Skip to main content
September 20, 2021

Smarter content in weird places (webinar)

In this presentation, Bill Swallow explores the weird yet effective applications of smart content in groups outside of techcomm.

“Moving to smart content or intelligent content has largely so far been driven by efficiency. But the places that are looking at using smarter content now are less interested in the efficiency of that content. They’re more interested in the value that it’s going to bring.”

– Bill Swallow


Related links:

Twitter handles:


Elizabeth Patterson:                   Hello everyone. And welcome to The Content Strategy Experts webcast. This presentation is Smarter content in weird places, and it’s presented by Bill Swallow. The Content Strategy Experts webcast is brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize and distribute content in an efficient way.

EP:                   I want to go over a couple of housekeeping things before we start. So, we are recording this webinar and we will be uploading it to our YouTube channel, and then publishing it on our website. So, you’ll have access to that recording. All attendees are muted during the webcast, but if you have any questions, just please type them into the Q&A tab, you’ll see it at the bottom of your Zoom window.

EP:                   We also have a few upcoming events that I would like to share with you all. We have an upcoming webcast with Simon Bate with The Content Wrangler on September 21st. He’s going to be presenting Generating slides from DITA content: Exploring the challenges, which is based off of a white paper that he’s written. We also have Content as a Service: The backbone of modern content operations coming up on October 13th. And that is on our platform and we are going to be joined by Divraj Singh of Adobe. And then, we also have LavaCon and that’s coming up from October 24th to the 27th. We have Sarah O’Keefe presenting, as well as Gretyl Kinsey, and we will also be exhibiting during that conference. You can find more details and registration links for all of these events on our website.

EP:                   And with that, I’m going to go ahead and pass things off to Bill. Bill, are you ready?

Bill Swallow:                   I am ready. Thank you.

EP:                   All right, go ahead.

BS:                   Well, hello everyone. I’m Bill Swallow, I’m the Director of Operations here at Scriptorium. I’ve been in the industry about 25 years now, starting in technical communication and moving into content strategy. I have a heavy focus on content efficiency, content operations, and localization. So, that’s just a little bit of background on me.

BS:                   So, why we’re here talking about smarter content in weird places? I guess, first of all, probably to define what smarter content is. And my take on this is that it is smart content or intelligent content, so it’s structured content with tags, metadata, and so forth. Basically, any content in a format that has intelligence baked into it that you then, take a more creative approach to using whether it’s in writing, managing the content, or using that smart content.

BS:                   So, we’ll talk a little bit about what makes it smarter. There’s a lot of guidance for smart or intelligent content out there on the web, but we’re talking essentially about semantically tagged content coupled with meaningful metadata. And the key here, is to treat the content as an asset, and not just a deliverable. And the trick to that is finding where the assets can best be leveraged.

BS:                   And what makes content smarter is a lot of use of unconventional structures. So, sure, you have topic based offering as far as that goes. But getting a little bit outside of that topic authoring box and starting to think about how you’re going to offer this content for multiple different purposes, and for very strategically targeted purposes at the same time. It’s an innovative approach to using metadata though well beyond doing any kind of audience profiling or any kind of content classification. But adding some very real systematic books and instructions for processing that will allow you to do a lot more with the content than just a simple profiling and classification of things.

BS:                   And also, start thinking about engineering with content. So, I’m not going to get into a whole thing about content engineering because that’s a bit different, but what I mean here is authoring in a way that provides maximum flexibility to meet your future needs. So, traditionally, you might think about offering topic by topic, but to think in a more engineering and pragmatic matter about content that really can be leveraged anywhere, breaking those structures up and start thinking about authoring based on content classification, as well as topic-based authoring, and creating containers for lots of different types of content that can be used in many different ways.

BS:                   So, we could do a lot with content, currently. But the value driver here is that it’s all about where the content can be used, and how it can deliver even more value back, whether it’s value to the customer, value to the company or what have you. It’s not in the capability of the content itself. There are lots of bells and whistles available now. You can do pretty much anything with the content. You can add any amount of metadata, any amount of tagging, and you can do some really intricate and interesting things with your content, but it’s all really meaningless if they don’t add value. So, once you decide that delivering certain information is valuable, then you start to think about the best ways to create that, and the best ways to manage it, and deliver all of that information. So, essentially it’s now that you have something that’s this robust, how can you maximize its value?

BS:                   So, I want to take a step back before going forward. So, this evolution of content to get to where we are now, it’s really a natural step in that evolution. So, we started arguably with cave drawings, carvings, and so forth. But we started with typewriters and a lot of manual layout. We had a lot of hot wax burns, X-ACTO knife cuts, a lot of tears and a lot of expletives being thrown around. But we produced content that way.

BS:                   Then, we progressed toward using word processors and soon desktop publishing, which saved a ton of time in the production of that content. It allowed us to save different styles for publishing. And it introduced new publishing workflows. Then, came the whole single-sourcing line of thinking. So, we’re talking, you know, FrameMaker, RoboHelp, Doc-To-Help all of those fun things, Flare. And that opened up even new publishing channels from within one tool. You were no longer producing just a manual. You were producing multiple different things. Manuals, online help, website, and so forth from the same content set.

BS:                   So, the next step in that was building in the automation, adding intelligence and structure to the content and breaking the long document authoring process. So, now, you were dealing with small chunks of content, mixing and matching them, and doing a lot of interesting things. And that’s roughly where intelligent content really has come. So, we have the separation of content and form. So, we’re able to author in one specific formless format, let’s say, with a lot of semantic tagging that informs how the formatting should be applied once it’s published.

BS:                   Then, you have the single-source thing aspect and using the same content set to produce multiple different deliverables. There’s topic based offering where we’re writing in smaller chunks now than ever before. And they can be organized in a lot of different ways. And the big one here is content reuse. So, writing it once, using it everywhere. And it’s fantastic for things that are repurposed throughout content that you’re delivering. So, one example would be notes, cautions and warnings, where you might have the same note appearing 27 different times, even within one specific deliverable. Being able to write that once and have it automatically update in all of its instances is a no brainer time-saver. But this really lends itself…

BS:                   Moving to smart content or intelligent content has largely so far been driven by efficiency. So, how can we write more intelligently? How can we streamline that process? How can we get rid of a lot of the churn that we have in our content life cycles and get the waste out of the entire production process? But the places that are looking at using smarter content now are less interested in the efficiency of that content. And they’re more interested in the value that it’s going to bring. So, in these weird places that we’re now seeing intelligent content, or smarter content appearing, the emphasis really here is on what the content can do when it’s tagged. It’s not on the efficiency of creating it or being able to publish it. It’s what can that content do? Where can it be used?

BS:                   The focus is on enablement. So, creating things that are difficult or impossible to do with unstructured content. Being able to do things in many different ways and provide new experiences. And this can range from anything from additional personalization, for granularly specific audiences. Or all the way up to integrating into various systems and applications, both electronic and physical. And we’ll get into that a little bit.

BS:                   So, what we have here is a transformation in the content evolution that’s driven by value arguments and not by efficiency. This will be a lot more valuable to us and we can do more with it as more the value cry here, as opposed to we can do it cheaper, faster. The idea is not that content is purpose-built for a specific deliverable, or a specific context, or to be used in a specific place. The idea is that content becomes more flexible and it can go to a lot of different places without being modified.

BS:                   So, as you would think, as this idea is starting to grow, we’re starting to see a lot of new stakeholders entering the picture and a lot of different people suddenly asking for more intelligent ways of authoring, managing and delivering their content. And we’ll start to take a look at these.

BS:                   One of them that was a bit surprising, to me, was IT. IT departments specifically going on their own looking for a solution to content management. They’re starting to lead the transition in companies to a bigger picture view of content as an asset, which is an interesting thing in itself. So, they’re the ones actually driving this. “Hey, we can do a lot more with this. Our content will be a lot more valuable if we start doing these things.” And it makes sense. They manage all the systems. So, the centralization of all of that content really makes sense. And especially if that content has a wide application within their company. They can get rid of a lot of redundant systems and they can be a lot smarter about the systems that they do need to integrate with. So, they’re taking a look at all of this and trying to reduce the number of systems that they’re managing, how they interact, and how that content can be leveraged so that there isn’t a heavy load in one particular area, basically, streamlining the entire maintenance process.

BS:                   Another place where we’re really seeing smarter content being used is in marketing. And this has been happening for some time and it’s only continuing to grow. And personalization is really driving a lot of this. So, if they have a new content delivery portal, a new marketing area that they want to explore, it means new approaches to serving up that content. And the classic way of constructing your content simply doesn’t work well in some of these cases.

BS:                   We’re seeing a lot of this also in just basic needs, such as rebranding, especially within mergers and acquisitions, where you have a company coming in and they just bought another company, or they just merged with another company. Now, they have two very, very large content sets that both have different branding and they need to align them, perhaps, even with a new brand. To do that by hand is incredibly tedious and very, very painstaking. Making these sweeping changes to get everyone aligned in a single brand is not easy. And it takes a lot of time. To do this with intelligent content actually is a lot faster and a lot cheaper than doing it manually.

BS:                   And we actually had a client a while back that had this exact problem where they needed to rebrand a bunch of stuff. And they took a look at all of the different assets that they were managing. And they figured out exactly, or roughly about how much time it would take them. Did the math on how much that time correlated to employee time and their salaries. And said, “This is an astronomical cost and we need to automate this.” And it was a lot cheaper for them to do it automatically by moving everything to, in this case, a structured content format.

BS:                   There also, are a lot of savvy buyers out there now. People are more driven by the technical details when they’re actually buying something incredibly pricey. So, we’re talking cars, appliances, electronics, what have you. They want to dig into the details and they want to see what it is that they’re buying, what its capabilities are, and how it works. And in order to couple the marketing message with that content, the easiest way to do that is through intelligent reuse, and being able to borrow, or link to all of the information that the technical teams have been putting together and just reuse it in one place. That way you’re not updating this information on the marketing side and on the technical side. And not have having to chase after whose version is more up-to-date than another’s. So, we’re seeing a lot of this merge where they’re pulling in the technical sheets, they’re pulling in the user guides and so forth. And they’re making them a lot more accessible in a marketing context rather than in a user, or technical research, or help based manner.

BS:                   We’re also seeing this applied in a lot of, what we call more higher design aspects. So, things like glossy brochures and so forth, where before they were in very large intricately designed manuals as well, where even with InDesign, previously, you would have a team offering a lot of that content by hand, and moving things around, and aligning things and so forth. And we’re now seeing a lot more of an automated way of producing this content from a shared resource and pushing it into InDesign that does roughly about 80 to 90% of the raw formatting and the flow of the content. And then, there’s just a matter of that additional 10 to 20% of time that’s spent nudging things around and making the pages align properly. So, that takes a lot of time out of that. And they’re able to pull in, again, all of the content from various different groups offering this, depending on what’s needed for that particular deliverable.

BS:                   And since a lot of this content is centrally authored and centrally managed. You don’t have to worry about having the latest information on hand. If you link to it once, if someone updated it, you’re going to get that update. You don’t have to go looking for it. You don’t have to spend time proofing the two copies and making sure that they align. What you have in the repository is exactly what you have in all of the deliverables that use that bit of content in the repository.

BS:                   And, of course, we’re seeing a lot of this also in educational content. And, as you can imagine, there are tons of different deliverables for training and education based content. We’ve got training manuals, instructor manuals, e-learning, quick reference guides, quizzes, and assessments, answer keys, and a lot more out there. And with smart content and a very good use of metadata, you can structure and profile your content to go to all of these various targets from one shared source. Not just among those particular deliverable targets and not only within one particular group, but you could pull the content, again, from tech docs, from Marcom, from other groups that are providing content and information and just produce what you need.

BS:                   You’re able to tie a lot of stuff together in many different ways. So, you can pull together your conceptual information along with your, how-tos and your deeper reference stuff, your instructor guides, your exercises, all of your assessments, and more, and publish it however you need it. All of these things, including classroom learning, e-learning, audio and video scripts for video production, you could tailor it however you need. And the best part is that you can mix and match all of this content. So, if you have a very specific audience with a very specific training need, you can pull things together very easily and profile it for them. And not have to rework the core of the content itself.

BS:                   We’re also seeing this being driven by product development. So, there are a lot of smart devices, machinery, and common everyday items that have more intelligence baked into them. And this is using content in some form from packaging to labeling to user interfaces. It could be anything. Physical products often need labels. They often have lots of labels actually on machinery, especially all of those warning stickers. Don’t put your hand here, or bad things will happen. The best part about using intelligent content for this and employing it in a smart way is that you can write them once and use them everywhere. So, that you can write your warnings, you can have it output to stickers that will go on the devices, or they will go onto screening layouts that will be then, painted onto the machinery. You can use them on the product. You can use them in your advertising. You can use them in your documentation, on your website, anywhere. If you need just the label and not the text, there’s a switch for that. So, you can do really whatever you want with this content.

BS:                   There’s also UI content itself. So, your applications, your software, all of that stuff, you have all of these. And if your development team is working properly, your development team has a lot of resource files for all their user interface text. So, they’re already referencing text from another location that’s not baked into the code, hopefully. But when moving it to intelligent content, being able to manage it smarter, you can centralize all of those strings as a central asset. And then, use it not only in the products that are being developed, but also in the documentation, and in the marketing materials, and in the training materials and in sales materials. And if the UI labels, or any of the UI text changes, everything else changes with it. You don’t have to chase down that a new button was added, or that a label was changed, things were moved around. All of that gets shared out with it.

BS:                   And we’re also seeing this with smart interfaces on a lot of different products. And it’s not just your fancy Peloton bike, or your Tesla. Many manufacturing plants now have smart interfaces on a lot of their machinery, even large trucks, tractor trailers, and so forth they have this as well. So, on many of these, there is a screen available that someone can interact with and do things with, particularly if a machine breaks down. So, not only are people notified, but that user interface can trap an error code, and then return information about what broke. And they can even show you where on the machine, or on the vehicle that the thing broke on. And what parts might be needed to fix it. What tools you’re going to need to fix the damaged part. What step-by-step instructions you need to follow. And then, also provide a repair log that you can add your own information to. And potentially even replace the part that’s broken. So, if you don’t have a replacement on hand, you can just from that interface order a new part. We’re seeing a lot of this out there.

BS:                   And, of course, we can’t forget about the chat bots that are out there now. And they’re almost ubiquitous at this point. But as smart as the artificial intelligence is that’s baked into the bot software it still needs to be fed content. So, all these bots need to understand who they’re interacting with, what’s being asked, why are they being asked this? And they need to be able to return the information at the right time, in the right way, for the right audience. So, it can get a little bit tricky with that, but there’s a lot of content and a lot of permutations of content that these bots go through. And you, hopefully, don’t want to duplicate any content that’s already written, while you’re programming or building this list of information for these bots to consume and repeat out to various users.

BS:                   But as sophisticated as these bots are, the chat bots ultimately are just another end point per content. They’re just another delivery format. So, when you think about it that way you can start saying, “Okay so, if we structure our content in a particular way, not only can we use it in our various other publications, but our bot can eat it too. And then regurgitate it out to whoever they need to.”

BS:                   And, honestly, this is just the beginning of where we’re starting to see additional uses of intelligent content. So these weird places that smarter content is being used. We’re seeing growth in a lot of different markets. Just a few of them, healthcare and life sciences, finance and accounting, insurance companies, policies and procedures being used internally and being provided externally and a lot of public sector as well. A lot of this information is starting to move from the written in Word, published as a PDF and provided to people. From that model into a more dynamic flow where you can get your content in a variety of different ways.

BS:                   It’s not just tech that’s jumping on board at this point. A lot of other companies are starting to open their eyes, and starting to see we can be doing a lot more for the people that we’re supporting. And really that comes back to how we’re creating and delivering the content. The perception of content as a valued asset, and an asset that has countless applications is growing very fast, at this point. And we’re only just scratching the surface now, of what is going to be possible.

BS:                   So, that’s kind of where we are. I’m going to end this here. And I will take any questions at this time about where we’re seeing smart content in weird places.

EP:                   Bill, can you hear me again?

BS:                   I can.

EP:                   Okay, great. So, if you haven’t found it, if you look at the bottom of your Zoom screen, there is a little icon that says Q&A and you can drop your questions in there and we will get them answered. I’ll go ahead and start with one.

EP:                   Bill, do you have any tips for promoting smart content to management? Is calculating cost savings enough to get buy-in?

BS:                   Calculating cost savings is a metric that you want to be able to supply, but really you want to start looking at, again, the overall value of what the content will ultimately be able to provide the company with. And it depends on what your company’s goals are. So, if your company’s goals are to fix a lot of the archaic problems that people are constantly complaining about. So, if every time a customer calls and says, there’s a problem with the content and you need to send a PDF and response, maybe that’s something that needs to fix. Maybe you need to have something that’s a little bit more dynamic and a little bit more rich of an experience.

BS:                   If you are providing content as a deliverable to other parties, then maybe you want to start looking at how you can build that content to be consumed by those people. It really depends on what you’re looking to do, but you have to kind of walk back from, “What is the goal here and where can we find the value?” And start walking it back to, “Okay, how can we best align to do this while doing all of the other things that we’re already doing with our content?” And it could be that you have 2, 3, 4 goals, and that really starts to become compelling because if you can walk all of those different goals with your content back to one single, I guess basically, a convergence point, then you have, basically, a golden nugget to bring to management and say, “Here’s the value that we can get by doing this one thing.”

EP:                   Great. Thank you so much. I have one other question here. Back at the beginning of the presentation, you mentioned innovative metadata approaches. Could you speak a little bit more about that?

BS:                   Yes. A lot of metadata use that we see out there is either systematic because it’s required by the content authoring environment, or it’s either profiling based. So, being able to identify specific audiences for content, or to identify one product versus another, if you’re supporting multiple different products with the same content set. But starting to look at using metadata in other creative ways. So, being able to provide information that maybe an API would hook onto. So, it knows what to grab, where to grab it and when to grab it.

BS:                   So, adding all of these additional flavors of metadata to your content to do more than just, essentially, target things in a classic way. A lot of that is API driven. You can also do things to mix and match content for a variety of different deliverables and different purposes. So, it might be that chat bots require very specific types of metadata that need to move along. And a lot of times we’ve seen that know, there’s your normal content development process. And then, there’s a copy over to the bot where additional metadata is then applied. And it might be that you want to be able to maintain that in one place so that there is no redundancy of effort of managing content at that point.

EP:                   Great. Thank you so much.

EP:                   I don’t see any more questions at this point. If you do have questions, feel free to email us at [email protected]. And with that, I think I’m going to go ahead and wrap up.

EP:                   So, thank you, Bill.

BS:                   Great. Thank you. And thanks everyone for joining.

EP:                   Yes, thank you so much for attending. We will put up the recording. It will be published on our blog on Monday. And for updates about upcoming events, if you’re not already, you can follow us on Twitter @scriptorium and we have quite a few upcoming events. So, we hope to see you virtually again. And thank you all so much.