Based on the number of times she repeats the phrase in her new book Content Strategy for Mobile, it’s clear that Karen McGrane wants you to remember the
following: “If people want to do something on the internet, they will want to do it using their mobile device.” While that might sound obvious, the implications of this statement take up a significant portion of McGrane’s 165-page book. That’s because until recently, mobile meant on the move. In this context, it was thought that users required only short bits of quick hit content. A restaurant’s phone number. The operating hours of a store.
No one believed that people would ever want to read considerable amounts of text on a smartphone, which is how separate mobile sites with truncated content (also known as forking) came to be. But forking is a very bad idea according to McGrane, as it requires separate content updates across multiple sites. It’s also impossible to track the type of content users want from your mobile site unless you provide them with access to all of it in the first place.
Thankfully there is a solution — adaptive content. The key elements of adaptive content include:
The first three aspects might sound familiar, but creating content that is structured to be independent of visual presentation often represents a significant shift in workflow and approach. As McGrane explains, the WYSWIG editor creates content that can only be viewed properly on a desktop computer. Instead of chunking content into various elements such as headline, subhead, short summary, long summary, image, caption, etc., WYSWIG tends to generate a blob of content. If nailing jelly to the wall is difficult, try separating a jar of jelly into discrete sections.
Metadata (information about information) is a big part of creating presentation-independent content. (A good example of metadata is “Granny Smith is a type of apple.”) McGrane quotes Jason Scott, an archivist who once quipped that “metadata is a love note to the future.” Good content accrues value over time, but only if it can be retrieved and rearranged into user-appropriate formats.
McGrane’s plea to eliminate the blob is underscored by Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s new book Content Everywhere: Strategy and Structure for Future-Ready Content. The overlap between the two books is significant: both discuss the publishing API created by NPR and Wachter-Boettcher includes a two page Q&A with McGrane.
Wachter-Boettcher provides an even more comprehensive look at structured content, including a fascinating (really!) look at content modeling, using the Epicurious website and app as an example. In short, good content not only provides meaning to users, but determines the priority of different content elements on a given page and the relationships between them.
Wachter-Boettcher offers a clear explanation of semantic markup and reinforces the importance of change management in implementing any type of content strategy. She also uses the nifty word “interdigitating” to explain how to best combine different content modules on a small screen in order to “keep the narrative, persuasive, or informational structure of the content intact.”
After reading either of these books, many companies will be frustrated to discover that leveraging their existing content might not be as easy as they had hoped. Some of the solutions offered, such as creating a private API for content, are impractical from both a cost and business perspective. But the basic principles of adaptive content are easy to implement (better metadata, better structuring), provided you can find someone to tame the unfriendly nature of most Content Management Systems. If you love your content, making it adaptive will be the beginning of a long, beautiful relationship.