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Q&A: The rise and rise of content automation

Mistakes in print or online content can potentially cost businesses millions of pounds, as well as causing public embarrassment and reducing the brand's future credibility.

Content Automation is now frequently being used to solve this problem and we spoke to Dave White, CTO at Quark Enterprise Solutions, to find out more.

1. What can you tell us about the rise of the content automation industry?

Content Automation has been deployed in specific niche vertical and content type-specific areas for over 2 decades.

For example, any industry that requires sending billing statements (called Customer Communications Management by industry analysts) has taken advantage of content automation to improve the quality and timeliness, as well as minimise costs associated with sending documents such as phone or credit card billing statements. This type of automation is typically limited to converting and publishing relational data from a database as a PDF and increasingly as Web and Mobile HTML.

The Technical Documentation teams for high-tech and software manufacturers have also deployed content automation for many years. For Tech Docs, the problem has always been improving efficiency for publishing to multiple formats such as a printed user manual, one or more customer help systems, and sometimes custom applications such as aircraft maintenance systems. One of the biggest challenges in Tech Docs is that target formats are always changing and expanding.

Most other common communications between a company and their customers, partners, and employees has been in the form of simple, short, content in HTML and deeper, more complex content in PDF and print.

With the adoption of smartphones and mobile tablets with sophisticated native apps as well as modern HTML5 enabled browsers, content consumers are no longer willing to accept PDF as their primary reading experience. This has put pressure on all businesses to “up their content game.” Some corporate early-adopters started creating branded, design-rich, and interactive content applications which – tooled for analytics – enabled marketers to deliver and measure the impact of these greatly improved content experiences. The results were clear: longer engagements, increased return visits, and higher customer satisfaction. And, while difficult to measure, many anecdotes that proved an increase of sharing with friends, family, and colleagues.

However, the cost of these early, custom, hand-crafted (and often programmer-intensive) applications was not sustainable. Content automation offers a solution to these problems by separating the content from its presentation, automating omni-channel outputs, while improving the efficiency of the organisation and the quality of the results.

2. What are some of the most costly typo disasters that have taken place?

Many of the most expensive and noteworthy content disasters are caused by the use of legacy, manual, and stove-piped content processes within a company. For example, when a marketing or publishing department receives data from a product management or engineering department, then hand copies, pastes, and formats that data for each target output.

One such example was a pharmaceutical company that manufactured and packaged over $1 million worth of a new drug only to realise shortly before shipping that the labels had a major error in the dosage instructions. “Take two pills four times a day,” is very different than “Take four pills twice a day.”

There have been many examples of similar issues related to publishing financial information such as moving or even removing a decimal point on a quarterly profit/loss report, or misunderstanding how commas and decimal points are used in currency in Europe versus in North America. Millions of dollars are at risk in these common scenarios.

Removing the manual steps in the use of data and instead treating data as an automated component of a published communication is one of several types of managed reuse that a Content Automation system can provide.

3. Aside from financial damage, how much of an impact can mistakes such as these have on the reputation of a company?

It’s not just these large and expensive errors, it can be more hidden, smaller content quality problems where cost is harder to directly measure but clearly have an impact on the reputation and financial results of a company. The quality of content has a dramatic impact on how a customer or partner perceives a company and therefore their interest in doing business with that company.

Another obvious example which nearly everyone has experienced comes from content that is poorly translated from one language to another. This can impact a consumer such that they may not buy the product, or if they do purchase, they may not recommend the product to others.

Traditionally, content quality has always included the dimensions of style, accuracy, consistency, and ease of comprehension. In the digital age, the timeliness of content - getting the content published and delivered faster - has been increasingly raised as a high priority. In the mobile age, quality concerns now include ideas such as “device appropriate” and “interactive” which are becoming the new minimum requirements to satisfy content consumers - especially those that are growing up with a phone in their hand.

Without content automation, it is simply too expensive, slow, manual, and error-prone to produce communications which meet these new demands. Beyond solving today's problems, content automation can also enable a company to be more agile including the ability to create new information products and communications dynamically, as well as quickly support new generations of devices and formats such as eye-wear displays, smart watches, and more.

4. What are the main business benefits of content automation?

Different industries will prioritise the benefits differently but in 2016 research from the InfoTrends analyst group, 56 per cent of respondents stated that increased customer satisfaction was the most important business initiative related to content strategy, followed by increasing revenue, reducing costs and improving compliance (in that order). However, every company we work with achieves multiple ROIs including:

  • Improved Productivity: Subject matter experts such as financial and legal analysts, product managers, and government officials who contribute authored content are 30-70 per cent more productive. They no longer have to waste time manually “formatting” the content and they the ability to reuse already existing components of content.
  • Reduced Content Maintenance and Increased Agility: Content componentisation and managed reuse removes the need to copy/paste or rewrite content that already exists. Rather than store content as monolithic documents, a scalable content automation system enables authors to create, manage, and deploy text, data, and media components as “single source of truth” assets. For example, if a publication requires one or more legal disclaimers, that disclaimer is stored once and used by reference in multiple publications. If changes are required, the disclaimer is edited once and all references to that disclaimer are automatically updated as well. Usability of components is similar to copy/paste, but without the associated problems of trying to manually update hundreds of different documents where paste was used.
  • Improved Collaboration: The ability for cross-department teams to work in parallel on complex and/or large publications by leveraging componentisation and automation creates better results faster.
  • Improved Quality: When managed reuse is deployed and content maintenance costs are reduced, information quality increases dramatically: accuracy is improved; consistency is dramatically improved; and time-to-market is reduced significantly. Further, content automation can also generate omni-channel outputs without manual intervention. So the resulting publications have consistent style and branding, as well as enabling the inclusion of interactivity features such as slideshows, pop-ups, animated text, and more.
  • Reduced Time-To-Market: Content Automation can reduce the end-to-end cycle time of a content production workflow from months to weeks, weeks to days, or days to minutes. One example is a custom electronic chip manufacturer who used to take 2-3 weeks of manual labor to create a 40-page product data sheet for each customer request for a specific configuration, where each new design request may have 10-30 different variables. Now, they have a web form and the customer can get a product data sheet in just minutes which they can share with their fellow engineers to evaluate and make a purchase decision. In all cases, the automation of outputs removes the iterative cycles between author and publication designer which typically adds hours or days to final output and often uses different resources for print, web, and mobile.

5. Which industries are leading the way in terms of adoption?

In the past few years, financial services have been the fastest adopters of content automation. In investment research and fund fact sheets the ability to create device-appropriate, interactive reports provides investment managers with better content to guide their investment decisions. In banking, the use of content automation for standard operating procedures has been growing – especially in large multi-region and global banks where increased regulations require an improved ability to prove the procedures are accurate and easily accessed as well as managing geographic variations based on local regulation can be very complex.

Many manufacturers of componentised products have been using content automation for technical support and documentation for 15+ years, but we have started to see adoption for sales and marketing focused content where delivering device-appropriate and interactive content can be a differentiator and is rapidly becoming a minimum requirement to satisfy consumers researching their potential purchases. Manufacturing and Process industries are also deploying standard operating procedures to improve quality, timeliness, and deliver to mobile devices which make accessing procedures easier and therefore more likely.

Government agencies at state and federal levels have tremendous pressure on them to create accurate, omni-channel content while working in a highly regulated and massively collaborative environment.

Legislation, standard operation procedures, and constituent communications are all growing their use of content automation.

Image source: Shutterstock/PureSolution