Content is a Utility

By | 2014/06/03

Summary: When content is a utility the job of the tech writer is to ensure reliability of supply.

In my earlier post, Content as Furniture, I suggested that while content used to be furniture — something to be acquired selectively and displayed as a prized possession (and a mark of status) — it is rapidly becoming a utility — something we simply expect to be there when we need it, like water or electricity.

The notion that content is becoming a utility has some pretty important consequences that I think are worth discussing.

A furniture store does not attempt to stock every conceivable piece of furniture in every conceivable size. It stocks the popular styles of the day in the popular sizes. It measures its success by how well that stock turns over. Models that don’t sell as well are dropped from stock to free up floor space for models that move more quickly. Stocking and selling the popular pieces is the right metric when you are selling furniture.

Image by Kreuzschnabel/Wikimedia Commons, License: artlibre

Image by Kreuzschnabel/Wikimedia Commons, License: artlibre

A utility has a different metric. It is not enough to provide the most popular and discard the rest. There may be far more demand for power at 4pm than at 4am, but if the power cuts out in the middle of the night, and all the clocks have to be reset, we are unhappy with the power company. We expect the power and the water to be there when we flip the switch or turn on the tap, regardless of the time of day.  A utility must be as reliable in low demand times as in high. Reliability of service is the key metric for a utility.

Of course, more customers will be frustrated by power cuts at peak times, than power cuts in the middle of the night. But power cuts at 2 am are also highly damaging to the customer relationship. Among other reasons, they make customers worry whether the power might also go out at peak times.

Reliability of service should matter greatly to a company that creates an information-dependent product. Customers frustrated by obscure questions are just as frustrated as those frustrated by common questions. And most customers do not know if their question is a common one or an obscure one. All they know and care about is that they can’t get the product working. And every question not answered raises their concern that the next question won’t be answered either.

Whether the customer finds an answer every time they ask one is the key metric for a content utility. One particularly important factor to understand here is that almost every customer will ask some obscure questions and some common questions. We don’t have a large group of customers asking only common questions, and a small group asking only obscure ones. The common questions are simply those that many different customers all tend to ask. But most of those customers are also asking questions that few others ask.

What does the experience of asking questions look like to the customer in these circumstances? It looks like their questions are not getting answered half the time. What would you think if your car did not start half the time, if your lights did not come on half the time, if water did not come out of the tap half the time?

Unfortunately, it is very difficult for a technical documentation group to generate all the content to answer all the user questions all of the time. Fortunately, we don’t have to. Chances are, your utility company does not generate all the electricity that comes out of your sockets either. Instead, to ensure a steady supply of electricity, it relies on the grid.

The content grid

A utility company does not need to be the sole generator of electricity. Other sources can be brought online via the electrical grid. Electricity can be sourced from many suppliers, from distant hydro projects to local homeowners transferring excess output of their solar panels back to the grid.

The electrical grid has made a huge difference to the reliability of electrical supply, and the way industries and homeowners alike do business has changed profoundly as a result, with important economic consequences.

Equally great changes in behavior, and equally great economic consequences have followed from the introduction of the content grid — otherwise know at the World Wide Web. It is thanks to the Web that people now treat content as a utility — a reliable source of supply from a single point of contact that seamlessly integrates content supplied by many different content creators (including many individuals giving back to the grid).

In our homes, we do not have an array of sockets labeled with different sources of electricity supply: the hydro socket, the wind socket, the solar socket, the surplus power from a neighboring state socket. We do not have to plug our appliances into different sockets at different times of day depending on the current source of supply. We have one socket that is connected to the grid and supplies power consistently all day long.

So it is with content today. Readers do not want multiple different sources that they have to go to looking for information. The want a single place: the Web. People will not go to the documentation for their information. They will go to the Web and expect the documentation to be there. And just as we do not pause to think about whether the electrons powering our laptops at any given moment are being pushed by solar, wind, coal, gas, or water, readers largely do not think about whether the content they are consuming comes from the documentation or not. They just want content that solves their problem.

What, then, is the role of the technical communication group in the age of the content grid? Customers, forums, tech support, peers, and tech writers all contribute content to the grid. If tech writers have a distinguishing role in maintaining the content utility, it is not simply as another generator of content. Rather, the particular job of the tech comm group is to make sure that overall content supply is maintained. To do this, we certainly need to generate a lot of content. But that alone will not ensure reliability of supply and avoid blackouts and brownouts for our customers. As the engineers of the content utility company, we need to monitor the overall information network and its performance and act where needed to ensure the reliability of content supply.

This will require a profound change in how technical communication groups understand their role, and in how they measure and report the value they bring to the organization and to is customers. It will require content strategists, information architects, and documentation managers to think and plan much more broadly, and, in particular, to think outside the boundaries of the content they themselves generate and to focus instead on the reliability of the overall information supply.

Ready to start thinking about the move from content generator to content utility? Analecta Communications can help. Contact us today to find out how.




9 thoughts on “Content is a Utility

  1. Alex Knappe

    Great analogy Mark,
    this works perfect as long as it is obvious, that revenues are generated by the utility.
    But this ain’t working for tech comm (at the moment). In most companies tech comm simply is a cost factor, for some a cost reducer and only for very few a revenue generator.
    As long as this situation is in place, we won’t go anywhere in the direction you mention.
    It is simply painful to see, that most companies throw away the opportunity to add value to their products by supplying a solid set of documentation and other content that would make their customers more satisfied and loyal to the product or brand.
    When I – as a customer – buy a product, that satisfies most, if not all of my demands to that product, be it by design and/ or good documentation, customer care and whatnot, I tend to stick to the product, brand or company, which in return generates revenue for that company.
    When I – as a tech comm member – see what our clients tend to invest into product design, documentation and/or customer care, I’m not really surprised by the fact that most of them have numerous competitors that fight for the same market share.
    To go with your car analogy – most companies sell you a car, but because it is a cost factor, they won’t hand you the key for it. Or if they do so, it is a broken one or only fitting with some modifications.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Alex.

      I think the analogy holds very well when we look at it from the point of view of customer expectations. The Web has taught people to treat content like a utility, and so they do.

      The question you raise is a different one: is the corporation willing to fund a tech comm department to work as a content utility, given that content is not itself a revenue generator.

      A couple of thoughts on this:

      1. Given that many tech comm groups are currently not behaving like utilities, but are creating monolithic isolated content that customers who Google for information will never see, let alone read, taking the same resources they have now and devoting them to acting like a content utility would be a big step forward, without requiring additional investment.

      2. Content may not be a revenue generator as a separate line item, but it contributes to the usability of the product, which is a revenue generator. If better content means better usability, and better usability means more sales, then content is a revenue generator. It is also a potential marketing tool, where better content means more attention and more attention means more sales, which again means more revenue.

      It may be, of course, that many companies have despaired of content making a significant difference to usability or marketing, given that it is so often produced in a form that contributes to neither. Certainly in an era in which content is a utility, companies are not apt to see value in supporting a function that does not contribute to or help maintain that utility.

      This is why I say that the era of content as utility presents a profound challenge to the way technical communication is done today. There is an enormous opportunity here to demonstrate real value, in an era in which our perceived value has been steadily diminishing, but it requires great change in how we understand our role and in what we create and how we relate to the broader community.

      Content as utility can obliterate us or it can be our shining hour, our chance to make a difference and create value in a way we never did before. The choice is ours.

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  3. Vinish Garg

    Spot on Mark, another insightful post.

    When we write and read such posts, it seems to make a lot of sense to us because we are communications, information architects and strategists. However it will make more sense if the decision makers and other stakeholders understand our message.

    Of late when I prepare a business case for my clients, I support it with some references (slideshare deck or a blog post). I feel that it strengthens my case and the client gets the industry-wide perspective and not only an individual’s claim (by Vinish). I just shared this post with a client 2 days back; hope that the message is conveyed! 🙂

      1. Vinish Garg

        This is what I got from John, my client, “Thanks! You don’t have to sell me on the value of good content. Shirley and I are with you 100% on that. We’re all in on this project for sure.”.

        I sense that somewhere this post might have helped it. 🙂

        1. Mark Baker Post author

          Great. Glad it helped — if it helped. As always, determining the exact impact of content is elusive!

  4. David

    So if I just read the bits in bold, I can skip the rest, right?

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, David.

      No, you are supposed to read all of it. 🙂

      The bits in bold are supposed to help you decide on first glance if you are going to want to read it. That, at least, is how I interpret Jacob Nielsen’s use and advocacy of this approach in his Alert Box blog. I can’t say I am keen on the practice myself, but I do believe we have to be metrics driven in what we do, if we can be sure that we have the right metric and we understand what it is telling us.

      Most of the metrics-based practices I see recommended in content strategy, and most of the metrics-based decisions I see people making, don’t seem to me to come remotely close to that standard. But if anyone deserves some benefit of the doubt on this, it is Nielsen. So I am trying it out, despite my personal distaste for it. (And despite the fact that no one else seems to follow Nielsen’s lead on this.)

      The problem, of course, is how to judge its effect. At some point I may sit down and try to compare page hits, comments, tweets, etc. for posts that do and do not use this technique. I am not sure how long it will take me to accumulate a statistically significant sample, nor what a statistically significant difference would be. But that is always the problem in trying to measure the impact of content, especially in the tech comm space.


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