Converting to structured content and taking others with you

Getting a company or client to adopt structured content is not a fun job. Despite the growing advantages for businesses, it seems like the ones that need it the most are the least keen on the whole idea. Why is this? This article sets out the commercial benefits for a company of moving to structured content, but also looks at some of the unseen barriers that stop many companies from making the move.

Reading about the uses of structured content is inspiring and exciting for many web content people, me included. It’s grown outside of its original home in tech comms and shows so much potential: so many new ways to tell a story across a multitude of screens.

But getting a company or client to adopt it, or even just to get excited about structured content, is harder work than it looks on paper. It seems like the ones that need it the most — the banks, the government agencies — are the hardest to convince. I have seen at first hand a large company recognise their own need for structured content, only to then back away from doing it and spend the money on a(nother) CMS instead, shifting all their old problems into a shiny new container.

This article aims to serve as a list of reasons why structured content is good for business, and as a reminder of all the other factors to consider when creating structured content.

Reuse, reduce, recycle

The most-quoted business benefit of structured content is that of cost reductions through content reuse. This is where it started from, as a method of reducing writing and translation costs. Reductions of 20-30% (sometimes as much as 60%) are common, and if you are a company producing ever more content in ever more languages, or across multiple media such as print, web and ebook, it quickly makes sense. Companies like Lexmark, HP, and Nokia have lead the way in the use and reuse of content through a structured approach.

Content reuse is a major part of the model, but there are additional factors to consider.

Multi-device — or anything that’s not a desktop

While many companies may not think they produce large volumes of content, their reaction to the advent of mobile has made this a reality. The challenge of creating content that works across a variety of screens and devices has prompted many businesses to create mobile-only sites, doubling the amount of content they produce. As the number of devices we use increases, so this strategy becomes unsustainable. Too many words, too many screens. The ‘Create Once Publish Everywhere’ method as used by NPR starts to look more and more appealing. There is no mobile context for content – if customers can access content as easily on their phones as their laptops, they will. The days of dual sites and truncated content are ever shortening, and businesses are considering the value of single-sourced content shared everywhere.

Open data sharing inside and outside the business

The sheer portability of XML-based structured content can be a huge benefit to companies if they have the infrastructure to support it. An example from my own experience is of, where all hotel content is parsed into small fields, tagged and available as an API both within the company, but also its sub-brands, and to its third-party resellers. Not only does having single-sourced content maintain quality and accuracy across the whole company, but it allows for rapid prototyping using real content, quick communication of hotel changes (Swimming pool closed for repairs? Every site shows the updated info.), and even some enterprising third-party apps built using the content.


Not only does the metatagging encouraged by structured content allow businesses to see and understand content, it appears that search engines are pretty keen on it too. A recent report suggests companies who have implemented metadata (aka ‘rich snippets’) have been rewarded with higher search rankings than those without. This is a powerfully persuasive argument in any company operating on the web today.

Given the business value in some of these reasons (and the costs of not doing it), why is it then that structured content isn’t being given the red carpet treatment everywhere?

Too much, too soon?

We talk about ‘going over’ to structured content, but the reality is that structured content is a scalable concept; there are degrees of ‘structuredness’. Not every company needs a granular data model, and we should be careful not to prescribe overly complex solutions. I’m starting to believe that we as content people are sometimes guilty of making content models too complex, beyond the business’s short-to-medium term needs.

It is easier for a business to move into structured content gradually, refining and detailing its content model as it develops an understanding of the potential it brings. It is also an approach which anticipates the pivots and swerves of businesses as they change their products and services.

Jeff Eaton suggests that if, during content modelling, you find one Godzilla content type with dozens and dozens of fields, it might really be several types needing teased apart. I agree. But I’ve also knowingly allowed such Godzilla types to go into production on the grounds that it was only me who wanted to pick them apart. I wanted to, but I realised I was betting on the company needing that data in smaller types in the future, rather than responding to their stated business plans right now.

Too long, too slow?

The more structured the content, the more expensive and time consuming it will be to implement — this is inevitable. Unless a company has a certain volume of content and/or writes across a number of portals and/or does so in a number of languages, the ROI of truly structured content doesn’t justify the effort quickly enough.

Quickly enough is a key concept here: Ann Rockley recently commented that ROI should be calculated over 3 years, and while I don’t disagree with her, I’ve consulted for businesses where sponsors don’t have the political support (bravery?) to commit to a change that takes so long to bear fruit. To you, structured content brings benefits and exponential increase in capabilities. To the business guy, it’s another heavy IT infrastructure project, and that was the last thing their predecessor tried doing too before they fired him.

Try to find all the close-term business benefits you can to use as persuasion points. Take metadata, for example. It’s usually the least sexy, least memorable bit as far as the business is concerned, but if it’s presented as the thing that will enhance and improve relationships with search engines, it can become one of the magical ‘quick wins’ that every business yearns for.

Less and less, not more and more

Exploring the future income streams from structured content also seems to get forgotten when talking about reasons to sign up. Too many companies see it as a way of doing what they already do but at a lower cost, rather than seeing it as a way of getting more out of the assets they already have. We should always encourage this latter view — getting more from more. Not only is it an inviting way of phrasing it, but it also stops people inside businesses from worrying about losing their jobs.

Digital overload

And on the subject of worry, I suspect the thing we as content people forget most often is how exhausting and worrying digital is for the businesses involved. Businesses are made of people, and people get worried. A lot.

To be frank, they are right to worry. The transformative nature of structured content will prompt a lot of difficult decisions about how the future looks. Expect that you should do some hand-holding with businesses on this point. They may well need your input and guidance to understand exactly what else they could be doing with their content assets once those assets are transformed.

Don’t be surprised if you accidentally spark internal rows about what the business should do with its assets: structured content will surface all sort of conflicting agendas within an organisation, and these need to be addressed if they are going to find a way to make the most of their costly investment. Again, this is sometimes one of the reasons companies either don’t sign up for structured content — it would mean trying to resolve too many unpleasant internal conflicts — or why projects fail halfway through the effort.

Karen McGrane’s excellent talk on adapting ourselves to adaptive content details just some of the organisational changes that a company would have to make to get the most structured content. In proposing any form of structured content, think through the people and process changes for the business involved. This applies not just at the point of delivery, but in the years that follow. Metadata taxonomies get messy super-quickly without the right people and governance to keep it in shape. A structured content model is also about people and their work lives — how they operate, who is involved, and even how they are rewarded. In many places, to publish content is to be seen as productive, so encouraging reuse of content flies in the face of that definition of being job-effective.

The sheer size of business change involved in structured content is the key factor in the reluctance to accept it. As content people, there are some things we can do to mitigate these fears:

  • Scope carefully — really carefully — and try to solve problems that exist today, rather than our best-guess ideas for 2020.
  • Encourage any project to have a five-year sponsor to champion the cause.
  • Prioritise delivery based on business benefit and time-to-money.
  • Deliver something within 12 months, even if the model is still blobbier than we’d like.

We should also have compassion for our company, or our clients. It might feel like they’re being dense on purpose, but as the people who can see and understand the benefits of structured content, it’s our job to suck up that frustration, and break down the idea (again!) into enough small, manageable pieces that the fear of change is outweighed by the belief in the benefits it will bring.