There’s a lot of talk about personalization these days. What most conversations skip are the foundational content engineering elements, which will enable the content to be personalized.
 
Over the last 20 years working with enterprise content within large agencies, as a solo consultant, and deep in the trenches within Fortune 50 companies, I am now convinced the only viable path to personalization involves building a strong practice of content engineering.
 
Let me take you on a journey of how my thinking has evolved over the years.

Discovering the Magic of XML for Personalization

I’ll never forget the first time I was exposed to XML. In the late 1990s I was working as an Information Architect/Content Analyst for an agency that specialized in intranets for Fortune 500 companies. The project was related to creating a good customer experience for employees who used the intranet for HR related information. With the magic of XML, we could provide personalized information about health benefits for more than 50,000 employees based upon their role, department, and location. It’s memorable because, at the time, it was so new, and the potential was mind-blowing.
 
When I was on the agency side, working at the top New York agencies as a Content Strategist, the role was mostly limited to thinking about marketing content for large corporate clients. Along with the team of content strategists I managed, we spent much of our time in spreadsheets auditing content and creating content matrices to organize content. I remember trying to introduce the idea of creating a content model, tagging for personalization, and structuring the content for reuse. No way. Applying content engineering and best practices in an agency environment was not only unwelcome, but frankly not understood. We were tasked to only “do content strategy.” Doing anything besides marketing and copywriting was out of scope, and certainly not included in the client’s budget. Even when my suggestions would have ultimately saved the client time, resources, and budget – there wasn’t even an opportunity to pitch it. I finally decided to accept a full time opportunity on the client side – a chance I thought to make a bigger difference.

Working inside a giant content-driven enterprise

Fast forward 20 years after my first exposure to the personalization offered by XML, this time working on staff at a complex 100k+ person company. I was recruited to be the “changemaker” who could come up with solving how to manage over 40,000 pages of support content. Front and center was the challenge of how to fix a myriad of content problems. And, wow, the problems were huge. 
 
Challenges included:
  • Content issues: Format, repetitiveness, limited personalization, an ever-growing amount of content
  • Technical issues: Two separate, incompatible CMS systems; lack of structure; lack of tagging; lack of search optimization; inability to publish relevant content across platforms to their web, app, and chatbot – aka omnichannel publishing.
  • Organizational issues: Separate departments that “own” the content; territorialism; lack of will or interest in seeking viable solutions that go beyond “business as usual”; fear of change that may bring risk to their annual performance review and associated bonus
 

A viable solution within reach, which would have taken the organization from crawl, to walk, to run stage within two years, included everything from creating a taxonomy, to consideration of adding a CaaS platform. For this company and other large organizations, the investment needed to put a working content engineering plan, with content reuse in place, would have cost pennies on the dollar. 

The Value of Content Reuse 

In addition to the hard and soft savings in time and resources, implementation of foundational elements, new processes, and approaches bring an improved customer experience, increase Net-Promoter-Scores (NPS), and prevent churn, which are worth gold in today’s customer-centric business world. According to a 2018 Forrester report:

The average Fortune 500 company is spending millions of dollars in waste on content operations: teams are weighed down with inefficient workflows, manual workarounds are still failing to deliver a next generation customer experience, and things continue to get worse as content volume expands.

In Mark Lewis’ book DITA Metrics 101, he lays out cost models based upon comparing various scenarios from using simple topics to more complex projects that use filtering, structured authoring, content reuse, and multiple translations. By defining the cost basis for each unit and then comparing costs of traditional publishing versus DITA or content reuse, the models prove significant savings are possible. 
 
Because so many processes are tied to other processes, the savings can have a compound effect. For example, content reuse during the content development process results in savings that cascade in the publishing and translation processes.

Building Blocks

Based upon my experience working in an assortment of environments, here are the ingredients that will help any organization build a strong foundation for managing complex and ever-growing content challenges: 
 
  1.  Shared Taxonomy
Why? Having an official taxonomy helps everyone from writers to IT understand the hierarchy of topics. The nodes would include not only information for Sales related to products and accessories, but can also be used to inform the organization of related Service and Support content. 
 
A shared taxonomy is the only way we can share the relevant tasks, product hierarchy, features, time and place in the user journey, and all the other facets which align content with specific user intents.
 
How? One builds a taxonomy to support personalization use cases to help inform the relationship of topics to users and where that content may be most useful in the customer journey. Using an example for child nutrition based upon a ‘mad-libs’ approach, the taxonomy would include breaking down, Moms, Age of infant, Product type; and Product Features:
 
“As a new mom, I’m looking for the right formula to feed my newborn infant.
 

The best way to get a complicated taxonomy done for a brand with lots of products and use cases is to hire a taxonomist. Having an expert with the experience to put into place a taxonomy that will have the biggest bang for the buck will not only save time, but help avoid politics. 
 

Building a shared taxonomy requires lots of input from various stakeholders and subject-matter experts. Don’t try to boil the ocean. Think about what will have the most impact on ROI. For example, in my last endeavor, I recommended that the taxonomy not include products, but relate more to the topics and terminology for service and support content. 
 
I’m also a big fan of using software. For large sites, there is no way to govern or maintain a spreadsheet with hundreds of thousands of terms and ontological relationships.
 
  1. Semantic Tagging
Why? Tagging content based upon meaning enables bots to do their job and serve the right content to the right person at the right time. Semantic tagging enables the dynamic presentation of content that is defined by rules and logic. 
 
How? Semantic tagging hinges upon the taxonomy you create, which defines the:
  • Audience
  • Topic
  • Subtopic
  • Intended use
  • More !
In addition, many people use schema.org for structured data available to search engines. Developed by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Yandex, Schema.org uses an open process based upon community input to keep microtagging vocabularies relevant and to meet the needs of the wider developer community. 
 
  1. Content Reuse 
Why? As mentioned previously, the financial savings of content reuse is both the production costs of creating and maintaining the content across platforms and with each translation. But the other benefit is that with consistency in messaging and information, regardless of where your customers are, is increased trust. 
 
In particular, having a content reuse strategy in place is particularly relevant when it comes to support or technical content. When you think of support content for a telecom, how many ways can you give instructions to find wifi, add a contact to an address book, or even activate a device? With content reuse, rather than having hundreds of files for one topic, one can have one file with exceptions that address unique requirements, thereby making it easier to update and publish.
 
How? Create a process that enables content reuse, structure, and improved efficiency in the creation, maintenance and publication of omnichannel content. By “chunking up” content so that there is more interoperability between systems and platforms the opportunity and benefits of content reuse increases exponentially. Work towards structural models, like the [A] ‘Master Content Model’, that allows efficiency in writing and content interoperability by using a common standard, enabling re-use through modular components. These internal structure standards can be informed public standards such as DITA and schema.org.
 
  1. Structured Content 
Why? For omnichannel to work having in place the technology as well as strategy to implement content reuse not only saves time and resources, but helps ensure consistency. Clear structure provides the scaffolding and is directive for writers, giving them all of the advantages of form-based writing. Structure helps authors focus, and cuts out anything not immediately relevant to the topic.
 
Structured content is also future-proof. As the market continues to rapidly create new unknown devices, platforms, and channels, the only way to enable content to remain accessible is by separating the content from format. When embedded in HTML, content is locked into format
 
How? At the heart of structured content are components, which can be reused across multiple platforms and/or channels. Through the use of a component content management system (CCMS), content is separate from format, so it can look proper regardless of the output. Created as smaller chunks, these modules are also free from being tied to one long document so can be used individually or combined as needed to fit difference use cases. 
 
 
  1. Content-as-a-Service (CaaS)
Why? Sometimes it just doesn’t make sense to force a working group to change the system they are using for content creation. In this case, AEM was the primary CMS for public facing content, however other departments were using another CMS specific to the needs of internal agents and reps, which was not compatible. Each system had benefits, but neither had content models or consistency in the way the content itself was structured. In today’s omnichannel world, having one content model (e.g. the [A] Master Content Model) applied across disparate content, as well as empowering multiple teams access to work on the content either together or independently, makes it possible to work together. Then, making that unified content available via API gives us an ability to not only personalize the content, but provide an enhanced customer experience.
 
How? Although we hear a lot about “one source of truth,” in reality that is usually not viable in large enterprises. That said, what is not only doable, but critical is creating content models that can be shared across systems. Any headless platform, including AEM, that uses APIs can participate in a shared CaaS environment. The benefit being the seamless integration of content, which benefits workflow, content creation, and best of all, the ability to publish across platforms, channels, and print. 
 
  1. Content Operations & Governance
Why? Content operations is an emerging function in corporate organizations, and still rarely understood. The purpose is to have staff with subject matter expertise in all of the things related to the production of content, such as taxonomists, information architects, content strategists and content engineers. As Rahel Bailie explains, the working definition of ContentOps is: 
 
A set of principles that results in methodologies intended to optimise production of content, and allow organisations to scale their operations, while ensuring high quality in a continuous delivery pipeline, to allow for the leveraging of content as business assets to meet intended goals. 
 
Another benefit of having a content ops group is that it can be the perfect vehicle for providing content governance. Especially in large organizations, it’s often more like the wild west, where rules or guidelines are either not even known about or not adhered to outside of that siloed unit. 
 
Having a centralized group that can apply manual labor, automation, and software to ensure observance of guidelines has multiple benefits:
  • Faster content creation and time to market
  • Ability to create content at scale
  • Improved quality
  • Greater consistency in tone, voice, terminology, and information
  • Reduced legal risks 
  • Greater adherence to branding and regulations
  • Improved customer experience due to personalization strategy
  • Automation and a move towards AI
 
How? Develop a team with expertise in taxonomy, tagging, content reuse, DITA, and information architecture. Consider software like Acrolinx, which works like a virtual editor, applying the governance and rules defined by Content Ops to any writer in the company who has the software installed on their computer. 
 
As Lisa Welchman explains in “Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design”, organizations have a better chance in realizing a return on their digital investment by practicing the discipline of digital governance. This includes addressing strategy, policies, and standards. It involves everything from adding efficiency to content workflows, to creating content strategy and editorial guidelines, taxonomies, and archiving standards. 

Lessons Learned

The change plan is still very much a work in progress. Big changes in enterprise content lifecycles takes big effort over long periods of time. And, change is hard. What I experienced isn’t that unique due to the realities of corporate culture. Until we can address both the rational, as well as emotional reasons behind the resistance to change, the benefits that content engineering promises will remain an ideal discussed in conferences, written in books read by content engineering and content strategy insiders, and ignored by corporate decision makers. 
 
Companies working on transformation of content processes and systems need to address:
 
  • Silos
  • Territorialism
  • Fear
  • Lack of knowledge
  • Constant reorganizations
  • Lack of accountability
 
Without a commitment to making the necessary changes in process, roles, and technology, progress towards addressing ever-mounting content challenges, at best will remain an uncertainty, and at worst a growing burden. Without a real change in the mindset of executives in prioritizing the importance of foundational changes and need for content content engineering best-practices, creating ideal personalized, customer experiences will continue to be a white whale.