Crossing the Content Divide: What to Expect on the Other Side
Editor’s Note: This was the feature article in this month’s TechCom Manager newsletter, reprinted here with permission. Click the previous link to subscribe to the newsletter.
by Rahel Bailie
Traditionally, various types of communications professionals could, and did, work in silos. Marketing communicators worked with sales and marketing professionals, technical communicators worked with engineering professionals, social media communicators worked with community managers, and so on. Content was considered a byproduct of a larger process. Publishing content was simply the end point of a business process. How each camp handled content followed very different processes and used very different software.
In some ways, it’s still the same. However, there has been more recognition that different types of content are connected, and more cross-over as communicators move across disciplines. What ends up being a surprise is when communicators move to the other side of the house and discover that the amount of control they have over content is very different from what they’re used to. Here, we’ll look at the two fundamental differences between how content gets managed through content management systems, demystify the processes, and discuss how to work around some of the limitations.
Is everybody else doing it?
The simple answer is no. Don’t think that everyone but you is using DITA and CMS systems. In fact, many organizations have thought about it and decided DITA is not relevant to them or that they don’t need it yet. Others are racing to stay in one place, and not even thinking about change.
Managing content in the realm of the web content management
Communications on the marketing side is focused around the top menu items of the corporate website. At the risk of over-generalization, marketing communications are responsible for the top-level menu items. Communicators can shape the message, but it’s harder to shape the content journey.
When a content management system is implemented, developers write the code that tells content how to behave on the site. During the implementation phase, the integrators—the developers who are hired to customize the CMS—are given a set of business rules to implement. Generally, they get the rules from someone like a business analyst, or they look at a design mock-up and try to determine what the designers had in mind. They will create a web form where some of the fields are used in different ways.
Figure 1: Content dynamically routed from a content repository to areas of web pages
Let’s use the ubiquitous news release as an example. The rules may end up being that the entire news release appears on a dedicated page. Another business rule will be to show the headline and a brief summary of each item on a page where a certain number of the latest news items are displayed, in reverse chronological order. As well, the headlines may also be sent to a specific area on the home page.
This is referred to as “baking in” the business rules. The idea is that once the decisions on how content gets routed around the site have been made, the communicator no longer has to think about anything except the messaging. This is to make using the CMS easy for any user. Many of us use this type of CMS every day; it’s called Facebook. Essentially, Facebook is a CMS that has all of the business rules baked in. When you log in, the system recognizes you from your credentials, knows what rights you have within the system, and through a few simple user choices, knows who else is allowed to see which content. Facebook has decided what content is shown at the top of a page, and in which order to show other pieces of content. Remember the outcry about the implementation of timeline? That’s an example of a baked-in business rule where the control is consolidated in the hands of the Facebook developers.
Managing content in the realm of technical communication
Since John M. Carroll wrote The Nurnberg Funnel and popularized the idea of task-based, minimalist writing, technical communicators have been creating topic-based content and using increasingly complex software to manage it. The technical communicator also uses software that controls how content is routed. But instead of having very specific rules baked in, the communicator controls the business rules on a case by case basis, and the software processes it by following some basic principles.
Topics are connected together to form a larger story, in a way that allows users to follow multiple pathways—much like a “make your own adventure” journey. The author chooses a type of output, the most common being a set of HTML files, a Word document or a PDF file. Upon clicking Generate, the software assembles the content according to the rules the author set.
The choices used to be between two sorts of tools:
- A help-authoring tool (HAT), where a whole host of topic files are structured using a topic map, or Table of Contents.
- FrameMaker, which does something similar, but from a single file.
Since then, more varieties of this software, and more powerful types of software, called a component CMS, have developed, allowing authors to route content in more sophisticated ways and with far more control.
An example on this side of the house would be a topic. The closest metaphor would be the difference between using accounting software to calculate those double entries, or using Excel to set up how the entries will be controlled, and capitalizing on Excel’s features such as header/footer insertion and automatic page-numbering. Communicators decide on a standard, and build a structure around it. The most common topic is a procedure.
Generally, the procedure consists of a title, an contextualizing introduction, a series of steps, and a conclusion such as an example, or a feedback statement that illustrates success. By assigning tags – like styles, but without assigning visual formats – the author determines how the software should treat each line or paragraph while generating the output.
Additionally, communicators can create variables, which are little pieces of text as small as a word or phrase that can be dropped into the topic. In our topic example, we could place a marker that points to a source variable called “product name.” During the generation of the output, the markers are replaced with the product name. The same thing happens for frequently used text strings. When a brand shift means a change to a tag line, the source tag line can be changed and the entire project regenerated – everywhere the tag line is referenced, it will be updated.
The combination of all these ways to configure content makes for a powerful way to control content from the authoring side. What can happen to the output is that once it is sent to a folder, the Web CMS periodically checks the folder. Upon detecting new files in the folder, the Web CMS includes the files as part of the website.
Growing greener grass on both sides
Technical communicators who move to producing content on the Web CMS side find the lack of control over content frustrating. However, there is a secret to gaining back some of that control. The best way is by having a developer build the functionality you need. However, there’s not always a budget for that. In that case, proceed to Plan B. A Web CMS may not have a formal way of handling variables, but there may be a primitive way of storing text strings that can be drawn into web pages to create an ersatz single-sourcing-like experience, albeit it a primitive one. Once you explain the end goal, a developer or other technical user may be able to demonstrate how to accomplish that.
Marketing communicators who need to work with authoring tools on the technical side need to become conversant with tags and elements, and to understand how semantic content works. Proper tagging is the key to success when it comes to automatic processing to multiple targets. Use fields only as intended, as improperly using the tags will make for wonky output. It takes a bit more of an investment in time to learn the structure and tags, but the effort is worth it, in terms of time savings in generating output.
Although there is no absolute right way to manage content, there are best ways which vary from one situation to the next. As a person who creates, curates, or maintains content, it is not particularly important to have expertise in each of these arenas. What is important is to have enough knowledge to understand which type of content management is best suited for each situation, and to know what expertise is needed to ensure the content can be manipulated as the situation requires.
About the Author
Rahel is the principal of Intentional Design, and brings substantial business, communication, and instructional design experience to her projects, where she and a select group of professional partners help organizations create and better manage their communication products. Her focus on performance improvement means beginning with an analysis of business goals and ensuring that any improvements support those goals. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, co-producer of Content Strategy Workshops, and co-author of Content Strategy for Decision-Makers: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits.