The Content Optimization Maturity Model: Crawl, Walk, Run, and Dance!

val-swisher-post

Editor’s Note: This post is based off of a presentation that Val Swisher, CEO of Content Rules, recently gave at Content Connections, Acrolinx’s online, virtual conference. Held in November 2015, the event attracted more than 2,000 content professionals from around the world.

Content optimization is about making sure that your content is performing at its best. At a time when content is more important than ever before — and companies are creating more of it, often in multiple languages — ensuring that it’s optimized is essential.

That’s because when you optimize your content you can increase its quality and consistency, while decreasing the costs associated with creating it. Not only that, you can improve your time-to-market. All of that is true whether we’re talking about marketing content, technical content, or both. It’s also true whether you’re dealing with just a single source language or a source language and translations.

In my experience, there are four stages that companies go through as they become more experienced at content optimization. Together, those four stages make up the content optimization maturity model that you see below:

Let’s break that maturity model down and talk about what it means to crawl, walk, run, and ultimately dance.

Crawling

When you’re crawling your content isn’t optimized, at least not in any formalized sense. Any optimization that does occur happens by way of tribal knowledge. Everyone sort of knows the rules and, should any doubt arise, you’ll see people whispering over cubicle walls, each weighing in on what the best course of action might be. They may even do peer reviews of each other’s work from time to time.

The problem is that nothing is written down. There’s no documented information about what style and tone of voice they should be using, what words are or aren’t acceptable, or any other brand guidelines. As a result, all of that knowledge isn’t scalable, dependable, or transferrable, which can lead to numerous other problems. For example, the quality and consistency can go down, which will only serve to confuse readers and degrade your brand. In the process, you’re also likely to increase time-to-market and translation costs. Plus, if you’re into intelligent content, you’ll find that you have mismatched assets because your components haven’t been standardized. It’s bad news all around because crawling just doesn’t work as an optimization strategy.

Walking

Most of the companies I work with come to me when they’re at this stage. When you’re walking, you’ve gotten a bit better because by now your styles and brand preferences are documented. You have style and brand guidelines, and maybe even a list of the terms that you do and don’t use. Importantly, since it’s documented, all of this information is no longer merely tribal knowledge that lives in a handful of people’s heads.

The problem, however, is that since you’re using rudimentary tools like Word and Excel to capture all of this information, people have to actively pull it when they need it (usually from a PDF on a server somewhere), which they never do. The hard truth is that no one ever reads or consults your guidelines because they just don’t have the time. And, even worse, you’ve got no way to enforce it.

As a result, when you reach the point where you’re walking, you’ll soon discover that you’re probably walking in circles. You’ve invested a lot of time and money to get where you are, with people working to create your documented guidelines, but they never get used. And, since they rarely if ever get updated, they’re often outdated.

The bottom line is that despite having invested time and money, you effectively still have all the same problems you had when you were crawling.

Running

This is where you want to be. When you’re running, you’re actually using powerful tools, which allow you to start enforcing your style and terminology programmatically. Rather than have a style guide in a PDF that people have to pull from, you instead use a tool that pushes that style and terminology out to your content creators. That allows you to easily enforce style, terminology, and tone of voice preferences across your entire enterprise.

The great thing about running is that you can create optimized content at scale because you can push all of these guidelines out to content creators no matter where they sit in your organization. And that’s when you start reaping the benefits. You’ll have better, higher-quality content. You’ll decrease time-to-market and translation costs. And you’ll ensure greater brand consistency and cohesion. Put another way, you’ll be able to do things better, cheaper, and faster, which is exactly what your goal should be.

Dancing

The last step is dancing, which I like to think of as the missing piece in the content optimization pyramid. It’s also relatively new since it’s really only in the past few months that the technology has existed to make dancing with our content possible.

So what do I mean by dancing? It’s when the terms and segments in your content match what’s in your translation memory. Let me explain.

Big companies that create content in lots of different languages usually have a translation memory — a database that stores your source content and any corresponding translations. Every time you send a new piece of content to be translated, it’s checked against the database to see if any of it — individual words and terms, whole phrases, etc., — have already been translated before and are therefore stored in your translation memory. If there are any, they’re pulled out and reused, saving time and reducing translation costs considerably.

When you’re dancing, you’re marrying what’s been translated upstream to what your content creators are doing downstream. Effectively, you’re trying to integrate your translation memory with your writing so that when you send your new content out to be translated, you know that much of it can be pulled from your translation memory.

To do this you need the right tools, including a database to house your translation memory and yet another system that actively pushes terminology to content creators. For any company that’s creating content in multiple languages, dancing should really be the end goal of content optimization. That way, not only is your English content optimized, but also all of your translations.

Making Your Way Through the Content Optimization Maturity Model

Each level of the content optimization maturity model is more complex than the one before it. Going from one to the next takes greater and greater investments in time and money. Nevertheless, you’ll find that the results you get from doing so — better content, cheaper translations, faster time-to-market — are more than worth the effort.