Book Review: Content Everywhere

Lisa Park   December 12, 2012

When I first opened Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s Content Everywhere: Strategy and Structure for Future-Ready Content, my heart sank with the realization that I’d blindly signed up to review a veritable tome, against a tight deadline. The book weighs in at more than 220 pages, which trends a bit higher than other recently published content strategy books. I’d seen Sara talk about her upcoming book at a local content strategy meet-up earlier in the year and enjoyed her straight-shooting humor and insights; I’d assumed her book would exhibit the same lean, witty style.

It does. Kudos to Sara’s first effort, which in fact was a fast read full of visuals, stories, interviews, case studies and tips that helps get folks thinking about how to chunk up content in a meaningful way so that it can flex and flow across multiple platforms, channels and experiences in order for users to access it wherever and whenever they need it. Written not just for us content strategists but also for anyone involved in user experience design, online writers and editors, content managers, SEO specialists and everyone in between, Content Everywhere is intended to make our jobs easier, by showing us how to organize and prepare content just once as well as build systems that will enable the reuse of said content in multiple places for multiple purposes.

Let Go, Let It Flow

Organized into four sections, Part I starts by unpacking the problems with fixed, inflexible content. Content fixed to its webpages—that is, not chunked up and tagged appropriately based on its meaning and purpose as well as the relationship it has with other content items—makes for a lot of manual updating and poses a problem for how content gets displayed on devices other than the original format that content was intended for (typically desktop).

Sara shares a couple of case studies to illuminate the problems and then in contrast points to the success of the NPR content model, which has seen its overall page views increase by 80 percent in 2010. NPR’s approach called COPE (Create Once, Publish Everywhere) involves creating a single set of content for each story that is then entered into its CMS with structured attributes and accessed by NPR’s API by member stations and NPR’s suite of products. Though by no means perfect, NPR’s COPE approach has reaped multiple benefits including “better content in more places, less duplication of editorial efforts, higher consistency, more control over quality, and easier story updates.”

The Content Modeling Nitty Gritty

Part II gets into the nitty gritty of content modeling, and how identifying content’s meaning, purpose, goals and priorities are paramount in developing a content ecosystem actually worth developing. Here’s where performing a content audit is key—to evaluate the types of content you have and decide what to keep vs. cut based on your users’ needs and company’s objectives. These content types then get broken down into elements—distinct units of information such as a byline, summary or pull quote.

In addition to developing these labels for your content chunks or elements, Sara stresses the importance of developing metatags and taxonomies that define and describe your content, so that when your users—or folks accessing your CMS for that matter—search and sort, they’ll get returned relevant content. Even as you restructure your content to become more flexible, you’ll likely rehaul CMS author workflows to ensure content is tagged and uploaded in the right way.

The rest of the section covers off on what responsive design is, using Starbucks as an example; explains the basics of markup and why it matters (read: it allows content to keep its shape and form, along with its metadata, when it flows from your CMS to wherever it needs to go); and the rise of APIs, which Sara says speaks to a future filled with “even more connected devices: Internet-enabled televisions, cars, refrigerators and thermostats.”

Change Is Good

In an increasingly interconnected world, where multiple devices are talking to each other, organizing and developing content so that it’s more findable, adaptable, reusable and transportable will certainly make life easier for content authors not to mention give users what they want, when they want it. In Part III, Sara works her way through a number of examples—from the BBC’s Wildlife Finder and Zappos to Amazon’s API and flu.gov to demonstrate how well-structured and stored content frees that content, allowing it to get accessed in a multitude of useful—and in some cases revenue-building—ways.

Of course, all of the work you’ve done to free your content will be for naught if your company doesn’t change with it. In the fourth and final section, Sara describes the three ingredients—a clear vision, customer focus and collaboration—that will help drive change in your organization. Writes Sara, “The Internet is going to change. The business world is going to change. And it’s all going to happen very quickly, without a lot of time for big bumbling slowpoke organizations to catch up.”

Acting as an agent of change, encouraging your organization to adopt practices that put the audience at the center and make content sustainable, is a must, says Sara. Though I agree with her, I would add that there’s probably a lot more involved in this process—from getting leadership buy-in to training and educating the people in your company. After all, change management is a business unto itself.

Be that as it may, it’s time to get cracking—adapt, embrace new ideas and rally your peers around a fluid strategy and flexible structure that will allow your content to retain its message and meaning even as it travels out of your control and to the true owners of your content: your users. And whether you’re just starting out or well on your way, Content Everywhere will serve as a great thought-starter and reference.

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