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An Interview on the Marketing Cheat Codes for Creating a More Intelligent World

Ed Breault
I think an amazing and extremely important topic, intelligent content. We'll talk about that a little bit here. But for folks, could you give us a little bit more background on you and sort of your career arc a little bit?

Cruce Saunders
Yeah, sure. So, you know, briefly, I've been doing content and technology for coming on 30 years, really long time and, and really started in the early days where we were kind of building websites to optimize for something called links, which was a text-based browser. And the gui was, was still on the horizon when, when Netscape came out and the graphical user interface was, was first introduced, I was, I was, you know, scratching my head at why, why, why would we want to do something where, you know, we would limit the ability to get to all the words as quickly as possible.

You know, like it's really interested in throughput of user knowledge interaction through hypertext and over time, just started getting into developing websites for bigger and bigger companies and then started building content management systems and then became an interactive agency and then realized that we're really, really focused on this one part of the content lifecycle which really dealt with how content got into CMS’s --

Ed Breault
Yeah.

Cruce Saunders
So that became content engineering and started a company called Simple A, just to focus on that on, on engineering content for different channels and systems.

And so, the last ten years I’ve spent working with some of the largest businesses in the world and all their content sets which are often, you know, when we first encounter them kind of a mess. So, we helped to organize that and get it out to channels and get it moving through departments and, and from place to place through a supply chain.

Ed Breault
That's awesome. Yeah. So clearly an early pioneer in this world that we're in right now and I was actually doing some research on some topics, you know, related to content supply chains, composable content operations, and you were writing about the stuff that's like super topical now, like five plus years ago. We, I was doing some research and this is, you wrote this in ‘18, but it was, everything about it was like, so like future forward, like you've been covering these topics well before anybody else has. What really, so you got your start but then what inspired you to create [A] and really say this is this is going to be my focus forward.

Cruce Saunders
You know, I'm passionate about knowledge connecting between humans as efficiently as possible, and the way we currently do it where everything is in documents is just not fundamentally efficient @mrcruce Like, web pages are kind of anachronistic, right? They're the idea that we build a web page and then publish it. And it's the same thing for everybody that sees it forever and ever until it just kind of dies because it's so old, you know, that that is not making sense when we're dealing with chat bots and we're dealing with mobile applications and we're starting to deal with more three-dimensional environments, augmented reality. We're starting to have other ways that we deal with content, watches and medical applications and devices. All of these things are content interactions, and they all really need to work together as part of one symphony.

And I've just been passionate about getting that symphony working so that it all is coherent there's something about me that just wants to see the world interoperate more coherently, work well, better together. People be able to communicate their ideas more efficiently and effectively, help their customers without all the frustration that's involved in a lot of web experiences and the digging right, and just kind of creating better and better, more intelligent experiences and ultimately a more intelligent world.

Ed Breault
I love that. I like the word to use there, too, symphony, which is like this, this idea of the coming together of experiences through like a composability that you know, is it's very much required that, just the tech, the content, the people all around it. So, I really want to unpack that. I feel like there's a cheat code in there.

This concept of symphonic content or experiences, composability and then getting into some of the how you go about actually activating, implementing some of these concepts. And so when you work with, so what does your, when you work with clients, when you work with brands, you work with some amazing brands, what does your approach look like?

Where do you start with your brand patients, so to speak, and get to understand their, you know, the diagnostics, if you will, what their objectives are, what does your message look like?

Cruce Saunders
Well, usually we start at some level with the customer journey, because we're working to serve customer needs at the end of the day. We don't want to work on content plumbing without understanding what is the fountain we want to create at the end of the plumbing, right? So, we really kind of want to build an understanding of what are the experiences that the organization is working toward today.

You know, what's the actual shippable production environment today? What, what do those experiences need to look like in the future, right? And so for a lot of organizations, they're moving towards something. Personalization, some form of composability, which is essentially I need all my departments to be able to create things on the fly. I can't wait for IT to kind of work through the process of shipping a webpage, right?

Like I need to I need to have components that are reusable and remixable by my departments, right? And or they're moving towards some kind of intelligent experience for customers, which means, you know, like, hey, like I'm a medical device company and now I want the, the based on a blood test, I want, you know, an immediate set of content to help that patient through the next steps in their process.

Or I'm a fintech company and I want somebody to be able to call up and us to know that they're on step five of, of eight in a chargeback process and pick them up right there and help them complete because of how we're interacting between call center and web and mobile. And so all of that, that symphony of outcomes is kind of the basis.

And then we work back to the patterns, and we try to understand what are the content models and what are the semantic models that support those experiences. So, what are the words like the taxonomies and how those need to get tagged across our assets and what are the content structures that support these experiences? And then we help our clients really develop a set of sheet music that all their teams can work against.

And then in some cases, we actually build those orchestration functions with the client.

Ed Breault
And so, for some folks may have, are hearing the terms content models, semantic models. Can you describe those a little bit and how they, why they're different and why they're important.

Cruce Saunders
Sure. So, standardization, I think, is really a cheat code, right? It's like if we all were running a city, wouldn't it be crazy if every part of the city just did its own electricity, right? Like just, you know, had to have its own power plant, had to do its own, you know, like power generation. And none of the plugs from one part of the city to the other part of the city would work together because everybody's doing their own thing.

But that's how we treat content today. There's no standardization between different content technology. Everybody's building their own thing in their own little silo @mrcruce And so, the cheat code is, hey, look, I need to be able to get electricity working across the city. We're going to set up a standard for how electricity works, right? And we're going to set a standard for what plugs look like and how they interoperate.

And then we're going to set up some kind of regulation so that, you know, we don't blow up houses and burn down burn down playgrounds and stuff. We need we need to make sure that we're interoperating and it's safe, so there's some kind of standard process for it. So, content models are basically like, what are the rules of the road for how our content is going to work between our CMS and our PIM and our product information management system and our E-commerce system and our watch and our chat bot, and can we get those all mapped so that they can actually function together and can we provide a little bit of orchestration so that it's not just the individual departments making it up, but they have the ability to kind of, you know, do their own thing out of the pieces and the parts that we all agree to share. So, we want to empower the creators, but we also want to make sure that the parts they're creating are able to work together across the technology. Does that make sense?

Ed Breault
Oh, absolutely. And so, that code on standardization, so now you're working you mentioned the various systems, PIM, there's Digital Asset Management in there as well, CMS, potentially multiple CMS systems, the systems, the plumbing, the standardization piece now, what are some of those impediments, like, that's definitely where you want to get to, but there's always like the challenges you need to work through to make that happen for an org. What do you typically see are the things that are in the way and or you need some change management associated with getting to standard, getting to some levels of commonality for it to actually work efficiently?

Cruce Saunders
Yeah, I know the biggest one is nobody's responsible for it, right? But the biggest one is that everybody sees the problem, but nobody's empowered to solve it systemically, right? Because they're all in their different parts of the city and they’re nobody there's no city governance, right? And so, there's nobody saying, let's come up with let's come up with a standard way to do this or a national electrical grid or whatever.

There's no there's no zoom out look at how content is done. And so, the thing that we look to do is start in one part and create coherence within one department at the very least, and or one system of record at the very least. So, we create a content model for the DXP or for the DAM. But then after that, we then look at how can this content model start to live a life that’s shared with its friends, right?

Because the DSP and the DAM have to work together, so they probably need to share field structures, right? And so, like, content needs to be able to live in both places, so there needs to be logical architectures that will support that. So, we get those two teams together and talking and we start to build a common conversation, and then the coherence between knowledge starts to grow. In our ideal environment, however, somebody at the C-level or somebody at a senior level within a portfolio of content says we need to look at this thing as a portfolio and start to orchestrate it. We need it to not be broken in all these places and everybody doing their own ad hoc thing, right, it becomes an ad hocracy.

And so instead of an ad hocracy, we really want an orchestration, right? So that's what we're working towards is finding those sponsors who can actually affect portfolio level change.

Ed Breault
Yeah, you need it at the portfolio level, which is what you're saying in order to go. But then like the business case for change, I'm sure you get brought in on the we know we've got a problem, we know we've got 15 different types of electricity that's being created here. We need to get to a standard that the business case in order to initiate the change to get it to be portfolio level, what are some of the, I'll call it, you know, the strategic relevance of the change and or the impactful business metric movers that has the potential for an organization to get chartered at the level for it to work.

Cruce Saunders
Yeah, I mean, ultimately it comes down to business capability. It's what can we execute as a strategy? If we don't have the ability to compose various kinds of digital experiences within multiple parts of our business, they're always going to operate in a disorganized, dysfunctional way @mrcruce that doesn't allow us to have market level strategies that implement cross-functional customer experiences, because everybody's going to do their own thing.

So if, for example, we decide we want to grow customer share of wallet by after they're already a customer, introducing a cross-selling additional, you know, software product into their support experience for example, they log into their support portal and they've got material for marketing showing up there. Well, that kind of interaction is not even possible.

And that can grow like in the millions of dollars revenue through introducing cross-selling. So that's just one tiny example. There's any number of multichannel and omnichannel market strategies which cannot just physically cannot be executed because there's not enough people to copy and paste fast enough into enough systems. And then everything breaks anyway because it's all a disorganized mess.

So somebody needs to be able to say, look, I want my portfolio to, I want a return on my content assets. I want to return all the investment I'm making in my customer experience, you know, development so that it can happen in more places. And it can be more and more personalized, and it can drive more business outcomes.

And in order to do that, I'm going to invest in content at a portfolio level. And that really looks like developing a content services organization of some kind. We see these things called different things in different enterprises, but they're being sponsored today. And it's essentially someone responsible for looking at the whole thing and having a little team that is able to effect change and empower the content producing groups in place and get them working together against a common content orchestration model, a common content supply chain, content model and semantic model.

Here's what we're going to call things. Here's how we're going to organize stuff. Here's the kind of systems we're going to use and how we're going to agree that content gets placed from place to place. We're going to make it a service-oriented architecture. This is already happening in data. That's the other like cheat code, right? It's like, just look at what they're doing in data.

Like, you know, it's, it's almost like I feel like I'm revealing a secret because, you know, how do I know? How do I look out five years in the future, ten years in the future? A lot of times it's just what the data folks are doing. Right? Like they're already, they're already building data links. They're already making federated data, standardized data calls across an enterprise.

Why aren't we doing this with content yet? 

Ed Breault
I love that. There was, I have a little bit of background in like advanced analytics, we call it. And then that term big data came out, if you remember, that was like super hypey there for a while. And it was like the four V's of data volume, variety, velocity, veracity, and I say just apply that same concept to content, and it's now like big content, volume of content, variety, velocity, veracity of content.

It really is like, the folks with data were like the leading indicator capabilities of what we now need to do with data, with content. I couldn't agree with that with that anymore. Now it's like, what are they still doing, how can we apply that even further forward with content?

Cruce Saunders
Yeah, and content is harder, right? Like people, content is harder than data and it is more special, right? Because you’re, you know, many organizations have in-house studios, external agencies, a lot of creative people who are producing customer experiences that don't currently have any kind of standard they're working against. So, there's a culture shift involved in that, that is harder, I believe, than in data.

But it's happening, and it needs to happen, but we don't need to tie them down. We need to empower them with a common set of ingredients and patterns to work with.

Ed Breault
Yeah. No, I love that. I'd like to keep that sort of content now follows some of what data was doing in this idea. Like some other concepts in here around like we decouple data, right? We would normalize data, we would get data down to it's like most like unique usable component for identification purposes. And so now this idea of like modular content or to create the composable experience, that symphony, so now comes in getting content down to its smallest, most reusable block and or level.

When you work with orgs on like the concept of modular content or atomization of content, how do you get them to start to bring on an approach like that or a strategy in the very like early stages of content creation and or know you've got the final content experience done, how do you then sort of backtrack and or store it, you know, decompose it back, if you will?

So modular content. What are your what's your take on modular content?

Cruce Saunders
Yeah. So back, back ten years ago, we had to really, really, really work hard to convince people that content needed to be modular, right? Because everything is you know, a web page with a title.

Ed Breault
Deliver right now, like I don't care. I'm not doing all that like that proper storage and or I just need to get this thing in market right.

Cruce Saunders
You need to get it to market, and really, I'm just going to do whatever, you know, ship default with the CMS. And a lot of times that's because people used to believe that schemas were just sort of like inherited from their software. Right? And so, meaning like my content structure is what my vendor tells me that it is.

And, and so it's like, whatever ships with WordPress, that's my website, right, right. And so, and that, but that, that was the mindset. And, and now we realize especially at the enterprise level, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. We own our content model. We own our schema, and our vendors need to work with it, right? Like, that's like we need our technology to reflect our business.

We don't want our business to just like dictate our, we don't want the technology to dictate our business. And so that, that kind of ownership of the models is really taking shape and all the technology is moved towards content as a service. So nowadays we don't have to convince anybody. I mean, we haven't had the conversation about we need modular content in a long time.

Actually, it's been at least a couple of years because most of our clients at this point recognize modularity is important. Now they're figure, now they're trying to figure out how do we get into headless, how do we convert our content from this monolith? How do we get our content working well across different types? How do we get our content out to schema.org or to other ways where content can be discovered by Google, right?

And so, there's a lot of like forms of structure that now need to come together. And so, you know, really what we work on is building that content model, that's why we call it a core content model. It's the one that the company owns, and that the technology might have its own version of it in each platform.

But there's one representation of what content looks like in our company, right? And all the versions of that. And then we and then we map it to different to different systems. And it's that kind of ability to look at content as interoperable between systems that really, that's the part where we're really needing to work with companies on because that's a new idea.

You know, and, and in order to get them there from, from monolithic content or page-based content to structured components, usually the thing we need to do is start looking at all the different omni channel outputs that are needed in order to, to, to work with that same content. So, if I have a recipe, let's say, and I'm a work with a big grocery chain and they're, we’re getting into recipes, right?

And so, in a big way--

Ed Breault
Yeah.

Cruce Saunders
So they don't want to just have recipes on the website. They want them on the mobile application and ultimately, they want to be able to talk to the recipe, right? Have Alexa skills, you know, and say, oh, order that. Right? So that that's a huge top line revenue increase, right? Because now I've got I'm using content as a way to drive incremental purchases in my stores and in my delivery system, right?

So that's cool as a business outcome. But now I need to get my content into that shape that will allow it to live in all of those. So it starts with that compelling business need. And then we take a look at the page-based content, we break it down into what does it need to look like in Alexa, what does it need to look like in the website?

What does it need to look like in the email? And we and we look at those exemplars, or example content pieces and we analyze the structure and then we create a component structure from there. And then we figure out how to get authors into that component structure without making their lives painful. And then that's the part where we connect the content model into the authoring systems and into that into the technology.

Ed Breault
Yeah. And it sounds like it's a very, let me know what you think about like this statement, which is the content model that's created for a brand or organization is very unique to that brand organization. Would you agree with that or is there in it takes time and it ends up being one of its I'll call it strategic differentiators of how it creates experience.

Is it, for these brands, is it extremely unique and or based on, we actually had a previous guest, Marla Watson on and she was talking about how, because she's worked with companies like TMZ and she's worked with companies like Zillow, which are sort of wildly different. And she talked about how they were very different in terms of things like metadata models, taxonomy. With the content model, it's like you got to build what's right for you, the organization, the company. Would you agree with that or how would you play on the uniqueness of it being a strategic differentiator?

Cruce Saunders
You know, that's one of the reasons clients like working with us is because we can often shortcut the process to getting to that model by like 60, 70%. Because even though models are variant by organization, by industry, there's a whole lot of commonality when you look at things in primitives and you look at things in conceptual norms like topic, concept and reference @mrcruce

So you've got these different--

Ed Breault
Yeah.

Cruce Saunders
These different building blocks that are a lot more efficient than recreating the wheel for every content type. Right? And so it is absolutely true that everybody has different elements they need within their content types, different attributes they need on their element. So there does need to be variation but a lot of times there's some good best practices to start with, and we like to introduce those best practices.

We adapt to an organizations on the ground, technology in the way that their field structures have been running for the last 20 years, but, or 50 years. 

Ed Breault
Yeah. 

Cruce Saunders
But we do, we do we do find that there are some really good shared best practices that help to smooth content in our operation, not just within companies but between companies and their partners.

Ed Breault
Yeah, that's good. Yeah. So it's a healthy balance of best practices across industry, maybe within industry standards, but then also finding some that, what's unique to the org where it would make sense. And then, so--

Cruce Saunders
By the way, it's a cheat code kind of thing. Just check out schema.org because--

Ed Breault
Yeah.

Cruce Saunders
If you, if you just look at schema.org, they're like, there's content models out there to pick from that a lot of people have thought through. And so for example, the recipe example we talked about, whenever we build a recipe content model, we don't do it from the ground up.

We look at schema.org as a starting point, right? So this is you can, you can do this at home. You know, it's, it's pretty straightforward to take a look at some of the standards that people already have out there for content structures. But I do believe there's a lot of maturity the industry still has to go in this in this general area of sharing content models.

Ed Breault
Yeah, that's awesome. We'll definitely we'll put some links in there in the show notes to get to schema.org for folks. Now the future, I like, you've been writing about our future a long time ago are our current state a long time ago. So in some ways you're a futurist of sorts, like trends where things are going in the world of, we'll call it composable content supply chains or just this idea of content supply chains, you know, we're working on the composability piece right now, but where is it going, you hit on this a little bit earlier. 

You were talking about what we're now talking about, but where is this all going? Like, what's the next evolution in this supply chain of content that brands should be thinking about in the, you know, you mentioned headless in there as well.

What's the, what do we need to be prepared for? Like what's coming down the line next? I mean, logically, where do things go after where we are right now?

Cruce Saunders
It's exciting. It's very exciting. So, we're in a place now where we're already managing lots of content out to lots of different endpoints, and many organizations are doing that with content as a service, right, which is really getting content out to an API endpoint where it can be accessed for different presentations, right? And that, that composable back office that also on the on the supply chain really needs to be part of the way we create the future, because we need full content supply chain parity for content models and for semantic models. Things get smart with the semantic side, and we didn't talk about it too much, but that's where we tag our content with different, you know, words that we agree are representing a particular topic that our client might be interested in, or a customer, our user. We also do that based on their intent, what kind of intent we're trying to accomplish. And when we put a semantic set of tags on there, we have common structure, common semantics across the whole content supply chain, we open up a whole world, whole world of possibilities. 

And that possibilities include ways we can use that content in not only multiple experiences that we can see today, but many of the experiences that are coming tomorrow. And for many of our clients that is starting with the Internet of Things, where content experiences are happening in things that don't look like computers or even mobile phones, right? 

They look like refrigerators ordering things from the grocery store, or from my fridge because it's gone, it’s missing, or they look like they look like experiences with medical devices or with telemetry within a physical environment. They look like a lot of metaverse or other sort of AR and VR simulated environments. We don't have a lot of clients going there yet, but because some clients are still working on like, hey, we're just digging ourselves out of like bookshelves, right?

Like, you know--

That's the reality. Like we go into some enterprises where it's like literally like one of our content sources is like the basement where we have like the library, you know, so and we've seen all different levels of maturity, so somebody doesn't have to be leaning way into the future in order to employ content intelligence. But it does help to be thinking about the fact that we're going to have N outputs, right?

Which, you know, N number of customer experiences that will be innovated out of our content sets. And we need to be starting to prepare our enterprise to deliver to a flexible future because the most flexible enterprises win every time @mrcruce It's not it's that it's the most flexible, adaptable enterprises. You look at Amazon--

Ed Breault
Yeah. 

Cruce Saunders
They have the ability to query any of their product lines in any of their content sets semantically from any other place so they can cross sell no matter who spins up a new business line or, or deepens the business line into different geography, they're able to pull the whole thing together with microservices.

And that was that was an architectural decision they made early on that allowed them to just dominate the future with flexible market strategy, right? Whatever market strategy, their brand managers come up with, their country managers come up with, they can execute. And that's what we have to do with our content because we're going to be embracing a world that is changing even faster than the last decade. So, you know --

Ed Breault
Absolutely.

Cruce Saunders
Being able to embrace the unknown, I think, is one of the biggest future forward capacities we have @mrcruce

Ed Breault
That's awesome.

Looking at that crystal ball, but that crystal ball, it's like it's going to be here, anything in it, like so much faster. The acceleration of the future, which is what you're hitting on. Well, Cruce, this was, this was fantastic. Where can folks go to learn more about you? You put a ton of like literally if you just Google to right now, you show up everywhere with everything.

But where can folks go to consume your content, your work product, more of your thought leadership, definitely want to send them there.

Cruce Saunders
Yeah. So, check out simplea.com. Just the word simple and A.com. And then also we have a YouTube series called The Invisible World of Content where we break down some of these concepts into short videos and episodes with graphics and whatnot.

Ed Breault
I’ve seen that. You look like you're in the future, like you're in some sort of verse metaverse or virtual world. You're like in your content. It's so cool.

Cruce Saunders
Yeah. No, we really want to, you know, immerse in it and then we have a podcast called Towards a Smarter World as well. So those are those are three places and I'm on Twitter and LinkedIn. Feel free to reach out and you know, and really just engage in the conversation because this, this world is evolving and all of us are the ones that are making content more coherent, more interrelated, more able to talk between technologies and create customer experiences because of the practices we employ.

So, let's get conscious about those. Let's get collaborative, and let's make it a smarter world.

Ed Breault
Awesome. Cruce, thanks for coming on the show. Thanks for dropping the cheat codes and we'll find you in the virtual world and probably a physical stage here, in the near future as well.

Cruce Saunders
Awesome Ed. This was great. Great to talk to you.

Ed Breault
Thank you.

Authorship

Ed Breault leads a team of marketing strategists and thought leaders who partner with top enterprise brands to navigate complexity, disruption, transformation, and change to the modern marketing organization.
 


Cruce Saunders is the founder and principal at [A] and author of Content Engineering for a Multi-Channel World. He regularly speaks on omnichannel customer experience, content intelligence, AI, chatbots, personalization, content structural and semantic standards, and intelligence transformation. He also hosts the Towards a Smarter World podcast, where he connects with leaders impacting global intelligence.

This transcript is an exerpt from the Marketing Cheat Codes Podcast episode 20, produced by Aprimo. Listen to the interview here.