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February 6, 2023

Nightmare on ContentOps Street (podcast)

In episode 136 of The Content Strategy Experts Podcast, Alan Pringle unveils horror stories of content ops gone horribly wrong.

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Christine Cuellar: 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 this episode, we share some content operations horror stories. Today I have our COO, Alan Pringle, with me. Hey, Alan. How’s it going?

Alan Pringle: Hey there, I’m doing well.

CC: Are you ready to talk about some horror stories?

AP: The question is, are you and is our audience ready for this? Because I’m not sure that they are.

CC: Well, I hope we all like horror because we’re diving deep into some stories. So, Alan, why don’t you kick us off?

AP: Well, I do appreciate the horror genre, I have for a very long time, and I’ve noticed that my favorites tend to have very short titles. Like last year there was Barbarian, which I really liked. Then there was the 1978 movie Halloween, the original. I’m not talking about the newer ones. I don’t like those as much. And then the Evil Dead and the Conjuring, they’ve got these short, snappy titles. So I thought we could kind of play with that whole idea and label some of the things that I have seen along with the other Scriptorium folks over the years.

CC: Absolutely, love that idea.

AP: So let’s talk about the first horror story. So everybody, let’s gather around our digital campfire and we can exchange scary tales.

CC: Grab our marshmallows.

AP: Yes, that. Yes. Let’s call the first one, The Update.

CC: Dun, dun, duh.

AP: Exactly.

CC: Always chaos and carnage with an update.

AP: In this case, it was ugly and gory indeed. We had a client who was changing their name, changing their branding. They had hundreds of desktop publishing files, and unfortunately, these files were not templatized, which means to do an update to change the company tagline, to change the company logo. They were going to have to go through and touch every single one of these files. Yeah.

CC: Talk about horror.

AP: Absolutely awful. The good thing is there is a happy ending here that is not all blood and guts. Because there was so much of this content involved, it made more business sense to convert all of these desktop publishing files to structured content. And by doing that, we set up an automated publishing workflow. So instead of going through and touching all of these files, we did the conversion and then we set up transformations of that structured content into, for example, PDF files, and the automated publishing process automatically put in the new logo, put in the new tagline.

So people didn’t manually have to do it. We ran that structured content through this transformation process, and voilà, we had the PDF files that had everything in it, and people didn’t have to physically touch them. So instead of making a huge one-off investment in all this manual work, the company did something really smart and invested in better content ops. So since then, if they have had to update their logo or their tagline, all they would have to do is go in and touch their transformation process, fix that there, and just rerun everything and then the process will handle it for them.

CC: So much better.

AP: Yeah, it’s magical.

CC: Yeah, so much better. I love that it’s not only easier for the team, but it’s also better quality. It’s easier to produce better systems rather than leaving things open to mistakes. I just love that about content ops.

AP: No. No, you’re exactly right. This created a repeatable automated process, and those are two huge wins. So that has a happy ending.

CC: Unlike most horror movies, there is a happy ending here.

AP: Well, you got to have the sequels.

CC: Yes, that’s true. That’s true. The 500 sequels.

AP: Exactly.

CC: All of which pale in comparison to the original, but yes, correct.

AP: Usually. Correct. You’re a hundred percent correct. Let’s go with the next story, which I call Cut and Paste, and this is not limited to just one client, and I am sure our listeners have been through this very thing before where you have one piece of content that pops up in multiple places in your documents. Unfortunately, that content has been cut and pasted manually a zillion times, so you have a bunch of different versions of that and a bunch of different files. And this is where your sequel comes in. Somebody will go in there and slightly change one of those, which is supposed to be the same wording, change a word or two in there, and now you have the sequel, Cut and Paste: The Mutation. That is never, never good, and it just compounds headache after headache. And then for part three, which probably should be in 3D, a three-dimensional movie.

CC: Yeah.

AP: It would be… yeah, Cut and Paste Three, Localization. Yeah, that’ll have ‘em running out of the theaters, because every time that you translate something like this and you’ve got all this copy and paste in your source content, and then you translate it, what are you doing? You are basically replicating the same horror that you had in how many different languages? It’s incredibly inefficient, it’s incredibly expensive, and it’s a headache for everybody involved.

CC: Yeah.

AP: This is why you need better content operations, and you basically need to figure out reuse scenarios. You don’t necessarily have to do XML or structured or authoring or use X tool or Y tool to do this. A lot of tools have the ability to set up mechanisms for reuse. Even Microsoft Word at a low level has some of these features. So what you need to do, you need to templatize this content. You need to set it up so you are referencing things that are going to be repeated often. So when you do have to make an update to that, you change it one time and it just automatically fixes itself across your body of content. That is the ideal thing you need to do, especially before you start localizing your content into other languages.

CC: Absolutely. Yeah. And that’s something we do touch on more in our blog posts that we published about how Scriptorium optimizes your content. We’ll go ahead and link that in the show notes as well, so you can check that out.

AP: Yeah, no, and that’s a very good point. Localization is often one of the drivers that has people talking to us and realizing our content operations, they’re broken. So yes, localization is one of these things that can really make or break you when it comes to your content.

CC: And from my understanding, a lot of times companies are reaching out because they’re missing out on a localization opportunity, is that correct? That’s the pain point that they’re experiencing is they’re missing out on something they either are being told they need to do or something they want to do, but there’s no way that they can go ahead and meet those requirements or step into that new opportunity with their current operations process.

AP: No, it’s true. In some cases, there are regulations that say you will provide this content in the languages where you’re shipping this content, to locale specific content. So are you going to end up having your products sitting on a dock somewhere while you scramble to get these documents in place? Which sounds absolutely bonkers. It has happened. Same thing for services too. I mean, in this global international environment, if people don’t have that content in their language, they’re not going to use your product. And that goes for the interface. Is it in their language? Is the content that explains how to use it in their language? So yeah, you can lose out on an income stream because you are not ready to localize and to do it efficiently.

CC: Absolutely. All right, now onto our next horror movie. It’s The Spreadsheet From Heck. And I’m very curious about this one because this one really messes with me.

AP: Yeah. The more R-rated version is spreadsheet from (beep). I know I will be bleeped for that, but that’s more accurate. So yeah, Christine’s going to have to get out her buzzer and bleep me on that.

CC: I will, yeah.

AP: Spreadsheet From Heck. First of all, if I saw a trailer for a movie that had the word spreadsheet come up when I was in the theater, I’d just get up and leave. Yeah., Because I get enough of that during the workday. I do not need to see it when I’m trying to have fun, thank you very much.

CC: Trying to escape reality here by going to the movie

AP: Exactly. I don’t need it reinforced in my face for an hour and a half. But someone has made the observation, it was not me, and I want to be very clear it was not me, someone has made the observation that the most common content management system is probably an Excel file.

CC: That’s horrible.

AP: It is horrible, but there is a degree of truth to this. There’s a kernel of truth there. A lot of people will plan out their workflows. “Here are all our files. This is the schedule. Here’s when it needs to be reviewed. Here is when it needs to be approved,” all that stuff. There is some degree of automation, yes, that you can do in a spreadsheet, but that only goes so far. And there’s some really critical things that you need to keep track of when you’re trying to manage just gobs and gobs of content.

I cannot imagine trying to do all of that in a spreadsheet, yet some people valiantly try, and they may be successful for a while, but I am nearly certain there has got to be a tipping point where you cannot do this anymore. And that’s true of almost everything we’re talking about in this episode. These things can work one off, or if you’ve got a very small body of content, the minute your requirements change and require you to do more, the stuff doesn’t scale. And this is a perfect example of where scale is going to inflict a great deal of harm on you. Maintaining that sort of stuff in a spreadsheet, that is a no-go from my point of view.

CC: No, I can’t even imagine from a content marketing perspective because I know I just specialize in content marketing and I’m not producing content on the scale that a lot of our clients and even our staff are producing content. I can’t imagine organizing all of that in a spreadsheet and having tasks remind me of when to follow up, when to do what, when to update what, all that kind of stuff. I truly can’t imagine managing that. I think it would just…. It would be a horror movie.

AP: Exactly. Like I said, it’s not ideal, but it happens more than it probably should.

CC: Speaking of something that happens more than it probably should, let’s move on to the next movie, The Email Chain.

AP: And people are going to think this may be some throwback to some lower tech era, and the sad truth is yes, today in the 21st century, there are still people, still companies who do content reviews by sending either PDF files or bits and pieces of information in an email. And they go back and forth making changes and getting approval. That to me, I mean, please just set me on fire. It’s deeply, deeply inefficient, yet it still happens today. And I’m sure there’s some people out there saying, “Surely not.” Surely yes, it does still happen, believe it or not. Very painful.

CC: Yeah, less efficient and more overwhelming, like you said. So things are going to get lost. Little updates, revisions, that kind of thing, that’s definitely going to get lost. So it’s more work to produce a lower quality piece of content versus moving it over to a streamlined content operations system.

AP: Yeah. And we think the spreadsheet is bad, I think the email chain may be more horrific than spreadsheet from whatever word you want to say there.

CC: Yeah.

AP: Those both point to using technology that’s really not the right fit, but it’s ubiquitous, you’ve got it handy, so you’re going to rely on it. Not the best business decision. I can understand why you would do it, but in the bigger picture, it’s not where you should be going.

CC: And speaking of the bigger picture, one thing that stood out to me when we were… on our previous podcast with Sarah is companies often reach out to us when they’re hitting some pretty significant pain points and when they’ve definitely recognized that it’s time, something’s got to change, we’ve got to become more scalable. But you don’t have to wait until then to optimize your content operations. I mean, I would recommend doing it now before you hit those pain points. Don’t wait until you’re missing an opportunity. Don’t wait until things are… you’re stuck in a never ending horror movie and you can’t get out. Now’s the time.

AP: Yeah. Yeah. Basically nip it in the bud. And what’s popped into my head is the movie, and there have been multiple versions of this, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In our case, I think we might want to call it Invasion of the Time Snatchers, because if you let this stuff compound, compound and compound, all that’s going to do is just basically completely drain your organization of any resources to even try and make incremental improvements in how you create your content.

As you improve how you create your content, it is going to make it easier for you to create better content. The content itself will improve, but if you’re stuck in this mire where all of these inefficient processes are eating up all of your time and they are not something that you can repeat, they are not scalable, it’s like the Groundhog Day of horror. It just repeats and it loops back on itself over and over again. And that is a sad reality for a lot of people. But as you suggested, the minute you start having an inkling that’s happening, that’s when it’s time to realize it’s time to take action. Let’s fix this.

CC: Yeah. And anybody that produces content has content operations. So there’s always the opportunity to optimize. There’s always the opportunity to see where you can automate and make things better.

AP: And it can be baby steps. Absolutely. And I think that’s a very good point to make. All these things that we have mentioned that are not super efficient or sound even remotely fun, they are all content ops. They’re just really bad content operations. So it’s not a matter of, “I don’t have ops, I need them.” It’s a matter of improving, and these things can be taken in baby steps. You can be incremental. For example, even trying to templatize things to give you some degree of consistency, that is a small step you can take if you’re working in word processing or desktop publishing. Templatize things so you have a very standard way that you create content, the formatting is standardized. Because if the content creators don’t have to spend time fiddling with that stuff, that is time they can invest in writing better content to help the people who are reading it.

CC: I like that mindset shift that you brought up: When you have bad content ops or things aren’t working well, those problems compound on each other. But in the same way, when you have good content ops, the benefits of that compound on each other. So you have more time to be able to make content better, and to even revisit your processes and revisit them over and over to see, “Now that we’ve optimized, how can we get to the next level? How can we get to the next level?”

AP: Absolutely. There is always room for improvement, and it’s a good idea not to rest on your laurels and do a check every once in a while, because you never know what creature might be hiding in your closet.

CC: Yeah. Might be Jason.

AP: Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, the Babadook, you name it. Yeah.

CC: Not that this is about content and ops, but the sequels in Halloween cracked me up, how they continuously repeated, “Evil dies tonight.” And evil never did die tonight, so.

AP: No, it didn’t, and I wish that it had. This could be a whole other podcast. Those later reboots did not please me, but we’ll talk about that some other time amongst ourselves.

CC: Yeah. Good idea. Well thank you all for listening to the Content Strategy Experts podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit or check out the show notes for the links we talked about today. And thanks, Alan.

AP: Thank you.