When you move from an unstructured authoring environment to a structured authoring environment, you have many decisions to make. Among those decisions is what you should do with your existing (legacy) content. You have three choices:

Leave your legacy content behind

Leaving legacy content behind means that it is not available in your new ecosystem. The files may still exist someplace (perhaps a Sharepoint server or someone’s hard drive), but the information is no longer going to be used.

Take your legacy content and put each file into a component

There may be some content that you want to store in your new component content management system (CCMS), but that you do not plan on reusing. You can typically migrate this content with minimal transformation. This choice allows you to update and publish from the new system. However, this content will typically not be convenient for seamless reuse or single-source publishing to multiple channels as it is not chunked into small pieces.

Transform your legacy content so that it can be reused now and in the future

Current content that you need to use and reuse should be transformed for a structured environment. The steps to transform legacy content include:

  • Convert the files to XML
  • Chunk the content into small, reusable components
  • Rewrite content so that it makes sense when it is reused
  • Check the content into the CCMS
  • Tag the content so you can find it when you need it

You will likely make different choices for different subsets of content. Your content transformation plan is likely to include all three options.

Content Transformation Should be Part of Your Content Strategy 

You know the adage, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” This holds true when it comes to transforming legacy content. As you work through the details of moving to a structured content ecosystem, include the transformation tasks someone (or a few someones) will need to do. 

Far too often, content teams are so excited about their new ecosystem that they forget about the millions of legacy words that need to be reworked to take part. They spend a lot of time and money deploying and configuring the system. Once it is up and running, they realize that they need masses of content to be available — not just the subset of content chosen for the pilot project or the first wave of migration.

Planning for transformation as part of your overall strategy will ensure that you don’t leave any words behind.

To be successful, you should start transforming your content the moment you decide to move to a structured environment. You do not need new tools to start the transformation. Here are some things you can do even before your new ecosystem is in place.

Start Modeling Your Content Right Away

First, decide which content to transform. The sooner you decide, the better off you’ll be. 

Next, start creating your content models. You need two types of models: information product models and component models.

Information product models define structures for your output types. Some examples:

  • Quick Start Guide
  • User Guide
  • Reference Guide
  • Lab Exercise
  • Knowledge Base Article

Component models define structures for the chunks of content that make up the output types. Components are the nimble, reusable, modular chunks of content that you can mix and match to publish many outputs from a single source of truth. Some examples:

  • Product Description
  • Task
  • Knowledge Check
  • Warning, Caution, or other Hazard Statement
  • Standard Operating Procedure

If you have never built content models, you may want to get outside assistance. Regardless, thinking through and creating your core content models can be a time-consuming task. The sooner your start, the better off you’ll be.

Writers can start creating content to the model even before they have new tools. Following the models helps prepare the content for reuse and reduces the amount of work necessary when you do migrate that content into the new system.

Plan for Reuse

When you plan your reuse strategy ahead of time, you can ensure that your new tools support the reuse mechanisms you want to use. However, even if you have chosen and implemented your new system, it is best to plan for reuse before you attempt to migrate legacy content into it.

Think about all of the content you create by copying, pasting, and tweaking (CPT) existing content. Chances are, if you CPT, that content is reusable. This content is likely worth the full transformation treatment.

Consider how much content you could reuse if it were chunked appropriately. Reuse opportunities come at all levels of granularity, from entire sections to individual components, all the way down to a single sentence or fragment.

Identify areas where you can reuse the content by incorporating variables, conditions, snippets, fragments, or content references (conrefs). It is possible you will include all of these mechanisms (and more) in your reuse strategy. 

The most important part of reuse is having a strategy and writing it down. That way, all your content creators will know when and how to reuse existing content. It will also help them learn how to write content in a way that it can be reused.

It’s Never Too Late

Content transformation can be an onerous task. Of course, it depends on how much content you need to make available. Most companies have a lot of content. Unfortunately, many companies do not make a plan for transforming their content ahead of time, which makes the process even more challenging later on.

The good news is, it’s never too late. Even if you have a new content management system and have migrated your most pressing content into it, you can still unlock the potential of your legacy content through a content transformation process. Most content teams simply don’t have the bandwidth to plan, model, and migrate their legacy content on their own, while also keeping up with new demands. 

If that’s you, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Content Rules can help lead you through a successful transformation. And for more information about our content transformation methodology, download our free eBook. 

Val Swisher
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