Content Everywhere

If you can’t turn your own site into a destination (and you can’t), then put your content on every destination

Your website is not going to become a destination. There just aren’t that many of those, and the ones that do exist either provide content you can’t get anywhere else, offer a truly exceptional user experience, or both. You lack the organizational culture for the first and the budget for the second.

But your failure to become a destination site doesn’t doom your communications efforts—provided that you’re ready for your digital strategy to evolve beyond, “post a document to your website.”

And provided that you’re ready for a new approach to content.

Content As Documents

Most organizations think “content” means “document.”

You present ideas as text supplemented by a bit of multimedia content—this image with that paragraph, that table to break out the numbers in this other section. You build paths for readers to follow, and you construct those paths inside different products. Traditionally those included a report, an executive summary, a fact sheet, and a press release—probably in PDF. Your documents are linear and discrete: Each is meant to be read from front-to-back, and each is written is such a way as to completely stand on its own.

The Internet came along and created dozens of new content platforms: blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, Medium…the list just keeps growing.

Most of you use documents to create all that new content, too.

You write out a whole bunch of tweets and Facebook posts and run them through an approval process. Half a dozen people weigh in on which chart should accompany the post and how many footnotes said chart needs to include. You write video scripts and run them through yet another approval process. You write blog posts…and get them approved…then task someone with cutting-and-pasting from Word to your internal blog, then repeating the process for Medium.

And we’ve not even gotten to the next generation of products — silent movies that take advantage of Facebook’s decision to autoplay video with the sound turned off; Snapchat stories made from annotated photos and short video clips; and chat bots for messaging apps and voice-based assistants like WhatsApp, Slack, or Alexa.

If we keep treating every piece of content as a document, we’ll all drown.

Platforms breed faster than budgets. Eventually you’ll be forced to choose between ignoring most platforms to focus on a few and half-assing a whole bunch.

Alternately, we could abandon the document model.

Modular Content

What if we started thinking about what various pieces of content do rather than where they go? After all, documents already have functional chunks. They’re the things we call out with formatting.

If you dream of Drush, you need a vacation

In most documents, formatting is the only clue to function. So reusing content from a document typically requires a human being to determine what can be reused where.

Moreover, many of your websites are run on content management systems (CMSs) that also rely on the document model. (I’m looking at you, WordPress.)

WordPress: Encouraging bad habits, since 2003

By default, WordPress dumps pretty much everything but your title into that big body field. It’s basically a document for the web. You can even get a plugin to make your WordPress WYSIWYG editor look like an old version of Microsoft Word. (NOTE: Don’t do that.)

A CMS built around content-as-documents faces the same problems as content in literal documents—you need human intervention and a lot of cutting-and-pasting to reuse anything.

Things don’t have to be this way.

Your CMS connects to a database, which is sort of like a really fancy spreadsheet. Built properly, your CMS will store each functional piece of content in its own spreadsheet column. Better still, it’ll give each column a name that tells the CMS what that content does. That opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

Create Once, Publish Everywhere

When you write and store your content modularly, you can reuse it in all sorts of interesting ways. You might hear this referred to as “create once, publish everywhere” (shortened to “COPE”) or “single-source publishing.” Those are both pretty dry and technical.

I prefer to think of it as Content Everywhere.

You write, edit, and approve a single source of content. Since the content is modular, you can create different combinations of modules. And thanks to the Internet’s magic robots (more formally known as Application Programming Interfaces, or APIs), you can push different content combinations to different platforms. You might send a photo and some tags to Instagram, combine those with a factoid and send them to Twitter, or send the photo and a short summary or pull quote to Facebook. Package a longer set of paragraphs with some images and charts and send those to your blog and to Medium.

Modular content gets pushed from your CMS (left) to a variety of platforms

Don’t tell anyone I said so, but you can even assemble your modular content into PDFs. (No one’ll read ’em, though.)

A Paradigm Shift

Getting to Content Everywhere means shifting a lot of our mental models.

If you’ve studied the philosophy of science (who hasn’t?), you’re probably familiar with Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn argues that normal science presumes a theoretical framework, a model that fits available data and accurately predicts experimental results. Most of science consists of poking at the edges of that framework to see whether it holds up under different conditions. When it doesn’t, the model gets tweaked to accommodate new data. As those tweaks start to pile up, the model gets a little creaky.

The classic example is Ptolemaic astronomy. (That’s the version where the Earth is the center of the solar system.) The newly-invented telescope helped astronomers realize that planets weren’t where Ptolemy predicted they’d be. So they started tweaking their model. Eventually they had something like this:

I still miss my Spirograph.

You know how this turns out. The Copernican Revolution put the sun in the middle of its model of the solar system.

But it’s not called a revolution for nothing. Kuhn points out the two models are incommensurable. There is no series of steps that will get you from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican model. You have to make a complete paradigm shift, completely scrapping the old mental model in favor of a new one. (NOTE: I know that “paradigm shift” has entered the corporate buzzword hall of shame. Kuhn’s is the original meaning, though. I’m reclaiming it for philosophy. And also for content strategy.)

Getting to Content Everywhere

The move to Content Everywhere also demands a paradigm shift.

Writers must see content as functional elements rather than as documents. And web managers must think digital publishing rather than websites or webpages.

Unfortunately, there are no interim steps, no Content Everywhere-lite that allows you to keep your Word documents and still magically publish everywhere. Getting to Content Everywhere means changing how you think about writing. It means changing the tools you use for writing. It means changing how you think about design. And it most definitely means changing how you build your CMS.

But in a world of infinite content, your choices are to become a destination site or to put your content on existing destinations. Very few can do the former.

For the rest of us, it’s time to get cracking. Those paradigms aren’t gonna shift themselves.

Content strategist and director of DC studio @designbysoapbox. Formerly with @TCFdotorg, @USCBO & @factcheckdotorg. Recovering philosopher.