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What is the best approach for recycling content in your organization? 

We’ve looked into the purpose, direction, and preparation for calculating reuse. 

Writing something one time, in one place, and being able to publish it to multiple outputs at the same time. Who could argue with that? 

But actually quantifying where it makes sense to implement reuse in your organization’s content is another story…

Why reuse content at all? 

The easy answer is:  to save time and money, and to increase scalability, consistency, and traceability.

It’s rare to have an organization create content from the ground up with a reuse strategy. In most cases — as I’d wager with yours — usually, an organization starts with an existing body of content that they want to analyze and adapt for reuse going forward. 

There are basically two types of reuse to consider: Let’s explore them to begin your calculations:

    • Production level reuse
    • Source level reuse

 

Production Level Reuse

Infographic How to Calculate Production Level Reuse

This is the most helpful for content teams who are new to structured content and reuse. Here there are two data points that matter most! 

    • How many products or product versions/variations does your organization create content for? 
    • What percentage of the content between those products or versions can be reused between them? 

 

Let’s say you have three versions of a product and need user manuals for each version. The initial manual has already been created, but you wish to calculate how much of the first manual is content that can be reused in the second and third manuals.

If manual A is 10 pages long and, through your content analysis, you find that you can reuse 80% of that content in manuals B and C, you’ll only need to create new content for 20% of manuals B and C. That is, 2 pages per manual. 

Where, without reuse, you would’ve been manually creating three 10 page manuals. With reuse, you cut that down by reusing 8 pages in manual A for manuals B and C. 

This calculation gives an overall idea of how much product content you have and how much can be reused within it. However, without calculating source-level reuse, this measurement remains more of an approximation. 

 

Source Level Reuse

A more granular formula, this calculation measures time saved by creating reusable topics. 

To explore DITA topics in more detail, here’s a great resource: [VIDEO] What Is DITA XML?

Topics, the building blocks or components of structured content, are what make up pieces of whole content that we call documents. Putting topics together to form a document is how we can recognize which components can be reused in multiple documents. Once you figure out the time it takes for your content team to complete a topic, you’re ready to start calculating how much time you can save through reuse.

Of course, time per topic is a variable average that each organization will need to establish for themselves before using this formula, but the basic gist is:

To figure out time saved, multiply the number of hours it takes to create a topic by the number of times the topic can be reused, minus the time it took to create the initial topic.

Infographic showing how to calculate source level reuse

For example: 

It takes your content team 8 hours to write a topic. 

If that topic can be reused 10 times in other places, you’ll have saved 72 hours of content creation time. 

From there, it isn’t hard to gather a monetary amount for time saved. 

Here’s the math:

72 hours saved = (8 hours to write a topic) x (10 instances of reuse – 1 for initial topic creation)

 

Optional Reuse Versus Required Reuse

There comes a point when you’ll need to implement reuse for your organization’s content to scale.

Think about the demand for product content. At a product’s inception, it’s usually appropriate to create content manually. To give a product content a good foundation, it’s necessary to focus more energy on creating unique content that deftly covers the main aspects of the product. As the product and organization grow, there will be instances where content reuse is nice to have, but not a functional requirement. 

You could say the examples of production level reuse and source-level reuse are both examples of optional reuse. The calculations show that they’re both good options that make sense in creating a more efficient content creation process, but not a requirement.

Then comes the question of scale. 

Okay, Star Wars fans, let’s say you built a droid shop. Your droid shop is famous for one droid unit. It’s a good droid model that you’ve spent time finely tuning to perfection. People love that droid, but you don’t sell more units than you can handle and customers order this particular unit. This is manual production.

Now more people have heard about your droid shop and liked your flagship droid unit, but they want more options than the OG. Your droid shop adapts and can reuse some components of the OG unit with a few tweaks that give your customers 10 different droid unit options. This is mass production.

Congratulations, the world has fallen in love with your droids and the 10 different units have started an avalanche of custom droid requests. Not to worry. Combining the specs for the 10 droid units, reusing what can be reused, and adding some creative engineering, you’re able to create a foundational system for your custom droid enterprise that’s able to personalize droids at scale. This is mass customization.

When you see the droids as content, you can see how each production type has its own place in content creation. But you must find where reuse fits. Reuse may be optional during the manual phase and some of the mass production phases, but as you need to deploy content at scale, the need for reuse becomes clear with the demand for increasingly customized content. 

 

Variables to Start With

The earlier examples make basic reuse calculations at higher and lower levels, but there’s a number of variables you can consider depending upon what you’re looking to achieve. 

Variable Purpose
Number of products For each product, there will be different content. 
Percentage of reusable content  Between each product, how much content can be shared?
Number of writers How many writers produce product content? 
Time per topic (hours) How long does it take to produce one topic?
Topics per document On average, how many topics are there per document?
Cost per writer (salary) How much does your content team cost your organization?
Number of content outputs How many places do you publish content to?
Number of audiences How many different audiences do you create content for?

 

Let’s take a few of these variables and factor in some actual numbers. 

    • Products
    • Outputs
    • Audiences

 

When you multiply these three things, you’ll quickly see just how sprawling — and expensive — your content development efforts can be. Reuse considers the parts of your content that can be shared. For example: 

3 products x 3 outputs x 3 audiences = 27 pieces of content

Writing those 27 pieces of content individually isn’t the best use of your time. Sure, they may share certain parts, but copy-pasting between them is also time-consuming, error-prone, and inefficient at scale. 

When these numbers grow exponentially with global enterprises, reuse becomes as much a necessity as a relief to your content developers. 

From these baseline calculations, you’ll be able to drill down into how reuse will impact the cost and publishing speed of your content. Be patient. Implementing a reuse strategy isn’t something that’ll happen overnight, but when you start right, the path forward becomes much easier to manage.

Tim Ludwig
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