20 year content strategy veteran, Sharon Burton. Sharon Burton consults about content strategy, content business issues, social media and managing post-sales customer experience issues.

The cost of developing content (part 2)

The cost of developing content (part 2)
(1/16/2014 – Numbers updated to be realistic)

In a previous post, I talked about how expensive it is to create content in Word. I talked about how your staff of writers are wasting about 50% of their time and your money because they can’t reuse content and they fight Word.

I gave a simple set of calculations to show just how much money is being spent and how much of that is wasted in the content development process if you use Word.

Let’s look at the cost of creating content in FrameMaker or another higher end content development tool. These are better tools to use than Word, but perhaps they are not enough.

Same scenario

The picture now looks like this:

YearNumber of WritersHours per year (35 hours/ week, 49 weeks per year)Fully burdened hourly cost per writer ($50 an hour)New Pages (3 hours per) (70% of total time)Updated pages (1.75 hours per) (30% of total timeTotal pagesTotal cost
200 words per page =69,416,600

So how does Frame or Indesign make it different?

In unstructured FrameMaker or InDesign, you can more easily reuse content. You can create separate files with text and/or graphics and link those files into other files. For example, if the first 3 steps of a procedure are the same, you can create those steps as a stand alone file and then link to that file. If the content in the steps changes, all the places where that file is linked also change.

This is good. It’s a clever way of reusing content.

Additionally, Frame or InDesign do a better job of not crashing and of showing you a page that is more consistent. Most writers using either tool are also better about consistently using formats and page layouts (although I’ve worked with InDesign files that didn’t use formats correctly, but that’s another story).

So, we saved content development time/money here. In my experience, using FrameMaker or Indesign this way makes us about 25% more efficient than using Word. We have content that’s fairly easy to reuse and we don’t spend as much time fighting our tools.

So, our cost per page drops to $150 and our 300 page new manual drops to $45,000.

The total amount we have invested in our docs after a 5 year period is about $8,560,000, assuming the writers still turned out the same number of pages. Although, since they can work 20% more efficiently, the cost is probably the same as Word (about $11 million) but we have 20% more content – some 42,000 more pages of content, albeit with more reused content.Cookies as content

But here’s the problem

For people to reuse content they have to:

  • know it’s there to reuse
  • find it
  • use it

And that’s the issue. In unstructured Frame or InDesign, there’s no way to know what’s available to reuse or where it’s been used. The writers have to keep this information in their head or in a spreadsheet. It’s a manual process to find it and maintain it.

In my experience, it’s so time consuming to find content that could or should be reused that most writers don’t do it. Typically, there is a group of content that gets reused often but a lot of content that could be reused is never considered.

It’s just too hard.

Typically what happens is that entire chapters get reused with the clever application of conditions to show and hide content for each deliverable. Again, this isn’t a bad way to do it but the smallest piece of reused content is a chapter, not a paragraph or sentences (the conditional text notwithstanding). The content is locked in chapter of perhaps 40 pages.

When I talked about Word, I said that writers typically spend 20% of their time fighting Word. In this common Frame or InDesign scenario, that 20% of time is spent managing content, setting and resetting conditions, and other overhead to get things to appear correctly in the PDF. Maybe more.

Content is a business need

Content solves a business need. Creating and maintaining  content costs money, just like any other activity that adds value to your business.

Stay tuned for more on this topic.

Part 1

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

By Sharon Burton


  1. Paul K. Sholar

    Content re-use at the sentence level? This is an infeasible pipe dream for most technical product content. What are Sharon’s assumptions behind such a belief?

    • Sharon Burton

      I’ve had clients go down to partial sentences in reference guides in unstructured Frame. It’s common to have snippets as small as a sentence in authoring tools such as Flare or Author-it. Very common.

      It makes sense to do this when you are translating, especially.

  2. Shane Taylor

    Speaking from experience using both unstructured FrameMaker and DITA, the cost of creating content — and the speed at which you can create new content — goes way down because with DITA your focus is only on the content, not on the presentation. That said:

    1. Some writers will fight to try to control the presentation anyway (and this is a waste of everyone’s time).
    2. DITA is fantastic at enabling content reuse, but you still need to know that the content exists to be reused. That problem, I think, is only solved by writers thoroughly knowing the documentation set.
    3. DITA does require more initial work to set up the transforms and build plugins to achieve the desired output. But once that’s done, the transforms produce reliable and consistent output that requires less work in the way of preproduction QA and problem resolution than we needed with FrameMaker or RoboHelp.

  3. Look at Word + SmartDocs to implement reuse within Word. It doesn’t save you the cost of time spent formatting in Word, but is definitely cheaper than buying and training everyone in unstructured Frame.

    Of course, the conclusion you don’t actually draw here is that XML is the only long-term solution for content development…but the reality is that at this point, adopting DITA XML across the enterprise is not a likely or feasible solution.


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