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Modularizing Your Content for Simplicity and Productivity

Some guidelines to help you plan a modular (“message architecture”) approach to content development to facilitate customer communications management, particularly for multi-channel delivery.

Publishing teams and customer communications management (CCM) programs are struggling with the dual and sometimes competing objectives of becoming faster, more efficient, and more consistent in content production, while at the same time adding additional channels and formats for delivery. To address this issue (and others), firms are becoming more adept and comfortable with developing their content in a modular or componentized fashion.

This modular content approach enables the creation and assembly of communications and documents from a collection of parts. The collection of parts may include many different artifacts, such as logos, signatures, graphics, headers, footers, paragraphs, sentences, etc. By reusing these parts in an appropriate manner, you can save considerable time and effort throughout the publishing lifecycle, while also helping to drive consistency and quality within your messaging and across your delivery channels.

Consider the guidelines below when developing your modular content approach.

Defining your module size/granularity is part art and part science: Appropriate module size (granularity) is difficult to define in general, universal terms, as the topic and purpose of each module vary significantly. Think paragraph first and adjust from there as you progress and mature. Tracking and analysis is the key to optimizing the granularity over time. Measure usage effectiveness across modules to determine trends and what works for different document groups and business areas.

Reuse of the modular content is a means to an end: Sometimes folks get so caught up in the drive toward “reuse” that they forget the real objective. They begin to spend more time counting document or template reduction and the number of reusable or reused content modules/fragments, than they spend determining time and efficiency factors in the publishing lifecycle. Let your end goals of efficiency, cost savings, consistency, and quality drive decisions, not just the pure level of template or content fragment reuse.

Not all documents need to be modularized: Some documents are unique, or are very stable, or are so static in nature that there is little benefit to be realized from breaking them down into a set of granular parts. Work with business areas to determine the uniqueness of purpose and the depth and breadth of document or module usage before embarking on the modular approach. You can always break out a document later if the original assumptions regarding its nature change.

Measure results to support your program: There are still some resisters within organizations that aren’t convinced the initial investment in modular content will pay off. To convince them, define your metrics upfront so that you can defend your benefit assumptions with actual results. Remember to keep the metrics aligned to your organization’s business goals regarding speed, cost, and customer experience.

Some questions come to mind regarding this approach:

  • Who is supposed to follow the guidelines to ensure an effective modular content approach is implemented?
  • How do I bring this modular content approach together into a cohesive and understandable plan?

Effective reuse through modular content design doesn’t just happen; it requires that a person or a small team have ownership and responsibility for creating the plan and maintaining the approach over time. Doculabs recommends that firms establish a role of Message Architect as the leader/owner of the modular content design and plan. Collectively, you can refer to this work as message architecture. Whatever you decide to name the role, you should establish this position with responsibility over five key areas of your communications program. Each of the five components has a direct effect on either the creation of the content itself, or on the surrounding and supporting services that are required to work effectively and manage the message architecture over time.

Here are five message architecture tracks to consider:

Message Inventory: Understanding your current landscape within and across business segments is essential to developing an enterprise approach and beginning a reconstruction or refactoring effort. Key activities include:

  • Develop a catalog of content locations
  • Develop an initial message classes
  • Create a checklist and process for sorting messages into classes
  • Develop tools (e.g. spreadsheets) for tracking and managing the inventory going forward

Message Standards: Multiple types of standards exist and must be coordinated in order for the publishing team to leverage them effectively. Key standards and guidelines to coordinate include:

  • Customer experience standards
  • Brand standards
  • Writing standards
  • Design and layout standards
  • Delivery channel and format standards
  • Assessment and testing standards

Data Mapping: Although writers and designers don’t need to be overly intimate with the data fields contained in their documents and messages, a working knowledge of the fields, their sources, and usage is beneficial. Working with IT resources, the message architect should help to define:

A limited set of schemas to be used in the publishing environment
A defined set of metadata and values
A variable repository and knowledge of how it will be leveraged

Content Modularity: Working closely with the composition developers (if not the same as your writers), the message architect should develop standards and guidelines for:

  • Component naming conventions
  • Module types
  • Reuse objectives and guidelines
  • Template and document complexity
  • Metrics for managing and tracking progress

Library Usage and Standards: Multiple repositories are likely involved in the end-to-end process, each with a specific purpose and perhaps different set of users. A defined approach should be developed that includes guidelines and processes to ensure integrity and effectiveness. Consider:

  • Repository inventory: What is the “single source of the truth”?
  • Identified users and purposes
  • Metadata for repositories and document classes
  • Process integration, perhaps with automated workflow systems

If you haven’t got a plan for managing modular content at your firm, or if multiple publishing groups each have their own approaches, establish the role of a message architect to develop and manage your modular content approach on a more enterprise scale. The investment will pay big dividends in the quality, consistency, and efficiency of your content creation. The big payback, however, is the impact on your customers and your ability to deliver consistently high-quality services across multiple channels.

Tom Roberts
Tom Roberts
I’m a Principal Consultant for Doculabs with 25+ years experience, focused on delivering strategies that improve clients’ enterprise content management capabilities, with an emphasis on customer communications management strategies.