If you’ve worked with me, or come to one of my conference sessions or webinars, you know that I’m a huge fan of structured content. But sometimes I worry that structured content is my hammer and therefore all content problems look like a nail. 

What if structured content is not always the answer? What if I just can’t see past structured content into other solutions, because I “do” structured content for a living?

To test this idea, I used the following definition of structured content:

Content, whether in a textual, visual, or playable format, that conforms to structural and semantic rules that allow machine processing to meet specific business requirements. (source: The Language of Content Strategy, XML Press)

I divided the world of content into the following categories:

  • Enterprise Content
  • Everything Else

Then I tried to identify types of content problems that cannot be solved by the principles, processes, or tools of structured content.

Enterprise Content

Enterprise content includes everything your company writes, draws, records, and produces. 

Enterprise content ranges from learning materials and technical documentation to marketing, advertising, and customer support. It includes internal communications, such as the corporate wiki and standard operating procedures. In industries such as video games and online courseware, enterprise content doesn’t just support the product, it is the product.

The most common challenge with enterprise content is scale. Some signs that your enterprise content ecosystem is not scaling up to meet business needs include:

  • Content is created and stored all over the place
  • Content is redundant, hard to find, and difficult or impossible to reuse
  • Review cycles occur by emailing documents
  • Authors make the same updates to multiple instances of the same content
  • Publishing requires manual layout, formatting, or post-production cleanup

As enterprises grow, so do the needs of their content. At some point, an enterprise cannot keep hiring more people, buying more computers, and establishing more teams to create more content. This approach is too expensive and too difficult to manage.

It’s especially imprudent when you realize just how often different silos in the organization create the same content. For example, much of the documentation is similar to the training content. Portions of the support content is similar to the marketing, and so forth. There is no point in creating and re-creating similar content from blank every time. 

Enterprises are typically under tremendous pressure to grow. To stay competitive, they add products regularly. They adjust their services as their customer base evolves or new technology becomes unavoidable. They update policies to stay compliant with regulations. If they go global, they adapt again, to ensure they meet regional requirements and expectations.

Content operations must be able to scale right alongside the business growth. Structured content was designed to enable content to scale. Content reuse is one of the main reasons an enterprise moves to structure. It’s also one of the key metrics we use to measure the ROI of the structured content ecosystem.

Everything Else

A lot of people who work with content in their day jobs have creative aspirations as well. I’ve worked with more than one tech writer who is also a published novelist. Ask around your various content teams and you’ll find musicians, painters, photographers, filmmakers, poets, songwriters, authors, and creative nonfiction writers.

The content these individual creators produce outside of their corporate jobs is not enterprise content. Even if they have business licenses and sell their work, they are not under the same level of pressure to scale as a corporation. 

In fact, for artists, producing too many of a thing often lowers the value of the original thing. A print maker typically creates a limited number of prints of a design. They number the prints: 1/100, 2/100, 3/100, up to 100/100. The fewer the number of prints, the more valuable each print. The lower the number, the more valuable the print. Print 1/100 is more valuable than print 99/100.

Individual creators do not typically need their work to “conform to structural and semantic rules that allow machine processing to meet specific business requirements.” It’s when they go to sell that work that structured content becomes a solution again. 

To sell creative works, the artist (or their agent or publisher) must make it possible for customers to find the work. They may need collateral that engages customers and guides customers along a journey from first look to final purchase.

Platforms such as Etsy, CD Baby, YouTube, Vimeo, and Amazon Kindle Direct all provide structured content solutions to creative individuals. These solutions include:

  • Content creation and delivery platforms where artists upload pictures or samples of their work and content about their work
  • An enterprise taxonomy and metadata tags to help customers find the artist’s work
  • Marketing and advertising tools that help artists reuse their web content in ads and social media posts
  • Algorithms that deliver the artist’s content to customers based on customer preferences and behavior

For the search, advertising, and algorithms to work well, the artist’s “meta” content — description, photographs, videos, recordings, and metadata tags — must follow the structures inherent to the platform.

In other words, structured content may not be necessary for producing creative work. But it is the solution for the business content of any creator attempting to sell their work online.

At which point, we’re back to enterprise content.

Structured Content Is a Toolbox

My conclusion is that not every content problem is a nail — sometimes, it’s a screw. And structured content is the solution for that too. Structured content is not a hammer. For enterprise content, it’s the entire toolbox.

Now more than ever, an enterprise needs the economies of scale that come from a well-planned, well-implemented structured content ecosystem. There is no other way to deliver the right content to the right person at the right time on the right channel in the language of their choice.

Today’s structured content toolboxes — including the principles, workflows, and systems that make up a successful structured content ecosystem — are mature enough to support just about everything an enterprise needs their content to do. (And if yours isn’t working optimally or if you’re ready to get one of your own, we can help.)

Regina Lynn Preciado