By Ann Rockley | STC Fellow
Content strategy and content engineering are two practices that have been growing and evolving along with enterprise content. This article focuses on the role and responsibilities of the content engineer.
Why Do We Need Content Engineers?
To deliver content that meets customers’ personalized needs, in multiple channels, on multiple devices, and in multiple languages is not a simple task. It takes someone who has an in-depth understanding of content and technical expertise to make it happen. A content engineer works in concert with a content strategist to support content in the multiverse of audiences, channels, personalization, localization, and technologies. The two roles are intertwined but focus on slightly different facets of the content experience. To differentiate, let’s start with the role of the content strategist.
Content strategists typically focus on the customer experience, the content itself, and editorial guidelines. A content strategist is responsible for designing or deciding:
- Customer personas
- Customer journeys
- What topics to address
- When to support the customer at multiple points in the customer journey
- The best content types (text, visuals, video)
- SEO guidelines to ensure that people searching online can find the content
- Style guidelines on how to write for the audience
In collaboration with the content strategist, a content engineer does the following and more:
- Identifies how content varies based on customer needs and where each need arises in the customer journey
- Identifies how content can be modularized so that it can be automatically reused (mixed and matched) to meet customer needs
- Develops format-free, structured content models so that content can be written in a consistent way and automatically published to any channel (mobile, Web, print, wearables)
- Defines the structure of the CMS repository so that it supports authoring and content retrieval
- Develops metadata to tag all content modules for personalized content retrieval
- Develops business rules to identify how content should be assembled automatically upon customer request
- Determines how to optimize the content creation process
- Determines how content has to be structured and tagged to support chatbots, natural language generation/automatic content generation, and AI
Content engineers figure out how to take the vision and make it a reality in an ever-changing technological landscape.
Content Engineer: A Little Background
As content got more complex, content strategists identified a gap in the way we design and support content. We could certainly rely on information technology teams to help, but while they typically had an understanding of enterprise tools, like document management systems and the Microsoft Office Suite, they had little understanding of content that wasn’t housed in a document. There were content strategists who were highly skilled at customer needs and content design, information architects that understood how to design the interaction on websites, and user experience designers who could design Web-based—and later, mobile—experiences, but trying to go from the vision to working reality was hard and often failed.
Joe Gollner proposed the concept of “content engineering” with his article “Architecting Information and Engineering Content (Gollner 2010). I and my co-producer Scott Abel made it a theme of the Intelligent Content Conference in 2012 to discuss how the content engineer role could be better defined. Content Science and Kanban explored the role in “5 Reasons Content Strategy & Content Engineering Go Together” (Jones 2014). In 2016, I detailed the idea further in an article for the Content Marketing Institute, “Why You Need Two Types of Content Strategist” (Rockley 2016). Cruce Saunders, the guest editor for this issue, followed with “The Many Disciplines of Content Strategy” (2016).
The content engineer is a relatively new role, or at least a relatively new recognized role; however, it has caught on and been accepted very quickly. A search of LinkedIn finds many examples of people who describe themselves as content engineers and job sites listing jobs for content engineers.
Content Engineer Responsibilities
Sometimes, in smaller organizations, the role of the content strategist and content engineer are combined into one individual. Some technical communicators will look at the role of the content engineer and say, “I do that, but I’m a content strategist,” and they’d be correct, because technical communicators have been designing and developing component-based, multichannel, reusable content for decades now. The role might be called many things or might be combined with other roles, but no matter what it’s called, the responsibilities are the same.
Typical responsibilities for a content engineer include the design and development of:
- Content models
- Reuse strategy
- Taxonomy and metadata
- Technology selection and configuration
Content models formalize the structure of your content in guidelines, templates, and structured frameworks. Models identify and document the structure on which your content is based. Content engineers are responsible for designing content models that identify:
- Content structure at the content assembly, component, and element level
- Relationships between content
- Content attributes
Reuse enables you to create custom and dynamic assemblies of content, as well as deliver content on any device or platform. The reuse strategy defines your granularity of reuse (size of reusable components) and the ways in which content will be reused. The content engineer is responsible for creating a reuse strategy that defines:
- The granularity of reuse (component, fragment, variable)
- Conditional logic associated with reuse
- Types of reuse (identical or derivative)
- Ownership and governance
Taxonomy and Metadata
A taxonomy is a hierarchical listing of topics or subject categories supported by metadata. A taxonomy enables you to intelligently store and retrieve your content based on a common vocabulary and shared metadata. The resulting taxonomy is both customer-facing—such as for use on your website and social media platforms—and internal facing for your content management system. The content engineer is responsible for defining:
- Taxonomy for organization, storage, retrieval, and delivery of content
- Controlled vocabulary
- Reuse classification hierarchy
- Content flows and relationships
And although content engineers are rarely responsible for customer facing SEO metadata, they should expect to work with the SEO specialists and provide insight that will enable them to do their job in a more efficient manner.
Workflow defines how people and tasks interact to create, update, manage, deliver, retire, and archive content. Workflow moves content from task to task and optimizes the content lifecycle, ensuring the business rules specific to your organization are followed at every step. Workflow is used to manage the content lifecycle and can be used to manage the business rules for the interaction and delivery of content. The content engineer is responsible for defining workflow that includes:
- Roles and responsibilities
- Tasks, interactions, dependencies, and governance
- Business rules
Governance focuses on balancing control and creativity within the organization. The term “governance” encompasses many things, including business processes, content creation, and publication workflows, as well as taxonomies and metadata management. The content engineer is responsible for creating a governance strategy that controls: content models, content, reuse, metadata, and workflow.
Technology Selection and Configuration
Today’s content is only possible with an underlying robust technology. The content engineer may be responsible for determining the technology or suite of technology that best supports the content and customer requirements and managing all aspects of reporting on the health and functionality of the technology and toolsets.
Although the content engineer may not be the primary resource for these aspects of the project, they should work with those who are, to ensure appropriate technology selection and management.
More than Technology
The role of a content engineer can be very technical, but it is important not to lose sight of people and relationships, too. In many corporate situations a content engineer, particularly a senior content engineer, is also responsible for:
- Collaborating with content strategists to understand the needs and vision
- Working with business stakeholders to support corporate goals
- Ensuring the efficiency of content creation, reuse, management, and publication/delivery
- Acting as a liaison between the business and IT to support a strong partnership and a common understanding of the content contributor needs, customer needs, and the underlying technology
- Designing and managing user acceptance testing
- Developing, and potentially managing, a governance steering committee
Becoming a Content Engineer
Like many new disciplines and the slow rate at which colleges and universities develop new courses, there are currently no programs in content engineering. However, this is a role you can grow into or define in your organization by taking courses in related disciplines and learning by doing. Some suggestions for getting started include the following.
- Get a solid understanding of content strategy, not just “front-end” but “back-end” as well.
- Take a course or attend conference workshops in developing a taxonomy.
- Learn about SEO and how best to support it.
- Take a course in Web development.
- Take a course in user experience design.
- Learn about usability testing.
- Learn the basics of database design.
- Learn about developing for mobile operating systems and apps.
- Take the opportunity to not just use a CMS or CCMS but understand how it works.
- Get as much exposure to technology as you can. Tinker!
The role of a content engineer is an exciting and challenging one. In many ways, it’s a lot like a stage manager in a theater or the flight director at NASA. In each of these roles you’re expected to have a broad understanding of many disciplines, the ability to understand problems, create solutions, and work together with others to implement them quickly and efficiently. As a content engineer you may not be at the front of the stage, but you will be in the center of the action.
Gollner, Joe. “Architecting Information and Engineering Content.” The Content Philosopher. 21 February 2010. https://www.gollner.ca/2010/02/architecting-information-and-engineering-content.html.
Jones, Colleen. “Oreos + Milk: 5 Reasons Content Strategy + Content Engineering Go Together.” Slideshare. 28 February 2014. https://www.slideshare.net/leenjones/oreos-milk-5-reasons-content-strategy-content-engineering-go-together.
Rockley, Ann. “Why You Need Two Types of Content Strategist.” Content Marketing Institute. 22 February 2016. https://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2016/02/types-content-strategist/
Saunders, Cruce. “The Many Disciplines of Content Strategy.” Medium. 7 March 2016. https://medium.com/@cruce/the-many-disciplines-of-content-strategy-fccd6323d454.
ANN ROCKLEY (firstname.lastname@example.org) is CEO of The Rockley Group, Inc. She has an international reputation for developing intelligent content strategies. With more than 30 years’ experience as a consultant, she has been instrumental in establishing the field in structured content strategy, content reuse, intelligent content strategies for multichannel delivery, and structured content management best practices. Known as the “mother” of content strategy, she introduced the concept of content strategy in her 2002 ground-breaking book, Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy, now in its second edition. Ann is the founder of the Intelligent Content Conference. Ann has a Master of Information Science from the University of Toronto and is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication. Ann has written multiple books, is a frequent contributor to trade and industry publications, and is a keynote speaker at numerous conferences in North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific.