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Issue Date: August 2007

Tips for content managers

August 2007
Jarred Cinman, director of Cambrient

Seven tips for succeeding at the complex job of content management.

Content management poses many challenges, ranging from software to content production; from system integration to user interface design. Content managers - the growing body of people in large organisations for whom the responsibility of managing corporate content falls - need to have a similarly wide-ranging skillset.
The stuff: Tips for content
1. Write it right
Most content created today in corporations is going to end up on a Web page. That is a fact. The day of the document is just about done with. It may not feel that way, watching corporate printers spooling off ream after ream of documentation, but paperlessness is on the increase. If not in the sense of using less paper, then in the sense of where information is primarily accessed. People obtain their information digitally. They may print it for easy reference or review, but digital is becoming the primary and authoritative source.
This means writing is different from what it was, because people read differently on-screen than off. As many experts have noted, they scan, rather than read. They want short, chunky information, not long details. It is harder to read on-screen than on paper, so eyes tire quicker. And users tend to want to navigate and explore: they do not tend to linger on long blocks of text.
So it comes to this: in order to ensure people consume content, it has to be written in a consumable way. Short, scannable, chunky and punchy.
2. Spread the word: organise!
Whoever thought that the average employee in a bank, insurance company or any other corporation would end up having to be a librarian? But that, in a lot of cases, is what has happened.
The primary drivers for this are: first, electronic information, which has the capacity to be shared, re-used and re-purposed. And secondly, the ubiquitous shared folders on file servers, where this electronic information can be stored.
The chaos on these network drives is a running joke in most companies. Indeed, this is one of the reasons content management has sprung to life. The reason for the chaos, however, is not so much technological as it is poor organisational skills. Bankers are not librarians.
Nonetheless, organising content is the key factor in making it useful. If people cannot find or re-find content quickly and easily, they will recreate it. If they do that, they will clog up the content production line and generate confusion in the company content repository. The main devaluer of content is not poor quality, but muddy repositories where there are 50 answers to each search, not one definitive answer.
So this tip is about creating useful, meaningful structures (taxonomies), labels and keywords, and enforcing them. It is hard to do this, and it is a moving target, but doing it early, allowing it to evolve and enforcing it company-wide is the only way to move out of the chaos.
3. Bits and pieces: making it semantically granular
Large bodies of text are not useful. Here is why: they cannot be broken down by computers into smaller, meaningful pieces. That is what is meant by semantically granular: grains of content that have, in themselves, discernible meaning.
This article is a good example of a non-granularised piece of content. It is one long spiel. It is broken up with a few headings, but it is not really possible for any kind of computer program to break it down into chunks which can be confidently offered up as semantically relevant to specific contexts. The whole article may be relevant on the topic of content management. But which parts of it relate to content management systems, and which to user interfaces?
Search tools such as Google, despite their speed and scope, do little better than pick out keywords and apply algorithms to them to gauge relevance. That is fine to get a user to the right PAGE but not to the right paragraph.
It is vital in large organisations, where content is being created with the intention of gaining value from it over time, that this is fixed at the point of creation. Content must be captured in a carefully structured way, consistently. The benefits are profound.
Showing off the stuff: Tips for user interfaces and usability
4. Pretty versus predictable
Everyone likes something visually striking and enticing. Sit anyone in front of an IMAX screen with 10-foot long dolphins jumping out of the Caribbean and they cannot fail to be impressed. But content is not entertainment (unless it is intended to be).
Time and again, content managers fall into the trap of wanting to be artists and not information providers. They focus time and energy on visuals and animations, and forget the purpose of their content.
Most of the time, people consume content because they need to find something out. They do not do it for fun, and they do not even particularly enjoy the experience. Nor do they expect to. They have a neutral feeling toward the mechanism of getting content - it is not an end in itself.
Pretty is fine, even desirable. But it should never override predictability: the ability of the content consumer to predict where they can find the information they need. And that has much to do with layout of pages, navigation and site structure. And the more that is the same as everywhere else, the easier it is for users to use.
Boring, but true.
5. Multimedia
The Web is multimedia. It is a massive missed opportunity to create all content as copy-and-pastes from text documents. Not only that, but many people are visually oriented, and we live in a televised, billboarded, ringtoned world in which we expect to get information in, well, an exciting way.
It is often hard to translate this into a corporate context: multimedia context is harder to create, and harder to update. Easy to change a piece of text with a CMS system. Not easy to edit out someone's name from a video clip.
The answers come from a combination of new, accessible tools for multimedia creation, and new software tools to create dynamic multimedia. However it is solved, the future is loud, colourful and moving. And that applies to everyone, not just marketers.
Managing the stuff: Tips for content management systems and technology
6. One technology to rule them all... not
The late '90s saw the rise of the technology giants - software corporations so big they became some of the biggest companies on earth, their owners among the richest. With this came the belief that one system could do everything. And the race was on to produce that system.
Things are humbler these days, but the legacy of that aspiration continues. Content management is one class of software where this is most visible. Giant product families that seek to consolidate every kind of content from every corner of the corporation into one giant repository. Documents, websites, intranets, source code, images, video, data, you name it.
Content management has to have more realistic aims. It is a key part of the corporate information management landscape, but it is not all of it. Mostly, content management has been and will be the mechanism for publishing information to websites and intranets. Beyond that, they need to integrate with other specialist systems.
The lesson here is to pick something that has clear and definable functionality, and that is as open as possible. If it over-promises, it will under-deliver.
7. Easy-peasy
The software demo that leaves everyone in the room impressed, but completely unclear on what the product actually does, or how, is usually a precursor to spending vast amounts of money on something no-one will be able to use.
At heart, content management is not hard. There is a lot to think about, and many factors to consider, but it is possible to package all that in a software tool a mere mortal can grasp and utilise.
And that is the demand that should be made of any software product, especially one that many non-technical users are going to have to use.
For more information contact Jarred Cinman, Cambrient, +27 (0)11 807 8570, jarred@cambrient.com


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