How to Create Good Content
(Episode 1 of 2 with Scott Abel)
Scott Abel is known as the “Content Wrangler.” He is a content strategist who helps companies improve the way they author, maintain, and deliver information to those who need it. He co-authored Intelligent Content: A Primer and The Language of Content Strategy. He’s also the creator of the Content Strategy Series of books from XML Press. Brand Quarterly Magazine ranked Scott as one of the 50 most influential marketing thought leaders.
In today’s episode, we’ll discuss why we need to plan and organize our content so that computers can understand it and we can access our content whenever we need it.
Treat Content as a Business Asset
Scott is passionate about respecting content, or information that organizations produce, as a business asset and treating it as such. If we called the department in charge of managing our money, it would be unacceptable if they said, “Yeah, don’t worry. You probably have some money in there. We don’t know how much because Betsy, who used to work here, used to manage all that. We’re not really sure how she did it, so we can’t find your balance.”
It would also be unacceptable if we called the department that manufactures our products and asked how many components we have to make our product, and they said they didn’t know or they couldn’t find them.
But this kind of thing happens with content all the time, and somehow it’s okay. People create content and put it all over our internal networks, in folders in their desktop, in the land and the local area network, inside of content management systems, and sometimes on personal devices that they bring to work.
“It’s this fragmented existence of content,” Scott said. “It’s like a big content hairball. You cannot command it. Organizations should be able to do anything they need to do at any moment in time with the information they produce. In order to do that, they have to build a system that anticipates that that’s the capability they need, and they don’t often realize it until it’s way too late.”
Our content needs to be organized in a way that modern machines can process it and deliver it to people. We should be able to reach people at scale in multiple languages and timezones. We can’t grow if our content isn’t organized so that machines can’t do that. “It’s really about how to use your content and the money that you spend to produce it in the most effective and efficient ways,” Scott said.
Write for People and Machines
Scott would often watch a company’s presentation, listen to them say how amazing their content was, and then he’d ask, “What happens if you wake up one day and it’s all gone? Last year, hackers got all your passwords. What happens if they get in again and erase everything?”
Most companies don’t have a plan for that or for their content in general. Writing is thought of as art, a creative process, so there’s often no plan for it. We think, “We write for our customers. We can’t plan that. It has to come to us.” Having a plan doesn’t mean we can’t write for our audience, but it is no longer sufficient for that to be our only plan.
“We really need to have a rationale, a plan for every single piece of content. If you’re going to invest in paying somebody to curate or create content, you should be able to track and govern it. You should be able to prove the return on investment for every single piece, and you should be able to deploy it at any minute whatsoever,” Scott said.
We shouldn’t have to get approval from some committee or take 10 steps to deploy it. Companies that grow exponentially don’t have any of that in the way. They strip all the unnecessary steps out of the way, and they follow more disciplined scientific approaches to information management. That’s why they can scale so quickly, hurdle the existing players, and disrupt the market because they think it through and they are able to deliver information quickly or automatically.
Uber has a content strategy, which is why it’s all automated and structured. There’s content engineering that engineers and choreographs the information so it goes back and forth between devices, and then the device delivers the content to the person.This means that we need to write machine processable content, because it hits the machine first.
This doesn’t mean we can’t write for humans, but we need to keep in mind that our content is going to be delivered by some machine first. In order to do content effectively and take advantage of technology, we can’t write like we used to.
For example, recipes often contain the whole background on how someone’s grandma created the recipe, but people often just want the recipe. This doesn’t mean we can’t tell stories along the way, but we have to know what our audience wants and segment it for them accordingly.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution
Scott said that the greatest tectonic shift right now is actually the fourth industrial revolution. During human history we’ve had four industrial revolutions that have changed the world. One of these was the steam powered engine, which made locomotion and trains possible.This created neighborhoods in places where there were no people. It also made transportation of goods and people possible, and suddenly there was commerce and mail because we could deliver from one part of the country to another.
Today, the fourth industrial revolution includes about 30 tectonic shifts we are going through. Some of these are artificial intelligence, machine learning, 3D printing, nanotechnology, genetic engineering or splicing of plant and human genes, the Internet of Things, automated vehicles, and sensors that can sense anything from all over the world and collect the information.
These are all changes that our companies need to be on top of. We don’t want to be left behind with these because there may not be a way to catch up. Many of these shifts are the reason we need to structure our content so that machines can process it.
Scott said, “If you provide and you create your content in a way that machines understand it, when machines change and . . . get more intelligent, they will see the cues in your content, and they’ll be able to act upon it better than if you just created big chunks of content and didn’t care about the machines at all. If you just [write] letters and stories to your customers . . . and you [don’t] care about the machines, you’re gonna miss out on a huge opportunity for the machines to do work for you that will actually bring revenue into your company. Companies that are not set up this way will die.”
The companies that are leveraging these shifts are leapfrogging their competitors, and we must take advantage of these tectonic shifts if we don’t want to be left behind.
Personalize Content to Our Customers
“The most important thing about recurring revenue from a content perspective is that the content enables that to happen,” Scott said. “You can’t get a subscriber without content.”
We need to make sure the content for our subscribers is automated and personalized. We have to standardize our content before we can personalize it. This may sound like a paradox, but standardized doesn’t mean generic, it means two or more parties have agreed to do it in a certain way. By standardizing our content, we’re agreeing to do it in a way that both computers and people can pass through and understand.
Once we have everything standardized, we can tell the machine that Customer X is a subset of our standard. We can give that customer the things they need which might be different than what Customer Y needs.
“Because each one of them is individual, granular, and they each have their identity, machines can move them around,” Scott said. “Only [machines] can give you almost the same experience they give me, but there might be one piece of content [that’s] different because there’s something they know about you that they don’t know about me. . . . You can’t run a subscription service unless you keep people wanting to pay the subscription. The minute that you make them feel like you don’t know who they are or what they bought from you, [they’ll unsubscribe].”
If a subscriber comes to our website, we shouldn’t ask them to subscribe again. If someone bought a ticket to a conference, we shouldn’t send them more emails about buying a ticket. Our customers want a personal experience with us, and standardization and machines can help us give that to them.
After college, Scott was hired as a technical writer at a medical device and pharmaceutical company, where they were very serious about their content because without the words and the content they produced the regulator’s wouldn’t approve their drugs or products for sale.
Scott thought he had been hired to write, but they actually needed someone to help them think through how they should change the way they create, manage, and deliver information so they could get those drugs approved faster. This was during the AIDS crisis, and they were trying to get newer drugs on the market fast to save people’s lives.
The company Scott worked for realized that every day was worth millions of dollars so they wanted to get their drug on the market as soon as possible. Scott learned how to manage the writers to stop arguing over paragraph transitions and put out content like a factory.
After that, Scott thought all other content creators should use science to change the way that they create content like that company did. He became an hourly consultant, but soon realized that it wasn’t scalable. He decided to take his journalism education and put it together with what he learned about content in a regulated industry, and he started teaching other people how to do that.
Scott used no nonsense language and asked the hard questions about their content, such as what happens if it all gets deleted? He became an instigator for change in the way people handle their content.
Thank you so much Scott for sharing your stories and insights with us today. Here are some of my key takeaways from this episode:
- We should treat our content as one of our most valuable business assets.
- With the right system organizations should be able to do almost anything they need to do at any moment in time with the information they produce.
- We need to write machine processable content, because it hits the machine first.
- Companies that leverage tectonic shifts can often leapfrog their competitors. We must take advantage of these tectonic shifts if we don’t want to be leapfrogged.
- We need to make sure the content for our subscribers is automated and personalized. We have to standardize our content before we can personalize it.
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