The process of publishing content, particularly when it includes content destined for the web, continues to be a mysterious process for corporate stakeholders, and sometimes for those involved in the process of publishing.
The simplest of project plans I’ve ever been given came from a program coordinator, circa 1995, and looked like this:
This was woefully inadequate from a production perspective. But from her perspective, the writing, which happened in her department, and the publishing, which to her meant getting the content before the eyeballs of her audience, were the only two important aspects to the publishing process, and the only two steps on her radar.
When the publishing team adjusted the process, it looked something like this:
Their process focuses on a set of production tasks, with the assumption that the process began with writing and ended with publishing. And in a way, it did—the published content remained static when print was the primary medium.
In 2010, the process looks quite different. Publishing content is a cyclical, iterative process that looks more like this:
Publishing to print is no longer the default setting for content. The Web is the main medium. Content gets converged, integrated, componentized, recombined, and syndicated. The content visible to users is the tip of the iceberg. A complex system supports the delivery of content, from infrastructure through user experience, and a host of post-publishing decisions close the loop, either to a new iteration or a content sunset.
The term “closing the loop” generally refers to a step in a cycle or process, used to assess effectiveness. It is not a final step, but rather a step that bridges the end of a process and the beginning of the next iteration. For content, closing the loop means considering content at every step through the conception, creation, management, and distribution of content – in other words, throughout the entire lifecycle of content.
Enter the Content Lifecycle
Recognizing a content lifecycle means recognizing that the business of creating and publishing content follows a recognizable, predictable, repeatable process. While the sub-processes may be subject to variations between content genres, as well as situation-specific variations, the overall process is consistent and stable. The content lifecycle describes an organic system, and is system-agnostic.
As the process of developing, managing, and publishing content becomes more complex, the descriptions of the various lifecycle stages include aspects of managing content through a CMS (content management system).
The saying “if you don’t know where you’re going, any path will take you there” is definitely a caution that applies to the management of content throughout its lifecycle. The success of a lifecycle is directly related to the effort put into planning the content strategy. The various components and intersections of content have become too complicated to begin implementing, and hoping to connect the dots later on. When constructing a house, a builder works from a set of plans that specifies not only the structural dimensions, but also the heating, ventilation, and plumbing. By comparison, a content strategist creates the blueprint by which designers, writers, and developers can build a successful model for delivering content.
After all, the content lifecycle exists whether content is managed manually, with some assistance of technology, or highly automated through technology. The definition of a content lifecycle is about content, front and center. The definition assumes content is recognized as a corporate information asset, and requires the same level of custodial care as other corporate assets. The content lifecycle is about more than getting content to work within a content management system; in the bigger picture, the content lifecycle is about implementing a strategy to follow a repeatable system that governs the management of the content, throughout its lifecycle.
The content lifecycle covers four macro stages: the strategic analysis, the content collection, management of the content, and publishing, which includes publication and post-publication activities. The lifecycle is in effect whether the content is controlled within a management system or not, whether it gets translated or not, whether it gets deleted at the end of its life or revised and re-used. The analysis quadrant comprises the content strategy. The other three quadrants are more tactical in nature, focusing on the implementation of the content strategy. Assigning the activities and decisions throughout the lifecycle would create an iterative process that looks something like this:
In the analysis phase, the content lifecycle is concerned with the strategic aspects of content. A content strategist (or business analyst or information architect or writer) examines the need for various types of content within the context of both the business and the content consumers.
The analysis has a bearing on how the content strategy is implemented in the other quadrants of the content lifecycle.
Typical artifacts for this phase
- User research:
> Personas – Identify major groups of content consumers and the content they would consume
> Scenarios – Elaborate on when and how content is used
> Gap analysis – Determines content readiness and editorial and technical gaps
> Requirements matrix – Organizes business and technical requirements in summary form
> Process models – Express future-state content-related business processes during the content lifecycle
> Governance chart – Establishes responsibility for content types and processes throughout the content lifecycle
> Budget – Establishes budget authority and delineates budget sources for areas such as technology implementation and upgrades, content operations, and translations within the organization
- Content analysis:
> Content inventory – Determines the on-hand inventory of content
> Content audit – Analyzes the state of content quality and content deficiencies including missing or inaccurate content
> Metadata taxonomy – Categorizes content by subject and creates an index
> Content models – Codify content structure and components for each content type, and include conformance to any applicable standards
> Content architecture – Organizes use of content types across all output platforms, such as publications, websites, handheld devices, or other systems
> Wireframes – Organize display of content types for each output platform
> Delivery design – Establishes the publishing pipeline for each output platform
Content collection includes garnering content for use within the framework set out in the analysis phase. Collection may be through
- Content development, which is creating content or editing other people’s content.
- Content ingestion, which is syndicating content from other sources or incorporating localized content.
- A hybrid of content ingestion and content convergence, such as
> Integrating product descriptions from an outside organization with prices from a costing system.
> Bringing together editorial content and user-generated content together in one display.
Typical artifacts for this phase
- Content design:
> Topic maps – Create a “table of contents” that maps out content relationships
> Localization plan – Establishes how and when localized content is produced and delivered, and examines the ramifications of localization on display and delivery methods
> Customization and personalization maps – Determine derivation of content components and rules for inclusion or exclusion of components to create contextualized content
- Content development:
> Style Guide – Establishes editorial rules for vocabulary, grammar, brand management, and language during content development
> Standards – Ensure that content conforms to international standards that affect content delivery and reusability
> Layout templates – Determine where various content and content types are displayed within a print page or electronic screen display
> Content – Text, audio, graphic, video, or other human-usable media, including the metadata to render it findable
The management quadrant is concerned with the efficient and effective use of content. In organizations using technology to automate the management of content, the management aspect assumes use of a CMS of some sort. In organizations with smaller amounts of content, little need for workflow control, and virtually no single-sourcing requirements, manual management is possible. However, in large enterprises, there is too much content, and there are too many variations of content output, to manage the content without some sort of system to automate whatever functions can be automated.
The content configuration potential is enormous, and builds on the information gathered during the analysis and collection phases. The solutions will be highly situational, and revolve around the inputs and outputs, required content variables, complexity of the publishing pipeline, and technologies in play. The most basic questions are around adoption of standards and technologies, and determining components, content granularity, and how far up or down the publishing pipeline to implement specific techniques.
Typical artifacts for this phase
- Production workflow:
> Content business rules – Determine content workflow according to business requirements
> Content workflow maps – Document content production processes
> Data models – Plan data structure
The publishing quadrant deals with aspects of content that happen when content is delivered to its output platform and used in a variety of ways. Publishing the content is only a point in the first lifecycle iteration; there are post-publishing considerations such as re-use and retention policies that require attention.
Typical artifacts for this phase
- Publishing workflow:
> Publishing pipeline models – Document the inclusions of content components for publishing automation
> Transformation guidelines – Set out the transformation scripts that migrate content between formats, such as XSLTs
> Review policies – Govern the workflow and responsibility for content review and the mechanism for re-use, as-is or revisions
> Retention policies – Govern the sunsetting, archiving, and deletion of content.
Feel the Content Lifecycle Excitement
The notion of a content lifecycle is comforting to anyone involved in content. It creates order from chaos, predictability for content production and maintenance, and a mental model to explain content to others.
Not only is it comforting, it’s exciting for design, development, and business stakeholders. Business runs on predictable, repeatable processes, and content lifecycle adds content to the roster of replicable models. For designers and developers, content lifecycle is a tool and an extension of the user-centered design process. For businesses, a content lifecycle is a model in which content can be quantified and ROI measured—exciting stuff, indeed.
Most exciting of all, the content lifecycle helps users get the content they need, when and how they need it—the holy grail of their content search.
Apply the Content Lifecycle
While all content has a lifecycle, not all lifecycles are created equal. A given site may present several content genres—marketing, technical, legal, and so on—each with its own lifecycle, and variations on those lifecycle within content types. Some content, such as a privacy disclaimer, is used once and gets reviewed on a regular schedule. Other content gets aggregated from multiple databases for presentation as an integrated unit—for example, product descriptions sent by vendors, pricing from an ERP system, and a publishing cycle with multiple dependencies, from promotional schedules to geo-boundaries. In the world of technical content, an entirely different set of tensions inform the content lifecycle. Conditional processing, re-use maps, and publishing pipelines are of paramount importance. Nevertheless, in whichever camp the content fits, recognizing a content lifecycle exists is the first step to making the lifecycle clear—and to making the most of your content.