What Puts the Intelligent in Intelligent Content?

IC_Intelligent-01by Marcia Riefer Johnston

A friend recently joked, “Do you need a high IQ to attend the Intelligent Content Conference?” Of course, intelligent content has nothing to do people’s IQs. We don’t call it content made by intelligent people (as smart as you’d be to move your company in the direction of intelligent content). No, it’s the content itself that we call intelligent.

What does it mean to call content intelligent? One way to answer that question is to answer this one: Can content be unintelligent? In other words, can content be, well, dumb? Sure, says Jacquie Samuels in a TechWhirl article:

Writing content in Word, email, PowerPoint, WordPress, HTML, InDesign, FrameMaker, or any other format is equivalent to writing on stone tablets. Your content is essentially stuck in that format and dumb as a rock. Dumb content can’t be easily reused or repurposed, and that’s inefficient and costly.

So what distinguishes intelligent content from dumb content?

What’s the main difference between content that’s intelligent and content that’s not – and why is that the most important difference in your view?

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

Lisa Welchman photo_revOn the continuum of information that we manage, at one end is unstructured, heavily customized content, like the content you might find in a highly bespoke print brochure or the home page of a website. At the other end of the continuum of information are discrete data units that have almost no meaning devoid of a context, perhaps transactional information that sits in a database, such as a single price associated with the sale of one pair of trousers to one customer.

In the middle of that continuum is intelligent content – partially context-specific, and partially discrete. This is the content that we use for sophisticated content applications like multi-channel delivery. It is chunked and tagged with metadata. It creates fabulous efficiencies and value for the business that manages it and for customers on the receiving end of the content.

All this is important to understand because organizations have to choose what type of content or information they use for particular applications – and they have to manage the production and maintenance of each of those information types differently.

Lisa Welchman, President, Digital Governance Frameworks, ActiveStandards | @lwelchman

Lisa’s ICC presentation is “Enabling Intelligent Content with Digital Governance” March 25.

Noz Urbina photo_revTraditional content is generally optimised for a specific channel or presentation format, usually some sort of page. Intelligent content is designed for a world of continuous change and multiple ways to engage with content.

Content is “intelligent” when the human-consumable bits of content exist intermingled with significant amounts of descriptive information (metadata) about that content. This extra information embeds our human understanding into the content itself so that machines can operate on it more effectively. Metadata explains to the computer the difference between a general paragraph and an expert’s hot tip, or the difference between a part number and a phone number. This extra layer of information helps machines determine where, when, and how to present content to the users who will find it most interesting.

Content might appear as a page, or as a few lines of read-out on a wearable device, or as a dynamic compilation of data and content to answer a customer request. It might be rendered in an augmented-reality app – or in some form we haven’t dreamed up yet.

Old content-delivery channels don’t necessarily die off when new channels are created. We need to deliver websites to both desktop and mobile devices in parallel. Social media and apps didn’t replace websites. Print materials might be secondary, but they are still significant to many of today’s business transactions. When wearables mature, will we give up our smartphones and tablets? I don’t think so.

To keep up with the changing ways that people consume content, we need to store and manage our information assets in ways that are neutral, central, and independent of the output channels and independent of the page metaphor.

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 preconference workshop, “Writing Adaptive, Reusable Content,” March 23.

Val Swisher photoThe first thing that comes to my mind is structure. In intelligent content, there is a place for everything and everything has a place – or it doesn’t belong. Structure (and content modeling) is important for several reasons:

Structure sets up an expectation for the customer.

When I use a content model, the customer gets comfortable knowing what to expect and where to find it. That’s what customers want. They will read the next great novel on their off hours. Our content (whether it is marketing, tech doc, training, knowledge base, etc.) is there to provide information. Structure makes it easy to find information.

Structure provides a road map for the content developer.

If I have a content model, I know what I need to write, where, and for what purpose. I can identify nonessential information that I can leave out.

Structure enables content reuse.

See my answer to last week’s question.

Structure makes translation easier, faster, and better.

Translators who have a content model can understand what type of information goes where. The structure of the content model provides context that helps translators select appropriate words.

Structure allows for multiple layouts.

Through structure, intelligent content separates text from format. This means that content creators can select parts of the structure and lay them out in ways that make sense for various deliverables, devices, and so on.

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.

Steve Stegelin photoIntelligent content engages the audience with information that is easily and quickly consumed and understood, through a channel and format that matches the way the recipient prefers to learn or receive that information.

From a creator perspective, intelligent content should focus on its user experience so as to avoid overwhelming with Too Much Information – while enabling the discovery of more content to help audiences who want to dive deeper. Intelligent content should also support repurposing across multiple channels and at the same time feel crafted for an experience that matches the recipient’s context.

Steve Stegelin, Information Architect, Blackbaud | @stegelin

Steve’s ICC presentation is “Blackbaud Case Study: How Taking a Visual Approach to Content Put the User in User Assistance” March 25.

Buddy_Scalera-1-150x150When I hear the term intelligent content, I think about process. Intelligent content requires planning and documentation. It doesn’t just happen. Your content strategist needs to wrangle multiple stakeholders and get them to agree to certain standards. Many creative teams are still working with old workflows and deliverables, which may not be designed for modern digital experiences.

We’re seeing more brands with sophisticated content management systems that can deliver and render content appropriately across multiple publishing destinations. This is a big commitment. Brands must take the time to design intelligent processes for the creation, retrieval, and delivery of content.

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_revWe explain intelligent content to clients like this: It’s like providing a backstory for your characters. Without it, the characters in the story would feel two-dimensional. But with a rich backstory, the characters have more meaning, dimensions, and impact. It’s the same with metadata and content. Metadata provides more meaning and impact to the content.

The main difference between content that is intelligent and that which is not boils down to three things: structure, markup, and metadata.

  • Structure is important to enable discrete content reuse beyond giant WYSIWYG blocks.
  • Markup is important because it enables content to be understood, enriched, indicated, consumed, and reused. In a way, markup enables the content to be free.
  • Metadata is important because it enriches the content for which relationships (such as taxonomy and other forms of tagging) and searchable terms would otherwise be lost.

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

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

Ann RockleyIntelligent content is not about the written words. It is about the way the content is managed. Traditional content is static content that must be touched every time you want to use it: once for web, once for mobile, again when it goes into Facebook, again when it goes out on Twitter, etc.

Intelligent content is designed not only for humans to read and consume but also for machines to process automatically. Create it once, and watch your content automatically grow tenfold or more after you have the power to mix and match content, extract and present relevant content, and publish anywhere, anytime, and on any device. Automatically! That’s intelligent content.

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 preconference workshop, “Building a FrameWork for Intelligent Content,” March 23.

derek phillipsAs a matter of executing against a digital-content strategy, an intelligent-content approach – in alignment with that strategy – provides direction on the components of the experience. An intelligent-content approach defines the content as assets, which you can align with specific business goals and user needs.

Any content that doesn’t align to business goals and user needs is a distraction.

Breaking the experience down to an asset level (versus page level) hones our ability to evaluate the content against those strategic initiatives and removes much of the subjective opinion from the process of what’s “good” and pivots to an objective view of what’s working – at the molecular level. That provides scale since these components are reused throughout the experience and not locked to a page.

The last step is to apply that direction to the content-creation process itself. Intelligent content helps you focus your resources.

Derek Phillips, Director of Content Strategy, ISITE Design | @digistrategist

Derek’s ICC presentation is “BMC Case study: How to Take a Content-First Approach and Measure the Success of Your Content Strategy” March 24. He’ll be joined by co-presenter Mark Fries, Principal Strategic Marketing Manager, BMC Software.

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.

Jenny Magic photo_revIntelligent content requires a proactive, intentional, big-picture mindset. To qualify as intelligent, content must fit into a system rather than being created in reaction to a specific (often urgent, single-use) need. Intelligent content fills a unique space in a content strategy. It results from identifying user personas and creating structured, meaningful content that meets their needs as those needs change from moment to moment and channel to channel.

Jenny Magic, Principal and VP Content Strategy, SiteGoals | @JennyLMagic

Jenny’s ICC presentation is “Getting Started with Adaptive Content” March 24. She’ll be joined by co-presenter Don Day, Consultant with Learning by Wrote.

Michelle Killebrew photo_revTo me, content that is intelligent takes several things into account:

  • The user: customer or a prospect?
  • The information stage: beginning of a consideration cycle, or have they already made a purchase, etc.?
  • The affinity: fan or detractor?
  • The device: desktop, mobile, etc.?
  • The context: standing in your (or a competitor’s) store or office, on a train, etc.?
  • The channel: interacting via social media (short form), reading an article (long form), watching a video, etc.?

…and then builds the experience so that it is optimized to those parameters.

I think standard (unintelligent) content stems from people trying to get on the content bandwagon without understanding how to provide the best experience for their audience. With all the buzz around content and storytelling, some brands are trying to turn their existing experiences into content (because they are “supposed” to), keeping their brand marketing message as the touchstone – instead of understanding and serving their audiences’ needs. Customer-first marketing is the cornerstone of content marketing strategy.

Additionally, intelligent content makes it easy for marketers to repurpose and expose content in multiple formats and channels, which helps make their lives easier, too.

Michelle Killebrew, Program Director, Strategy & Solutions| @shellkillebrew

Michelle’s ICC presentation is “The Long and Short of Content: Strategies for Intelligent Content Planning” March 24. She’ll be joined by co-presenter Buddy Scalera, SVP of Interactive Content and Market Research, Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide.

Don Day photo_revI have just spent 15 minutes trying to prevent a blog editor from inserting a font size into a post I was revising. That font size was not appropriate for a new theme for the content, but I could not get the system to understand that I wanted the content to get its visual behavior from the new display context rather than from a value pushed into it by an unintelligent editing interface.

I was struggling with dumb content in a dumb system.

By contrast, intelligent content is free of properties that apply only to one theme or campaign. It is structured and labeled so that its parts can be used as needed. It is rich in descriptive properties that a publishing system can use to serve the needs of the client or device receiving that content.

Intelligent content frees its owner from the tyranny of one-trick publishing systems. It becomes a reusable asset rather than an expendable effort. It does what you want it to do!

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.

Laurel Counts photo_revMomentary confusion… “What? How can content be intelligent? This sounds like they are talking about a live thing.” Then I rush past the new words and get excited about the new world they describe.

Yes, when the text of a document (content) can be easily accessible and repurposed by multiple authors with different goals, changed and redelivered within hours, not only remaining constantly relevant but improving over time, then it becomes alive and growing.

Content that’s not intelligent, which is what writers have historically delivered, provides only a snapshot of the product, frozen in time.

A primary technical-communications’ goal is to convey product instructions so the user can use the product without frustration or support calls. Before intelligent content, writers made educated guesses about users’ needs. An intelligent content system can loop in a critical viewpoint that the snapshot inevitably leaves out: the users’ point of view, which is only fully understood after the product is released and in use.

When a user provides feedback, the writer can update the content and quickly push those improvements back out to all users. In this way, technical communicators can continuously notch up the quality of the user’s experience with the product.

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.

Melissa BrekerIntelligent content is smart content. It’s content that’s structured. It’s content that allows each component of content to be managed and stored as individual pieces or attributes. These pieces can be categorized and classified via a taxonomy to support a better digital strategy and customer experience.

Regular content is unstructured content. It’s content that is often created and used once. It’s the single large text field that includes all information in a single “bucket.” Regular (unintelligent) content is difficult to find and reuse because it’s designed for a particular deliverable (blog, white paper, FAQ, etc.) or targeted to a specific device.

Why make content intelligent?

Structured content takes out the question of format and the constraints of design. It helps reduce inconsistencies and errors.

Reusing content versus creating new content

Creating a content strategy can help us shift from our current ad hoc approach to looking at how we can reuse content in new ways. We need repeatable processes based on audience, context, and content types.

Intelligent content is published to different platforms and outputs based on these things:

  • function
  • structure
  • requirements + rules

Without these three things, we are faced with a future of trapped, expensive, and inefficient content.

Melissa Breker, Co-Founder, Content Strategy Inc., | @melissabreker

Melissa’s ICC presentation is “Connecting Content Strategy with Intelligent Content” March 24.

rahelbailieMany things come to mind. The first is, “Oh, look at all the things I can do with this content!” This is because of semantic markup; when content is structured and tagged well, then computers in general (specifically, search engines) can understand the context of the content. When machines understand whether 987-654-3210 is a part number or a phone number, they can deliver the right content under the right circumstances. That quality is specific to 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 preconference workshop, “The Nuts and Bolts of Intelligent Content,” March 23.

Michael Arnold photoWhen someone mentions intelligent content, the first thing that comes to mind is layout-independent content.

Unintelligent content must be adapted manually to every publication format (portrait, landscape, A4, A5, web pages…), a process that is both painfully slow and prone to errors.

Intelligent and layout-independent content takes care of itself when changing the publication format. Page breaks, tables, headings (and many other layout aspects that may trouble content creators) are adjusted and positioned automatically.

Thus, we can add, remove, or change information in our documents without ever worrying about desktop publishing since intelligent content – and the software handling the content – does it for us.

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.

Carlos Abler photo_revWhen I hear that content is intelligent, two things come to mind:

  • It is future-enabled as a business asset – ready for unanticipated uses, reuse, productive transformation, or even just plain old findability for reference or cross-linkage.
  • It is future-proofed against a premature death, forgotten in some dark and lonely database where a potentially valuable asset will cost the organization dearly through opportunity loss, redundant efforts for reproducing the same or similar content, inefficient efforts for content that could have used the existing assets as a foundation.

This difference between intelligent and “dumb” content is foundational. It’s the difference between having an orange and having an orange tree. Intelligent content has enduring and generative value that bears many fruits – anticipated and unanticipated. It has more than just one immediate value.

Carlos Abler, Leader of Online Content Strategy, 3M Global eTransformation | @Carlos_Abler

Carlos’ ICC presentation is “University of Michigan Case Study: Connecting Intelligent Content and Content Marketing to Improve Real Lives” March 25.


If intelligent content is, as Carlos Abler says, “enduring and generative” – like an orange tree – we might think of dumb content as a bunch of scattered oranges. They may taste good, but they won’t produce any new oranges.

If Jacquie Samuels had been thinking of oranges instead of rocks, she might have written her TechWhirl description this way (apologies, Jacquie):

When you create content in Word, email, PowerPoint, WordPress, HTML, InDesign, FrameMaker, or any other format, that content is essentially stuck in that format and dumb as an orange. After an orange is eaten, it’s useless. That orange can’t be reused or repurposed, and that’s inefficient and costly.

Does your content team think in terms of oranges – or orange trees? What puts the intelligent in intelligent content in your business? Share your experience in a comment below.

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Title image courtesy of Joseph Kalinowski, Content Marketing Institute

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.

  • http://www.thecontentwrangler.com/ Scott Abel

    Awesome post! Now, let’s take these ideas and spread them far and wide. We have a lot of work to do!

  • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

    Scott, If the intelligent-content community can’t spread ideas far and wide, I don’t know who can!

  • http://ditaperday.com/blog/ Don Day

    You know, the harder question is, “How can you put Intelligent back into Inelegant Content?” There’s a future tweet or blog post lurking in there…

  • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

    Don, Oh yes, there’s a tweet lurking in there. That’s downright poetic. The XMLmeister strikes again.

  • http://www.vinishgarg.com/ Vinish Garg

    Another insightful conversation.
    When I think of dumb content, it seems as if we are being insensitive to content, as if we are overlooking content for its emotional needs. To add intelligent to content is to help it express and live for its ultimate purpose.

  • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

    Hi, Vinish. I’m looking for the like button. 🙂

  • http://isitedesign.com/ carmenhill

    Along the lines of what Buddy said: intelligent content doesn’t just happen. Its intelligence is imparted through the smart thinking and planning of a content strategist. In other words: intelligent content requires human intelligence.

  • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

    Carmen, Exactly. Fascinating things happen at that place where human intelligence and machine power come together to share good content. So many possibilities…

  • http://isitedesign.com/ carmenhill

    Makes me giddy for the conference 🙂

  • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

    Me too.

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