It’s Time to Unlearn: Understanding Multichannel Publishing

Recently, my husband decided our children were old enough to watch his favorite film series from childhood, Star Wars. We began with the first Star Wars filmed in 1977 and then proceeded to watch the next film, The Empire Strikes Back.

When Luke Skywalker lands on the planet Dagobah in search of the great Jedi Master, Yoda, he crashes his ship into the swamp. Later in the movie, Luke is unable to use the Force to lift his ship from the marsh, believing the ship is too great a mass for him to move with his mind. Yoda says to him, "You must unlearn what you have learned." Then Yoda uses the great power of the Force to lift Luke's ship safely onto dry land.

As I write this column, we are about to turn the calendar page yet again to a new year. If you are not prepared for the wild ride through the digital landscape that 2013 will provide, it's either because you believed the Mayans or because you don't know where to begin.

Well, you should probably start with multichannel publishing. Simply put, your content needs to be displayed on the device of your user's choosing, not your own. Therefore, every single one of your digital properties needs to be accessible on a desktop browser, tablet, smartphone, and laptop.

You may have heard of responsive design, a format that allows the display of a website to shift depending on the device it's viewed on. While this solves many of the design issues of mobile, it doesn't solve content issues regarding different devices. As the design "reads" which device you're on, it serves up certain types of templates based on that device.

This provides a challenge. If the designers haven't thought through which types of content are important to users no matter the device, then important content may be buried on a long mobile scroll, rather than be available to the person who really wants that piece of information.

In her excellent book Content Everywhere, Sara Wachter-Boettcher explains, "As connected devices continue to multiply, and as users continue to expect to access your content in more and more places, the less you can afford to be rigid, manually applying content to each and every page. Instead, you need to create content in chunks, giving it the fluidity and flexibility for it to travel-across devices, sites, and channels-so users can experience it in whatever context they choose."

We need to unlearn everything we've learned, like Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. We need to strip content from display so that it can travel where we need it to go. We need to rethink the webpage, in the same way that electronic readers changed the way we thought about pages in books. Which is to say that it's not about pages anymore. It's about displays and chunks of content and delivering the best possible digital interaction through thinking about the most user-friendly experience when it comes to content.

Now that you know multichannel publishing is a priority, you need to sit down with your digital strategy teams and find out what they know about mobile content strategy, structured content, responsive design, markup, DITA, OWL, and faceted search. If they don't know what you're talking about, you need to send them for training classes. They should also read Content Everywhere, as well as Content Strategy for Mobile by Karen McGrane and Responsive Web Design by Ethan Marcotte.

Then you need to look at your content strategy carefully and determine if you're planning for content in the right ways. While in 2013 we're worried about multiscreened and multithreaded conversations (interactions that take place on multiple screens by the same user), in the coming decade, your content can be used in everything from voice-activated technology to user manuals that are easily searchable. You must free your content from its "containers," whether those are pages, PDF documents, or press releases. Content will only be able to travel across the web, and other places (but not galaxies far, far away), if we divorce it from display.

After Yoda pulls Luke's ship from the muck, Luke turns to him and says, "I didn't believe it was possible." Yoda replies, "That is why you fail." May the Force be with you as you attack multichannel publishing head-on this year. Because if you don't, you're not getting off Dagobah.

Trust in me, you should.