Intelligent Content and New Possibilities

IC_NewPossibilities-01by Marcia Riefer Johnston

Content with superpowers. That’s how Scott Abel describes intelligent content, content that “can (with the help of technology) perform tasks automatically, freeing content creators to add value through innovation.”

What kind of tasks is he talking about? What does he mean by innovation? What kind of superpowers is he getting at? In other words…

What does intelligent content make possible that was difficult or impossible before?

Here are answers from some of the people speaking at the Intelligent Content Conference (ICC).

Ann RockleyIt is not so much what was impossible—everything is possible with enough time and money—but what we can do better (faster, cheaper, more effectively).

More with less

Intelligent content projects optimize resources. Teams can increase their deliverables without having to increase their resources. We’ve seen productivity increases of 25 percent, 45 percent, even 60 percent. These increases come from a variety of areas:

  • Bridges between content silos. (Content can be developed in a coherent way: less rework, more-focused work.)
  • Reuse. (Content creators can “write once, use many.”)
  • Automation. (An intelligent-content approach frees people from mechanical tasks, like formatting, so they can focus on their “real” work.)
  • Structured content. (It’s easier to write content when you have a pattern to follow.)
  • Agile development. (Sprints enable people to create modular content that’s easy to update.)


Customers want to see the content that is relevant to them. They have no time or patience to wade through volumes of information. Personalization and the dynamic delivery of the content are becoming more and more important. Creating personalized content without intelligent content is brutal!

I know of a company that wanted to provide marketing content that varied in the following ways:

  • 6 products
  • 4 industry verticals
  • 5 regions
  • 9 languages

That amounts to over a thousand potential permutations! This company tried accommodating all these variations without intelligent content. Their old methods couldn’t address this kind of complexity.

Then they changed to an intelligent content approach and succeeded. Their new approach included the following tasks:

  • Identified which content stayed the same
  • Identified which content needed to vary
  • Tagged content at a component level (topics), element level (paragraphs), and variable level (product names, contact details, etc.)
  • Added metadata to allow content to be filtered out when inappropriate
  • Set up a website to automatically identify region and language while enabling users to change the region or language
  • Asked potential customers to identify their needs
  • Configured content on the fly (dynamically)
  • Presented HTML while also offering personalized PDFs

There are a number of other ways, too, that well-designed intelligent content makes possible the previously very difficult and painful processes of the past.

Ann Rockley, CEO, The Rockley Group | @arockley

Ann’s ICC presentation is “How To Create An Agile Content Factory” March 25. She also gives a full-day pre-conference workshop, “Building a FrameWork for Intelligent Content,” March 23.

Buddy_Scalera-1-150x150Intelligent content processes get everyone working together toward the same, measurable goal. Plus, you can customize the content resources in a way that will make sense in your industry. In health care, for example, we have a lot of regulations, so we include custom content fields that make sense for the brands we support. In that situation, it’s important to have shared processes.

Buddy Scalera, SVP of Interactive Content and Market Research, Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide | @MarketingBuddy

Buddy’s ICC presentation is “The Long and Short of Content: Strategies for Intelligent Content Planning” March 24. He’ll be joined by co-presenter Michelle Killebrew, Program Director of Social Business at IBM.

Cruce Saunders photo_revCustomer experience management and personalization is not possible to any significant degree without intelligent content. Without content engineered to serve business goals and deliver unique customer experiences, all customers are treated the same: They receive the same offers, and they are treated one-dimensionally.

Without intelligent content we may know users’ gender and age group, and we may know whether they’ve visited the site before and whether they’re using a tablet or a desktop, but we can’t customize the content they see or shape the experience they have with our content, let alone our brand and services.

Content marketing as a tool with significant economic impact becomes possible by giving content structure, markup, and metadata to meet the customer on all basic levels: demographics, readiness to buy, interests, browsing history, habits, devices, etc.

When enterprises invest in a high-end customer experience management (CEM) platform or content management system, they’re investing in sophisticated, expensive Play-Doh. They need to mold and shape that Play-Doh into forms that are useful for customer experiences and behavior. The disciplines of content strategy, content engineering, and content technology enable us to shape that Play-Doh. The platform alone is only raw potential. Business value comes through engineering.

Cruce Saunders, Founder, Simple [A] | @mrcruce

Cruce’s ICC presentation is “Orchestrating Intelligent Content: The Role of the Content Engineer” March 25.

Deborah Bosley Photo_revIntelligent content makes better communication possible since one element of intelligent content is that it’s created using plain language principles. These principles help make content discoverable (easy to find), understandable (easy to learn), and usable (easy to act on). Regardless of what media or platform it takes, intelligent content allows the reader to interact easily and quickly—to get in and get out. Because meaning resides in the mind of the reader, not in the words on the screen or on the page, intelligent content eliminates as much ambiguity as possible, including only what readers need to know, and it’s visually appealing.

Intelligence resides not only in the content, but also in the mind of the readers—if we make it easy for them.

Deborah S. Bosley, Ph.D., Owner of The Plain Language Group | @deborahbosley

Deborah’s ICC presentation is “Creating Clear, Unambiguous Content: Getting Started with Plain Language” March 24.

Dechay Watts photo_revIntelligent content is not confined by platform or layout and can be reused to meet changing goals. As Carlos Abler says, it bears many fruits and takes you from having an orange to having an orange tree.

Last year, one of our clients released a new camouflage paper product aimed at helping hunters better package and preserve wild game. They released information about the product through a blog post that explained the benefits of the paper and taught the reader a new technique while also catching the attention of search engines. After the post received 100 views, the content was copied and pasted to create a web page where people could place an order online. As orders came in, the content was copied and pasted again into a press release. The content was then copied and pasted to create a page on Amazon. How amazing would it be for this kind of reuse to happen automatically!


Dechay Watts, Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer, SPROUT Content | @dechay

Dechay’s ICC presentation is “How to Use Data To Inform and Validate Your Content Strategy” March 25.

Don Day photo_revIntelligent content is easier to manipulate than “as-is” content, the usual state of content on the web.

As-is content comes with no standard organization or names for things. As-is content is typically flat in structure, meaning that even list items are merely paragraphs with indentation, not true list nesting. Things that look like headings may not be marked up as headings; they may just be big, bold paragraph styles instead. Even paragraphs in as-is content may be little more than line breaks, which are not true paragraph delimiters. Hence trying to do anything more useful with existing, as-is content is often impossible programmatically (the way you’d hope for).

Putting as-is content to new uses is achievable only by copying and pasting into its new role.

As-is content did not come with a warranty; we get what we paid for. Intelligent content does have a warranty of sorts: What makes it intelligent is that it has a documented structure and names for components and metadata. And to programmers—content engineers—this means that they can access the parts reliably by name and scope, making conversion to new uses relatively easy compared to the guessing game that comes with as-is content. In a way, intelligent content is all about making the previously unimaginable possible.

Don Day, Consultant, Learning by Wrote | @donrday

Don’s ICC presentation is “Getting Started with Adaptive Content” March 24. He’ll be joined by co-presenter Jenny Magic, Principal, Vice President of Content Strategy at Site Goals LLC.

James Mathewson photo_revIntelligent content makes it possible to respond to audience needs. Audience analysis is as old as the written word. But being able to use data to inform content decisions based on audience needs is possible only by digital means.

Audiences leave clues as to what they are looking for in search and social media. If you can build a system that gathers and analyzes these clues and feeds them into a content publishing system, you can build optimally relevant content for your audience.

James Mathewson, Program Director, Global Search and Content Marketing, IBM | @James_Mathewson

James’ ICC presentation is “IBM Case Study: Making Marketing Content Intelligent” March 24. He’ll be joined by co-presenter Michael Priestley, Enterprise Content Technology Strategist at IBM.

Laurel Counts photo_revIn the technical communications world, intelligent content doesn’t so much make the impossible possible as turn the slow and difficult into the fast and easy. We already have ways to deliver documents quickly and to share content. With intelligent content, we gain efficiencies that allow each writer to do more in a tighter timeframe.

For example, within technical communications, we can already push fixes out to users between product releases by using a system that delivers documentation via a web server. In contrast, a content management system makes it much easier to get those changes out faster, reliably error-free, and with fewer steps performed by each writer.

We can already share material between guides by setting up shared files and importing these files into appropriate FrameMaker chapters for different books. Changes to a shared file appear in all books, and conditional text handles minor differences. But without intelligent content, tracking numerous files quickly gets out of control. Similarly, we can already share material with other departments, but the lack of common tools and formatting complicates things. An intelligent content management system solves both these problems and greatly simplifies sharing across books and across departments.

Laurel Counts, Director of Technical Communications, Moody’s Analytics | @TechCommCounts

At ICC, Laurel is participating in a panel discussion, “How To Increase Content Velocity Through Agile Practices,” March 25. She’ll be joined by fellow panelists Andrew Bredenkamp and Margo Stern.

Michael Arnold photoFor a technical documentation department, intelligent content makes it possible to efficiently manage a large number of target languages for translation.

With two or three target languages and short texts, it might be possible to cope without intelligent content software. However, cost-efficient translation management depends on fancy buzzwords, such as fuzzy matches, pretranslation and the like. If your content is not intelligent, it cannot detect the buzzwords. If it is intelligent, translation management becomes much easier.

Sure, exporting only those text fragments that have no translation match in your database makes it harder for the translation agency to correctly put the fragments into context, but that is nothing a complete source language PDF cannot avail.

Plus, if only language-independent content, such as numbers or links, has changed from a previously translated document to a new version, the translation agency does not even need to be contacted. Intelligent content management software can translate these pieces of information itself, completing a “translation” in a matter of seconds.

Michael Arnold, Technical Editor, KTM Motorrad AG

Michael’s ICC presentation is “KTM Motorcycle Case Study: Lessons Learned in Developing Intelligent Content” March 25. He’ll be joined by co-presenter Alan Horvath, Managing Director of STAR Group America, who will share additional insights into the benefits of creating and maintaining technical information in intelligent content structures applicable to any industry sector.

Noz Urbina photo_revIn my projects, intelligent content facilitates new ways of working with content, easing consumption for audiences while removing grunt work from production.

I’ve got a client who produces a mobile-responsive ecommerce website, print catalogs, emails, downloadable apps and magazines, and more. In the bad old days, they had extensive duplication of content and effort, including copying and pasting. Information might be updated in some places and not others. So, from one deliverable to another, identical content could drift into inconsistency, even contradiction! Content delivery was “one size fits all” with no ability to vary the information according to the customer type or journey stage.

We moved to a model in which content components were stored centrally. Across the deliverables, we wanted the tone, facts, and descriptions to be identical where needed—and different where appropriate. To make this possible, we analysed all the deliverable types for similarities and differences.

We discovered that all deliverable types had product names, model numbers, a short line or two describing the product, and calls to action. Some information components were situational. For example, long descriptions and detailed feature overviews appeared only on the web, rarely in emails or brochures, and never in print. Some components, like short descriptions and calls to action, needed to be changed according to audience or output context.

We designed a single-sourced, adaptive content model that accommodates all these variations. This model frees the content from being tied up in individual deliverables, and it enables my client to speak with one voice across channels. Customers like the consistency. This intelligent content approach drives brand loyalty and advocacy.

Noz Urbina, Content Strategist and Founder, Urbina Consulting | @nozurbina

Noz’s ICC presentation is “The Non-Terrifying Intro to Semantic Content” March 24. He also gives a full-day pre-conference workshop, “Writing Adaptive, Reusable Content,” March 23.

rahelbailieIntelligent content enables you to personalize your content on a big scale—and when I say personalize, I mean by audience, by market, by device, and so on.

If you only have a handful of pages, you could, I suppose, copy and paste and edit pages to handcraft them. But what happens when you have thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of pages? You can’t handcraft them. In fact, you want to find a way to automate whatever you can.

By tagging and structuring content, you can deliver the right content to the right audiences. Here’s an example from one of my previous clients. The North American term “shipping and handling” becomes “postage and packing” in the U.K. and “postage and handling” in Australia. Can you imagine hand-changing this with millions of products needing this phrase inserted into various places? You want software to insert the right phrase for the right market into the content at publishing time—without lifting a finger.

The challenge is much greater than this small example, but this provides a taste of what can be done with intelligent content.

Rahel Anne Bailie, Founder, International Design | @rahelab

Rahel’s ICC presentation is “Stories that Sell: What Content Marketing Can Learn from Content Engineering” March 25. She also gives a full-day pre-conference workshop, “The Nuts and Bolts of Intelligent Content,” March 23.

Sarah OKeefe photo_revIntelligent content is open. We can access the information, manipulate it, and deliver it in a variety of places. If the features provided by our authoring or publishing software do not meet our needs, we have options.

Sarah O’Keefe, President and Founder, Scriptorium Publishing | @sarahokeefe

Sarah’s ICC presentation is “Crown Equipment Case Study: Getting Started with Intelligent Content” March 25. She’ll be joined by co-presenter Jodi Shimp, Global Content Manager at Crown Equipment.

Val Swisher photoWhat does intelligent content make possible?

  • Content reuse
  • Separating text from format
  • Multi-channel publishing without having to create multiple versions of the same source content
  • Enhanced searchability through metadata and tagging

Val Swisher, Founder and CEO, Content Rules, Inc. | @ContentRulesInc

Val’s ICC presentation is “What’s In A Word: How to Manage Terminology” March 24.


Reading these responses puts me in mind of all the copying and pasting I’ve done in my career. I’m good at it. I’m fast and careful. I understand all the dependencies and variations. I never introduce mistakes, never overlook anything, never forget which descriptions came from where. I create infinite spreadsheets to track identical descriptions across all product models, all types of deliverables, all translations, etc., so that I can keep all chunks of identical content in sync. For every client. My fingers blur. I feel myself lifted into the air. I’m flying! My cape flaps…

And then I wake up.

Could intelligent content make this dream come true? What does intelligent content make possible in your company? Please tell us in a comment below.

Intelligent Content Conference 2015

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About the author

marcia riefer johnston
Marcia Riefer Johnston (@marciarjohnston), managing editor of Intelligent Content for the Content Marketing Institute, has attended several Intelligent Content Conferences and looks forward to the next one. She is the author of Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build From Them). See Writing.Rocks.

Title image courtesy of Joseph Kalinowski, Content Marketing Institute

  • Vinish Garg

    Interesting to read about innovation here as Tom Johnson (idratherbewriting) is also talking about ‘innovation’ in technical communication, in a series of posts. I see many parallels in this post and what Tom is writing.

    I also get a feeling that the ‘startup community’ thinks of content on a different wavelength. I noticed it earlier today when Andre Chen replied to my topic ‘Content Strategy for Startups’ at:

    I think the ‘content’ community is about to see something disruptive (in process if not in tools) and adding ‘intelligent’ to content is a step towards it! 🙂

  • Marcia Riefer Johnston

    Vinish, I suspect that you’re right about disruption in both process and tools. What kind of disruption have you been experiencing?

  • Vinish Garg

    I am not experiencing a disruption, but I see that we are on the brink of it in content stream.

    When I see technology (and process combined) evolving in other streams such as in front-end programming or digital marketing, there is some alignment in the way this change is globally (even if slowly) embraced. Consider a small example of moving from tables to bootstrap.

    However in content or technical communication, a paradigm shift or an evolved process is not so universally accepted. I prepare case for mid size businesses in the US or European countries and not all of them are as responsive though they have embraced the shift in other streams (programming, marketing).

    So in my original comment, I meant that the content community is talking about innovation and disruption, so I sense that we may experience something that is more widely accepted as in other streams.

  • Marcia Riefer Johnston

    Vinish, People may be slow to embrace changes this big, partly because they don’t understand the benefits and partly because it takes time, money, and change management to do it right.