I’m hearing people talk more and more about developing a reuse strategy. This is troubling. Reuse is a tactic at best. It is not a strategy. At least, it is not a good strategy.
Content strategy has an acronym COPE: Create Once, Publish Everywhere. But COPE can mean something a little different from tech comm’s idea of content reuse. Here is Mike Teasdale’s definition of COPE from http://www.harvestdigital.com/content-strategy-in-three-simple-acronyms/
I’m forever seeing great bits of content thrown away on a single tweet or Facebook post.
Think of each content idea like a roast chicken. Don’t scoff the whole thing in one meal, think how you can stretch it across soup, sandwiches, curry etc.
This blog post for instance is based on the presentation for an event we’re about to put on. So it will end up being spread across:
– Blog post
– Slideshare deck
And if we had a bit more time, we could do some clips of video at the event and publish that back across YouTube.
On top of that, you have the related marketing activity like email, Twitter, posts on Linkedin, Facebook and Google+, so you can see just how far a single piece of content can stretch.
Here, clearly, we are not talking about pulling one string out of a repository and inserting it into multiple publications — we are talking about taking one idea and creating several different presentations of that idea at different scales and in different media.
Far from saying, only write an idea once, it says, when you have an idea worth sharing, don’t settle for only writing it once, write it over and over again in every media you can think of. This makes perfect sense: ideas are hard; text is easy. Getting the maximum use out of an idea is thus clearly more valuable than getting the maximum use out of a text.
Developing the idea is roasting the chicken. It provides the raw material for making soup, sandwiches, and curry. Each of these is a new dish requiring its own preparation — but much less work when you have roast chicken already on hand. Taking an idea and expressing it again and again in different media is a lot less work than coming up with a new idea — though admittedly it is a lot more work than simply pulling in an existing bit of text.
But pulling a bit of text from a blog post into a slide deck is going to make for a lousy slide deck. Pulling it into a video is going to make a really lousy video. And, yes, pulling it into a video script is going to make a lousy video too, because text is primary in a blog post and narration is secondary in a video, existing only to support the visuals.
Even where the media are the same, literal reuse may not work well when the purpose and context are different. Pulling a description from a technical spec into a marketing brochure may not create the most compelling brochure. Pulling from the brochure into the spec may not lead to the most precise technical definition.
In discussions of reuse, we sometimes hear the term “single source of truth”. But there is a big difference between “truth” and “text”. If you create a single source of text and call it a single source of truth, you are effectively saying there can only be one expression of any truth.
There is a big difference between a truth and an expression of a truth. In fact, the more important a given truth is to you, the more likely that you are going to need several different expressions of that truth.
You need different expressions of a truth:
- to convey it to different audiences
- to convey it to people with different learning styles
- to reinforce it through multiple exposures in multiple forms
- to reach the widest possible audience
- to increase the chances of it being picked up or going viral
- to make it available for quotation or repetition in different media
- to express different aspects of it for different purposes
Re-expressing the same idea for a different media has become a byword for poor process in tech comm. You absolutely must, must, must, produce your help system from the same source files as your manual.
The problem is, producing your help system from the same files as your manual does not actually produce a very good help system. And when we combine the content of many manuals into a single help system, as is often the practice these days — since asking people to find multiple help systems to look stuff up in is just not reasonable — the result is often a Frankenbook.
The result is considerably better if you create help as Every Page is Page One topics and then sequence them into a manual. But even then, they won’t have the flow of a real manual for those who still want to read one. Hypertext and linear media are fundamentally different and require fundamentally different design approaches.
Another approach to consider is a comprehensive help system, created solely as hypertext for online use, coupled with a few brief targeted manuals designed solely for linear reading and covering those subjects in your content for which it is reasonable to expect the reader to actually sit down and study. By yielding the task of being comprehensive to the help system, these manuals can focus on pedagogy and teaching the few key concepts on which the full use and enjoyment of your product really depend.
You may think that sounds too expensive, but it may not actually cost any more than what you are doing now. We are not talking about a comprehensive manual and a comprehensive help system. The manuals are only designed to cover a few key concepts that require a specific pedagogical approach. And this approach removes a huge amount of design, management, and production overhead required to support the same text in different media.
Reuse does have useful applications, of course. If you are producing multiple variants of the same basic product, and you want a separate doc set for each, reusing common material between them only makes sense.
In other words, reusing text where you would have been writing substantially the same text anyway is clearly the right thing to do. But taking all the various ways in which you might express an important idea and combining them into one expression is a bad idea. Your idea will have more impact and more reach if it is expressed in different ways and in different media for different audiences, different purposes, and different occasions.
Reuse is a useful tactic, but a foolish strategy. Lets make sure we don’t let reuse become more important to us than the effective expression and dissemination of our ideas.