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Structured content is content that follows a set of predefined rules. These rules are also called a standard and they provide a consistent framework for the content so that systems and applications can interact with that content.

In one sense, structured content is everywhere. At the same time, the quality of that structured content varies widely. In this post, we’re not just going to define structured content, we’re also going to talk about what it enables.

We will also explore the world of standards as compared to music. Finally, we’ll offer some direction on how you can get started, not just creating structured content, but leveraging it in powerful ways. 

Rather watch than read? We made an explainer video on Structured Content as well (Featuring Noz Urbina)


Why Structured Content?

Structured content isn’t just a thing, it’s a key to some pretty incredible capabilities.
Structure allows organizations to manage content as a high-value business asset. With structured content, you can write content once and leverage across multiple channels for multiple purposes.

Structured content replaces words on a page with a block that you can add to your content asset library and deploy at will. Organizations regularly experience incredible ROI with the implementation of a structured content standard. This value comes in many forms such as:

    • Improved content management
    • Reuse (instead of copy and paste)
    • Interoperability between other systems
    • Longevity of content
    • Findability
    • Dynamic publishing
    • Full version control
    • And much more

Now that we’ve talked about the possible upside, it’s important to recognize that all structure is not equal.


Structured vs. Unstructured: The False Dichotomy

False dichotomies, they’re not just in politics and debate class. No, they litter the rhetorical landscape in which we, content wizards, trudge. A prime example is structured versus unstructured content. In many of our posts and all over the internet, you’ll see articles talking about structured versus unstructured content as if it’s a binary choice. On the one side, you have unstructured documents (bad!) and on the other, you have semantically-rich structured content (good!).

The reality is that content’s structure is more of a spectrum than a switch. Most forms of content are structured in some manner, but the real distinction is the forethought, consistency, and efficacy of that structure.

All that to say that it’s not enough to use structured content – you need a structure based on a standard that is appropriate for your uses.


Containers of Content as LEGOⓇ Bricks

The word content literally means “That which is contained.”

Making a decision about the structure of your content is actually a decision about how you want to “contain” your content. This structure — or container — dictates how you can organize, arrange, and leverage your content.

An effective, albeit clichéd, analogy is LEGOⓇ Bricks. They can be stacked, connected, rearranged, and reused. The blocks are akin to containers for ideas. You can build whatever you want with these pieces because they all abide by the exact same design specifications.

Have you ever used those off-brand bricks? Of course you have. Maybe you were once the child who received the off-brand for Christmas from a parent trying to save a buck. Maybe you ARE that parent (we all make mistakes).

These off-brand bricks don’t work because they don’t maintain the same exact design specs of LEGOⓇ Bricks. Sure, they look the same. But they never quite connect or separate as easily. It’s the same with structured content and the importance of consistent standards.


Standards & All That Jazz

Like we mentioned earlier, a standard is just a collection of rules.

You can think of a standard like rules for playing a piece of music. If you sit down at the piano and you see this:

Then obviously you would recognize that as Chopin’s Nocturne in the key of G minor and could play it. Or, if you could not, you wouldn’t blame the sheet music (you would blame that wrist injury from your high school rugby league).

That’s how a standard works with systems and applications.

The writer is just like a composer.

The content is just like music.

The standard is just like the rules of musical notation (the treble clef, the accidentals, the trills, the triplets, the accidentals, and so forth).

The structured content is just like the music articulated through the use of said musical notation.
Now, if we push the analogy further:

The system or application that has to interact with the structured content is just like the pianist performing the piece.

The publishing system is just like the piano.

And the published content (whether it’s a PDF, a static website, or something else) is just like the beautiful music you hear.

Standards are everywhere and we all benefit as a result.

Music notation, in particular, is an example of an open standard. As an open standard, nobody can copyright music notation… even though some music labels try their darndest.

Rather than restricted and exclusive, music allows artists to grow and build upon one another. Expanding its capabilities without excluding. Collaborating through time and space.

The same musical standards used by Chopin in the early 19th century in Paris, France are used by a jazz band at the Village Vanguard on 7th Ave in New York today.

Standards, whether in music or technical communication, paves the way to thrilling potential.

For technical communications, standards enable structured content which allows things like:

    • Improved content management
    • Reuse (instead of copy and paste)
    • Interoperability between other systems
    • Longevity of content
    • Findability
    • Dynamic publishing
    • Full version control
    • And much more

Then we just have one more thing to ask…


How Do I Get Started with Structured Content?

Ultimately, the important thing is the end result.

You want a structured content architecture that improves the efficacy of your work. You don’t want busy work, you want a paradigm shift in your content development cycle so that your invested effort doesn’t pay off for years to come.

If that sounds like what you’re looking for, you have four ways to get started with structured content.


1. Start with the Standard

Choosing a standard can seem daunting, but if you have an idea of the capabilities you require, you can start to make some informed decisions. For instance, you might want an open standard, with topic based authoring, and strong reuse capabilities. That significantly narrows your options.

If you’d like some help, we’ve created a Standard comparison article that pits the top content standards head to head to find out which one is best for any given scenario.


2. Start with the System

There are a LOT of content management systems out there. If you are feeling a little overwhelmed, then perhaps the best place to start is to evaluate content management systems. You can start with our content management system sorter: simply answer a couple questions and find out what kind of content management systems would be best for your use case. We wrote a post to help you go through the entire process of evaluating a content management system from start to finish


3. Talk to a Solutions Expert

If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed, don’t worry. You’re not the first one on this journey and there are many amazing professionals ready to assist you in your journey. If you just want to talk to someone, reach out and let us know, or request a free consultation.


4. Dive in Head First

If you’re like me, at the end of the day, you just want to watch a couple of videos, see a demo, and give it a try for yourself. You’ve also got this kind of go-getter attitude, you might consider checking out a demo of Heretto

Heretto is an all in one structured content solution that lets you author, manage, and publish your content. 

Check out a demo, or watch our getting started videos and see for yourself if Heretto is the best way to try your hand at structured content. 



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