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November 13, 2023

Ask Alan Anything: Resolving pain in content operations (podcast, part 1)

In episode 155 of The Content Strategy Experts Podcast, Alan Pringle and Christine Cuellar dig into pain points that Scriptorium has helped organizations resolve since 1997.

“The amount of time content creators spend on formatting and for little payoff, it’s just… the numbers don’t add up. Especially in the 21st century now that we have so many automated ways to publish things to multiple channels, if you are futzing and tinkering with formatting trying to deliver to multiple channels, I can say with a great degree of certainty, you are absolutely doing it wrong.”

— Alan Pringle

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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’re sharing stories about pain, specifically pain points that Scriptorium has resolved over the years. This is part one of a two-part podcast. I’m Christine Cuellar, and with me, I have Alan Pringle. Alan, thanks so much for being here.

Alan Pringle: I think you’re welcome, but I may regret it based on the format of this particular podcast.

Christine Cuellar: Yes, you may. So Alan has no idea about what we’re going to talk about today other than we’re talking about pain points. He has not seen the notes. I’ve instead collected data from our team about lots of pain points that Alan and the team have resolved over the years. So there’s going to be a lot of pain in here, Alan, but hopefully there’s going to be a lot of resolution as well. There’s hope.

Alan Pringle: We can only hope so, and I thought of a little subtitle for this. We can call it AAA, Ask Alan Anything, with very deep apologies to Reddit AMA, and to the American Automobile Association. So yes, this is-

Christine Cuellar: I love it.

Alan Pringle: … the AAA talk, and I’m frightened.

Christine Cuellar: Let’s do it. I’m so excited. I’ve been looking forward to today. Not looking forward to your pain, Alan, just these pain points. Anyway, it’s going to be great. It’s going to be so great. Okay.

Alan Pringle: We’ll see about that. Yeah.

Christine Cuellar: So generally we have some main reasons for why people come. They come because they’ve experienced a lot of mergers or acquisitions, and they’re trying to consolidate different ways of approaching content operations, or they have a lot of localization requirements. There’s a lot of big-picture challenges for why people come to us.

But yeah, we’re going to go ahead and pick Alan’s brain on some specifics. So let’s kick it off with this one, Alan. Can you tell us about a time or about some pain that was involved when you and the team moved a customer or a client from disconnected document systems to a unified system? Tell us how that went.

Alan Pringle: The thing is, this could be many, many people. Here’s the thing. I think you always need to rewind before you talk about the systems because you need to lay the groundwork before that, and that goes back to the pain points you were talking about. Okay. You ask the client, “What pains are you having?” And then, from there, you go, “Why are you having those pains? What can we do to stop those pain points, make things better,” and then you pick your system?

So that’s not a super fun answer, but there’s always this temptation to dive directly into tools, and I’ve said this a zillion times in presentations here, panels, and wherever else, don’t do it. Think about your requirements first. And pain points are a great way to dig out and tease out those requirements. But get those in place first, and then pick the tools that are going to help you address them the best.

Christine Cuellar: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, start with what you need before trying to make a tool decision. That totally makes sense.

Alan Pringle: Yeah.

Christine Cuellar: How about this pain point? Dealing with manual formatting when authors have to manually format things all the time. Has that ever come up before?

Alan Pringle: All the time. The amount of time content creators spend on formatting and for little payoff, it’s just… the numbers don’t add up. And especially in the 21st century now that we have so many automated ways to publish things to multiple channels if you are futzing and formatting and tinkering with formatting, trying to deliver to multiple channels, I can say with a great degree of certainty, you are absolutely doing it wrong.

Why are you inflicting that upon yourself? Stop it. So yeah, don’t do that. Please don’t do that because it’s not a good use of your time, mostly because your reason for creating this content is to educate, help the people who are reading it. You need to spend the time on that, not on the formatting. It’s just not a good use of your time. It’s just not.

Christine Cuellar: Yeah. Do you have any examples of a company that was held back by the time that their team was spending on manual formatting? So maybe they were trying to translate into new languages or rebrand. Any examples of-

Alan Pringle: Oh, yeah.

Christine Cuellar: … how that went wrong?

Alan Pringle: I mean, again, it’s not so much that it goes wrong. It is that what they are doing is just not sustainable, and it is costing them so much more money. I mean, you think about it, if you have your source content, and because my primary language is English, really my only language is English. I’m going to say your source content is English. So all the time that you’ve spent formatting and getting that ready, you have to apply that to every single language. That effort becomes exponential. It’s multiplied again and again and again.

Please, why are you doing this to yourself? Don’t do that. You need to have a system where your formatting and your source language is as automated as it can be, and then that automation will then apply to the localized content as well. It really is just kind of stupefying to me to see people continue to spend so much time on formatting on source content, much less when they have to localize for, you know, how many different locations.

It is just, again, the money and the time, and then there’s the delay because, say, you ship out to your primary language. Again, I’m going to say English. It’s not always that way, but that’s just because I speak English. And then three or four or six months later, you’re shipping out the other languages. Why? You need to get that window down to almost simultaneous shipment so you won’t have this huge delay because if you have that huge delay, that is an income stream that your company is not getting from those markets that need the translated content. There you go.

Christine Cuellar: Yeah. Yeah. So in a nutshell, for organizations that have had this as their primary pain point, you know, the writing team is spending way too much time, manually, formatting things, and they don’t actually get to do their job, which is write the content. What’s the big-picture fix to that? I know it’s probably different for each person and each organization, but what is… where’s square one?

Alan Pringle: There’s lots of square ones here, so I got to be careful. There’s not a one-

Christine Cuellar: Yes.

Alan Pringle: … size fits all. If you are working in more traditional content development ways, when I mean by that desktop publishing, templatize. Your formatting should be coming from a template, creating a repeatable process, and that template can be applied to your localized content as well.

If you have outgrown desktop publishing, and that does happen, you need to look at structured content, and that means there is no formatting in your source content. It is applied automatically later on. When you do that, it basically takes it out of the author’s hands completely, and automated transformation processes apply it. So those are two go-to’s right there on how to possibly address that problem.

Christine Cuellar: Gotcha. How about this pain point? An organization is being asked to personalize content, or they’re being required to personalize content, but they have to rely on manual work to make that happen.

Alan Pringle: No. Just like I was talking about formatting, it causes me pain to hear about people who are basically copying and pasting content over and over and over again to make slight variations of content for different audiences. It happens all the time. Again, please don’t do that to yourself if you can help it. This can be basically the thing to help push you into improving your content operations.

It’s, again, a question of efficiency, a question of reuse. There may be a core of content that pretty much stays nearly the same or static. It’s just there’s bells and whistles on the edges that need to change based on location, on audience, or whatever else. What you’re going to have to do is build on that intelligence. So you have got some content that’s being reused, and then you have flagged the stuff that is specific to a particular audience or whatever else. When you start getting into building in that kind of intelligence, you’re talking about structured content, usually XML, not always XML, but usually XML.

So you can build in that intelligence that says, “Okay, this is my common core of content. Then here are things that are a little bit different for all of these different things.” And you can have this huge matrix of things that are different, audience location, product version level, whatever else. And then, based on those things, you can put in that intelligence and then turn off… turn certain content on and off when you create whatever delivery points that you have, whether it’s print online or whatever else these days. Lots of choices there too.

Christine Cuellar: Yeah, that’s great. Is that something… Okay, just because this is kind of top of mind because we’ve been talking about this a lot recently. Is that something… If people are interested in pursuing that, should they look more at content as a service? Where would you recommend they dig for more information on creating that kind of a system?

Alan Pringle: Again, I would say go backwards and think about your requirements, what those things are. Personalization as a requirement. Yes, content as a service, and let’s explain what that is. When you have built intelligence into your content about audience, product variant, whatever else, version, you can connect systems together in a way where the system that is going to present the information to the end users, to the content consumers can pull the information that it needs from the repository where you have stored your content with that intelligence built in. Yes, content as a service is great.

It sounds great, but you don’t start there. People don’t just say, “I need content as a service.” They may, but I don’t think it’s something that comes to top of mind immediately. What they’re thinking is, “I need a way to personalize this content for my different users so they get exactly what matches the version of the product that they’re using, for example.” Or, “I need the people who were taking this course and this learning management system to get things zeroed in on the way that they have their software configured and they’re trying to learn about it.”

Christine Cuellar: Yeah.

Alan Pringle: To me, there, there’s a distinction there. Yes, content as a service is a way to solve those problems, but I don’t think people generally go there top of mind. “That is what I need.” They think more about, “I need personalization.” Content as a service is a way to get it. That’s how I would like to frame it anyways.

Christine Cuellar: Yeah. No, that totally makes sense. They need that personalization, but they need to not be relying on some person or a group of people going in and manually making all those changes because that’s just not… that’s not feasible to keep up with.

Alan Pringle: Oh, people do it all the time, and then they end up all having breakdowns because it’s just not sustainable. Yeah.

Christine Cuellar: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

Alan Pringle: It’s awful.

Christine Cuellar: Especially as you grow. And yeah, I can see that’s a major scalability issue in so many different ways.

Alan Pringle: Yeah, yeah.

Christine Cuellar: So do you have any examples of that inaction about companies that need to personalize content that have been set up for success now? Even if it’s an unnamed example or stories you can share there?

Alan Pringle: Yes, and I’ve got to be careful here because I don’t want to get too much into it-

Christine Cuellar: Yeah.

Alan Pringle: … to identify customer. But yes, we have done things where the end user is getting information, whether it be from a web-based portal, for example, that matches exactly their customer profile. So yes, we have done this, and I know you probably want more details than that, but-

Christine Cuellar: No, that’s fine.

Alan Pringle: … I don’t want to go too deep into it, but yes.

Christine Cuellar: Yeah.

Alan Pringle: We have done it. We are doing it as we speak. As we record this, we are working on projects trying to do that very thing. So that’s very much in our wheelhouse, indeed.

Christine Cuellar: Okay. No, yeah, absolutely. That’s great. That’s a great example. Okay, so let’s switch gears to another pain point. What has it been like for… or what do you recommend for people who are struggling with the pain point of inconsistent content? Either inconsistent content or maybe inconsistent ways of creating the content.

Alan Pringle: Well, inconsistency can be many levels here. It can be the tools that you are using. Not everybody’s using the same thing, maybe because of a merger. It can be the way that the content is organized. It’s not the same from one product to another or one service to another. It could also be as getting more down at the content itself. The way that people describe things. You are not consistent in what you call this widget in this document versus how you describe that widget in what it does in this online document over here. So there are multiple layers of inconsistency here, and it can even be as using certain terms and terminology.

You’re not consistent in how you do that. And again, there are technologies that can help with all of those things. For look and feel, templatization can help make things more consistent, or you can move to structured content and have your formatting applied automatically to take care of that consistency. There are ways to basically enforce word choice, control vocabulary tools to be sure that you’re using the terminology in your company consistently or different authors and content creators and content contributors are using a term consistently.

Alan Pringle: So again, there are lots of layers here, but there’s a way to solve all of them that basically you can use tech to take that burden off of you, so you’re not having to always think about those things all the time. Having tech provide you a helping hand. And I dare say there’s a point we’re reaching now where even artificial intelligence, AI tools, can help with some of these things too.

Christine Cuellar: Yeah.

Alan Pringle: So as much as I get so tired of hearing about AI and all the irresponsible talk about it, you can also look at and frame AI as a tool to help you make things more consistent. It can help. For example, maybe look across a vast body of content and find where there are things that are not consistent, so you, as a human, don’t have to go and do all that horrible, crappy work.

Christine Cuellar: Yeah, yeah. And going back to something you said earlier about this. You mentioned, okay, so using a merger as an example, people using all these, trying to consolidate these different systems or trying to just work in these different systems after mergers.

Is it common for people to be, for lack of a better word, putting up with dealing with a bunch of different systems until the pain is just absolutely unbearable and they have to reach out, like putting up with this for years or something like that? Is that pretty common, or do you feel like this is a pain point that is painful enough that people reach out pretty quickly when it crops up?

Alan Pringle: I hate to keep saying it’s not one size fits all, but it’s not. Some people recognize the problem earlier than others. Some people just kind of put their heads down to the grindstone and deal with it and grit their teeth. Other people, especially if you’ve got somebody new coming in who’s maybe done things a little differently before, and they see these things, and they’re like, “Oh my God, what are you people doing to yourself? Stop.”

Christine Cuellar: Yeah.

Alan Pringle: It can be-

Christine Cuellar: Fresh eyes.

Alan Pringle: … a catalyst like that.

Christine Cuellar: Yeah.

Alan Pringle: So…

Christine Cuellar: Okay.

Alan Pringle: Yeah, fresh eyes. That is really a dull answer, but that’s often what happens.

Christine Cuellar: No, that makes sense. Yeah, no, that makes sense. And does it make the problem worse if people put it off, put off consolidating systems, or does that not really matter?

Alan Pringle: Oh, I think it does. I mean, think about it. What happens if you ignore a plumbing problem in your house? Is it just going to go away by itself? No, it most certainly is not.

Christine Cuellar: It’d be nice, but yeah.

Alan Pringle: Yeah. I mean, just think about it. “Oh yeah, I’m going to ignore the fact that I have got a dripping hole in my ceiling or there’s water pouring down my wall. I’m just going to ignore it and hope it goes away.” I don’t think that’s the best way to handle that. And that’s true of content operations as well.

Christine Cuellar: It’s the ostrich approach, right. “If I can’t see, it’s not real. It’s not… We’re fine.” Yeah, that doesn’t ever work out. That kind of leads me into another pain point that actually came up quite a lot. Yeah. Doesn’t work. A lot of people mentioned executives or managers not valuing content, which kind of seems like that would be related to this. That was a pain point that we have often seen. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Alan Pringle: There is an issue where people who create content and their contributions sometimes are not quite understood, or they’re overlooked by executives. A lot of executives are focused on numbers. That is their language.

Christine Cuellar: Mm-hmm.

Alan Pringle: They don’t care about the tools that you’re using. They don’t care about anything but, for example, that people are getting the content they need and not calling a help center, and costing money. That’s when they care about content. They’re looking at it from a different lens.

Christine Cuellar: Yeah.

Alan Pringle: So if you’re going to communicate to them about content, you’ve got to talk metrics, you’ve got to talk numbers, you’ve got to talk money, and that’s where sometimes content creators fail. They don’t look at things that way. So that’s sometimes where a consultant can come in handy and start to help you speak “C-level-ese”—

Christine Cuellar: Yeah, yeah.

Alan Pringle: … basically to kind of bridge that gap between, “This is what’s broken versus this is how we can fix things, and it will increase productivity and better metrics.” Less money spent, better results, that sort of thing.

Christine Cuellar: Yeah, that makes sense. And it sounds like bridging that gap of communication both ways, you’re both helping executives understand the value and helping content people communicate their value. Is that accurate to say?

Alan Pringle: That is fair, and again, not one size fits all. There are some executives, especially that have come up through the ranks of content. They get it.

Christine Cuellar: Yeah.

Alan Pringle: They totally get it. So there are some people, and those people are great to work with. Sometimes, people need a little education, and I’ll just leave it at that.

Christine Cuellar: Yeah, yeah. No, that makes sense. And so you mentioned metrics. What are some metrics that content individuals can have just on hand to start communicating their value to their team, to their company?

Alan Pringle: One thing you can do is kind of get what’s the dollar value you can place per hour on what it costs for a content creator to develop and distribute content. Find a way to find out what that amount is, what that dollar value is. Then, take a look at, for example, what if you automate publishing and cut out 80, 90% of that work by automating publishing? What’s that worth? What’s the dollar value on that? What’s the dollar value on getting closer to simultaneous shipment on localized content?

When you get your product, your service, whatever out there to other markets in this very, very global world environment now, everything’s so interconnected if you get things out to all the different markets, almost at the same time, how much more money are you going to pull in than if you had to wait three, four months for the localized version to get out there to those customers? So think about things like that.

Christine Cuellar: Yeah, those are great. Those are really helpful examples. And do you have any specific recommendations on how those should be communicated? Is that something that should be in a big kind of company team meeting? I know that’s probably a case-by-case basis, but-

Alan Pringle: Well, again, I mean, what is the executive team’s preferred way of communicating? There’s your answer right there.

Christine Cuellar: Yeah. Yeah.

Alan Pringle: If they don’t like email, why are you going to send that … email? Don’t do that.

Christine Cuellar: Don’t send an email that doesn’t communicate your value. 

Alan Pringle: No. If they like spreadsheets, put that mess in the spreadsheet. It depends on the audience. You need to find a common ground with the people that you’re creating these stats for and share it in a way that they can absorb and appreciate whatever that is. And me telling you what to do here is not as helpful. You need to do some digging or have your consultant work with you to figure out the best way to communicate that and do it that way.

Christine Cuellar: Yeah, absolutely. That makes sense because ultimately, I think if you can communicate… Because content really does have real business impact and real business value, and so it’s just about communicating that.

Alan Pringle: Yeah. And this is… And it’s not even just in regulatory situations. Yeah, content in regulatory situations matters a whole lot because if it’s non-existent or wrong, somebody’s going to die or get injured.

Christine Cuellar: Mm-hmm.

Alan Pringle: Even beyond that, even if you’re not in a regulated environment, there are contributions content can make to keep customers happier, to keep down support costs, and many other things. Not everything is tangible. A happy customer, that can be hard to quantify. But a happy customer not calling your support line, you can quantify that. So that’s-

Christine Cuellar: Yes.

Alan Pringle: … one way to look at it.

Christine Cuellar: Absolutely. I know just personally, for me, I’m much more likely to continue or stick with a company where I can do… I can be pretty self-sufficient. If I have problems, I can look it up and deal with the problem myself. And if I do have to contact support, it’s a quick call that gets resolved easily.

That’s just… I think that is how people make their purchases nowadays. And I know that’s kind of more of a consumer kind of mindset rather than business-to-business. But that’s a big part of the consumer experience is can I get what I need just with the content that you already have out there in the world?

Alan Pringle: Yeah. And I think it’s worth mentioning here that when people go to your site and look at the content that’s available out there that’s associated with whatever product or service they’re considering, it could be support content, it could be a help portal, it could maybe even be training content. They are not just looking at your marketing to make a decision here.

Christine Cuellar: Yep.

Alan Pringle: There are other content types that come out to play. And anything that’s out there that the public can get to and see, believe it or not, that’s marketing content, and you need to treat it as such and understand its value as that as well.

Christine Cuellar: Yeah, absolutely. Well, Alan, I think that’s a really good place to wrap up. Clearly, we could talk about pain all day because we have a lot more to…

Alan Pringle: It’s my job, what can I tell you?

Christine Cuellar: Yeah. Yeah. So we are going to continue this discussion in the next podcast episode. Alan, thanks so much for being here with us today.

Alan Pringle: I haven’t run away, so let’s-

Christine Cuellar: Yeah.

Alan Pringle: … get to the next episode.

Christine Cuellar: 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.