I wanted to add some additional thoughts to the recent post on actionable content. That post reflected on the general idea of actionable content, differentiated it (maybe, maybe not) from transactional content, and pointed to an example of the amazing depth of content that is now available on some Web sites. The particular example was an industrial marketing Web site, Oriental Motors, but the requirement for actionable content spans many kinds of businesses and many kinds of non-business organizations. Think of a massive retail catalog like Amazon.com or a smaller, specialized one like sheetmusicplus.com. Both need to provide their users with detailed content–and often many kinds of content–that the user can consume, analyze, download, and even manipulate and share in the course of deciding whether to buy and precisely what to buy.

Nor is actionable content limited to eCommerce applications per se. Think of a government Web site that provides necessary forms for businesses and individuals, school systems and colleges that provide Web-based learning applications, and an employee human resources portal that provides benefits information. (And my favorite example of all, a large fantasy sports site such as Yahoo Fantasy Sports that provides a staggering array of content, statistics and analytical tools to keep users busy full-time and around the clock.)

What is common among all of these sites is the content of course, and content that is available when users need it to further the process they are engaged in. As Mary and Bill Z helpfully told us, transactional/actionable content, “is the content that flows through the commerce chain, initiating and automating processes such as procurement, order management, supply chain planning, and product support.” In other words, it is the content that is available when the person needs it, in the forms the person needs it, to further the business process they are involved in.
Sounds easy, but of course, as in so many things, the devil is in the details. It’s one thing to say you want to provide the right content in the right format at the right time, but it is another thing to actually do it. If you start to think about it, providing this kind of actionable content in context requires the content to be available–and it requires the business logic and the technical apparatus to present the correct content at the right point in the workflow or business process.

For now, let’s put aside the issues of business logic and technical apparatus and look at the issues about the content itself. What characteristics must the content have to be actionable? In no particular order, I offer the following.

  1. The content must be granular. In other words, it can’t exist as one giant blob of content, but must be accessible as usable chunks of content that can be presented in a useful context–so one product image at a time, and not a thousand (that should be easy)–and the right information that should accompany that product image–its caption, its size, its format, and so on.
  2. The content must be available in the right format. If you think about it for a moment, this likely means that the content is potentially available in many formats, given the different needs, systems, and platforms of different users and systems. When I see a requirement for content to be available in many formats, I immediately think of a media-neutral format that can, in turn, create all the necessary required formats. In the world of text, this often leads organizations to consider using something like the eXtensible Markup Language (XML); in the world of images, this might mean storing the image files in a high-resolution, high-fidelity format that can then be used to create every other format of the drawing that might be required.
  3. The content must be searchable, either by itself or by virtue of closely associated metadata. If the content is text, the text should be searchable, and the more structured and fielded the text, the more it avails itself of search technology. It if is graphics or other formats, it should be in open readable formats where possible and not in opaque binary formats. If it must be in binary formats, it should always be accompanied by metadata that helps explain what the content is, what format it is in, what subject matter it deals with, and so on.

There are more requirements, to be sure, but these are the ones that come immediately to mind. It’s also important to note these are merely technical requirements for the content, and don’t go to the more fundamental questions of precisely what kind of content your users need are requesting.