Down with blobs, long live chunks!

The weaknesses of content management systems (CMS) have always been pretty obvious to me so I was not at all surprised when Karen McGrane referred to them as “content mis-management” in her content strategy workshop at Webstock this year. CMS just substitutes one set of problems for a set of different problems where people can just shove any old garbage onto the internet with no editorial process or standards. The CMS, she said, is “not your editorial staff, its your printing press” and therefore only a part of the content life-cycle, not the final solution as many try to treat it.

Blobs vs. Chunks

Mobile content strategy rule 8
Separate content from form and create presentation-independent content. Don’t encode meaning through visual styling – instead, add structure and metadata to your content.

A big part of the problem is that we’ve gotten sucked in to believing that content creators need a MS Word-like WYSIWYG interface, but this allows them to dump unstructured ‘blobs’ of styled content onto the web. These blobs are inevitably unsustainable and in the face of the need to now re-style content for various forms of delivery, including but not limited to mobile, they are extremely limited.

What we need, Karen says, is systems that create more structure around content, to create content in reusable ‘chunks’, not amorphous ‘blobs’ and systems that can deploy the most appropriate content for the platform. So we need to create content packages: for example, we might have 2 or more variations on the page title, of different lengths or keyed to different audiences, a short and long page description, the page content itself,  appropriately structured with subheadings that can be reused as in-page contents links, several sizes of each relevant image and a range of metadata.

The content management system would then be set up to fit with the various tasks of its users and to publish the various chunks in the most appropriate way. Karen gave us ten ‘rules’ for content strategy:

  1. Quit thinking you can just guess what subset of content a “mobile user” wants. You’re going to guess wrong.
  2. Do your research, look at competitors, and evaluate your analytics data. Figure out how to convince the people with money that you need a content strategy for mobile.
  3. Before jumping into imagining new mobile products, figure out how you can achieve content parity. Same content where you can, equivalent fallbacks where you can’t.
  4. Use mobile as a catalyst to remove content that isn’t providing value. Edit or delete content to make the experience better for all your users – desktop and mobile.
  5. Don’t create content for a specific context or platform. It’s not your desktop content, your mobile content, your tablet content, or even your print content. It’s just your content.
  6. Develop a process and workflow that will support and enable maximum content reuse with minimum additional effort. That’s adaptive content.
  7. Create content packages: a flexible system of content elements that cover a range of possible uses. Then manage and maintain those content elements all in one place.
  8. Separate content from form and create presentation-independent content. Don’t encode meaning through visual styling – instead, add structure and metadata to your content.
  9. Ensure that your content management tools make it easy – and possible – for your content creators to develop the content structures needed to support adaptive content.
  10. Invest in CMS frameworks that support multichannel publishing, and make sure your tools, processes, and workflow will support that.

Going Mobile

Slide : Mobile is a filter, not a fork.
Mobile is a filter, not a fork.

Karen’s workshop about extending your content strategy to mobile expanded a lot on what is above and because her content strategy theory is designed for platform-independence the ‘rules’ still apply. She had some very interesting data about mobile usage and presented her ‘four mobile truths’:

  1. Content matters: there’s an increasing % of people who rely entirely on their mobile: in USA 1/3 of mobile users ONLY use their mobile (no other internet access) + these people are frequently the young, lower income and/or new migrants;
  2. Strive for content parity: people DO read long content on their mobiles so you must provide equivalent content;
  3. Its not a strategy if you can’t maintain it;
  4. You don’t decide what devices people use – they do: 100% of your audience is going to be mobile 50% of the time.

Making it happen

The above gems neatly encapsulate the theory, Karen then went on to brief us in several practical tools to make it all happen including:

  • content modelling: defining content packages, structured content and metadata;
  • making a content inventory (broad for desktop, fine-grained for mobile) and how important it is to do this yourself; and
  • designing the publishing workflow around tasks rather than the content model.

On the big stage

As well as doing the two workshops Karen spoke at the conference itself, lightly reiterating the highlights from her workshops. We need to get over thinking that there is a primary platform where content ‘lives’ and finally do away with the “stupid print dinosaurs”. Don’t start with print, or web, or mobile, start with content, write for the chunk, demystify metadata, and demand a better CMS workflow.

The CMS is broken. The way to fix it is structure, not WYSIWYG.

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