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January 6, 2020

Content accounting: Measuring content value (podcast, part 2)

In episode 67 of The Content Strategy Experts podcast, Kaitlyn Heath and Sarah O’Keefe continue their discussion on measuring content value based on accounting principles.

“Language evolves. Your content actually needs maintenance, just like your house.”

—Sarah O’Keefe

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Kaitlyn Heath:     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 part two of the content accounting podcast, we focus on how to apply the concept of a balance sheet to content. Hi, I’m Kaitlyn Heath.

Sarah O’Keefe:     Hi, Kaitlyn, I’m Sarah O’Keefe.

KH:     And today we’re continuing our conversation about balance sheets and content accounting. So, tell us what a balance sheet is, as applied to content accounting.

SO:     So a balance sheet, at least for me, was the thing in accounting that took really the longest to understand because they make my head hurt. But basically a balance sheet, if you take something, let’s start with a house because before we move on to content…

KH:     Sounds good.

SO:     Yes. So, if you have a house, you own a house, it’s worth $1 million but you have a mortgage on the house for $900,000. And so you have an asset that’s worth $1 million but you have a mortgage, a liability, which is $900,000, which then implies that your equity in the house is $100,000.

KH:     Okay.

SO:     So, the balance sheet is called that because it always has to balance. Your assets always have to balance or equal your liabilities, your debts plus your equity.

KH:     Okay.

SO:     That’s the concept of a balance sheet. So, when you do this in regular accounting, you have your bank accounts under assets, you have your loans under liabilities, and then the equity is the difference between the two, basically. And it all kind of works out.

SO:     Now, we think about that from a content point of view. Right? Okay. Well if you have a content balance sheet, what’s your asset?

KH:     The content.

SO:     The content. Except is it really? What if your content is really bad?

KH:     Okay. So maybe that’s a liability.

SO:     So maybe it’s a liability. So broadly, yes, you have your asset, which is your content. We hope it has a positive value.

KH:     Right.

SO:     And then you have your liabilities, whatever those may be, we’ll talk about that. And then sort of the difference between the two is your overall content equity.

KH:     Alright.

SO:     Alright, so on the balance sheet you’re going to… Oh, and by the way, an asset is defined as something that has long-term value to the business. So I would argue that for example, a tweet…

KH:     Is not long-term.

SO:     Probably not an asset, right?

KH:     Right.

SO:     But maybe your process or your system of extracting tweets and putting… You schedule them, you put them somewhere, you have a whole strategy for how you do that. That might be a long-term asset, just not necessarily the individual tweets. And then of course, if a single tweet goes viral, then all bets are off. So let’s just set that aside. Rarely an issue for those of us that live on the technical content side, the viral tweets. So we’ll just move on.

SO:     Content, product information, product overviews, product descriptions, technical documentation, knowledge-base articles. All those things are content, white papers, and they have value, we hope. You have the actual systems that you use to produce the content, a content management system, a delivery system, a content portal, the branding you’ve implemented on the system, the work that you’ve done to make your website look nice or behave properly. You have supporting assets like glossaries. You wrote a definition of a particular term where you put a lot of work into that, you use it in a lot of places, it’s an asset. Taxonomies are an asset or could be. Content models, you have a standardized way of writing knowledge base articles. You have a standardized way of writing white papers. You have a standardized way of writing how-to information. Those are all potentially assets.

SO:     And then on the localization side, most of those things but also translation memory, your translation management system, whatever that kind of pipeline looks like. Translation memory is the big one, right? All those pairs where you have the original, let’s say, English sentence and the target sentence in German, you can reuse it, it’s awesome. So those are all assets.

KH:     Okay.

SO:     Okay? But assets tend to depreciate. So if you think about your house, you have to do maintenance on it or it’ll eventually fall down.

KH:     Yes.

SO:     Okay. Well, it turns out the same thing is true for content, which is kind of horrifying and we don’t think about it that way. But think about, in the olden days, when we used to explain to people, if you go look at old technical documentation, there’ll be 20 pages up front that explain how to use a mouse.

KH:     Right.

SO:     This is how to single-click, this is how to double-click, this is how to right-click. Because the assumption was people didn’t know how to do it. You had to include it in your documents. Well, these days, you produce something like that, people are going to look at it and go, “Oh, hello, 1990s.” And that’s bad. So, your content has to be refreshed and updated periodically or you run into trouble, especially in countries or in languages that are newer to technology. Language evolves. So, the term that was used for computer 10 years ago might not be the term you use any more.

KH:     Interesting.

SO:     Or you see a lot of reference to cellular devices and now everybody talks about mobile phones, that kind of thing. So, you have to be careful because your terminology can actually become outdated over time.

KH:     Your content might need maintenance.

SO:     Your content actually needs maintenance, just like your house.

KH:     Right.

SO:     So that’s something to consider, right? That it might depreciate. If you want to make content valuable, it needs to be accurate.

KH:     Right?

SO:     It should not be wrong. Wrong is bad. It should be relevant. Again, cellular phones and how to double-click, I mean, it might be accurate but it’s kind of like, Ugh.

KH:     A little bit useless.

SO:     Little bit useless. Targeted to the right audience, useful to that audience. So you’ve thought about your audience and you’re actually writing stuff for them that makes sense to them. Now, you want to be careful with this because there’s an awful lot of like, “Ooh, let’s pander to a particular audience and we’re going to be all hip and cool and whatever.” It never works, don’t do that.

KH:     That’s potentially isolating.

SO:     Oh, it’s terrible. It’s like, “Oh, look, we’re going to sell to millennials.” It’s like, “But you sound like idiots.” Okay, so, useful to the target audience, doesn’t make them laugh at you.

SO:     Purpose. It has a purpose and it accomplishes that purpose. This KB article is going to explain how to do a thing. And when you get to the end of the article, you’ve actually done the thing.

KH:     Ideal.

SO:     Yeah. I mean, if you get to the end of the article and you’re like, “I don’t know what I was supposed to do.”

KH:     That’s not good content.

SO:     I wrote an article on how to do it. So, what are you complaining about? And you’re like, “Your article makes no sense. It’s right but I couldn’t do it.”

SO:     Longevity, if you write a white paper or if you write, again, a how-to, those are typically going to have more longevity than a tweet.

KH:     A tweet.

SO:     Tweet-tweet. And if you write it in a way that’s localization friendly, that’s helpful because it’s a… If you don’t… It’s more expensive to translate it. So, there’s downstream impact, right?

SO:     And then you want to think a little bit about, can you reuse it? The canonical example of this is a product description.

KH:     Right.

SO:     You write it once, you use it everywhere where you’re talking about that product. But in addition to that, glossary terms? You really don’t need to define standard deviation more than once.

KH:     Right.

SO:     You define it once, you use it everywhere in your company, assuming you’re doing things related to math and statistics, in which case, I’m really sorry.

SO:     Variants, we see this a lot in technical content where you have two very closely related products. You can write a how-to but the how-to is 95% the same for product A and B. There’s just one little step that’s different. Okay. Split out that step. Put it in some sort of a variant label. And that way, you can produce both product A and product B from the same content. So you reuse it.

KH:     And this might be applicable to the audience topic earlier, if you might have two audiences.

SO:     You could have two audiences.

KH:     You can do the millennials separately.

SO:     Okay. You can write for the millennials and I will write for the not millennials. Yeah, so but no. But you’re right, you can potentially write for different audiences but kind of embed the same audience in a single document.

KH:     Right.

SO:     Or maybe your beginner-level audience gets additional contextual information and your advanced level audience gets just… These are your steps but you could expand them and get more information.

SO:     Multichannel output is the other one and localization. Those are all kind of the multipliers that you might be able to address to make your content more valuable. So, a tightly written piece of content targeted at multiple audiences with that information labeled, potentially with variants that is ready for localization, long-term, useful piece of content is very valuable.

KH:     Okay. So then what’s the next part of the balance sheet?

SO:     So now we have liability. We had fun with assets. We’re like, “Yay. Assets, our content is so great.” But then we have liabilities. And there’s a bunch of stuff here. But really, all of this boils down to the concept, and I so wish I’d come up with this but it wasn’t me, of content debt. In the same way that you can have technical debt, which essentially is, “Hey, we need to do this but we haven’t gotten around to it.” You can have content debt. We should be doing this but we haven’t. Your content is hard to use, bad experience. If it’s inaccessible, that means there’s an entire audience you’re not reaching because they can’t consume your content. This podcast is audio but we also provide a transcript. And the transcript is screen reader-accessible, right? So we’re trying to cover a couple of different ways of accessing this information and not saying, “If you can’t listen to the audio, that’s it.”

KH:     Right.

SO:     Now, and there’s a lot of people that like looking at the transcript who can potentially hear, they just don’t want to spend…

KH:     They don’t want to spend.

SO:     20 or 30 or 50 minutes on this podcast. So, bad experience, right? The information is unattractive. It’s hard to consume on the page because it’s hard to understand because the layout is terrible. You’re using terrible colors that don’t have nice contrast. The font is tiny and not readable by anybody over the age of 35, that kind of thing.

SO:     Okay. Information is wrong or just out of date. It used to be right but then there was a product update, you didn’t get around to it. That’s canonical content debt.

SO:     Wrong audience. It’s too difficult to understand or it’s actually wrong. And shout out to Char James-Tanny who had a great example of this where, there was information that she was given, medical information that she was given that said, “These are the things that you need to do.” And she read it and she said, “This is wrong for me.” She knew they had given her sort of the generic version and she needed the specific version. And because she had educated herself on what was going on, she knew that, “Nope, Nope, this is not what I should be doing and in fact, these things will end very badly for me.”

KH:     Oh, that’s a terrible time to have the wrong information.

SO:     And it was kind of a high-stakes situation. She knew better but they just gave her the generic information instead of giving her the, “Oh, you’re this kind of patient so we’re going to give you very specific information.” So that one.

SO:     Voice and tone, it’s probably not good to be cute about something that’s life-threatening. Depending on your audience and their demographics, you might want to think pretty carefully about your voice and tone. Also, I worry a lot about people who are, let’s say we have English content, non-native English speakers who are reading something that is so cutesy and has all this like, “Hey y’all, what’s up.”

KH:     Impossible to translate.

SO:     Impossible to translate and maybe not easy to understand if your grasp of English is not perfect.

KH:     Okay, right.

SO:     So that’s something to consider but also, if you’re documenting a game, fine. If you’re documenting a medical device, not fine.

KH:     Okay.

SO:     Right?

KH:     Right.

SO:     I mean, you don’t have to be totally stuffy. Well actually, you probably do for the medical device but it’s just not appropriate to be funny in the context of “here’s how to use the defibrillator.”

KH:     I’ve seen some pretty funny pictures.

SO:     Come on. Right? Then there’s some other obvious stuff like it’s offensive, it’s problematic, it’s in the wrong format. I’m looking at it on my phone and your 27 megabyte PDF is useless to me, because you laid it out in an 11 by 17 tabloid and I’m trying to look at it on a tiny screen and now I hate you.

KH:     That has happened to all of us. That is not fun.

SO:     This morning. And then finally, translation. Well, it’s not been translated. It’s not available in my preferred language. That’s bad. Or you translated it but your translation is crappy. And I’m looking at it saying, “Well, obviously, you’re not serious about being in this market because you can’t even use my language properly.”

KH:     Absolutely.

SO:     So, those are all content debt or liabilities, right?

KH:     Right.

SO:     So you’re going to add this all up. You’re going to add up your balance sheet, your assets, your systems, and then you’re going to subtract out your liabilities and then you’re going to really, really, really hope that you get a positive equity number.

KH:     So, how do we quantify these liabilities? And assets?

SO:     That’s a really good question. And the answer is, I don’t know. We took a stab at it in this white paper. We put some stuff in. I think it’s useful to think about what’s the worst thing that could happen. So, if you’re documenting a game and you leave something out, then what’s the worst thing? If people get frustrated, they go on the forum, they argue and they yell, and your game gets a bad rating.

KH:     Okay.

SO:     If you’re documenting a product that can affect health and safety, life…

KH:     Probably talking about lawsuits.

SO:     Or people dying, people getting injured, or people being killed by the product because they used it incorrectly. Because either you told them to, the instructions were wrong, or you told them the right thing to do but they didn’t find your instructions. So they did it the wrong way because they didn’t find what you were looking for. So I suppose, at least here in the U.S., you could quantify this on the basis of how big is the lawsuit going to be? But that can lead you into trouble because what happens then is people say, “Oh, well, we’ll just set aside $5 million for lawsuits and not fix the thing.”

KH:     Oh, yeah.

SO:     We don’t really advocate that at all. So something to consider there. But I think that’s really, literally the million-dollar question is, how do we quantify the liability of bad content, of missing content, of badly translated content? I think you can do some workaround. Let’s say you’re trying to sell into China and you decide you need Chinese content in order to reach your Chinese audience. Well, first of all, you know that if you don’t translate into Chinese, the percentage of people in China who speak enough English to use your product, that’s a quantifiable number. How many people in China speak English or can read English well enough to use your product?

KH:     So, we can talk about that in terms of revenue.

SO:     And are willing to use a product that’s only in English. So, that’s a percentage.

KH:     Right.

SO:     And then you can say, “Okay, step two, what if I translate my content into Chinese but I do it really badly?” Presumably, you get a higher number than the English only kind of group.

KH:     Right.

SO:     But it seems like if you wanted to maximize your potential revenue, you would do a really good Chinese translation. And you would think about what is my potential reasonable market share with a good translation and how much am I going to get if I do nothing? So the spread between those two is your liability or your value.

KH:     Sure. And I can think of one other way that we know to qualify, or quantify rather, missing content or incorrect content and that’s tech support costs.

SO:      Ah, yes. So they call tech support, which costs you something like 30 to $50 per call.

KH:     Right.

SO:     And if you had provided the content with good search…

KH:     Right?

SO:     Right.

KH:     Critical.

SO:     Which means make a good taxonomy, which means have a good search engine, then maybe they wouldn’t have called, maybe. So I’m really interested in getting some feedback on all of this because we put this document together and we said, “Okay, well, we’re going to put a stake in the ground and this is what we’ve come up with.” But for those of you listening to this, I’d be really interested in hearing about what you’ve done with content accounting and what kinds of things you’ve done to try and quantify your content overall and is this a framework that makes sense to you?

KH:     Absolutely. Okay, well thank you, Sarah.

SO:     Thank you.

KH:     Thank you for listening to the Content Strategy Experts podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit or check the show notes for relevant links.