Content Engineering and the Next Generation of Customer Experience

Every day, we see glimmers of our organization’s future customer experiences. Those insights come in the interactions we have as consumers ourselves. We see bits of the future when we:

  • Make purchases on Amazon from personalized suggestions
  • Interact with smart Alexa and Google services via voice
  • Find our room preferences already handled at a hotel
  • Receive flight alerts and gate changes through app push notifications
  • Book and pay for rides or rooms in a couple of quick taps
  • Receive emails with relevant product and media recommendations
  • Digitally—and with ease—handle previously complex personal finances and investments
  • Interact in rich and multisensory experiences in games and dialogues
  • Find spot-on healthcare answers and recommendations across multiple interfaces
  • Resolve basic service issues within a chatbot on a mobile app

Everywhere we look, it’s getting easier to consume products and services. Sure, there are plenty of failures. But overall, the trend in consumer technology is toward streamlined, personalized ease.

How about customer experiences across the business-to-business (B2B) enterprise? Not so smart. It’s often the same old nightmare to use documentation, dig out answers to technical support questions, find and use relevant product specifications, or transfer information from supplier to internal format. Even when consuming marketing material, while we find enterprise websites faster-loading and more visually impressive than ever and with more content than ever, those sites are still painful to use. Bad experiences are not habit-forming. Inflicting pain on customers as they attempt to find information, process transactions, and resolve problems inevitably leads to loss of market share versus competitors that customers find easier to work with.

Compared to smooth consumer-like experiences, enterprise digital interactions now feel like a productivity drain. Old-school websites now feel heavy. This heaviness is not isolated to only the B2B enterprise, although the problems are most pronounced there. Many large, consumer-facing giants suffer from enterprise content malaise, seemingly not even attempting to streamline and personalize the customer experience. They remain stuck in archaic content management regimes and processes. According to a 2018 Forrester report, 80 percent of companies believe content supply chain challenges impede their ability to deliver on business objectives. The problem is a content problem, and the answer, as we will explore, includes content engineering.

It Takes a Village: Strategy, Engineering, Operations

Multiple roles are involved in delivering intelligent customer experiences. Content strategy, content engineering, and content operations are three focal practices that enable, facilitate, and orchestrate the supply chain that produces these next-generation interactions. The emergence of established content strategy functions and the widespread adoption of related roles across enterprises has helped to solve some of these challenges. Content operations and content engineering are as foundational and distinct as content strategy, and all practices must be represented in organizations striving to meet customers with contextually relevant content.

For most organizations, there is already some form of content strategy and operations happening—whether those titles are used or not. Although each role is vital, in this issue we will mainly focus on the content engineering practice and learning from practitioners that have been incorporating content engineering principles into enterprise content environments.

Omnichannel content leaders, regardless of department, need to get intentional about incorporating engineering practices into the overall content operating model. Without content engineering disciplines incorporated into content teams, it’s possible to have big, painful gaps between strategy and execution.

On the larger wish list is building content strategy, engineering, and operation practices into a chartered orchestration function, giving cross-silo teams a way to share and integrate content. Even without a large portfolio of responsibility, however, the existence of these practices within any organization will advance content. Together these practices can form a content services organization (CSO). [A] recently published a white paper reviewing the CSO structure and functions in detail, but suffice to say, the practice of content engineering plays a pivotal role.

A Personal History with Content Engineering

Content has always been in my blood. I gave my first STC talk, introducing the internet as a publishing medium, in the late 1990s for the STC Dallas Chapter. Fast-forward to years of running a company that evolved from Web firm, to interactive agency, to CMS platform startup, to integrator of third-party WCMS products, until founding [A] to focus entirely on intelligent content in 2012.

Inspired by Joe Gollner’s blog, The Content Philosopher; Ann Rockley’s work; and technical communication professionals working on various approaches to content portability, my mind lit up realizing all the connections to content types outside of documentation and support. Content engineering was born in the interplay and expressed so well in Joe’s blog and Ann’s work.

I compared the content modeling and metadata specifications work we accomplished for marketing content sets focused on dynamic Web publishing and search engine discoverability and realized just how close (and yet how far away) were the basic patterns to the single-source publishing approaches in technical communication. A bridge was missing and needed.

In reading various Web content strategists’ definitions, it was clear that we needed a distinct practice, with disciplines including model, metadata, markup, schema, taxonomy, and organization topology. We needed a practice focused not on the “content of the content” but on the structure and semantics of the content. I gave my first public talk on the role of content engineering at the 2015 Intelligent Content Conference in San Francisco.

Since then, [A] has worked with and interviewed dozens of senior executives, more than one hundred directors and senior managers, and hundreds of authors across enterprise content teams. Everyone agrees we need a new way to “do” content, and more and more of us agree that content engineering must be a clear part of the solution.

Converged Content, Converged Supply Chains

Content shared between marketing, sales, technical communication, knowledge management, learning, localization, and others contributes to the unification of pre- and post-sale customer experiences: Customers now choose where to start and where to go next within the content sets.

Given the complexity of enterprise content publishing, the practice of content strategy alone cannot solve today’s challenges. Content strategists need specialized counterparts and enablers to realize and sustain the goals of a more strategic deployment of content assets. This includes the integration of engineering and operations functions.

Engineered content assets can be used in many places at once: they may be related, discovered, and used to deliver value across multiple systems and platforms, when and where needed, at the fastest possible throughput.

Content engineers ensure that content structures, semantics, and technologies are in place to take the content strategy from plan to a technically realized reality. Content engineers become a resource for talented and often isolated members of technical communication or content marketing teams, bridging worlds and content sets through tactical tools, like content and semantic models, that encourage the collaboration needed to deliver integrated, intelligent experiences.

Content Engineering in This Issue

As the guest editor for this content engineering-themed issue of Intercom, it has been my distinct pleasure to work with authors selected from among the top professionals leading systematic change to content. All of them have, in ways large and small, incorporated the various disciplines within the practice of content engineering into their thinking, work, and planning.

It’s a power-packed issue! Many thanks to the amazing leaders—bringing decades of experience to the conversation—featured in this issue for sharing their time and insights with Intercom readers!

Ann Rockley’s article, “Content Engineer Roles and Responsibilities,” focuses on defining the role of a content engineer and why they are necessary to complement and complete modern content teams. This role is juxtaposed with the content strategist, a more tenured role in the enterprise, and addresses the background, responsibilities, and path to become a content engineer.

Carolyn Swift-Muschott of Cengage explores when the time is ripe for a formal content engineering team in “Follow Your North Star to a Successful Content Engineering Team.” Outlining the all-too-familiar pain points many face in the industry today, Carolyn illustrates the skills content engineers use to orchestrate successful, dependable content delivery. Learn from one of the early leaders who has recruited and integrated a team of content engineers about the profile, mindset, and team composition that produce results.

Smart search and instantaneous discoverability happens when we structure content to support discovery. In “Engineering Content for Superior Search Performance: Introducing Structured Data,” Electronic Arts’ Aaron Bradley takes readers through why structured data is crucial for relevant usable data, the standards in place today that support machine readability, and how to increase search and discoverability of content. Learn where engineering content for search performance starts.

In “Want Personalization? Start with Content Engineering,” the title speaks for itself. Few that confront personalization projects would argue with the need for content engineering. Hear long-time practitioner Lisa Trager share experiences from the deep within silos, and some of the fundamental patterns needed for managing complex, ever-growing content challenges.

Assembling structured content modules showing relevant content, in context, at precisely the right moment, calls for engineering. Ulrike Parson examines “The Roles of Standards and Governance in Engineering Content for Multichannel Distribution” and gives readers navigational assistance in the form of public standards along the path toward intelligent customer experiences. Understand how incorporating standards helps make content suitable for omnichannel distribution.

But how do we balance agile development approaches and enterprise-wide structured content engineering? Tom Johnson of Amazon explores this difficult question in “Autonomous Agile Teams and Enterprise Content Strategy; An Impossible Combo?” There are benefits to both independent and unified documentation practices in authoring and managing content, and the harmony of them can seem impossible. Tom weighs both sides and proposes a sensible, and most importantly, practical solution that positively impacts the full content lifecycle.

Once content is structured, new possibilities emerge to reduce the cost and time of creation while maintaining fresh content for customers. In “Product Answers: Engineering Content for Freshness,” Megan Gilhooly explores the benefits of fresh content and the role structured content plays in delivery. See how a designed content architecture, with modular topics and leveraging content reuse creates lasting, impactful, and relevant content.

—Cruce Saunders