Content marketers are tasked with delivering clear, concise, and relevant content to the right prospect at the right time—content designed to convert prospects into customers. And, for the most part, marketers have absolutely no idea how to do this.

Ask any marketer what a great marketing campaign looks like. You might be surprised how uninspiring the answer will be. According to 2013 stats from the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), the average successful direct marketing campaign (snail mail) has a conversion rate of about 4.4% (up to 10 to 30 times better than for email). Very successful campaigns might see 6% conversions. Seriously?

In what other industry would 94% failure be called a “success?” Only in marketing-and that’s got to change.

Marketers need to mature and move past the spray-and-pray marketing techniques that have dominated for decades. Creating personas—and aiming content at the members of those imaginary groups—is no longer sufficient. Marketers need to marry information about the individual humans they hope to convert with the power of advanced techniques designed to help deliver the right piece of content to the right prospect at the right time on the device of their choosing. Content marketers need intelligent content.

What is intelligent content? Simply put, it is content that is not limited to one purpose, technology, or output. It is content that is intentionally designed and constructed to be modular, structured, reusable, format-free and semantically-rich—and is therefore discoverable, reconfigurable, and adaptable. It’s content that is both able to be read by humans and processed by machines. When implemented correctly, it can help content marketers deliver the right pieces of content to the right prospects with the objective of driving profitable customer action.

  • Read a free chapter from “Intelligent Content: A Primer” by Ann Rockley, Charles Cooper, and Scott Abel (2015 XML Press).

Intelligent content hails from the world of technical communication. It got its start in the technology sector, in which technical writers were charged with creating an increasing list of deliverables (online help website, customer support content, user guides, learning materials, and job aids) for several different platforms in a variety of languages.

Technical writers didn’t just wake up one day and think, “Wow, we can do better.” They were forced to adopt intelligent content approaches out of necessity. They were overwhelmed with the sheer number of output formats and channels into which they were required to provide content. They were crippled by the volume of content they needed to produce.

As more technical communication departments began to see the value of intelligent content, software and services vendors began creating the tools and technologies required to change the paradigm. Thought leaders, such as Ann Rockley, began helping companies think differently about their content. Rockley and others convinced some of the world’s largest firms to stop thinking about content as documents, modularize the content, and label each piece semantically. These individual chunks of semantically enriched content were then able to be repurposed (often automatically with the help of software designed for the purpose) in the myriad content types technical communicators were responsible for creating.

The result? Technical communication departments that adopted intelligent content became able to quickly publish content to multiple output channels from a single source without having to handcraft each deliverable. They quickly discovered creating semantically rich modular content afforded them the capability to do things they never envisioned, such as create dynamic content experiences personalized to the individual customer, offer content as a service, and build deliverables on-the-fly in response to threats or opportunities.

Content marketers can—and should—borrow lessons learned from technical communication professionals who have adopted intelligent content. Doing so will afford marketers the opportunity to beat the competition by differentiating themselves from the pack. Imagine being able to efficiently and effectively create relevant content that can be routed to the right person at the right time in the right channel in the right language, efficiently and effectively. It’s being done already, often in departments other than marketing.

It will be interesting to see which brands emerge as the leaders in intelligent content marketing. One thing is certain: The business proposition for change is an easy sell. There are 94 percentage points available, and that’s a lot of room for improvement.