Content is king, it is commonly said. Writers, editors, proofreaders, and other content professionals have promoted this line of thinking over the years, usually when technology creeps into their turf, promising to help them better create, structure, manage, and deliver content to those who need it — sometimes, without their help.
“Don’t forget about the content,” they remind us. And, as it turns out, they’re right. Content is the lifeblood of an organization. More often than not, content is an organization’s most valuable asset.
And yet, despite the critical importance of content, at the terminology level, it is seldom managed efficiently or effectively. Surprisingly, terminology isn’t addressed in meaningful, strategic ways during most content marketing strategy projects, although it certainly should be.
Haven’t we been doing this all along?
The words we choose to use have a tremendous impact on others. We know this instinctively. The right words can inform, instruct, and inspire. The wrong ones can confuse, confound, and contradict. And yet, most organizations leave their terminology development to the ad hoc creativity of writers and editors, most of whom are ill-equipped to select the best words for the job.
It’s not that writers aren’t skilled in the creation of valuable content. Most writers were trained by well-intentioned language arts and creative writing teachers. While they were taught the rules of language, most writers were not taught to create content for the international marketplace in which we live today.
Armed with style guides, desktop dictionaries and thesauri, modern wordsmiths attempt to craft quality content following outdated rules created decades ago by teachers who could not foresee the need for a completely different set of writing skills. Today, writers are tasked with creating content that complies with a lengthy checklist of rules they must first study, learn, and use. When they make a mistake, the errors they introduce are expected to be caught downstream by human editors.
Human editors are often overburdened and are just as likely to make mistakes as are writers. Most editors rely on outdated mechanical (manual) editing processes to catch an increasing array of content problems, many of which may introduce unnecessary legal, regulatory and financial risks.
Managing terminology is of strategic importance to organizations that consider content a business-critical asset. Managing the terms used by those who create content involves leveraging technology designed specifically to guide writers in the way they use words.
What is terminology management, exactly?
Terminology is “the set of special words belonging to a science, an art, an author, or a social entity,” according to the authors of The Handbook of Terminology, Silvia Pavel and Diane Nolet.
Taxonomy expert Seth Earley, CEO and Founder of Earley Information Science, describes terminology as “a system of words used to describe things in a particular discipline; a specialized dictionary or lexicon for an industry, profession, company, subject matter, or area of study.”
Ensuring the right words are used for the right purposes is the sole function of terminology management. Pavel and Nolet define it as “the documentation, storage, manipulation and presentation” of terminology.
Enterprise content strategist, Ann Rockley, CEO of international content strategy consultancy, The Rockley Group and author of Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy, says terminology management is more than that.
“Terminology management is the process of efficiently and effectively managing the terms you use to create intellectual capital,” Rockley says. “In order for your organization to deliver clear, concise and consistent content in today’s on-demand world, terminology must be managed in a strategic way. It must be part of your overarching content strategy, not an afterthought.”
Chances are, your organization has its own terminology, likely derived from a combination of industry jargon, corporate word preferences, product and service branding, government regulations, and technology standards.
Managing all of these words efficiently and effectively requires you to think strategically about your terminology needs. If you don’t have a plan already, you’ll want to begin your foray into terminology management by starting with a formal plan: Your content strategy.
What is a content strategy?
Content strategy guru Rahel Anne Bailie, Chief Knowledge Officer at Scroll, offers this detailed definition of content strategy.
“Content strategy deals with the planning aspects of managing content throughout its lifecycle, and includes aligning content to business goals, analysis, and modeling, and influences the development, production, presentation, evaluation, measurement, and sunsetting of content, including governance.”
“What content strategy is not is the implementation side,” Bailie says. “The actual content development, management, and delivery is the tactical outcome of the strategy that needs to be carried out for the strategy to be effective.”
According to Bailie, a content strategy:
- is strategic
It governs what happens to content during the implementation phase. This is the stage where planning and analysis happen. It’s not only where the “how” is addressed, but also, the “why.” It’s about processes within.
- is repeatable
A content strategy is not a one-off activity. It’s a way of handling content within a corporate context and moving up the publishing maturity model to a place where a commitment has been made to effectively and efficiently manage and sustain the content lifecycle.
- is about process
The processes within a content lifecycle are system-agnostic, though any organization with a large corpus likely uses some sort of system to assist with process management. The processes are established as part of the strategy phase and implemented during the content lifecycle.
- is governing
Governance is being both the guardian of content and the content strategy; making all the important decisions about how content is created/collected, managed, published and curated.
- is a system
It’s not a technology, though it can (and often times, should) be technology-assisted. It describes an organic system that covers content from cradle-to-grave and all the iterations along the way.
Language Afterthought Syndrome
Building terminology management into your content strategy will help you avoid what The Gilbane Group calls language afterthought syndrome (LAS) — a pattern of treating language requirements as secondary considerations within content strategies and solutions.
According to Gilbane, “companies leak money and opportunity by failing to address language issues as integral to end-to-end solutions rather than as ancillary post-processes.”
Language afterthought syndrome is the cause of all sorts of content problems.
How can you tell if you suffer from LAS?
A few common symptoms include:
- inconsistent and inaccurate content (the cause of customer confusion, regulatory compliance challenges, law suits)
- translation and localization issues addressed after completion of content creation process (the cause of unnecessary translation and localization challenges and expenses)
- struggling with content review process slow downs (the cause of time-to-market delays)
- insufficient time to do a thorough review (the cause of content quality problems)
- increasing challenges re-formatting content into multiple languages (the cause of escalating desktop publishing costs)
Content Strategy and Terminology Management
There’s not a lot of talk about terminology management among content strategists. That’s because the discipline of content strategy is relatively new and its practitioners don’t all use a universal set of best practices. Nor do they follow the same standards. They don’t share a common vocabulary. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds, each with a different focus.
Web-focused strategists, for example, are likely to be more knowledgeable about managing digital assets, web pages, and web page metadata. Marketing-focused strategists are likely to be more concerned about social media mentions, sentiment analysis, campaign metrics, and search engine optimization. Publishing-focused strategists might be more involved with managing libraries of XML content components from which various personalized document types are created and delivered on-demand. Technical and medical communicators, by comparison, would likely be more aware of style, structure, terminology, translation and localization. Translators think of terminology management as mapping of terms and concepts between languages. Enterprise content strategists will need to be familiar with all of these things and many more.
As a result, there is much work to be done in the content strategy arena to educate content strategists of all types to the importance of managing terminology both efficiently and effectively.
A survey of content strategists conducted by The Content Wrangler shows the disconnect. Here are some of the results:
- 51.6% of content strategists have never worked on a project involving terminology management.
- Among content strategists who have attempted to standardize or control terminology, the most common tools employed were not designed to manage terminology (Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, term lists in word processing documents, relational databases).
- The most common methods for attempting to manage terminology are at best inefficient and time-consuming, and at worst, error-prone — involving editors manually checking content against style, authoring, and branding guideline documents.
- The most common assistance offered to content authors (to prevent them from making mistakes that later will need to be edited) is the style guide.
Of course, few content strategists would argue against the importance of content being managed efficiently and effectively. They would never suggest that an organization manage thousands of web pages or documents, or millions of words or lines of code, manually. And yet, depending on their background, experience, and their view of what is important to customers, some content strategists may not see anything wrong with managing terminology manually. They may believe that human editors are best suited for such tasks. Or, perhaps, they are just unaware that there are software tools available to automatically prevent terminological and other types of errors from creeping in during the authoring process. They may not understand the financial and other implications of eliminating the busy work of spotting typos, grammatical errors, and style guide violations by empowering editors to focus instead on adding value to the content being created.
In their book, Document Engineering, content management gurus Robert Glushko and Tim McGrath explain the importance of optimizing content so that it’s clearly understood by both humans and machines. Ambiguity and other impediments to processing content is introduced by humans, they point out. And, “people often aren’t as careful or conscientious as they should be in creating information. They may fail to recognize the seriousness of the semantic ambiguity problem, or they may have insufficient time, expertise, resources, or incentives to attack the problem.”
Nevertheless, every content strategy should include terminology management as a key component, with the overarching goal to ensure the creation of quality content. To ensure success, strategists should include a set of specific, measurable secondary goals, for example, decreasing inconsistencies in voice, tone, style, structure, and terminology that naturally occur when multiple authors contribute to a singe body of content.
To measure success, it is essential to apply well-established quality management principles to the content strategy development process, including:
- formal, documented content creation, management and delivery best practices and processes
- relevant content, metadata, and terminological standards and rules
- revised roles and responsibilities for each person involved in the content lifecycle
- adoption of software that automates both the collection of objective content quality metrics and the creation of content quality reports
- adoption of software that provides real-time, objective feedback designed to guide writers, editors, and translators in the creation of quality content
- adoption of software that automates costly and time-consuming manual content creation, management, and delivery tasks
- periodic evaluation of content quality assurance processes and procedures to identify areas for additional improvement
- formal content quality control metrics and reports and logical hand-off points in the process – automated as much as possible (you can’t manage what you can’t measure)
Success should also be measured in financial terms. Return on investment for a properly implemented content strategy comes from two sources: revenue generation and cost savings.
It is challenging, but not impossible, to measure content success on the revenue side. Some organizations use customer surveys to determine what impact content quality has on the sales process. Anecdotal evidence from these surveys suggests that digitally-savvy consumers increasingly visit corporate websites, customer support portals and online knowledge centers, before making purchase decisions. Their experiences interacting with the content — and understanding it — has a huge impact on purchasing decisions. It also informs their opinions of the brand. They often share their experiences with others via social networks, especially when the content experiences are particularly bad. These negative sentiments are expressed in public forums where they can further damage sales and brand downstream.
On the other side of the return on investment equation we have cost savings, productivity increases, and reduction in wastefulness of finite resources. Content strategies designed to help humans manage large quantities of content efficiently and effectively can demonstrate significant return on investment by showcasing savings and productivity gains made possible by computer-assisted terminology management. Savings are easy to measure with the assistance of content quality/terminology management tools designed to guide authors, enforce rules, control vocabulary, and aid in the creation of clear, concise, easy-to-understand content that is on brand and on target. The addition of automated quality control metrics and reports multiplies the impact of the author guidance tools.
Implementing a content strategy that makes content quality a key success factor from the start involves ensuring quality management principles are built into your content lifecycle from beginning to end. It’s not enough to document your content lifecycle, processes, procedures, roles and responsibilities and think your work is done. To be successful, your content strategy must ensure that your quality rules and guidelines are mapped to the tasks and activities of those involved in creating, managing and delivering your content. And, you’ll need to build into your content strategy how you intend to enforce content quality rules in an efficient and effective manner.
Selecting The Right Tools For The Job
Managing terminology strategically — and preventing the problems that improper terminology can introduce — requires you to put into place software tools that prevent writers from using:
- polysemous ambiguous terms (e.g. synonyms open to interpretation)
- industry jargon (terms not immediately understandable by the reader)
- transient terms (product nouns that change regularly, for example)
- various metaphors and analogies (Americanisms, for example)
- unapproved terms, phrases, sentences
- words, phrases, and concepts that are difficult or impossible to translate into target languages
Strategically managing terminology also requires you to put in place processes that enforce your rules by guiding authors in the creation of high-quality, consistent, unambiguous content. To do it right, you’ll need:
- standardized terminology (your official vocabulary)
- a terminology database (a repository for your terms)
- style, branding, and authoring guidelines (your content rules)
- an appropriately sized editorial staff to manage quality and conformance to standards, or
- a software application designed to steer authors toward the creation of well-crafted content and away from content that can introduce challenges, or
- some appropriate combination of automation and editorial staff
Real-World Example: IBM
International Business Machines (IBM) values information quality. The company has long recognized the need for a consistent voice across all of their information products. They have not only declared their support of content quality as a corporate goal, they have also spent considerable time and money creating an enterprise terminology management system and linguistic rules designed to ensure consistency and promote the creation of quality content across the enterprise.
Roughly 1500 professional technical authors are charged with creating the customer-facing product documentation for multiple IBM product brands and business units. That content is edited by a large pool of human editors who do their best to catch and correct errors. Once the content is edited and approved, it is translated into up to 40 or more target languages. That’s a big job — even for a company the size of IBM.
As the company increasingly improved its content creation, management and delivery methods, it soon realized that traditional approaches to controlling content quality failed to help them meet their goals. It’s no wonder. When the company took a closer look at their content lifecycle, they discovered that editors, for example, spent 30-50% of their time attempting to catch errors in style, grammar, and branding. And yet, errors and other content problems proliferated.
When IBM took a closer look, it realized that the authoring processes utilized were not optimized for success. A content audit revealed that in some cases, authors created many different ways to say the same thing.
“We realized there had to be a better way,” said Mike Iantosca, Product Development Technical Team Lead for Information Development Tools and Technology, IBM in a webinar on the topic of terminology management. “What we needed was a unified content standards governance and auditing system that was as easy to use as a spell checker. And, we needed to bring terminology management into the authoring process so we could prevent errors during authoring, instead of trying to catch them manually, afterward.”
IBM evaluated a variety of potential solutions, settling on Acrolinx, a suite of information quality tools designed by language experts and artificial intelligence researchers. Acrolinx was attractive to IBM for a variety of reasons, including its support for a wide variety of authoring tools including Microsoft Word, Adobe FrameMaker, XMetaL, Arbortext, Oxygen, Lotus Notes — even PowerPoint. It provides authors with what can only be described as “linguistic superpowers.” The software makes it possible for organizations to programmatically help authors avoid making grammar, punctuation, spelling and style errors. it also helps them avoid violating terminology usage rules, and corporate style, branding and authoring guidelines.
Acrolinx assists IBM in meeting their corporate goal of producing quality content by analyzing content as it is authored, flagging non-conformances, assisting authors with corrections, and when possible, recommending alternatives. It checks hyperlinks against a live connection to the internet, ensuring broken links don’t make their way into IBM content. And, Acrolinx also includes an XML markup advisor, preventing authors from misusing corporate semantic tags in the over 1 million DITA XML documents the company authors.
Acrolinx allows the company to specify different rules for different lines of business, while still maintaining centralized control over corporate terminology. The software helps IBM enforce Global English standards that ensure the creation of unambiguous content, drastically reducing expensive delays in translation.
“It’s far more than your parent’s controlled English tool,” said Iantosca.
Savings From Computer-Aided Terminology Management and Content Quality Control
IBM has reported tremendous success with Acrolinx. In the first six weeks of using the tools, Iantosca reports that the company was able to check 17 million words contained in 18,000 documents, preventing common errors in style, grammar, spelling, markup and terminology from ending up in the editing queue. That’s pretty impressive. But, IBM didn’t stop tracking metrics there.
Over a six month period, IBM reports that Acrolinx flagged over 2.5 million problems that authors fixed during the content creation process, saving the company thousands of hours of manual editing labor. The most common errors were terminology and style.
When IBM took a look at how these preventative measures impacted them financially, they discovered that by allowing Acrolinx to enforce linguistic rules during the authoring process, the company enjoyed significant cost savings.
By preventing technical authors from violating five common linguistic rules — avoiding future tense, avoiding modal verbs, avoiding possessives, removing unnecessary spaces, and using the words this, that, these, and those without nouns — the company was able to document savings in just a few months. Because these errors were prevented during authoring, editors were freed up to perform additional, value-added tasks.
Every content strategy should include terminology management as a key component. The overarching goal is to ensure the efficient creation of effective, top quality content. Strategically managing terminology provides value to both the organization that invests in its creation as well as to the prospects and customers who interact with it. Thinking strategically about terminology management requires organizations to efficiently and effectively produce content that requires the least amount of effort to understand and process.
While revenue generation from terminology management can be challenging to measure at first, cost savings, productivity increases, and reductions in wastefulness — and improvements in content quality — often provide sufficient rationale for adopting a formal terminology process.
Savings are easiest to measure with the assistance of content quality/terminology management tools designed to guide authors, enforce rules, control vocabulary, and aid in the creation of clear, concise, easy-to-understand content that is on brand and on target. The addition of automated quality control metrics and reports multiplies the impact, making terminology management one powerful tool to add to your content strategy arsenal.