Outbound Customer Communications: Author Once, Publish Many?

Originally published on Doculabs.com

For many of our clients today, there are three primary outbound communication channels: Paper via USPS Mail, email via Exact Target (or similar), and web pages via the web site. Unfortunately, for most organizations, each of these channels tends to have a different content authoring team, different publishing processes, and different underlying technologies. In addition, the manner in which the content is structured, in terms of naming conventions, meta-data and hierarchy, is different. As a result, while the world has adopted multiple channels of communications, costs have increased for these organizations, when you would actually expect to achieve some synergies.

Consider some stats. On an annual basis, a financial services or insurance client with 10 million customers will likely generate 100 million pieces of physical mail, send 50 million emails (assuming a 25% “e-doption”), and roughly 25 million site visit and more than 75 million page views. In support of these activities, across these three channels, there are typically in excess of 50,000 discrete “templates”, and likely a quarter- to a half-million content components used in the various templates. And considering both business and IT resources, it takes more than 100 FTEs to support the authoring, publishing, and delivery processes. Not cheap!

Given the magnitude, how do we streamline these processes and gain some efficiency?

What about the promise of “author once, publish many” that the industry has been advocating for well over 10 years? Well, in my opinion, the operational constraints of the different target mediums and supporting technologies result in some redundancy. Regardless, though, some efficiencies can be gained. So the key questions our customers ask is: What is the right balance? Can we encourage content re-use within and across channels, without compromising the optimization needed for a particular channel?

Here, some suggestions for organizations looking for additional leverage, from the standpoints of people, process, information architecture, and technology:

Cross-pollinate team members. Granted, the skills needed to work in Adobe for web content or Documaker for templates destined for paper, or in Aprimo for email campaigns, etc., involve some specialization. But the fundamental skills needed to understand tone, conform to a style guide, and use brevity apply across all channels. So the more you can cross-train individuals in these three teams, and use common practices for authoring and assigning meta-date, etc., the more you will be encouraging common processes.

Organizational alignment. If possible, have the different content authoring teams report directly or matrix to a common set of manager(s); again, consistency is increased. In particular, the different teams will begin to understand and appreciate some of the unique complexities within each channel, but also many of the similarities. And it affords the organization an opportunity to define common operating metrics – the number of change requests, length of time and number of hours to modify content, etc.

Standardized workflows. While the platforms used to author and publish content may be different in each delivery channel, some degree of process standardization is achievable. Consider, for instance, how change requests are submitted, how requirements are articulated, what additional artifacts are needed, how approvals are collected, etc. In many cases, standardizing these steps simplifies the process, both for the individuals within the publishing teams and also for business users interacting with the various teams.

Roles and responsibilities and metrics. The participants in the workflow, regardless of channel, can also be standardized so that everyone knows their role. Most critical is the definition of what tasks business or IT staff are responsible for. In addition, define the key metrics, including the number of units of work needing to be completed and the desired SLAs.

Information Architecture
Naming conventions and hierarchy. Just about every client I work with complains that they have content “all over the place”. Of course, content is everywhere, because no one ever proactively defined these retention protocols. Even if you are using simple file shares, taking the time to define basic meta-data and where content should be stored and how to do version control (even as simple as Filename_v1,… v2) goes a long way toward consistency.

Meta-data. When the basics above have been addressed, go a step further to define the essential set of indices that can be used to describe a template or content component. Graphics and design elements are particularly problematic, so get a cross-channel team in the room and come up with the three to five descriptive elements needed from the original creator of the content.

Today, the supplier community might claim they do multi-channel support – and if you were starting “greenfield,” that may well be the case. But for most of our clients, given the divergence of platforms already in use, they need to create channel-specific renditions. “Rendition” is probably too favorable a term, as it implies simply pushing a button, and magically an email or web page is created. Regardless, if the upstream processes leverage common standards (as outlined above), the particularities of technology platforms can be minimized (but not eliminated).

Overall, while the perfect world of authoring once and dynamically publishing across paper, email, and web channels is still a challenge, there are many steps organizations can take to streamline their operations. Developing common skills, processes, and content naming conventions optimizes use of resources to the extent possible.


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