A couple of weeks ago, I spoke at the Structured Content Conference in San Francisco. The organizers of the conference (sanity.io) asked me to be on a panel with four other content strategists. The title of the session was “Improv Consulting: Yes, And…Experts Improvise Solutions to Real Problems.” I considered it content strategy “whack-a-mole.” Attendees asked whatever questions they wanted the panel to answer. The only rule was that the panelist could not use “It depends” as the answer to the question.

Attendees asked some really good questions, one of which was “Is there a perfect structure for your content?” While I listened to the other panelist’s answer, I contemplated the question. And here is what I came up with:

There is no such thing as a perfect structure because your structure is going to change over time. If you create a perfect structure and it never changes, it is likely because your company is not innovating. And if your company is not innovating, it’s not going to be in business for very long. With new products and services should come new content types. And new content types often require new structures.

It’s kind of like terminology, which I always equate to laundry. You are never done managing terminology. Ever. As much as you’d like to be. The reason is that your company should be creating new things and with new things come additional words to manage. Similarly, as soon as your clothes are nice and clean, washed, dried, folded, and put away, you have more laundry to do.

And this is what we want, isn’t it? We want our companies to come out with new products and services. We want technology to advance so we can create new content types and deliverables. We don’t want to put a piece of paper into a typewriter and create the same old thing, day after day, year after year. Most of us love working with content, in part, because we love to create and innovate.

The same is true for structure.

One of the things we tell customers about structured content is that when you move to structure, you can do more things with the same content. By separating the content from the format, the words and images are free to look many different ways for many different outputs.

In fact, as you create additional content structures, you can use existing content in those structures. If done correctly, you should not have to write or rewrite new content for a new type of deliverable. For example, the same content you write for documentation can likely be used in a knowledgebase article and vice-versa. The structure of the content is different, but the instructions themselves are the same. All you need to do is create a new structure for the output type and make sure your publishing engine is configured properly. The content itself should be flexible enough to support many types of outputs.

Continued innovation requires continued changes to content structure. Don’t get too tied to any given structure. Just like your favorite socks, it will wear out someday.

Val Swisher
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