What's the deal with structured content?

5 minute read

Structured content, intelligent content, semantic content - if you're confused about these terms that are being thrown around, you've come to the right place. Not only am I an advocate of structured content, I've been working with structured content for over two decades. As the years have passed, I've watched as the technologies and processes got more sophisticated and more effective. Also, as business demands more from structured content, more complexity has been introduced. It's no wonder that structured content might be hard to understand.What I want to do is explain what structured content is, what benefit it brings, and the magic under the hood that makes it all happen. I want to help make sense out of all the conflicting information out there, and pull it back to a basic explanation that any content person can understand. No tech-talk, no developer-speak, just a plain language explanation.

Why structured content matters

Firstly, let's define structured content. This definition comes from the book I co-authored, The Language of Content Strategy:

Content, whether in a textual, visual, or playable format, that conforms to structural and semantic rules that allow machine processing to meet specific business requirements.

Now, the question of why you should care about structured content is probably top of mind. It helps to know what structured content can do, before investing time in learning more. For that reason, I'll start with some of the benefits. Once it becomes clear how structured content can help meet your business goals, then the rest will fall into place.

What you can do with structured content depends on how content has been written, how it's been structured, the technology being used, and so on. For now, I'll assume that the content uses the highest level of structure, which gives us what we call "intelligent content". Later on, we can delve into the nuances that give structured content its "power under the hood" and what that means. I don't use that metaphor lightly; the difference between writing up copy and creating structured content is like the difference between riding a bicycle and driving a Ferrari.First, a couple of caveats about copy vs content and content vs structured content. When you create some text - a blog post, an article, marketing blurb, some campaign pages - it's not really content yet. When you're paying attention to the words and messages, you're creating copy. What turns copy into content is adding in the stuff (let's just call it stuff for now) that lets technologies work their magic.

In a nutshell, structured content matters because you can get so much more out of your content with a lot less work, and get better analytics for tracking effectiveness. Without getting into the technicalities of implementation, let's look at those three areas.

Working smarter, not harder

One of the principles behind structured content is that the people who develop the content - the authors, editors, and reviewers - have all of the content in a central location. Instead of having content in, say, Word or InDesign documents, with bits of comments stored in email, sticky notes, and marked-up hard copy, the content is stored in a single repository, and tagged up in a way that helps you focus on just the content you need. This is called single-source. (Which tool you use depends on the complexity of your organisational needs. GatherContent is a good example of one of those tools; in fact, Scroll uses it to track their web content.)

Anyone with permission to do so can look at all of the content, view each version of it, read the comments made on it, and track the approvals. In the more sophisticated systems, there is also the possibility of creating multiple variants of content without having to copy and paste. By variants, I mean those instances where a particular audience has a slightly different need or is given a different offer - maybe by customer segment, or by geographic market, or so on. Reducing what can quickly become a maintenance nightmare - trying to update many "almost but not quite the same" versions of content leads can be a huge jump in productivity.

Doing more with structured content

The beauty of structured content is that by being more efficient at the production end means more effectiveness at the delivery end. To explain the host of benefits, it would take an entire other article. Let's took at some of the top benefits.

Personalisation

Personalisation is a big challenge in marketing departments. As markets become more segmented, the need to publish content that speaks to specific audiences becomes more beneficial. Structuring content creates the ability to produce a single block of content that can target multiple audiences.

Multichannel Publishing

Content can be structured to output different amounts of content for different devices - for example, a full paragraph for a large screen, a sentence or two for a smaller screen, and a phrase for a smart watch. A simple set of tags can let you specify the most effective bit of content to push to each device.

Omnichannel Delivery

Omnichannel environments depend on getting the right content to the right customers at the right time - both within the customer lifecycle and the product lifecycle. Doing that through structured content means way better content matches so you are providing the right kind of content to the right people at the right time during the customer journey.

Synchronising Content

On larger sites, the Pareto Principle tends to play out: 20% is marketing content, and 80% is enabling content - from user support (set-up, configuration, and troubleshooting) to technical information (developer-to-developer) to transactional content (UI strings and error messages). Structured content helps keep content synchronised between, for example, labels and menu items in software interfaces and those same labels referenced in user-facing content such as web pages or email campaigns.

Automated Processing

Computer systems can do a lot of automated processing when content is semantically marked up. The business rules within a Web CMS that filter and aggregate content is enhanced when content has formal, semantic structure.

Getting Better Analytics

Once content leaves the production environment and gets published somewhere visible to customers, the benefits of structured content continue.. The more structured the content, the more granular the analytics tags can get. This allows content developers to gain valuable insights into how published content is performing. Closing the loop this way means that it's possible to know which content is valued more, and to focus on, and which content is underperforming and should be improved or discontinued.

So how do we create structured content

There is no single way to create structured content. Structure runs the gamut from the very basic step of applying consistent styles when using a word processing tool such as Word, to the mid-range step of using the structure of a database to store content. As in the earlier metaphor, the basic way of doing content is akin to riding a bicycle, whereas the power editing environment is akin to driving a Ferrari. Making the switch can cause some performance anxiety for the first while, as content developers get used to the massive power under the hood to win the race, and more agility in the handling.Overwhelmingly, however, the folks who make the switch get spoiled by all that power. One contractor admitted that she didn't think she could ever go back to a word processor again! The power editing environments that content developers use to create highly-semantic content - both through structure and metadata attributes - makes a huge difference to both the efficiency of creating structured content and to the delivery of content.

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About the author

Rahel Anne Bailie

Rahel Anne Bailie is Chief Knowledge Officer at Scroll in London. Rahel also teaches in the Content Strategy Master’s Program at FH-Joanneum, runs the “Content, Seriously” meetup, is organising Content Strategy Applied conference and is working on her third book on writing structured content. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, the co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy.

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