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 3)

The cost of developing content (part 3)
The cost of developing content (part 3)
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In previous articles, I talked about the cost of developing content in Word and the cost of developing in unstructured FrameMaker or InDesign.

Developing in Word wastes about 50% of your content money. In Frame or InDesign, your waste is typically lower, at about 20%. Word doesn’t allow you to reuse content and the overhead of content reuse in Frame or InDesign means content reuse is limited.

Ok, you’re thinking, I got it – we need to be creating and reusing content more efficiently. This is costing a lot. We need to start thinking about the cost of our content strategy.

So what do we do?

It depends. And it depends on how much content you have, how many writers you have, and how many products you have. And it depends on if you are going to translate that content into other languages, now or in the foreseeable future.

The first step is to recognize you need to move to a different content paradigm that allows you to use and reuse content more easily. The chapter- or book-based paradigm doesn’t work any more because it locks your content into chunks you can’t reuse.

Where do we start?

It’s time for topic-based authoring. If you don’t know what topic-based authoring is, go watch the first 10 or 12 minutes of this video. Obviously, if you want to watch it all, go ahead, but the first 10 minutes explain what topic-based authoring is and what the business benefits are.

This is a big step for many companies, in large part because of the shift in thinking about how content is created and then used. When I help clients make this move, about half my coaching time is helping change the way people think about their content.

Making the move to topic-based authoring allows you to reuse content that you already paid to create. Reusing it costs a fraction of what you already paid for.

For example, same number of writers we’ve been using in our example:

YearNumber of WritersHours per year (35 hours/ week, 49 weeks per year)Fully burdened hourly cost per writer ($50 an hour)New Pages (2 hours per) (70% of total time)Updated pages (1 hours per) (30% of total timeTotal pagesTotal cost
11017,15050060,025 51,450 111,475$8,575,000
21017,15050060,025 51,450 111,475$8,575,000
31017,15050060,025 51,450 111,475$8,575,000
41017,15050060,025 51,450 111,475$8,575,000
51017,15050060,025 51,450 111,475$8,575,000
Totals300,125 257,250 557,375$42,875,000
200 words per page =111,475,000

How do we find existing content to reuse?

When I talked about FrameMaker and InDesign, I said it was easier to reuse content but the big issue is that people can find it to reuse. And this is still an issue with topic-based authoring. You can’t get the efficiencies if you still need to manually look for content.

When you move to topic-based authoring, it’s time to change to tools that support this paradigm. There are several out there that may be the right tool for you, depending on some of the other issues you need to solve. I have another recording that can help you figure out what you need to consider.

The tool you select should include a feature that lets you know if content like the selected content has been written before and helps you determine if you can reuse it. Computers are really good at “remembering” large amounts of data and doing comparisons. Humans are not good at it and it’s not where we should focus our efforts.

And how much will we save?

Most of my clients see at least a 30% content reuse when they move to a tool that supports topic-based authoring, often much more if they have been authoring in Word. That means your company can spend more time developing content that makes a difference to your customers and improves the customer experience.

Of course, you have to consider the cost of the tool, of training people, creating and enforcing a style guide, and of converting and normalizing the legacy content. The ROI isn’t going to happen the first year.

It’s going to happen the second year. It’s going to happen when you need a new deliverable and you create it in less than a week by dragging and dropping existing content and writing 2 new topics. What would have taken 6 weeks before now takes 2 days.

The ROI for that one deliverable?

  • Previous: 35 hours x 6 weeks = 210 hours divided by 4 hours per page = 53 pages. Cost = $2,625 ($50/hr fully burdened)
  • New: Time to create new deliverable using existing content = 8 hours + 8 hours for 2 new topics = 16 hours. Cost = $800 ($50/hr fully burdened)

Total savings = $1825.00 for one deliverable. Just one.

If you think I made up this scenario, it’s not – I’ve got clients who do this all the time.

More next week

Next week, I’m going to talk about the groups who have a lot of content or many writers or who localize. Their first step is topic-based authoring but it’s not where they need to wind up.

I also have a widget under development that you will be able to use to estimate your content creation costs by selecting your tool of choice.

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

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By Sharon Burton


  1. Good to have a clear ROI to brandish – thanks! though people should not think topic-based and FrameMaker are mutually exclusive. The challenge with topic-based, as you rightly say, is topic management: I look forward to catching up with your video on tools for that.

  2. Steven Brooks

    For me, adjusting to topic-based authoring was not difficult, and probably is not for many writers. Those in authority have more trouble with the concept – they really need to see the $$$$ benefit. In a software enineering environment, they may already have the foundation – OO programming and agile. Those concepts can be applied to the doc set as well.
    Thanks for the ongoing article. Good stuff!
    I’m looking forward to the localizing installment. My group is going through this now as part of moving to full DITA CMS.

    • Sharon Burton

      Thank you! I’m really enjoying writing these! Localization up next week!


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