Mastering Content Strategy: Technical Editing and the Digital Universe

By Andrea J. Wenger

The Maya predicted that on December 21, 2012, the earth would undergo a cataclysmic change.

I think they were off by five days.

On December 26, 2012, 30 million Americans will be searching the Web on the new iPads, Nooks, and Kindle Fires they got for Christmas, and they will expect Web content to be optimized for mobile devices.

Is your content optimized for mobile devices?

Technology has reached a tipping point. In 2011, sales of tablets and smartphones exceeded those of laptop computers. In developing nations, people are going straight to mobile. What does that mean for technical communication?

Stephanie Chacharon put it well on her blog: “Users are accessing content from a dizzying range of devices … If you care (at all) about the user experience, you must structure your content.”

Why structure? Because content needs to be independent of the delivery system (such as print, PDF, help file, Web, or app). Structure tells the delivery system how to handle the content.

If you want to go mobile, you must go structured. This was the message of Ann Rockley and Charles Cooper of The Rockley Group in their presentation “Content Strategy for Reaching Customers Anywhere” at this year’s STC Technical Communication Summit. Clean, structured, context-agnostic XML content is key to accommodating the thousands of mobile devices on the market.

Optimizing Content for Mobile Devices

Content drives a business’s online presence, said Colleen Jones of Content Science in her Summit presentation, “Make Your Content Matter.” Content is important to sales, marketing, customer service, and tech support. Customers are becoming more demanding—they expect to be able to access the right content anytime, anywhere. Because technical communicators are content experts, we have more opportunities than ever to contribute.

Mobile requires minimalism. That doesn’t mean you have to write differently, Rockley emphasized; it means you have to write well. And well-written content works in print and digital media.

Technical editors are ideally suited to scrub existing content and optimize it for multiple outputs. Organizing content and making it more concise are key competencies of our profession. Jones stressed that transitioning into the content strategist role will mean applying existing knowledge in new ways, while also discovering new techniques.

Mobile delivery systems put new demands on how we write content. Cooper argued that unless people have to read something, they won’t. So put the important information up front, as a journalist would. Adapt content by layering and filtering. Chunk information into screen-sized bits. Keep in mind that people will read the first two screens, and maybe a third, but not a fourth.

Don’t assume that people will click a link to read more. Truncation is not a content strategy, insisted Karen McGrane of Bond Art+Science. In “Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Content” at the Summit, she suggested using teasers to entice customers to click that link. Write longer versions and shorter versions of the content, so the device can choose the appropriate length. Don’t start with print as the model. Write for the chunk, not for the page.

Content doesn’t live on a Web page, McGrane said. The Web site is just another form of display, like print. Don’t create separate content for each delivery system; create flexible content written for reuse, and include meaningful metadata.

Jones suggested including images and videos of the product. But some visual elements will need to be reimagined for mobile. Rockley warns that tables may not work on mobile devices, so think of new ways of presenting the information. Ensure that images work on black-and-white devices like the original Kindle.

Technology Considerations

The real challenge of mobile isn’t design—it’s content, said McGrane. Mobile devices adapt the design to their own parameters. The content must therefore be structured and properly tagged to be usable on all devices. Visual cues are still important, but they must be coded. Metadata is the new art direction. It helps prioritize content.

According to McGrane, the future of content management systems (CMSs) is in their ability to capture content in a clean, context-free way. But decisions about the CMS can’t be based on technology issues—they have to be based on people issues. A better content management system fosters better content.

In your current environment, print and PDF files may work well for you and your company. But with technology changing so rapidly, we can’t get complacent. Look toward the future. Mobile will force people toward a healthy content management strategy, McGrane said. And the more structure you put into your content, the freer it will be.

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