Building a business case for COPE (part two): a brief detour into a proof of concept

As part of the ongoing endeavour to build a case for a Create Once, Publish Everywhere content management solution at CIPD, I was asked some time ago to develop a ‘proof of concept’: to demonstrate the potential for re-using content from our research reports in other products.

I’ve been struggling with this request for a while now, for a number of reasons. Firstly, having worked as a Project Manager in a previous life, ‘proof of concept’ to me felt like a technical challenge. Something that required some kind of small(ish)-scale technology implementation – the setting up an XML editor, a source code control system, and DITA OpenToolkit, not to mention some upfront IA to determine the right content model – to prove that we could re-mix content and produce something new. But I wasn’t sure that this was the right approach. Because the time and effort involved felt like it would further stall the project getting off the ground. Because setting up a DITA environment without a CCMS is a bit like trying to build a corporate website using Notepad and a directory system. Because after all that effort, we’d still only be able to show a relatively uninspiring PDF, maybe an ebook and some help-page style HTML.

And because… well because our research output, as it stands today, isn’t that user-friendly. We produce roughly 70 research papers a year. They’re interesting, certainly, and thought provoking a lot of the time. And they demonstrate to the world that we know what we’re talking about; that we are a serious institution. But – whisper it – some of them are a bit dull.

How do we capitalise on our ‘knowledge capital’?How do we take that flat, dry, academic content and use it to reach as wide an audience as possible? How do we re-use it in ways that not just inform, but delight our customers? How do we capitalise on our ‘knowledge capital’?

So this week I’m blogging about my ‘proof of concept’ journey and how we need to ‘re-imagine’ our existing publishing model. But first let’s look at our ‘as is’ state, which can be summed up in a three-letter acronym – PDF: my personal bête noire.

Why a PDF-only approach is an issue for CIPD and our customers

We currently produce most of our research content in text and graphics, published in PDF format, available for download from the report’s landing page on the CIPD website.

Content is difficult to find internally and on the website

Our research reports are written and edited in Word and laid out to PDF in InDesign and stored on a shared drive. Without labelling the files with metadata and without a content or document management system to store them in, our research reports are extremely difficult for internal users to find.

And our website’s confusing information architecture and sickly search engine makes it difficult for users (and colleagues) to find research content from within our site.

(Our website falls into the classic trap of perfectly representing our own internal model of the business, rather than organising information in a way that customers find useful.)

PDFs are difficult to read…

Readers have to scroll down and then scroll up ad infinitumWell certainly they’re tricky to read on tablets, and almost impossible to read on a smartphone. PDF has a zoom function, but unlike HTML, PDF s don’t adapt and reflow according to the screen size they’re displayed on. And lots of our research reports are laid out to a three-column design. Readers have to scroll down to read ‘below the fold’ on the first column and then scroll up again to read the top of the next column, ad infinitum.

(‘Above the fold’ on a website or screen is whatever is visible when the page first opens. Information that is ‘below the fold’ becomes visible only when the user scrolls down the page.)

With a non-responsive website, we already have a high bounce rate (the percentage of visitors who enter a site and ‘bounce off’ ie leave, rather than continue to view other pages) for users accessing the site using tablets and smartphones. Research by our online acquisition team last year found the bounce rate was 58% for mobiles and 50% for tablets, compared with 39% for desktop. The team also found that platforms more associated with desktop computers had a much higher download rate for PDF than platforms associated with mobile and tablet.

…So much so that no one is actually reading them!

What if someone had already figured out the answers to the world’s most pressing policy problems, but those solutions were buried deep in a PDF, somewhere nobody will ever read them?

This provocative question comes from the Washington Post, in an article with the fantastic title: The solutions to all our problems may be buried in PDFs that nobody reads. In fact, I think the title so wonderful, and so apposite, that I’ve blu tacked it to the wall behind my desk!

The World Bank releases hundreds of – long and highly technical – reports a year in PDF posted to their website. In answer to the question Is anyone actually reading these things? they analysed their web traffic data, and found

Nearly one-third of their PDF reports had never been downloaded, not even once. Another 40 percent of their reports had been downloaded fewer than 100 times. Only 13 percent had seen more than 250 downloads in their lifetimes. Since most World Bank reports have a stated objective of informing public debate or government policy, this seems like a pretty lousy track record. 

Wall Street Journal, The solutions to all our problems may be buried in PDFs that nobody reads 

Well, that’s not quite true for CIPD’s research reports. Actually quite a lot of people are reading them – some of the most popular reports get around 1500 downloads, approximately 11% of our total membership (which proves there is great stuff in there). But that’s not as many as might read the research if the content was available in more formats, on a responsive website, in more easily digested chunks, distributed across more channels.

Re-use is extremely difficult

Re-use is difficult when you don’t know what content you have. But also, the research reports are developed and laid out in unstructured and inflexible formats (Word, InDesign) which makes extracting the text and images for re-use in other products, and other contexts, extremely difficult.

Often the entire report is re-used, impacting print costs, and wasting students’ timeResearch reports are often re-used within other products and by other departments at CIPD, mostly in our training courses and course materials, so there is an existing appetite, and a need, for re-use. But that re-use is manual; updates are ad hoc and uncoordinated. And because it is difficult to re-use the relevant excerpts, it is often the entire report that is re-used, impacting print costs, and students’ time.

A single distribution channel and format limits reach

Search engines will only index the research report once if it only appears in one place (ie on the report’s landing page). Search on ‘trust in organisations’ and you would hope to find the CIPD research report: Where has all the trust gone? but it doesn’t rank on Google’s first three pages.

To make content findable it needs to be available in as many formats, on as many channels as possible, and shared as widely as possible on social media.

A single distribution channel and format limits sharing

We have to ask ourselves not only how many people will read a 96-page report, but also how many will want to share it? Although we have the ShareThis social media button at the bottom of every research report’s landing page, users can only share a link to the entire research report, ie to the PDF. People are more likely to access and to share if there are more digestible content types available.

A single publishing format limits choice

Generally speaking, CIPD’s knowledge capital is published in flat, slightly dry, longish academic papers. They are not easy to digest for those who are time poor, for those whose learning preferences or styles do not favour dense academic argument, or for those who just prefer to consume content in other, less formal ways.

Increasingly customers expect to have many choices about how they consume content, appropriate to their needs, preferences and contexts: podcasts, videos, infographics, full text HTML on responsive websites, e-books, as well as print and PDF.

OK we get it: PDFs suck! What about that proof of concept? 

What is a proof of concept?

I find the first place to start, when I’m struggling with anything, is with a definition. According to Wikipedia, a proof of concept is:

a realization of a certain method or idea to demonstrate its feasibility, or a demonstration in principle, whose purpose is to verify that some concept or theory has the potential of being used.

So the proof of concept must set out to demonstrate in principle the feasibility of re-using CIPD’s research reports – the text and graphics currently locked away in PDF – in other products.

So we don’t need a proof of concept, but rather a paradigm shift

Although it is certainly of tremendous importance, we can’t build a sophisticated, systematic and innovative re-use capability at CIPD by simply(!) breaking up the text into chunks and managing it in DITA XML in a CCMS.

The text and graphical content alone isn’t ‘rich’ enough, isn’t sufficiently malleable, to meet all of our digital ambitions and our customers’ expectations.

Therefore the way that we currently produce and publish our research reports does not readily lend itself to a re-use model – there is no proof of concept per se that can be built out from our current research publishing activities.

Rather we need a paradigm shift in the way we think about the creation, publication and distribution of our research content.

Re-imagination: the new publishing paradigm

We still need to publish the in-depth research report, for those who want to access the academic research and to provide the bedrock of evidence to anchor CIPD’s reputation and the overlying strata of products and offerings.

But to get the full benefit of COPE, and to remain relevant and discoverable, we must develop a broad asset base of multimedia content around each research theme, to satisfy users’ varying content consumption choices, to extend CIPD’s reach, to innovate, and exploit new commercial opportunities.

We must re-imagine our research content.

…Treat anything you develop as pieces of a larger whole. View all of the pieces of content you plan to create as expressions of a single bigger idea. Or alternatively—if you are starting with something larger, like a white paper or ebook—think about how you can create smaller chunks of sharable content from that single content asset.

Ann Hadley and CC Chapman, Content Rules

We can, and should, approach this re-imagining from both ends: as well as breaking up the research report itself into reusable chunks of content, we should plan for and generate an ecosystem of rich media assets around a research report or topic.

But let’s first look at creating smaller chunks from the larger asset.

Breaking the whole into chunks: text and graphics

Developing a content model (ie the structure of how we break up the research reports in to logical chunks), applying rich metadata, and managing text and graphics from within a CCMS will allow us to:

  • Find content that already exists
  • Identify gaps and commission only what we need
  • Re-use text and graphic content in other product streams, eg training courses
  • Publish efficiently in new formats – full HTML on the website and ebooks (as well as catering to the demographic that still prefer PDF and print)
  • Translate text and graphic content
  • Manage content creation, editing and review workflows

That content has more flexibility, more re-formatting and re-use opportunities and output options. But this model still only leaves us with the text and the graphics we’ve created for the research report.

Develop a complimentary ecosystem of multimedia assets

Building an ecosystem of multimedia assets and resources around a single topic is relatively straightforward. We could record audio and video interviews with the CIPD research advisor, the authors and case study participants; take photos; produce infographics; blog – both during the development process (following John Stepper’s concept of working out loud), as well as to coincide with publication.

In fact we can, with relatively little effort, generate a third tier of assets associated with the research reports. CIPD runs numerous events and conference seminars that are tied to our research output. We could capture video and audio interviews from key speakers, record panel discussions, take photos, conduct vox pops with attendees, and so on.

We already take quite a bit of footage at CIPD events, but we’re not collecting these satellites of rich media assets in any coordinated, systematic way. Nor are we storing or tagging them in a way that means they can be easily found or associated with other related content.

Reimagine; don’t recycle. Recycling is an afterthought; good content is intentionally reimagined, at its inception, for various platforms and formats.

Ann Hadley and CC Chapman, Content Rules

With a little investment in the necessary hardware (which are relatively cheap; the smartphone in your pocket has high quality audio and video capability) and software, and some kind of media asset management system, we can intentionally re-imagine.

(Of course, we mustn’t forget that to comply with accessibility guidelines, video must include closed captions and transcripts must be provided for audio files.)

Use re-imagined assets to create enhanced and freemium products

Multimedia assets gathered during the development process can be included in a number of enhanced and freemium products, for example enhanced (ie EPUB 3) ebooks, digital training courses, MOOCS, themed collections, digital conference programmes.

So, there’s our proof of concept. Not really a proof of concept after all, but rather a plea for a fresh approach to developing, managing and publishing our research content – what Hadley and Chapman call ‘re-imagination’.

And what can we do with all those ‘re-imagined’ assets? Well, the only limit to re-imagination is our imagination.


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