Do you tune out when people talk about structured content? The conversations can get stunningly abstract. Stodgy even. And the way some people talk about structured content, it can come off as a miracle cure: Lower costs! Happier audiences! Efficiency! Accuracy! Consistency! Set your content free!
Hard to picture? Sound too good to be true?
Having worked with structured content as a technical writer (creating user manuals for medical devices), I’m here to tell you this approach can deliver on its promises. Yes, you must update your processes. Yes, you must determine what kind of structure makes sense for your content and your customers. Yes, you may need a new CMS and maybe even new team members.
And yes, you may look back and declare all those changes worth making.
In her Content Marketing World talk, Structuring Content for Dynamic Storytelling, content strategist Carrie Hane details what it means to set your content free by structuring it – and why marketers should care. In this post, I share some of her insights.
Structured content: A recap
As Carrie defines it, structured content is “information that is planned, developed, and connected outside of an interface.” It’s ready to be used in any interface with any style. It enables both people and machines to manipulate and consume content.
Rather than create content in a formatted blob, as shown in this typical blog-post entry screen …
… you create content in unformatted, labeled chunks that resemble fields on a form.
In Carrie’s structured example, the system recognizes the text string “Kristina Halvorson” as the name of a conference speaker. That chunk of content may appear in any number of places on the conference website, formatted independently each time. Same goes for all the other labeled chunks in this example: bio, session title, description, takeaways.
With structured content, those content chunks are like pieces in a Chinese tangram that can be configured in various ways. Imagine the text string “Kristina Halvorson” as a red square, her bio as a yellow circle, her session title as a green parallelogram. Those atoms of content can show up any number of places throughout a conference website, fitting into a different configuration each time.
This metaphor quickly reaches the breaking point – and it’s wonderful that it does. Tangrams are not single sourced. You can’t modify one red square (let’s say you want a white stripe down the middle) and have all the other red squares instantly reflect that change.
But with structured content, that’s exactly the kind of efficiency you get. If you need to update Kristina’s bio, you make the change once and the update appears instantly everywhere.
Another way structured content breaks the tangram metaphor is that, while tangram pieces have a fixed format (size, shape, and color), structured content is unformatted. Carrie calls this approach “resource before representation.” When you create structured content (the resource), you don’t concern yourself with the look and feel of the various outputs (representation).
If you think, ‘Oh, we need a web page on x,’ you’re thinking about representation first. If you think, ‘Our customers need a way to find out about x,’ you’re thinking about the resource first.
By structured content, we mean small content modules that are tagged for use by different devices, applications, or media types. Structured content is fast emerging as a necessity for content marketers.
Why would content marketers need structured content?
Structured content scales. It makes business sense. By getting content out of silos, Carrie says, this approach “reduces duplication of the effort and cost to create and publish content.”
Content marketer Henry Kogan identifies five benefits of structured content:
- Publishes to multiple platforms automatically
- Provides innovative ways to monetize
- Simplifies the translation process
- Enables readers to discover info more easily
- Enables content to adapt to the needs of the person consuming it
Example: Let’s say you have a collection of pieces of gated content – e-books, maybe. Imagine that each e-book includes a summary paragraph. If the e-book is structured, you can use each summary as a standalone chunk. You might post each summary on a web page as an ungated enticement to download the whole (gated) piece. You might also create a list of summaries of all your e-books. Those summaries could show up any number of places throughout your digital repository, always pulling from the same source, automatically formatted to fit each context.
The more you nod your head at the following questions, the more likely your company is to benefit from structured content:
- Do you need to give people access to your content the way they want it on whatever device they’re using without having to recreate it for each type of output (a web page, an app, a watch, Alexa, and so on)?
- Is your content translated into other languages?
- Could many of your topics be organized into template-like structures?
- Can you envision chunks of your content being reused in various outputs, mixed and matched, and single sourced so that any changes you make ripple automatically through your content set?
How structure sets your content free
Most content strategists, at least those who concern themselves with the CMS back end, eventually say something like this: Structure sets your content free.
Carrie is no exception. And no wonder. Structure liberates content from formatting and device-specific constraints. She makes this point with a Dr. Who reference:
You create flexibility by breaking content into chunks. Then it can travel through time and across space and wherever it needs to go, and it doesn’t even need a Tardis.
Structure enables the same bit of content to be delivered to your wrist (via a smartwatch), to your living room (via a chatbot like Alexa, Amazon Echo’s voice-driven assistant), or to anyplace else you choose to receive information via a nearly infinite number of channels and devices.
Where could your content go if it were that free?
Example in the wild: BBC Nature website
What symbolizes freedom more perfectly than a butterfly? Carrie chooses such a creature in giving us a peek into the BBC Nature website.
With a website as sprawling as this one, it’s easy to imagine a vast resource of nature-related content chunks – videos, photos, titles, descriptions, scientific names, and so on – that appear on any number of pages as needed, assembled dynamically in each moment of use.
For example, the Peacock butterfly page (shown below) includes most of the content chunks listed above, arranged the same way as all the pages in the wildlife collection. Notice that the letters in “Peacock butterfly” are white so that they stand out against the black background.
When you go to the mountain grassland page (shown below) and scroll down, you see the same photo and the title “Peacock butterfly.” In this case, the letters come up as green text on a white background.
When you go to the collection sensational summer wildlife (shown below), you find yet another content chunk related to the peacock butterfly: a video. Every page that mentions the peacock butterfly has autopopulated content pulled from a rich underlying structure for each topic in the repository.
What opportunities do you see for creating rich cross-references like those on the BBC Nature site – cross-references that would keep your viewers engaged in your site longer and maybe even make your content more bingeable?
While structured content has, for decades, proven its value in technical documentation, many marketers are now awakening to the potential it has for their content.
If you’re already structuring your content, what lessons have you learned? How have your audiences – and your company – benefited from your content being set free by structure?
If you’re not structuring your content, what’s holding you back? What would you like to hear about in future posts that would help you see the value of this approach for your team?
Here’s an excerpt from Carrie’s talk:
Get more serious about educating yourself on structured content and the many opportunities it presents for your content marketing program. Attend Intelligent Content Conference March 20-22 in Las Vegas. And join us at Content Marketing World this September.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute