the transformation there was largely driven by cost arguments. And now what we have is a transformation driven by value arguments. You know, this will be more valuable to us and we can do more with it, as opposed to we can do it cheaper and faster.

S. O’Keefe:         So I would start with IT. The IT departments have been really, recognizing that when a client, in the sense of an internal client within an organization, comes to IT and says we need a new way of developing, deploying, delivering content, and managing it, they are looking at what are the options out there? How can we support our internal customer and help them with this content? And so we’ve had a few cases where the IT departments are leading these deployments and are really leading the way in working with their content groups to take a much more … I’m trying to avoid saying holistic, but in taking that big picture view of content as an asset that can be used in lots of different ways, not just, hey, how do we get this on the website? Hey, how do we get this into a pdf? It’s how do we develop this in such a way that we can manage it as an asset and do lots of stuff with it going forward?

A. Pringle:         That fits really well, too, with the general mission of a lot of IT departments, and that is like you said, holistic. I kind of shudder saying that, but they do take a holistic view toward all of the many, many tool sets, regardless of what those tools do, across the company to be sure there’s no duplication, that everything is running as efficiently as possible with those different tool chains. So it does fit with that quite well. Bill, what else have you seen as far as smart content lurking in unexpected places?

B. Swallow:     We’ve seen a lot of structured content moving into the marketing world, especially with regard to brand management, where a lot of companies need to rebrand either acquisitions that they’ve made over the years, or they are changing a logo, they’re changing a tagline, what have you. A lot of the traditional content models don’t allow for an easy rebrand across all content. And companies are now looking at this saying, well, we’re just replacing a logo or we’re just replacing a tagline or we’re just changing a color. You know, we’ve changed our color scheme from red to blue. We need to make these sweeping changes.

B. Swallow:      Traditionally, that’s been a very cumbersome task to achieve. And with this smarter content, by taking the formatting and separating it from the content, you’re able to make these changes in very few specific areas and apply those changes throughout all your content at once. We’re also seeing it with regard to highly designed content, content that is very visually stunning, very complex, and they’re taking a lot of this content that is void of all structure and form and putting it into tools like InDesign, where you have full control over the complexity of the layout without having to worry about managing content in that separate application.

A. Pringle:      Yeah, I think it’s important to realize when you’re talking about using these tools for highly designed content, we are not saying that you completely automate the formatting. You can set it up, for example, where you import in the smart content and you have things set up where it does say, let’s say 85% of the formatting. It pulls it in and applies the correct character and paragraph tags, helps you format your tables. What it’s probably not going to be able to do is give you those finessed page breaks and line breaks and things like that.

A. Pringle:      And that’s where you rely on your design expertise that you already have with the InDesign tools, and the people who have that expertise. And they go in and then finish up that last 15, 20 percent of the cleanup, if you will, that part of it to finesse it and make it look really great. So you’re still pulling in that content with that intelligence. You’re getting the automated formatting, but you’re still using those skills to really elevate the design to be sure that the final product does look as good as if it were created completely by hand.

B. Swallow:     Right. And since you’re managing all of that content outside of these very specific tools, it affords you some other benefits, such as being able to share a lot of this information in a lot of different outputs. And when you look at a lot of marketing material, there’s a lot of overlap of the types of information that are going out, whether it be a single page pamphlet, a multiple page pamphlet, a product sheet, a technical specification, website copy, a full product manual, a full marketing guide or brochure. A lot of this content is being shared and repurposed and reused, and rather than having to manage all of this content individually in all these applications, with smarter content, you’re able to do it once in one location and then start reusing that information intelligently across all of those deliverables.

A. Pringle:      Right. And it sets up a consistency, too. So you may be using the same, for example, product specifications in your user technical content and in your marketing content, and if you are pulling in that same chunk of smart information, you’re going to have a consistency that your customers are going to appreciate. Because the first time you put out a piece of marketing that does not match, for example, the user guide, you’re going to hear about it.

S. O’Keefe:      I think one way of looking at this, you know, to your point about the last 15 or 20 percent, although personally I usually tell people you can get with a 90 or 95 percent, but I’m the optimism department here at Scriptorium.

A. Pringle:      I am not.

S. O’Keefe:      Right. So, you figure the correct answer lies somewhere in between there. The first question is, do you really need that last level of polish? Do you really need it and are you willing to pay what it’s going to take to do it? If the answer is no, then we’re done. We automate 100 percent. If the answer is yes, and certainly we have clients for whom that’s the case, then what you’re looking at is a situation where for that last mile, right? That last 5 to 20 percent, depending on who you ask, you do the work, you do the manual work, but you’ve eliminated the upfront formatting and maintenance that is so, so time consuming in traditional desktop publishing kinds of applications for print. So I just look at this as being a we can get you really close and then you sort of use a different process for the last mile of the project.

A. Pringle:      That’s a very good point, and to wrap up on the marcom angle, I would not wish upon my worst enemy having to replace a logo in hundreds of Microsoft Word files, manually. It is not fun.

B. Swallow:     Been there, done that. Yeah.

A. Pringle:      Exactly.

B. Swallow:     Burns the t-shirt.

A. Pringle:      It is-

S. O’Keefe:      Been there, done that, got the tendinitis.

A. Pringle:      It is awful, and that amount of manual labor can really give you a justification return on investment for looking at going to smarter content. It really can. So let’s move on to another area where people are starting to use smarter content. What might that be, Sarah?

S. O’Keefe:      Well, education is a big one.

A. Pringle:      Absolutely.

S. O’Keefe:      You know, back in the day, and we’ve seen this transition ourselves in our business, back in the day we did largely classroom training. We would go and schedule a public class, we would go on site, we would do that kind of thing, and in classroom training, already you’ve got the need for two kinds of outputs. You’ve got the instructor manual and the participant manual. So the participant gets a document that sort of outlines what’s going on in the class. The instructor might have additional notes, make sure you say this, don’t forget about this, this is often a stumbling block, and some notes about how long things take. You know, allow five minutes for this exercise. Allow extra time if you have this kind of a group of trainees in your classroom.

S. O’Keefe:      So that’s fine. And that’s already an interesting case for separating out content and formatting and doing those variants based on instructor versus participant. But today, so much of the content that we have is actually eLearning. So it’s not classroom based, but it’s some sort of an online learning experience. Well, a lot of the information that went into the traditional classroom manuals or textbooks also belongs in the eLearning content. But the presentation is not the same. I mean, not even a little bit the same. They are very, very, very different. So you have to take a look at, can we deliver this information out of a single content-neutral source? And how do I make that happen? And how do I tack on the things that I need for eLearning versus the things that I need for classroom? So where in the classroom environment, the instructor might do a demo, in an eLearning scenario, the demo is probably a video that’s been captured ahead of time.

S. O’Keefe:      So you have that differentiation of link to the video here, as opposed to a note that says, hey instructor, do this now. So in that scenario, in the sort of educational scenario, you can put together foundational content that you can then deliver into all these different outputs that you need, right? The classroom guide or the instructor guide, the participant guide, the testing answer key, that’s a whole separate thing usually, and then the eLearning environment that you want to deliver on the web.

B. Swallow:     Right. And while you’re doing that, you can further break it down with additional layers of metadata that specify whether it’s a novice audience, intermediate expert. We were talking about classroom education or elementary education, what grade level is it appropriate for? You could specify all of these things separately and then push it out to all of these different areas that Sarah has been talking about. And she touched briefly upon the testing scenarios and the answer keys, but also being able to label a lot of these content pieces as appropriate for testing. And being able to build a lot of that testing in, not only can you produce these printed tests and printed quizzes, but also push that out into your eLearning environment and be able to track it that way as well.

A. Pringle:      Yeah, and with the e-learning part, you can even include some intelligence that helps explain why an answer is not correct. You really can’t do that quite as well on a printed piece of paper. But with e-learning you can, if they choose the incorrect answer, throw up a little bit of information to explain this is why this answer is wrong.

B. Swallow:     Right, it’s being able to augment that lack of a physical instructor being able to go over that with you in person.

A. Pringle:      Exactly. Bill, do you have any other ideas about where smart content is being used?

B. Swallow:     Well, another area, and it kind of touches upon a lot of what we’ve talked about already, but is in a product manufacturing. We’re seeing a strong push in that area, especially as regular products become smart products, whether they connect to the internet or whether they have some kind of a user interface for people to engage with aside from the product itself. We’re seeing companies that are already using, or are looking to use smarter content to be able to categorize a lot of their specific content needs.

B. Swallow:     For example, if it’s a physical product that they’re making, they probably have labels that need to go on this product in some fashion or need to be painted on the product in some place. Templates for that content can be done using a smart content construct. And also being able to pull a lot of that information into user manuals, into online guides and so forth, and not have to update several different places at once when a term changes. So if they decide to call apart something different, they don’t need to make that change in 14 different places, they make it in their one parts list, and that propagates throughout all of their content.

B. Swallow:     But as things start becoming a lot smarter, we’re seeing a lot of the content that is generally intended for print or online use also being pushed into the product, whether the product has some kind of a mobile UI that’s built into it, or has some kind of intelligence built in. Perhaps it’s talking about things like Google Home devices and so forth, that have this interconnectivity. Being able to have that information available in some kind of an intelligent form, in some kind of XML basically, you’re able to do a lot of queries and look ups and be able to send information back to the user when they have to query a specific question.

S. O’Keefe:      Yeah, and I think there’s been a lot of discussion about AI and machine learning and chat bots and all these wonderful things. From our point of view, those are, again, just an end point. Right? And if we have the right kind of information with the right kind of tags on it, the right kind of markup and the right kind of metadata, then we can feed the machine learning environment. We can feed the chat bots. We can feed the voice assistance. And so it’s really important that that information is encoded in a way that supports that, or where we can deliver to those requirements. It’s pretty difficult to unpack a formatted print document and turn it into chatbot content. It’s pretty easy to take smart content and turn it into chatbot or AI content.

A. Pringle:      Basically the chatbot is a delivery format. It is not intelligent content, smart content, itself.

S. O’Keefe:      It just uses it. Yeah.

A. Pringle:      Exactly. Well, I think on that note we’re going to wrap up our little investigation into where smart content lives. I will include some information in the show notes, especially Sarah’s original blog post that inspired this podcast. Thank you for listening to the Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit scriptorium.com or check the show notes for relevant links.

About the Author

Alan Pringle

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Content strategy consulting. Publishing (electronic and print). Eating (preferably pastries and chocolate). COO at Scriptorium.

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