STC: Joe Gelb on Changing Content Delivery
Scott Abel: Joe, thanks for agreeing to chat with me today about the future of publishing tools. Before we tackle that subject, tell our readers a little about yourself.
Joe Gelb: It’s great to catch up with you, Scott. My background is in mechanical engineering. I also have a degree in history which means that I’m supposed to be an engineer who knows how to write. One of the first jobs I worked while in school was with McDonnell Douglas. I was tasked with creating applications designed to help engineers write manufacturing instructions. So right from the start, I was drawn to the world of technical documentation. After school, I got a job for a technical writing company doing custom programming for dictionaries and encyclopedias. During that gig, I fell in love with technical writing. With that company, I rose to the level of Chief Technology Officer. We created all sorts of applications for technical writers like automated conversions to various help formats and XML, Document Type Definitions. In 2007, I started Suite Solutions with the goal of helping companies around the world make the move to intelligent content. Most recently, we have pivoted Suite Solutions product offering into a product-focused company called Zoomin, Which helps companies bring their customers closer to content and the companies themselves closer to customers. Today, I am excited to announce my new role as President and Head of Business Development at Zoomin.
SA: For those of our readers who aren’t familiar with your company, tell us a little about Suite Solutions.
JG: Suite Solutions provides services to companies that are making the transition to structured authoring. We do a lot of projects involving the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA), aviation maintenance documentation standards like ISPEC, and other formats. We primarily focus on stylesheets work, content conversation projects, and training and consulting. The idea has always been to provide a one-stop shop for companies to migrate to structured, topic-based content. A few years into the business, we realized that there was a need for better publishing and content delivery tools for web-based formats and dynamic delivery. That’s why we recently decided to shift the product side of the business into a company called Zoomin. We believe it’s time to let customers get closer to content- via any touchpoint, across any device, or from any location. We also believe there is much to learn from the interactions that you provide your customers.
SA: Forward-thinking publishing experts say we are at a crossroads-the beginning of a new era of communication in which technical communicators and other content professionals are going to need to think differently about how we create, manage, and deliver content. Do you agree? Are we, finally,at the tipping point? And, if so, what do you think that means for professionals who craft content for a living?
JG: That’s an excellent question, Scott. We are definitely at a crossroads. In the past, we thought in terms of output formats- PDF of online help or info centers. Today, we’re thinking in terms of where out customers are interacting with us and making sure that our content is wherever they are, whenever they want or need to interact with it. So instead of thinking in output formats, we need to shift our thinking to providing the best experience possible with our content. this allows us to turn our content from a necessary expense into an engagement enabler. When we think about creating and managing content, we need to think not in terms of making a new user guide or a manual, but rather think of our users and how they will be using out content: What is their role? Who are they? What is their goal? What are they trying to achieve and in what context? And finally, what product are they using? What is their location? What is their level of experience?
Based on what we know about them, we should aim to serve up the right content- whether it be topics, videos, training modules- when and where they need it.
SA: You’ve been involved in helping companies make the move to advanced content management approaches for more than a decade now. What are the most valuable lessons you have learned from those experiences?
JG: First of all, transforming the way and organization manages content is not something you can bite off in one piece. The idea is to start building use-case scenarios around how customers are starting to use the content in specific scenarios and then, from there, build it out. In order to be successful, you have to be able to put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Walk through the carious phases of the customer lifecycle and imagine what information they need each step of the way. The content needed to turn a prospect into a customer is not the same content that’s needed to help an existing customer find answers to their daily challenges or educate them on why they ought to upgrade to a new product or service. I think a lot of companies bite the bullet and integrate content management and publishing and delivery tools without a clear idea of who is going to be consuming the content and how it needs to be designed. The idea is to start small and collect information and metrics on how people are using your content, and from there, make gradual improvements. Another thing we’ve learned is that people have been talking about metadata and tagging your content for years. I’m always surprised- as much as companies invest in tools to get better metadata- that they aren’t actually applying metadata to their content and are therefore not getting value out of the filtering and findability of their content. We’ve figured out an easy way for authors to tag their content, which, in turn, makes it easier for their customers to filter their content.
SA: Have you seen any adoption of structured content outside of the technical communication arena?
JG: Yes, structured content is being put to use beyond technical documentation. An increasing number of global companies are using structured, topic-based content outside of the documentation department. We’re seeing more and more demand for structured content from marketing, training, and other departments. Everything from financial reports to blog posts are being structured. There are many types of content that benefit from being designed for reuse- making it more accessible and easier to find.
SA: Research shows that customers don’t like the schizophrenic approach to content that most brands provide. They don’t care which department is responsible for creating the content they encounter; they only care about whether that content serves their needs. When content is created in silos, there’s a strong likelihood it’s going to be incongruent- sound, look, and feel different depending on which department created it. Do you think that it’s time to get all customer-facing content creators to work in the same way and. perhaps, to use the same suite of content production and management tools?
JG: In an ideal world, that would be great. But in the real world, companies have many different domains and ways of creating different types of content. Getting everyone onto one single platform is a pipe dream. However, that doesn’t mean that all the content can’t get delivered to the customer in a unified and consistent way. So, that’s what we want to focus on. Instead of trying to break down different silos and hit all sorts of political walls and force square pegs into round holes, the idea is to make sure that all of that content is going to be presented in a inified way. It really boils down to a few aspects.
Number one is to make sure that the content is classifie in a consisitent way, meaning that tech docs,marketing content, support content, training content, and community content should be tagged using a unified taxonomy with simple tools. Number two is from an authoring point of view. There are tools that embed themselves into almost all the authoring tools out there that allow authors across different departments to keep consistent language and terminology, and that’s something we definitely recommend wherever possible. When people arrive at a website, they want an answer as quickly as possible and this helps them.
SA: The technical communication sector has been divided for some time. On the one side there are those who handcraft single deliverables one at a time using desktop publishing and word processing tools. On the other side are the folks creating multiple deliverables simultaneously using intelligent content. Do you think marketing professionals are ready for the move to intelligent content? If so, why?
JG: Definitely, yes. If you drive down to what the definition of intelligent content is, I think the answer becomes very clear. Intelligent content essentially means component-based or topic-based content that is tagged with metadata to make it easily accessible. Marketing professionals understand better than anyone esle that people’s attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. Marketing people also understand that the message needs to be clear, concrete, and brief. They also understand and have solved the issue of being able to understand who needs to see a particular message or a particular piece of content by using personas and scenarios. In essence tagging the content is a way of doing exactly that and making it easily accesssible to the right people. Classifying content and using a unified taxanomy essentially means understanding the customer journey and personas that are going through the journey. Building a classification scheme that is going to push that content to the person based on who they are and what they want to do is the way that we can better serve out customers.
SA: When thinking about content, and the possibilities it provides us in the future, what are you most excited about?
JG: One of the things that I am most excited about is the potential of content-driven analytics. We need analytics to help us understand how people are consuming our content. Paying attention to the way people interact (or not) with our content allows us to make informed, data-driven business decision. Content informs the customer journey. By understanding how people are using our content, we can gain key business insights about who our prospects and customers are and what they’re interested in. The simple analytics and metrics available to us today are insufficient. It’s not enough to know how many people clicked on a link or on a certain page. We need much more complehensive dashboards and analytics to get business insights on how people are using our content. I see a future in which analytics plays a key role in technical communications- and beyond.
SA: Joe, where can our readers learn more about you and your new publishing platform?
JG: Our website, of course (www.zoominsoftware.com). Or they can find me on Twitter @zoominsoftware.
SA: Thanks for making time to share your views with our readers. I really appreciate it.
JG: Thank you, Scott!
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