Interview with Content Strategy Author Ann Rockley
Despite being a relatively young industry, content strategy and marketing owes a great deal to certain pioneers who helped shape essential concepts. Their names pop up in blog posts, at conferences, and on bookshelves because they are the true thought leaders of this evolving discipline.
Instead of becoming a fond footnote of the content strategy industry, pioneer Ann Rockley has continued to evolve with fresh, relevant insights. Her book “Managing Enterprise Content,” is, quite frankly, required reading for everyone who wants to work in content strategy.
After several years of hearing about Ann Rockley, I was fortunate enough to meet her at the Intelligent Content Conference 2013 in San Francisco. (I spoke at the conference and delivered a scintillating presentation called “Channel Agnostic Content Strategy for Happy Marketers.”) Later, Ann and I exchanged a few emails, and she was kind enough to grant me an email interview.
Fair warning. You will probably have to read this interview once, then read Ann’s book, then read this interview again to get the full impact. Ann’s very smart. I was just trying to keep up.
BUDDY SCALERA: You are an author of a relatively new book called “Managing Enterprise Content.” In your own words, please describe what this book is about.
ANN ROCKLEY: MEC describes a process for developing a content strategy. It starts with analysis, through content strategy (adaptive structured content models, reuse, metadata, workflow), and governance. What is different about the book is its very strong focus on structured adaptable content designed for multi-channel multi-device delivery.
Who should be reading this book?
Anyone who creates and manages content, whether it be product content, training materials, marketing materials, or “book” publishing content should read this book. It is mainly aimed at content strategists, the people who need to figure out the best ways to create and manage content to meet customer and corporate goals,
You talk a lot about XML technology and what that means for content strategists. I liked how you presented these advanced concepts without making it too overwhelming. What should content strategists know about XML and what will they learn in this book?
Content strategists should realize that XML isn’t scary and it is really powerful for doing cool things with your content. In the “olden days” when we first began creating Web-based content we used to have to use HTML codes to tag the content, now you create content in web forms or Word and rarely, if ever, have to think about the HTML codes. The same is true of XML, you don’t have to use codes to create content, there are lots of tools that “hide” the XML tags. However, XML is much smarter than HTML. HTML tags describe the formatting structure of the content, XML defines the semantic structure of the content. For example, we can define that some content is a teaser and then have the system handle it differently when published to the Web, mobile, or even print.
I’m glad you mentioned semantic structure. I’m familiar with the concept, but I was unaware of the depth and complexity of the conversation about semantic structure. What role do librarians and linguists play in the future of content strategy?
Librarians play a key role in the development of taxonomies, who better to classify content then the experts in classification schemes! While some consider taxonomy as part of IA, I see taxonomy as part of content strategy. I can’t manage my content if I can’t tag it. We usually think of metadata as part of the tags we put on the content, but semantic structure is metadata, For example, if I’m creating adaptive content I could have a semantic structure called Call to Action. This would ensure that whenever a writer wrote the content they would include a Call to Action and if you had rules which defined how the semantic structure of your content was displayed on the desktop vs a tablet vs a smartphone, the business rules would define how the content contained in that semantic structure was displayed on each device.
Linguists can play many roles. One area that I have seen an important increase in that skill set is in the area of terminology management. While most people think of terminology as something to do with translation, and certainly that is a key use, terminology control also assists with branding, usability, and quality of content. Linguists can also help with content modeling and helping to name all the things that we do and things that people interact with. Today in a content modeling design call, one of the people referred to something as a “thingy.” We all laughed, but in fact we had no name for what we were trying to design. Thingy it has remained, but we are working on naming it properly. Where do the words come from for the things that we do that have never been done before?!
Channel-agnostic workflows sound great on paper (especially the way you describe them in your book). Is there anybody out there actually doing this sort of thing and what can we learn from their real-world publishing?
There are definitely companies producing channel agnostic content. It is really not dependent on the company, it is more dependent upon the type of content. Product content has been produced in a channel-agnostic manner for over a decade, starting first with printed manuals and Windows Help, then print, Web-based help, and most recently eBooks and mobile content. Many companies are now publishing product content to mobile. Learning content has also been published to multiple channels for years (classroom, eLearning, virtual classroom). We’ve seen a radical shift in the way that books have been published, moving from print only to print and eBook. Media companies such as NPR have taken the plunge in delivering their content to many many different devices. Marketing content is the most recent type of content to start going channel agnostic. In early days, companies produced a desktop web version of their content and a mobile version, in essence doing it all twice but that is costly and error prone. Some are starting to move towards creating content once and publishing it to both web and mobile.
Many content strategists seem to be former copywriters. For some the transition will be fairly easy, but for others it could be pretty scary. What would you advise former copywriters making the transition to content strategy?
Copywriters make good content strategists because they really understand content and what makes good content. Content strategy is about much more than how to write the content though, it is about identifying what types of content are required, how to best present that content, and how to manage the content to make it easy to store and retrieve. Obviously one of the best ways to get started is to take a course or workshop or read the many great books on content strategy. It is important to think of this as a career move, taking them from the role of being told what to write, to a role where they help to make the best decisions about how to not only create the content, but what content to create and how to manage it.
Some people are eager to declare the death of print, and yet your book is available in both print and digital. What do you see as the near-future of print publishing and ebooks?
Print is not dead, far from it. eBooks are definitely gaining in popularity, there is nothing better than keeping your library on a small device that will fit in your pocket or in a small bag rather than shelves and shelves of book. However, the sale of eBooks is about 15% of the book market but it is rapidly growing. We are seeing an interesting situation where books are being provided as eBooks only in the beginning then as they get popular, they are being published in print. With every new communication vehicle, the previous one was declared “dead.” For example, when TV became popular everyone thought radio would disappear, but it didn’t happen. Personally, I think that print books will become less and less common as an automatic format for content, but we will move to “print on demand” for whatever book we want. Maybe we could go off to print shop and ask for a specific book to be downloaded and printed on sophisticated printing and binding systems.
And print isn’t going away in business anytime soon either. I often get asked if it is possible to do COPE plus print. COPE is a term coined by NPR to describe their process of content delivery to multiple mobile devices and Web (Create Once Publish Everywhere). Most companies moving to COPE are producing digital content only. However, like my previous answer to the discussion of channel agnostic content, some are also producing print too. Print is a bit difficult, because it is all about page layout and page layout tools haven’t changed much in over a decade, they assume that if you are producing print content you are just producing print or that you are creating print first and “print-oriented” digital second. You need to create content first and define how that content is published in each channel. And the majority of companies producing digital and print at the same time are doing this with product content, though marketing is beginning to explore this process.
I’ve heard of traditional non-fiction authors stepping into digital publishing and avoiding mainstream publishers. In fact, “DITA Metrics 101: The Business Case for Intelligent Content” is being published on Lulu.com. What role do you think publishers will play in this brave new world of epublishing?
Our first book, now in its second edition, “Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy” was published by PeachPit Press, a traditional publisher. When we published the first edition in 2001 it was the only option and obviously was the best option for the second edition. Getting the interest of a mainstream publisher is a lot of work and not all books will present what they feel is a good financial argument for them. Our second book, DITA 101 and our most recent book “DITA Metrics 101: The Business Case for Intelligent Content” written by Mark Lewis, are both self-published. We chose to do this because they have a more niche market and therefore lend themselves better to self-publishing. So to answer the question, publishers will continue to publish popular authors, non-fiction and educational books/textbooks and they will seek out self-published fiction books that do really well and help publish and distribute print versions. They will continue to publish unknown authors that they feel have a good chance of success. They have great engines to support the editorial, print design, metadata, and distribution of the books. Not everyone wants to, has the time to, or the skills to publish print books.
There are people out there eager to declare the death of live meetings too. And yet the first time I met you, it was at the Intelligent Content Conference 2013, which you organized with Scott Abel, the Content Wrangler. That meeting was really well attended. Why do you think the ICC 2013 was so well attended?
Certainly we could provide conference sessions online, but you don’t make any of the human connections you do at a live conference. And have you ever attended a conference online, it is really hard to stay focused on the screen and you can get bored or distracted. The Intelligent Content Conference, attracts a lot of people that want to learn how to create, manage, and deliver their content more easily and automatically. The speakers are great and we create great opportunities for people to have interesting conversations with people. In addition, we’ve always felt that conference needs to be more than a series of good sessions, it has to be a great experience. You learn more, gain a more in depth understanding, and create long term relationships when you interact outside of the meeting rooms. Taking a hike with people, sitting down with like-minded people at dinner, and interacting at a reception makes the conference the sum of all the attendees, not just the sum of the great speakers.
What do you see as the future of live meetings in a world where so much live content is streamed in real time?
See above. The Intelligent Content Conference has grown every single year since we created it. We do know that travel budgets are tight so we try to augment the conference with local corporate training events. In addition, people now pick the conference as their choice for the one they want to travel to.
What’s one thing you know now that you wish you knew at the start of your career?
That’s a really hard question! I would say “that it is OK to be fascinated by technical things while also being a good writer.” I started studying astronomy, but when I realized that there were no jobs in the field and the courses were becoming more and more theoretical, I turned to my second love, writing. Unfortunately there were no degrees in science writing so I finished by getting a degree in creative writing to hone my writing skills. I didn’t really fit with the creative types though, way too “techy” for them! However, this combination of skills is perfect for what I do today. If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have obsessed over it at the time.
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