Putting our work in context (a guest post)

  • Rachel LovingerWe present a guest post from one of our speakers and workshop presenters, Rachel Lovinger. Currently, Rachel is an Experience Director at Razorfish in New York. She is a regular presenter on content strategy, UX, and the semantic web, and has authored many publications about these subjects. Find her on Twitter at @rlovinger.  

    One of the great things about watching the field of content strategy mature is the increasing ability to put things into historical context. I became a content strategist in 2006 when I saw a job posting and thought to myself “that sounds like what I already do!” It stands to reason that there were other people doing it too, but I didn’t know any of them. In fact, I wouldn’t meet any other content strategists (aside from my co-workers) until early 2009, when the seeds of the community were planted at a one-day content strategy consortium at the IA Summit.

    I’ve since learned that many other people had a similar experience – they were doing content strategy before they knew it had a name. And, as the community has grown, we’ve all discovered that other disciplines have been tackling content problems and practicing some of the solutions we’ve adopted, long before we picked up the mantle. This awareness has helped us deepen and grow the practice much more quickly than when we were going at it alone, cobbling together the techniques we needed to solve the problems in front of us.

    And when I say “historical context”, I don’t just mean the things that happened before the community sprouted. The evolution since then has been fascinating to watch. Earlier this year, I summed up the past, present and upcoming trends of Content Strategy in a presentation called “Content Strategy: Why Now?” But let me focus, for a moment, specifically on the evolution of thinking around structured content, because that’s what I’ll be speaking about in a few weeks at CS Forum.

    A little over 10 years ago, I was helping to redesign the website of a print magazine and we wanted the pages to be very dynamic. We also wanted to be able to syndicate content to partners. And we wanted it to be more “web-like” than “magazine-like.” So we carefully abstracted the different types of content into structured forms that could work with any number of templates, in any number of configurations. We took this approach because it was the best – perhaps the only – way to achieve our goals for the site.

    I didn’t know, at the time, that there was a long history of doing structured content in the Tech Communications field. But I also didn’t know that not everyone thought about their content this way. I just knew that our CMS allowed us to keep the content separate from the display templates, and we worked from there to make things as flexible as possible, to give ourselves – and the editors – room to play. I was very interested in the potential of the idea of the “Web of data” as the next evolution of the page-based Web that we have now.

    In early 2010, I wrote Nimble: a Razorfish report on publishing in the digital age to help publishers understand both the challenges and opportunities that the shifting digital landscape brings, and I proposed that a lot of the benefits can only be unlocked by making well-structured content. This may seem counter-intuitive, but we’re talking about structure that provides meaning, not rigid display restraints.

    One of the benefits I described was that, by making content flexible and platform-agnostic, it would be much easier to develop new content products for mobile, tablet, and – someday – other devices that haven’t even been invented yet. What I didn’t expect was that the next big wave of people to pick up the banner of structured content would come, not from the content strategy community, but from the mobile corner of the web design community.

    Around the time I was wrapping up Nimble, Ethan Marcotte was advocating Responsive Web Design. The following year Luke Wroblewski, one of this year’s CS Forum keynote speakers, declared Mobile First, while some people, like Jeremy Keith, raised the question of whether that really, actually, means Content First. Luke invited a bunch of people to imagine what a Future Friendly web would look like, and some of them, like Brad Frost, suggested that one key element is having “content like water” because, in the future, content “will be going everywhere.”  (A point he further elaborated in his rallying cry, For a Future-Friendly Web.)

    Clearly, though mobile may have set this wave in motion, it doesn’t end there. Noz Urbina has been making the point that Mobile is just the beginning and Scott Jenson started an entire blog to explore ideas that go Beyond Mobile.  Content is a thread that runs through all of these declarations, but while many of these statements have helped clarify the deep and immediate need for structured content, it still falls to the content advocates and practitioners to develop the techniques and tools to make it happen.

    And we’ve been stepping up. Erin Kissane, who keeps a watchful eye on the ebb and flow of the broad content landscape, recently shed light on these tectonic movements in her observation that Contents May Have Shifted. And many content strategists have been addressing the challenge of structured content head on. You’ll hear about some of them in my talk, Content in the Age of Promiscuous Reuse.

    For now, rest assured. These are problems we’ve been tackling for a while, in various forms. The context has changed, and so too the specific business applications. But a lot of the thinking is there. The challenge for content professionals today is simply: how do we build on the knowledge we’ve gained before and make it even more accessible? And for a deeper dive into the practice of structuring content, come to the Content Modelling workshop I’m conducting with Cleve Gibbon.


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