Interview with Scott Abel, “The Content Wrangler” – Part 1

As technology has evolved, the whole concept of ‘content’ has changed dramatically on several occasions, requiring content producers to adapt quickly in order to survive and thrive. And while there could be a case to be made for the revolutionary impact of technologies such as photocopiers and desktop publishing, the changes that have been brought about by the emergence of the internet have arguably had the most profound impact on content production and distribution since the invention of the printing press.

Scott Abel, AKA “The Content Wrangler”

With the internet and associated technologies such as mobile devices and social media profoundly changing the way we think about content, there needs to be a few people around to help content creators – and the companies and organisations that employ them – to adapt their approach to the changing times. Step forward, today’s interview guest Scott Abel, AKA “The Content Wrangler”. Abel is one of the foremost thought leaders in the field of content strategy, and here at IntelligentHQ we are honoured to have an exclusive, in-depth interview with him.

Scott is an internationally recognised content strategist who specialises in helping organisations improve the way they author, maintain, and deliver information to those who need it. Here is a man with many strings to his bow, from being a regular contributor to content industry publications and a regular speaker at content events around the world to teaching digital publishing at the University of California, Berkeley and serving on the awareness committee of Translators Without Borders.

He also co-produces several high-profile industry events including the annual Intelligent Content Conference and Information Development World. His own company, The Content Wrangler, has evolved from a website highlighting things that he found useful in his own content management endeavours to being a hub for communications professionals and a consultancy servicing many major clients. He specialises in helping organisations to improve the way in which they author, maintain, publish, and archive their information assets, including leveraging social technologies to help propagate their content.

the whole concept of content IntelligentHQ

The whole concept of content IntelligentHQ

We caught up with Scott for a lengthy chat about his career to date, the state of content production and distribution in the current climate, and the directions he anticipates – or would like to see – in the future.

1. Can you tell us about you, education and your career?

I’m Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler. I’m disc jockey by birth; a journalist by education; and a content strategist by choice. I help organisations deliver the right content, to the right audience, anytime, anywhere, on any device. But, more than that, I teach organisations to think differently about how they create, manage and publish content. Content engineered to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined target audience. Content that, when put to work for a brand, helps it drive profitable customer action. Effective content. Liquid content. Intelligent content.

2. You are the founder and CEO of The Content Wrangler. Tell us a little about that.

The Content Wrangler is not only my moniker, it’s also the name of my consulting company. Founded in 2003 as a blog—an online home for all of the articles I found useful to my work—TheContentWrangler.com accidentally became a popular destination for technical, marketing, and product information creators (writers, editors, and their managers). Over the past decade, I’ve grown the brand in several directions. In addition to providing content strategy consulting to global brands, The Content Wrangler also provides thought leadership (webinars, articles and white papers) on many topics related to content production. And, we produce several of the industry’s most innovative conferences and training workshops on the same—and tangentially— related subjects.

Interview The Content Wrangler IntelligentHQ

Interview The Content Wrangler IntelligentHQ

3. You are the ultimate content strategist and evangelist; can you tell us about this drive and focus?

Being an evangelist is about disruption. It’s about showcasing what’s possible, as opposed to following the herd and talking about what everyone is already talking about. It’s about challenging the status quo and making people think—differently.

I’m an evangelist for content strategy. I push organisations to treat content as a business asset, worthy of being of created, managed and delivered efficiently and effectively. As it turns out, this is not what most firms do.

Content creators do (at best) a mediocre job at content production. It’s not their fault. It’s the not-so-obvious result of the personal computing revolution. Desktop publishing, PCs, and folders labeled “My Documents” have made it possible for writers to be in control of the entire content production process. While this may sound like a great time-saver (after all, desktop publishing made it possible for us to rid the world of typesetters and document designers), in reality, the approach has had some unforeseen, negative consequences. Desktop publishing provided short-term benefit, but has, over time, made it almost impossible for us to reuse and repurpose content in useful (read: automated) ways. That’s because our content is locked inside documents like PDFs, MS Word files, and other formats. And, that’s got to change.

Mobile device apps serve customers looking for an answer: a specific piece of content. The right piece. The one they want or need. Until we can create smaller, modular pieces of semantically-enhanced content that can be easily repurposed by machines, we will continue to waste resources on outdated content production processes.

I am driven to focus on this challenge because it’s one huge area of opportunity. Every organisation in the world could benefit from taking an honest look at how they create, manage and deliver content. The savings, I believe, could revolutionise content production and make organisations that produce content amazingly efficient.

4. You are an author, speaker, and a consultant. How do you manage the borders between these different areas?

I don’t. I consider everything I do be somehow related. In fact, I try to find relationships between the roles I play in order to fulfill the job I have created for myself.  I’m a super-connector. My role is to work across—and in between—the borders. I help software and hardware technology companies (and service providers) get their products noticed by those who may need them. I help consultants get themselves noticed by technology companies (who often rely on them to implement and service customers) and by prospects (who may need their services to determine the best course of action, select the right technologies and tools, implement the entire solution). And, I help professionals in the content arena (writers, editors, translators, content strategists, content managers, community managers and others) to find the information they need.

When I write, I look for topics that I can reuse. Topics that I can turn into a series of articles, a white paper, a conference presentation, a webinar, and more. These topics also tend to be the same topics that my clients care about. So, it’s a win-win for all involved.

Content is teh life blood Quote Anne Rockley IntelligentHQ

Content is the life blood – Quote Ann Rockley IntelligentHQ

5. How do you see content in a world obsessed with fast delivery and accelerated digital startup focus?

Content is, as Ann Rockley of The Rockley Group (www.rockley.com) described it in “Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy” (www.managingenterprisecontent.com), “the lifeblood of an organization”. It’s all the stuff that you use to run your business. Without it, well, you have nothing. Our drive-through window economy has created an expectation amongst consumers that everything must be available now (or, at the very least, soon). This includes the right content. Not just any content. But, the right content, at the right time, in the right language. This expectation makes it even more important that we avoid tossing content onto a website and calling it good enough. Good enough content may be good enough for a short while. But, when a competitor enters your turf and attempts to differentiate themselves from your brand, that’s when amazingly useful, targeted, and well-thought out content experiences can help an organisation fend off competition.

The startup mentality, is good at one thing—getting started. It’s not good for the long-haul. Once a company grows, it’s content production methods should mature. To be competitive, a growing company must have future-proof content creation, management and delivery processes in place that are scalable. If it doesn’t scale, that’s where the problems come in. Investors want to invest in companies that have a chance of success. Often the focus on these investments is the short-term; investors want their money back as soon as possible. But, when larger firms that grow by acquisition are shopping for smaller companies to purchase, they not only factor in the potential returns, but also the likely costs. There’s nothing trivial about converting and migrating content that was created on-the-fly, in whatever way worked for the moment. Moving content created in the wild into an existing, formal, systematic production process can be time-consuming and expensive. If you put extra effort into creating a repeatable content production process from the start, you may reap additional benefits.

Of course, the obsession with speed is also driving existing organisations to examine how they produce content. The techniques that have worked so well for decades are no loner sufficient in a world of mobile devices. Apps and mobile devices require us to think differently about content.

6. As a global content strategist, what is / are the most important trends for businesses to pay attention to?

That’s easy. There are five big ones: Automated translation, automated transcription, terminology management, adaptable content, and component content management.

Let’s start with automated translation. Often referred to as machine translation (the most well-known system of this type is Google Translate), automated translation attempts to eliminate the major barrier keeping Earthlings from communicating effectively with one another: language. While we are now more easily able to connect via social networks such as Facebook, we don’t all speak a common language. Americans and other English speakers are not always aware that the choices they make (what words they use and how they construct their sentences) dramatically impact not only comprehension amongst native speakers, but also understandability of their content amongst people who speak English as a second language. Those same word choice, sentence length, and style decisions also impact the ability of humans—and machines—to translate the content from English into other languages.

Automated transcription is a process that uses software to translate speech to text. This is needed for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is that video and audio files are not keyword searchable. This means that unless you provide a transcription of the words spoken in your podcast, video, or webinar, your content is invisible to search engines. By providing a full transcript to services like YouTube, you can ensure that those keywords are indexed and associated with your brand, something that is critical in a world in which searching for answers increasingly means asking a search engine to locate relevant content and serve up the best matches to you in a web browser.

Terminology management is another critical trend for businesses to examine as they look for ways to beat the competition. Terminology management is the process of controlling the words you use by organising them in a central repository that contains a list of approved terms and rules for their usage. The goal of terminology management is to ensure that the words that are most closely associated with your products, services, and branding are used consistently. Terminology management efforts should result in a controlled vocabulary accessible to all who need it across your organisations, as well as by partners and service providers.

Why manage terminology? Because doing so helps ensure consistency throughout your content—in both your source (English) content and the content you plan to translate. Terminology management is not limited to English language. You can—and should—manage all content in all languages. Doing so can deliver impressive savings on translation. And, if you’re in an industry that is heavily guided by regulations and compliance concerns, terminology management can help ensure you are creating quality content that meet relevant requirements.

While that sounds like something useful, by itself a terminology management strategy alone will not ensure compliance. Editors and terminologists play a role, but as humans, are ill-equipped to catch—and prevent—all content snafus. Humans are error-prone, inconsistent, and quite frankly, ill-equipped for such tasks. Instead, organisations that care about the terminology should consider adopting a terminology management tool like Acrolinx (www.acrolinx.com).

One of the biggest—and perhaps most important trends—is the move toward creating adaptive content. Content that is structured and designed (up front) to adapt to the needs of the customer, automatically. Not just cosmetically (as in responsive design), but also in substance and in capability. Adaptive content can be designed to adjust itself to the capabilities of the device on which it is being viewed. For instance, if a geographic positioning system is available on your smartphone, adaptable content could take advantage of the “location aware” features of the device. Or, when presented with instructions for downloading a marketing white paper, adaptable content would provide instructions that are slightly different for each device: “click” in the instructions for downloading from a laptop would become “touch” when the same instructions are presented on a smartphone or tablet. In an automobile, the instructions would be read aloud and the listener would be asked to “say” the word download.

Customers demand exceptional experiences today. Their expectations have changed and they expect you to change and adapt to their needs, not  the other way around. Adaptive content makes it possible for you to publish to multiple platforms, and to multiple devices, often, on-demand.

But, creating adaptive content involves rethinking how you create, manage, and deliver content. It’s best to seek advice from an experienced content strategist with expertise in this discipline. That’s because there is no “easy button”. Moving to adaptive content involves work, but the pay-off (in terms of return on investment) can often be realized in months, not years.

In order to deliver the right content to the right person, anywhere, anytime, on any device, organisations will have to adopt the right type of content management system. In this case, it’s a component content management system (CCMS)—a software tool designed specifically to help organisations create, administer, organise, govern, and distribute small, discrete, reusable components of content in multiple output formats, for multiple audiences, for multiple purposes. Component content management focuses on the storing content components that are assembled into documents. Content components of various types and sizes—as small as a single word or as large as many paragraphs—are placed into the CCMS where they can be remixed and repurposed to create new deliverables. Content components can take the form of graphics, hyperlinks, or other repurposable content (your company logo, product description, value proposition, links to benefits, etc.) In short, component content management is about managing content, not files or documents. It’s much more granular, and, as such, opens up many more possibilities.

For instance, component content managed in a CCMS supports the delivery of personalised content and targeted marketing, improving customer experiences and increasing response rates. And, component content can be put to work serving many purposes, increasing the return on investment of content production. And, if you do it in multiple languages, the benefits grow exponentially.

Who needs component content management?

Organisations that need to:

  • Provide different content to different people (prospects versus customers, for example)
    Reuse content across documents without copying and pasting
  • Ensure content is consistent everywhere it is presented (across all touch points, channels, devices, and customer segments)
  • Translate content once and have it automatically reflected wherever it should be reused
  • Publish to multiple output formats without the need for manual intervention (formatting of content occurs automatically)
  • Involve a variety of people in the creation, management, and delivery of content to those who need it, when and where they need it

Getting started involves having a content strategist with a deep knowledge of—and loads of experience with—reusable content—perform a content inventory, audit, and analysis. It’s basically a gap analysis to see where you are today, what could be improved by process re-engineering alone, and what other steps need to take place to make creating and managing components of content possible. You’ll need more than tools (process changes, structured content, and new roles and responsibilities). While software alone cannot solve this challenge, you will need a component content management system like Astoria Software CCMS (www.astoriasoftware.com) and an XML author tool like Adobe FrameMaker (www.adobe.com/products/framemaker.html).

7. What are they areas on which you focus as a content strategy consultant?

My role is an instigator. I exist to help organizations (and those who work for them) think differently; to step outside their comfort zone as far as content is concerned. It’s not enough to know about language, punctuation, and grammar any longer. Far too many content pros are labeling themselves content strategists without understanding the word strategy and all creating one entails. Instead, they are copywriters, proofreaders, and editors. And, while there’s nothing wrong with those jobs, they will not command the same pay as they have in the past as more and more people develop language skills around the globe. Those cheaper writers and editors will be (and already are) employed to take some of the work we in some developed nations believe is our rightful turf. But, it’s not turf. And, it’s certainly not certain that we will remain employed doing these jobs into the future. These low-hanging fruit jobs will be moved offshore and outsourced to cheaper labor pools.

The best way to defend yourself from being replaced by lower paid workers is to develop skills and experience that organisations need (and are willing to pay top dollar for). Those skills are more-often-than-not obtained by working on projects that require knowledge of both content and content technologies. The kinds of professionals that do this work are more accurately described as “content engineers”, knowledge workers who understand all of the various tools, technologies, standards, methods, and best practices involved in the complex feats of content choreography required to get the right content to the right person, anywhere, anytime, on any device.

Content strategists should be business consultants for content. As such, it’s our role to bring attention to issues impacting content production to those in the content industry (like my peers) and to help the C-level leaders of industry understand the value of making changes in the way they do business with content; measurable, strategic changes that help organisations achieve declared, realistic future goals.

the second part of the interview can be found here: Interview with Scott Abel, “The Content Wrangler” – Part 2