By Marcia Riefer Johnston, special to The Content Wrangler

A year ago, I started working with the Content Marketing Institute team on stories related to intelligent content. Coming from a technical communication background, I knew about intelligent content from that perspective, but I wasn’t sure how it would apply to marketing.

Today, it’s still not clear exactly how intelligent content will eventually connect with what marketers do every day. I have talked with a lot of marketers who are intrigued by the promise of intelligent content. They would love to make their content more findable, more efficient to produce, more scalable, and more personalized. They get that content needs to be treated as a strategic business asset, not as part of a short-term campaign.

But marketing’s challenges, workflows, systems, tools, and goals differ from those of product documentation teams (the early adopters of intelligent content). The pain points between marketing and documentation are similar, but not identical. So, while some convergence seems inevitable, it may be a while before we have how-to stories that light the way for marketers who would like to put these concepts into action in their own realm.

For marketers, intelligent content remains a frontier.

This is a good time, with the Intelligent Content Conference (ICC) coming up in March 2016, to review what intelligent content means, how the definition has evolved, and why many of us believe that today’s marketers will become tomorrow’s intelligent-content pioneers.

Imagine yourself as one of those pioneers. Let’s say you’ve been inspired by the stories of the earliest explorers—those who have proven the value of the intelligent-content approach in their own realms and have come back to tell their tales. You crave a map. But no one can give you the map you’re looking for.

If you set off with hope of returning with tales of your own—returning with the map that other marketers can follow—your immediate challenge is to figure out what questions to ask yourself. I aim to help you meet that challenge.

And, of course, I encourage you to register for ICC, where you can hear more tales from your fellow explorers. (You don’t have to be in marketing to attend—all are welcome—but now that the Content Marketing Institute owns ICC, the conference focuses on content strategy for marketers.)

The traditional definition

You’ve no doubt seen Ann Rockley’s traditional six-part definition:

“Intelligent content is content that’s structurally rich and semantically categorized and therefore automatically discoverable, reusable, reconfigurable, and adaptable.”

I won’t go into detail since these terms have been so widely defined. In case you’d like a refresh, here are summaries from a series of six articles I wrote earlier this year.

Structurally rich

Technology can do its magic only after structure is in place. People—not technologies—create the structure; you can restructure your content today without tools. When you move to intelligent content, start with structure.

Full article

Semantically categorized

To get the most from your content, create semantic categories—meaningful metadata—and train your team to use them consistently. Verify that your semantic categories support business goals and customer needs. Although semantic categories alone don’t make your content intelligent, your content isn’t intelligent without them.

Full article

Automatically discoverable

Metadata tagging drives search engines. The intelligence that you build into the content enables you to sort through mountains of information to discover the content you need. Customers and colleagues expect to find what they’re looking for—and even what they aren’t looking for but need—in your organization’s content.

Full article


While not every piece of content can be reused, and while reuse isn’t appropriate everywhere, the more reusable your content, the more it becomes a strategic asset. And the more intelligent—automated, widespread, and controlled—your reuse, the more benefits your organization realizes.

Full article


Modular content that can be automatically reconfigured enables you to give people only the information they need, where they need it, when they need it. You might not hear them, but when you deliver content in this way, customers and prospective customers say, ‘Whoa.’

Or not. The more sobering possibility is that they don’t even notice. They simply expect your content to reconfigure itself or to enable them to do the reconfiguring. People who have experienced reconfigurability—and by now, who hasn’t?—expect reconfigurability; any other experience leaves them feeling frustrated or shortchanged.

Full article

Adaptable (adaptive)

Your organization’s success may rest on creating content that can adapt to a variety of devices, to user-specific information, or to any number of other factors—content that basically says, I know you. I understand where you are. I get what you’re going through. Here, I have what you need right now. 

To create content that’s this easy and useful on the receiving end, you have to do a lot of things that may seem hard. The good news is that those hard things are becoming easier to achieve by the day. (Your competitors are figuring that out, too.)

Full article

Intelligent Content: A Primer
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An updated definition

The definition of intelligent content continues to evolve. In their new book, Intelligent Content: A Primer, Ann Rockley, Charles Cooper, and Scott Abel—pioneers of intelligent content—have refined the definition. Instead of six elements, they now list eight:

“Intelligent content is designed to be modular, structured, reusable, format-free, and semantically rich and, as a consequence, discoverable, reconfigurable, and adaptable.”

What’s significant about the updated definition, for the purposes of this article, is its newly pronounced fulcrum—as a consequence—which separates the five characteristics from the newly identified capabilities:

  • Discoverability
  • Reconfigurability
  • Adaptability

Why does this distinction between characteristics and capabilities matter? For one thing, as Ann, Charles, and Scott told me at Content Marketing World, the new distinction helps people communicate more effectively. When you’re talking with someone who is interested in what makes intelligent content tick, you can talk about the whole shebang—the characteristics and the capabilities. Get your geek on.

On the other hand, when you’re talking with someone who controls company purse strings, you probably want to keep the characteristics to yourself. Say “modular” or “format-free” to most VPs, and their eyes glaze over. To get your project funded, talk in terms of discoverability, reconfigurability, and adaptability. The three capabilities. The things that intelligent content makes possible. Turn the glaze into a twinkle.

What’s so special about the three capabilities? They have enabled the earliest content pioneers to create scalable, brand-differentiating customer experiences. And they can make your own pioneering as a marketer worth the risks.

Pioneering questions to ask yourself

Like any frontier, intelligent content has its perils. To give yourself the best chance of not just survival but success, ask yourself and your pioneering team the following questions.

  • What are my company’s pain points related to content and marketing?
  • How might an intelligent-content approach address those pain points?
  • What kind of improvements would most benefit my company?
  • What content model would support those improvements?
  • What small project might my team tackle to prove the value of our ideas?

Hat tip to Ann Rockley, intelligent content’s trail blazer, for helping to formulate these questions.

A hypothetical example of reuse

Let’s say that your marketing team publishes lots of articles, many of which appear first on blogs and later in print magazines (or vice versa). Let’s say that every time you reuse an article, taking it from one channel to another, people spend hours copying, pasting, reformatting, and reproofreading the content.

That effort—every second of it—is a pain point. It costs your company money. It takes people away from what they would otherwise be doing. 

How painful does this effort have to become to justify automating reuse? What would it take to dig into that question?

A hypothetical example of personalization

Let’s say that your team, which publishes lots of articles on your organization’s website, ends each one with a list of links to related articles. Let’s say that your system generates that list at random.

What if that list were personalized? In other words, imagine that your system knows that each site visitor comes “from x geography, searches y phrase, and visits z pages,” as content engineer Cruce Saunders says. Imagine that each time a visitor comes back, instead of showing a random list of related articles, you show “an xyz related content set.”

What would that kind of personalization mean for your company? How much more time would people spend on your site? How much more often would they share links to your articles? How many new visitors would those shared links bring to your site? How much would your sales or subscriptions—or whatever measures your business cares about—go up?

Standing Out From The Crowd
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Calling all marketing pioneers

Oh, pioneers, to answer questions like the ones I’ve suggested, you need to summon your team’s most creative thinking to envision what’s beyond your horizon. You need to do some research—including reaching out to trail blazers in other departments and other organizations.

You’ll find lots of those trail blazers at ICC in March. (I’m going. Find me and say hi.)

The more strategically you pursue your questions, the more likely you are to find gold and return with your hands full of the glittery stuff, and readier you’ll be to show others the way.

Thousands of us want to hear the muddy details of your adventure: where you took wrong turns, what broke along the way, how you fixed it, what happened next, what you learned, where we should start. Meet us at the campfire.

Register today for the Intelligent Content Conference. Save $100 with the code WRANGLER100. 

Don’t miss Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler, at the Intelligent Content Conference. Scott will be presenting three sessions: A full-day workshop with Ann Rockley and Charles Cooper, March 7 (Introduction and Essentials of Intelligent Content for Marketing Professionals), a panel discussion (with representatives from Acrolinx, Hippo, Kanban and Marketing.AI), March 8 (The Best Tools for Multi-Channel Publishing), and a presentation, March 9 (Beyond Multi-Channel Publishing: How To Prepare Your Organization for the Future).