Many organizations can do better using the content they’ve created. Too many focus their efforts on repurposing old content instead of reusing existing content.
Michael AndrewsPublished on May 12, 2022
An effective content strategy will build foundations that can be reused and will avoid unnecessary work. Content utilization has a critical influence in content strategy success.
Too much content is disposable
Enterprises create millions of content items every year. But they will use most of these items only once. They will publish each item once and will deliver it to only one destination, such as a website. In many cases, no one will view the item a few weeks after it was published. Single-use content can quickly become disposable content. It’s content with a short life span.
All this content is expensive to create. Poorly used content can be an embarrassing problem. Some teams try to disguise the problem by generating additional similar content: either making the content look different or mutating what already exists into something that seems new. This reactive maneuver is known as “repurposing” content.
Repurposing content can be a sign of content strategy problems
Countless articles online recommend that teams mine their old content to find material they might be able to “repurpose”—that is to say, rewrite and rework into something else that people would hopefully find interesting. While repurposing may sound like a clever idea, it can be a warning sign that the existing content is off-target.
The problem with repurposing as a tactic is that it encourages staff to keep creating single-use content focused on short-term results. Instead of asking how the content could be reused over time, and to what different places it could be published, the repurposing mindset presumes that comprehensive planning isn’t necessary. Staff may believe that poorly conceived content can be reworked or repackaged later through the magic of repurposing. If people aren’t interested in the original content, maybe changing it will make it more popular. No one pauses to ask why the original content failed to deliver on its original promise. Why was the original purpose of the content not adequate?
Repurposing content can saddle your team with extra work. It’s a random process:
- Identifying poorly used content that you believe has unrealized potential
- Figuring out what isn’t right about the original content
- Revising or transforming this content to make it more appealing and hope for the best
We can see that repurposing is not a quick fix. Adapting old content to serve a new purpose is labor-intensive, sometimes taking as much effort as creating entirely new content.
So why is repurposing a tempting option? Repurposing content can be an expression of the “sunk-cost fallacy.” The old poorly-used content required lots of time and effort to create, and staff want to show some metrics for that work, which they can do by boosting the number and frequency of their outputs. Every newly identified purpose requires the team to develop a new repurposed version of the content. But because the original content was not planned for future use from the start, it will be hard for them to get long-term value from the material they are reworking.
Repurposing is not a sustainable approach. The volume of the old and the repurposed versions of content builds up, adding to the organization’s accumulated content debt.
Instead of repurposing content, teams should be focusing on how to reuse content. Unlike repurposing content, reusing content is a sustainable approach to addressing content opportunities at scale.
How Reuse differs from Repurposing
Reusing content and repurposing content sound similar, and some people even use the terms interchangeably. But they are different concepts with different outcomes.
- With reuse, the same content is used again and again to support multiple customer experiences.
- With repurposing, the content must be substantially revised and modified to support a specific customer experience.
Bottom line: repurposed content requires substantial rework, but reusable content doesn’t. Repurposing delivers a limited impact, while reusing content can support many goals over the long term.
Reusable content is designed to be fit for purpose. By planning for content reuse, organizations develop pieces of content that are:
- Optimized, maintained, and kept up to date
- Ready for different scenarios
Teams focus on keeping content current and useful instead of trying to resuscitate content that’s become old and stale.
Many kinds of content reuse are possible
Teams will have different ideas about what sort of content can be reused. That’s because many kinds of content reuse are possible. They vary in their sophistication, from the simple to the highly strategic. Understanding the range of reuse possibilities will help your organization enlarge its reuse of content.
Reuse is possible by either reusing complete content items or by reusing pieces that form content items.
We can distinguish four kinds of content reuse:
- Republishing items
- Repeated use of content foundations
- Multi-use content items
- Multi-team reuse of content items
The simplest kind of reuse is when content items are republished, that is, published again at a different time to the same or a different destination. Content items are good candidates to republish when teams know they perform well in a specific context, such as when presented:
- In conjunction with a specific occasion
- As part of the rollout of digital products or initiatives
We’ll refer to these scenarios as occasion-driven republishing and initiative-driven republishing.
Republish items when the time is right. Certain kinds of content will be relevant only at certain times of the year, or when associated with recurrent events. The content doesn’t need to stay published when it is not relevant, so it can be unpublished and then later republished again when the occasion arises. Evergreen content items can be republished when relevant such as during:
- Specific seasons (academic semesters, financial quarters, weather transitions)
- Holidays (observances and leisure)
- Periodic business, cultural, or entertainment events
Another republishing scenario occurs when the same content item is published to various destinations at different times. This kind of reuse supports a distributed model of publishing, taking advantage of the ability of a headless CMS to publish to multiple channels and touchpoints.
The organization may have a group of related but independently managed digital products or initiatives. They could be a series of thematic microsites or a group of related apps distributed in an app store. The organization can create targeted content that’s aimed at distinct customer segments or interests. Not all initiatives will be live at the same time, giving organizations control over when messages will be available. Though most of the content will be tailored to each product or initiative, some messages and information such as help or contact details will need to repeat because it’s content everyone will need to see. Organizations can republish content items that are widely relevant as needed.
Reusing content foundations
The next kind of reuse concerns reusing a piece of content that supports the creation of larger content items. When these parts provide the most essential details, they will provide the foundation for all content items based on this content type.
Structured content allows teams to create many items that are based on a common foundation. Enterprises often will need to create many variations of a content item. They must produce many items that are broadly similar except in certain details. Conceptually, every content item can be divided into two parts:
- The consistent part that all the content items need to show
- The variable part that will be unique for each content item
The parts that need to be consistent for all content items are reused. Those that will vary will be unique.
Reuse supports content customization. All these content items will belong to the same content type, which means that all the items have the same purpose and structure. For each new item, teams can switch variable details while the foundation remains consistent. They can combine reusable pieces with custom-written pieces to create many content items.
The structure of the content type enables modularity, allowing teams to create customized or personalized versions of content. They can produce at scale similar items that have specific differences in their details.
Until now, we have been discussing a single content type where all the content items support a common purpose. How can you reuse existing content to support different purposes, without having to “repurpose” and rework the original content? The answer is to develop content types that can support many goals. These types will structure messages and information that can connect to other content types.
You can structure content so that it is multi-use and multi-purpose. Instead of reusing content associated with just one content type (and one specific purpose), the content can be used in conjunction with multiple content types. A team can use the same content item in multiple contexts to support different goals. This is possible by linking related items or embedding one item within another.
To understand how this works, we need to discuss the relationship or association between different content types.
Think about the thematic connections between content types. A content type can be associated with one or more other content types. When two types are associated, teams can combine content items that are thematically related.
In a paired association, two different content types have a one-to-one relationship. For example, a product and a product review are tightly linked. A product may have many reviews, but a review will only relate to one product, and the review won’t be connected to other content types such as a shopping cart. It’s useful to separate the reviews from the product information since you’ll sometimes want the product information without the reviews. But the reviews will only make sense when presented with the product information. The review is dependent on the product.
But some content is more independent than a review. For example, a staff biography can be associated with multiple content types, such as a blog post or a conference event. The staff biography is multi-use content because it can be associated with many other types of content.
In multi-use relationships, a content type can connect with many other content types. It has one-to-many associations. A simple example is a definition of a term that can be connected to many content types, such as blog posts or product instructions. It can be reused widely.
Many content items can be widely connected, including explanatory videos, testimonials, quotes, and diagrams. While not all content can be connected to other content, a surprising range of content can be, if it is structured to be reusable in different contexts. Think about where specific types of content might be useful.
Multi-use content is versatile: it increases the range of goals that the content item can support.
To get full value from multi-use content, you want to enable different teams across the enterprise to be able to reuse each other’s content items. Doing so makes wide-scale reuse possible.
A significant barrier to managing content at scale is the inability of different teams to reuse each other’s content. Individual teams may have access to the content their teammates have created, but they often aren’t able to access and reuse content that’s been developed by other teams in their organization. The content is developed and stored in silos.
Share valuable content across your enterprise. Planning for the reuse of content by multiple teams poses challenges but provides many benefits. Different teams are most likely to be working on different content types. Even though each team may have a different content focus, their content is often related and should be used together.
The diagram below shows how a piece of content can be reused in many ways: in different channels, in different content types, and within different content items. If you recognize the diagram from something else I’ve written, that’s because I am reusing it. But don’t worry, I am using it here to make a new point—extending the purpose of this content item.
Consider who is involved with these activities in the diagram. The reusable content may have been developed by a central marketing team. But other teams such as the web e-commerce team and the customer relations team producing the newsletter can benefit by using the content.
Enabling the wide reuse of content across the enterprise helps content have a wider impact. Content becomes more versatile and valuable. When available to various teams, it can be delivered to more channels.
Multi-team reuse is helpful in any situation where one team develops content items that would be useful for other teams to incorporate.
When all teams can reuse each other’s content, it means that content items are:
- Used more frequently
- Distributed to more contexts (touchpoints, audiences)
- Associated with a wider range of content types, beyond the one that the original team would use
Comparing the four approaches
The four approaches will vary in terms of what they can deliver in four dimensions:
- Organizational impact
Number of items supported
Content types involved
As organizations progress through these approaches, they gain more sophistication and maturity.
Conclusion: Plan the purpose of your content from the start
Single-purpose content items can’t be reused. They need to be repurposed, again and again. Each time that’s done, there’s no certainty about how it will work out.
It’s far better to plan your content so that it’s reusable. When teams know that the content will get reused, they will focus on how to improve the performance of the content. They can use the content in different ways to explore how it performs in different scenarios. Each time the content is reused, the value the content delivers increases.
Reusing content requires planning, discussion, and experimentation. When adopted, teams move from being reactive to becoming proactive in how they prioritize content production. They have a clear sense of the purpose that the content is expected to deliver.
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