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February 19, 2024

Brewing a better content strategy through single sourcing (podcast)

In episode 162 of The Content Strategy Experts Podcast, Bill Swallow and Christine Cuellar discuss the benefits of single sourcing as part of your content strategy through the example of two things they love: coffee and beer.

“We know companies that have moved away from a do-it-yourself approach because they had maybe two or three different people putting in half to almost full-time work on the publishing system and not on other facets of the company’s core business or the writing. They were simply there to keep everything working. It just blows my mind that on a scale where you have hundreds of writers contributing content, you are saying, Okay, you three people are going to be solely responsible for keeping this thing up and running so that they can produce their content, rather than having a system that’s designed to keep itself up and running.

— Bill Swallow

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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 talking about how you can brew a better content strategy through single sourcing. Hi, I’m Christine Cuellar.

Bill Swallow: and I’m Bill Swallow.

CC: Hey, Bill, thanks for being here today. 

BS: Hey, thanks.

CC: So what I mean by brewing a better content strategy is that both Bill and I really love coffee. Right now for both of us, we’re recording it fairly early times in the morning. So actually we’re heavily reliant on coffee and other caffeinated sources to enable this conversation. Also, Bill, I know you like homebrewing beer. I like drinking beer. I have no idea how to homebrew, but I do enjoy beer as well. So we just thought that beer, coffee, drinks in general actually have some good analogies for single sourcing, which can be part of your content strategy. And it’s something that’s been coming up more and more in a lot of conversations with clients and people that are interested in content strategy so we thought this would be a good topic for today. So Bill I’m gonna kick it over to you for our first really big-picture question. First of all what is single sourcing? What do we mean when we say that? Let’s kick it off there.

BS: All right, so in a nutshell, single sourcing is writing content once for multiple purposes. It’s about as simple as you can get. It could be authoring centrally, it could be authoring collectively in a group or centrally as a single person for a wide variety of publishing needs, whether it be for different audiences, different output types, or what have you.

CC: Okay, yeah, that’s great. So how does, what are some ways that single sourcing can start to mimic drinks? Coffee, beer, any of that?

BS: We could take the example of multiple output formats. So traditionally with single sourcing, we’ve been doing that since I think the mid-90s. I remember working in. Oh, that’s based in the name. I remember working in Doc to help back in, I think it was 1996, to produce online help and written manuals from the same source using a very high-tech convention called RTF, which is basically the backbone of Microsoft Word at the time.

CC: Ooh.

BS: So that was fun. I had many nightmares about RTF coding. I solved problems in my dreams using RTF. It was a scary time. Yeah, I was essentially fully immersed, let’s say that. But in many ways, to take the same analogy, you’re producing a wide variety of, or you’re producing a core set.

CC: That’s when you know it’s really stressful. Yeah, that’s not good.

BS: of stuff that needs to go to many different places. And it’s a lot like, let’s say a coffee roaster since it’s early in the morning and we want to talk about coffee. A coffee roaster is going not going to sit there and roast a pound of beans, put it in a bag, and then send it off, and then roast a pound of beans, put it in a bag, send it off. You know, they’re going to roast, you know, a ton of beans, 10 tons of beans, however, you know, many that they can fit into their roaster.

CC: Yep.

BS: and do it all at once. A couple of things that allow them to do, one, it streamlines the process and speeds things up because now they have a wealth of products that they can then put in large bags for distribution to restaurants or cafes or what have you. They can put it in smaller bags and send it out to the grocery stores. They can do their online mail orders for coffee that way. Five-pound bags, one-pound bags what have you or they can even grind it up themselves put it in k-pods and people can destroy the planet with those I’m not a big fan of those the k-cups and pods but It also helps them create a more homogenous product because they’re working at a very large scale So and they’re they’re producing things in very large batches So with all their beans together in one roaster, they are able to produce a very consistent product that way.

CC: Yeah, that’s great. That’s a great analogy and that definitely makes a lot of sense. So when it comes to both coffee and beer, there’s a, you know, the commercial option that you just outlined, which is really helpful. And there’s also usually a DIY component. I mean, you can home brew beer, you can home brew coffee, of course, and do that in a bunch of different ways. Like it can just be your coffee pot or you can get all fancy and do, you know, all the little like other fancy things you can do with it, all of which I’ve done and they’re all leaving my brain at this moment. French roast, okay, that’s one. Anyways, it should have been more top of mind. But is that also an option for content?

BS: It can be. Looking at a commercial solution versus a DIY or DIY approach, it’s not so much a question of which approach do you prefer to take. Because I mean, yes, I’m a hobbyist when it comes to brewing beer. But I still, and really for the past 10 years, I stopped brewing because there were just so many high-quality

CC: Okay.

BS: Options on the market at that point. I’m like, why am I spending my time doing this when I can just go to the store and pick up? one of a thousand different types of beer but you really need to look at it from the standpoint of how much money do you have to spend on a commercial product versus how much time and commitment do you have to doing it yourself if you do it yourself. 

CC: Yeah.

BS: The results can vary, but if you put the time and energy into it, you can produce some amazing results, but there is always a hidden cost of time and labor. When I used to actively brew, I brewed with a buddy of mine and we would do it every Monday night. So he would either come to my place with his equipment or I would go to his place with my equipment. And from like six o ‘clock until about midnight, we would be either brewing beer, cleaning equipment, bottling beer, doing whatever. It was a commitment. I mean, it was six hours a week, and literally it was every week. Unless we had something going on and we took a bye week, we were doing that every single week because there is always something that needs to be done in the process.

CC: Hmm. Yeah. Yeah, that’s a big time commitment. And I like that you mentioned that not only was there a big time commitment in actually brewing the beer, but also the cleanup, also the prep work. Yeah, I like that there’s this there’s other factors that you don’t think about that also are involved in doing it yourself? Is that also something that applies to, you know, single sourcing and content strategy? Are there a lot of factors that can come into play?

BS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, if you’re a homebrewer, you have to enjoy the monotony of cleaning. And it’s the same thing if you’re doing it yourself with putting together a publishing system and an authoring system that relies on, let’s say, open source tools and a lot of human care and feeding. You have to really enjoy the monotonous. 

CC: Hmm.

BS: Droning kind of day-to-day maintenance work. You know, when you’re brewing, it’s, it literally is 90% cleaning, 10% brewing. Because I mean, you start, you know, you have to have everything completely sanitized. And once you get the pot boiling, you know, it’s, it’s doing its thing for about an hour. You know, you might be adding, you know, some hops here and there, or some other flavoring agents, depending on the type of beer you’re producing. 

CC: Wow.

BS: But, largely, you’re just waiting for an hour. So while you’re waiting, you’re cleaning other stuff that you’re gonna need later in the process. And then you take five minutes to move to that next step, and then you have to wait for the beer to cool down. So then there’s another round of cleaning. Okay, all the stuff that I used to make this batch of beer now needs to get cleaned. And then you go to put it into the fermenter, and now you have to clean everything else. And the cycle just continues.

CC: Yeah, oh wow.

BS: It’s the same thing with these with, you know, with a do-it-yourself approach. And it’s not to say that it’s wrong or that it’s not ideal, because you can learn quite a lot in a do-it-yourself environment. But it does come at a cost. You know, you’re going to spend I actually we know companies that have, you know, moved away from a do-it-yourself response, because they had, you know, maybe two or three different people putting in half to almost full-time work on the publishing system and not on other facets of the company’s core business or the writing or what have you. They were simply there to kind of keep everything working. And it just blows my mind that on a scale where you have hundreds of writers contributing content that you are saying, okay, you three people are going to be solely responsible for keeping this thing up and running so that they can produce their content rather than having a system that’s designed to keep itself up and running.

CC: Yeah. Would you say that because it sounds like with a DIY approach, it can work, but it has to be very intentional and you have to be very realistic, like you said, about the cost and the time that’s involved. And I can see from like a coffee analogy. Do companies, I guess, default or kind of slide into a DIY approach without really thinking about it. Because I could see with like coffee, I do love enjoy, okay, with coffee, I do enjoy attempting to make lattes and, you fun stuff with my espresso machine, which I have like a really crappy one right now, but it’s really fun to play with. And I’ve practiced a lot with it. But still, the best cup that I make does not compare to like, basically every one of our local coffee shops here, I would 100 %… enjoy their stuff more than what I make. It’s just fun to play with. But it’s not realistic for me to go and buy, you know, the best coffee from one of the local places every single day. So instead, I have a coffee machine and instead I brew stuff here at home, you know, every day for my regular coffee addiction. And then when I want to be fancy, I go to a coffee shop. But just, you know, I don’t have the capacity to go somewhere else every single day. So that’s kind of why I’ve just

BS: Yeah.

CC: Not really thinking about it, slid into a DIY approach. Is that also something that happens with companies that they kind of DIY until they realize there is a different way to do it? Is it kind of a default method if that makes sense?

BS: Yes and no. And the decision as to why a company might choose to do it themselves rather than purchase a more packaged or commercial solution. It really varies. You know, you have some companies that, yes, they started out small. They hired someone perhaps who had some serious technical chops and was able to put together something very, very, very slick.

CC: Okay.

BS: But you know, they were the only ones who really knew how it worked. And as they hired more writers, you have varying degrees of varying degrees of, I guess, capability and willingness to learn how this thing works.

CC: Mmm.

BS: You know, so if, you know, for example, let’s say that they’re doing Markdown and they have all of these, you know, different scripts that run and fire off and they produce, you know, all these different outputs. It’s very, very slick. I’ve seen lots of implementations like that and that, you know, they’re actually pretty cool. But, you know, as you hire more people,

CC: Hmm. Oh yeah, that’s true.

BS: You start getting into, why do I have to write and mark down? I always keep forgetting to use this character instead of this character when starting a bulleted list. Or I always forget to, you know, close off the end of my, you know, my title or what have you, anything like that. You know, why can’t I use Microsoft Word? Why can’t we move to just using HTML? Why can’t we move to XML? Like, you know, you start getting a lot of that pushback and the pushback may not be direct.

CC: Mm.

BS: So you have cases at that point where you have quality slips starting to make their way into the core content set. And that’s where things get a little hairy. But to go back to your analogy, making coffee at home, you can have, there are plenty of really, really good espresso machines out there that you can buy for home, but it will never compete with that $8,000 Italian espresso maker that your cafe, you know, your choice, you know, the cafe has in town. You know that they, you know, they paid a ton of money for and they’ve spent hours and hours and dollars and dollars to train their staff on how to appropriately use it and clean it to produce that same, you know, questionably but perfect cup of coffee every single time.

CC: Yeah.

BS: You know, same thing with buying coffee, you know, buying beans or buying grounds. You know, these companies you buy and you know, people will laugh. I make the same comments about, you know, certain beer manufacturers. But, you know, you buy something like Folgers. It’s not, you know, in my opinion, it’s not the world’s best coffee. You know, I just don’t like, you know, what it tastes like.

CC: Yes.

BS: But every single time you buy a, they’re not tins anymore, are they? I think they’re more like plastic jugs of coffee. But you buy a jug of coffee and it’s always gonna be the same every single time. And you can say the same thing about Budweiser. People may say, oh, Budweiser, why would you ever drink that? It’s horrible. It’s like, yes, but it is absolutely consistent. You can buy a Budweiser anywhere in the United States, in the world.

CC: They’ve evolved. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

BS: Open it up and it will taste exactly the same.

CC: That’s true. Yeah, that’s true.

BS: You know, there are really no differences there. And they spend quite a lot of time and energy into ensuring that that product is consistent from every single batch that’s made in every single location across the world because they have breweries all across the world that produce this stuff because shipping it from one location around the world is just not gonna work. So all of these different locations have their equipment set up just the right way. Their chemists work, yes chemists, their chemists are working to make sure that the pH balance is perfect every step along the way as that beer is being produced. So otherwise, if you’re brewing yourself at home, your equipment may vary. I’ve put stuff together literally with duct tape and string.

CC: Hmm.

BS: I made it, I made a shower head out of a nine-inch tin foil pie pan 

CC: Hahaha! Wow. Yeah, that’s a DIY way.

BS: Because, it was available, you know, to sparge or to clean my grain as it was, being run off as the beer was being run through. Or, you know, even if you roast your own beans at home, you know, the level of quality is going to vary, you know, because you are likely using your, your oven to do that roasting. And if you step away for a minute too long, or if you didn’t get the temperature setting quite right, so if you don’t have a digital temperature setting, or maybe your heating element is a little futsy, so sometimes it might be 310 degrees, sometimes it might be 332, who knows? There are lots of elements that can go wrong in a do-it-yourself environment.

CC: Yeah, that’s true. And like you mentioned earlier that a lot of that comes down to the people, not only the equipment that you’re using, but also the people. Like, do they know what they’re doing? Do they know why they’re doing it? And especially as you introduce more people, like you mentioned, if it’s you and your buddy that are brewing beer together, that’s another person that’s been added. And, you know, in a scenario where one person’s not as interested or, you know, just doesn’t know as much about the process that can really change things and vice versa. Like if you have two people that both really know what they’re doing and both really enjoy it, that can lead to a really good output. 

BS: It can vary because yes, we both knew exactly what we were doing and But you know you start biting heads. I want to do it this way No, I want to do it this way if we do it this way. You’re gonna get this result I don’t believe you I think if we do it this way, we’ll get this result and yeah, we’ve had You know, we actually tried it and tried two different techniques of brewing the same beer and they came out very very different so

CC: That’s true, yeah.

BS: You know, it is what it is. But yeah, it all comes down to that quality control element, you know, and, you know, generally when you have a bigger commercial system, you can kind of get there a lot quicker. Now, it’s not going to do everything for you, but it’s got the pieces already laid out and it’s got some recommended workflows and processes for using that system to produce consistent results. Whereas with a do-it-yourself, you’re kind of left at your own devices and how well you document your stuff and how well you regulate it.

CC: Absolutely. Yeah, which can is it in and of itself is another time commitment. Yeah. So we’ve talked a lot about consistency, which is a really important element of this, but also personalization is another important value that you can get out of single sourcing. How does that? So let’s say if we put it in our coffee or beer analogy, let’s say you’re personalizing your packaging for, you know, different restaurants and different cafes or whatever. How does single sourcing make that more effective or what does that look like?

BS: Well, at the core of it, like for example, if you’re putting stuff out to cafes and restaurants, you’re typically not going to use the same level of pomp and flash on your branding packaging that you would if it was going to a grocery store. Because you want that product to pop off the shelf in the grocery store and catch people’s eyes, whereas at the restaurants and so forth, as long as the logo’s on the bag so they know they got the right thing.

CC: Yeah.

BS: It’s usually just a pretty nondescript bag with a description of what’s inside it. But in the end of the day, you’re not producing different product for these different groups. You’re producing the same product that’s going out to many different people, depending on who it needs to go to. So you may have one conveyor belt that takes the beans down to where they dump them into 25-pound bags or 50-pound bags. And then you have this other conveyor belt that goes off and does the one-pounders.

CC: Mm-hmm.

BS: And so it’s really streamlining from that. You’ve spent the time to build this, I guess, storage heap of beans that you then are distributing to many different people. So at that point, you’re taking from that same source and you’re partitioning it off as you need to for multiple different consumers.

CC: Mm. That’s true.

BS: Same thing with single sourcing. I mean, you have a core collective of content that ideally is all written in the same tone and voice. Aside from all the mechanics of how content gets produced, it needs to be written in the same tone and voice for…

to be able to blend and remix and be able to send it out to different audiences so that it doesn’t sound like, you know, eight different people, even though eight different people may have written the content, it doesn’t sound like eight different people wrote different parts of whatever it is you’re delivering. It’s a little jarring to go from…

CC: Hmm. Yeah.

BS: You know, one style of writing to another within the same paragraph or within the same, you know, chapter of a book or, you know, series of topics in an online help system. It can get very distracting. So, you know, in that case, you do need some attention toward how all these people are developing the content and what tone and voice they’re using. But aside from that, with regard to packing your…

CC: Yeah.

BS: You know, packaging your output from a content standpoint, you have things like, you know, templates that drive the look and feel of what the various outputs are going to look like. So templates or, you know, style sheets or what have you to produce these things. But also behind the scenes, you have other conventions such as variables, conditions. Perhaps you’re leveraging some form of reuse. So that you can kind of mix and match your content, turn things on and off depending on, oh, this is going out to, you know, an advanced user or this is going out for our, this is going out for our premium product. And this one’s going out for our base-level product. And base level product has features A, B, and C, but our premium has features D and E also tacked on. That type of thing. So you’re not rewriting content for these.

CC: Mm.

BS: You know, very many different outputs, but rather you are pulling from a single, you know, managed source of content and, you know, mixing and remixing and turning things on and off to produce that desired result.

CC: Yeah, absolutely. And then so taking that a step further, when you when it’s time to start selling your coffee or selling your beer in a location in a different country or different region, what happens then in that localization process? I mean, I’m assuming all of that is involved plus more. Yeah.

BS: Oh, plus more, because then you have language on the packaging and so forth that needs to change. But more importantly, with any kind of food-based product, and particularly with alcohol, there are different rules that govern how things can be sold, what you can say, what you can’t say on the packaging. We’re pretty loosey-goosey here in the United States where you can say anything. You can put out a package that is the same size product and say now 20% more. And you look, it was a 16-ounce box before, it’s a 16-ounce box now, but now it says 20% more.

CC: What? Maybe they meant air, 20% more air in the package.

BS: I guess, I guess, but you start going overseas and the nutrition labels need to change. You have to take very different stances when you’re listing ingredients. There are certain claims you can and cannot make on the packaging and in the advertising. And when it comes to alcohol, particularly, there are different rules that govern what can go into it that can be then passed off to a consumer and what you have to disclose and what you can’t disclose. And I go back to one of these things, and it’s not so much a governing rule anymore as far as you know how strict it is but there’s the Reinheitsgebot I hope I am pronouncing that right but it’s basically the German purity rule for beer and it basically governs and says that beer can only be made of three components water barley and hops and they omitted yeast even though yeast is what does the fermenting process because at the time they created the law, they didn’t really know about it. But yeah, essentially those four ingredients are the only things that can go into beer for Germany Not so much a rule anymore, but it’s it’s it’s an example of you know, if you were to produce something And call it something. Yes, if you were to produce beer and call it beer, but you’re making beer with Barley and corn and rice, you know, so something that let’s say Budweiser does. Would that technically be beer? Maybe not in Germany. So what do you call it? How do you package it? Can you sell it? Again, it’s not so much a thing anymore. It’s more of a historic note, but it kind of shows the differences in what you can do and what you can say in different countries. 

CC: Oh, okay, interesting.

BS: Likewise, when you go to different, when you publish for different locales, you have not only different languages, but you have different fonts that you have to consider. You have different complete character sets, you know, so, you know, there’s, you know, the more the Latin character set that we use throughout the United States and throughout Western Europe. We start going more into Eastern Europe and you start getting into needing to use a Cyrillic alphabet. 

CC: Mm-hmm.

BS: Certainly you move into Asia and now you’re starting to look into, oh, I’m going to need you know a completely different character set a double bite character set to put these things together and You know in some places you’re gonna have to change the complete layout of your content as it as it gets published because you know certain languages they go from right to left, not left to right, so that’s a completely different change and you know a lot of that you bake you hopefully are baking into the infrastructure that you are driving your content production with and not doing this by hand every time you need to send something out.

CC: Yeah, I can’t even imagine. Yeah, that would be a lot. Well, so for organizations that may not have adopted this single-sourcing approach yet, what are some factors? I mean, we’ve talked about a lot of them, but what are some either factors or like pain points or experiences they may be having that signal, hey, maybe it’s time to start thinking about this? How would you sum up those indicators?

BS: I think the biggest indicator is that you have a very overworked team of people who are spending their time on everything but their core job. So their core job should be producing content, developing content. It should not be formatting and reformatting content to produce it.

CC: Hmm. Yeah.

BS: You know, it certainly should not be copying and pasting content from one place to another and then making sure that any change to that copy and pasted content is reflected in the two or eight or 16 or 150 different places they pasted it into last time. You know, that’s a lot of busy work and you know, a lot of things that I hear, especially from small teams, is that they reach a point where they are so busy.

CC: Yeah.

BS: And making so little progress on new content development because they are spending all their time, you know, prepping for publishing, prepping for publishing, you know, prepping for publishing literally should be content is done. And that should be your prep for publishing. It shouldn’t be, okay, now let’s apply this template and let’s reformat everything. And now let’s send it off to the translator and oh, we got it back. Okay, now we have to reformat it so that it fits in this language because German is now, you know, eight pages instead of five. You know, it shouldn’t be fixing these things. Those are things that really should be handled automatically and, you know, allow the content developers to do what they were hired to do, which is develop the content.

CC: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, allow them to be able to do what not only you hire them to do, but I’m thinking that they’re more passionate about. That’s where their passion is. That’s why they’re here. I could see that being very discouraging if you’re passionate about the content and you spend almost all your time on formatting and other stuff. That sounds awful. And it would be discouraging. And I’m assuming leads to burnout, lead to, you know, high turnover.

BS: Yeah.

CC: Because you’re not getting to do what you want. You want to write content.

BS: True, although some people do thrive in that environment and they love that they love the fiddly bits, you know, and, you know, you’re not going to make them happy by taking that away. But then again, it’s like, you know, as you know, your company is growing, you’re producing more stuff, you need to produce more content, you need to do it quicker, you need to do it at a higher quality. You know, you’re you’re publishing at a higher volume, you’re adding more languages. You know, at that point, it’s like, do I keep that person happy?

CC: Oh, yeah.

BS: Or do I focus on what we need to get done?

CC: Yeah, fair. And maybe they can have some say or you can include them in what’s what the big vision is. But yeah, like you said, that you can’t always just make one person happy with the system. There’s all these other people that may also not be happy because of, you know, not having an efficient process and a way to pump out a lot of content at scale in a way that’s still quality.

BS: Mm-hmm.

CC: Still consistent. Yeah.

BS: Yeah, and there is a risk there as well because those who put together the DIY approach, they may love that. You know, I mean, that that’s something that they built from the ground up. That’s their baby, you know, and you’re taking their baby away. That can lead to some big problems. 

CC: Yeah, makes sense.

BS: You know, either you lose that person who has all the publishing knowledge, even though you may be transitioning away from that system, they kind of know how it was set up and they know they know where the I hate to use the analogy, but they know where the bodies are buried in their infrastructure, and what made it tick. And you don’t want to lose that knowledge. Instead, you want to try to hopefully work with them to stand up the new one and give them some governance over how that runs. That might be an approach. But it does get tricky.

CC: Yeah, it makes sense because at the end of the day, it’s still about people. The people that you’re working with, you wanna make sure that they’re, the people on the team that are creating the content, it’s still about them, it’s still about the people at the other end of the screen or book or whatever, whatever kind of content you’re writing. Yeah, it’s still about people and people are complicated. We are.

BS: That’s putting it lightly.

CC: Yeah, that’s my deep wisdom for the day. That’s what comes from five cups of coffee in the morning. And on that note, I think we have exhausted every part of this beverage analogy for single sourcing and content strategy, but it was really helpful even for me to hear. I mean, I knew some of this, but there was a lot of this that I hadn’t thought of in terms of something very tangible like drinking coffee or drinking beer. So thanks Bill for exploring this with me. I also just love talking about coffee anytime it’s possible. So yeah, it’s great.

BS: It was fun.

CC: Well, yeah, thank you so much for being here and 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.