Karen McGrane on Creating Reusable Content

Posted inFeatured
Thumbnail for Karen McGrane on Creating Reusable Content

Creating content can be a challenging task if you’re a content creator – be you blogger, journalist, internet sensation, writer or virtually anyone writing anything that’s published on the web. However, creating the content your readers will eventually read, absorb, comment on, disseminate and apply to their lives is just half the battle. The other half is engaging your audience and meeting them where they are, making sure your work can quickly flow from their desktop to their mobile device without missing a beat.

Content Strategy for Mobile, author Karen McGrane, a web design maven with the goal of, on a good day, making the web more awesome. And, on a bad day, she’s good with simply “making it suck less.”

Karen has offered up some helpful tips for transforming your site and making your content reach its maximum potential by crafting intentionally for mobile users, planning for content reuse and tweaking the headline to catch your different target market’s attention.



If you’re thinking of a specific context when you create content, your mind naturally wraps itself into the opportunities and constraints inherent in that medium. Imagining that your content can and will be reused in many ways poses its own set of limitations and benefits.

While many things need to change before organizations can start creating reusable content, the most fundamental challenge is a change in mindset. Content creators need to break free of imagining a single context where their content is going to “live” and instead plan for content reuse.

Written for reuse

Content written for one context often doesn’t make the leap to other places all that well. To give your content the best shot at making sense in whatever way the user wants or needs to consume it, you should do the following:

Write standalone headlines

Because you can use page titles in multiple places, write standalone headlines so that they can serve as page headers and links. If you’re only going to write one page title, then ensure that headline includes keywords to help the user decide whether she wants to click on the link, and determine if she’s in the right place.

The following headlines are used for both the article title and the link title on landing pages and in search engines. They offer keywords and an enticement to click (http://bkaprt.com/csm/43):

  1. 15 Case Studies to Get Your Client on Board With Social Media (Mashable, http://bkaprt.com/csm/44)

  2. Scott Forstall, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice at Apple (Bloomberg Businessweek, http://bkaprt.com/csm/45)

  3. What Everyone Is Too Polite to Say About Steve Jobs (Gawker, http://bkaprt.com/csm/46)

Write multiple headlines

Sometimes, it’s just not possible to write a single headline that works in every context. You


may have to write multiple headline versions—some that work as page titles, some that work as links. The following headlines offer a good balance—headlines that work as entertaining page titles aren’t expected to do double-duty as links (http://bkaprt.com/csm/43). This approach provides extra value when combined in a one-two punch—they could be combined into a longer headline or the link title could be used as a summary:

  1. Article Title: “What’s Eating the NYPD?”; link: Why the NYPD Is Turning on Ray Kelly (New York Magazine, http://bkaprt.com/csm/47)

  2. Article Title: “Citizen Cain”; link: Herman Cain’s Unlikely Republican Rise (Newsweek, http://bkaprt.com/csm/48)

  3. Article Title: “When Is a Flip Not a Flop?”; link: The Fateof the Republicans Who Supported Gay Marriage (The New York Times Magazine, http://bkaprt.com/csm/49)

Don’t bury the lede

When you write for the web, put the most important information up front. If you don’t grab your reader right from the start, they’re likely to wander off in search of something more interesting.

This adage is even more true when you’re writing content that may be reused in other contexts. If the first sentence/paragraph contain meaty, useful information, you protect yourself if they ever need to be used as a navigation summary or if the rest of the text gets truncated. If the first sentence says nothing of interest, why would your reader want to tap for more information? Similarly, you should focus on just one main idea in each chunk of text (whether that’s a paragraph or a section).

Readers are likely to scan headings and initial sentences, searching for words that they think will answer their questions. If you combine multiple ideas in a chunk with no visual separation or distinction between them, important information will likely be overlooked.

Alternative content

One of the most frustrating parts of looking at content on mobile devices is discovering that useful or necessary content isn’t accessible because the content format didn’t translate well to a different screen size or platform capability. Whether it’s a video that’s only available in Flash, or an infographic that doesn’t scale for a smaller screen, some content just won’t work in other contexts.

Creating reusable content means recognizing when content can’t be reused, and developing an alternative. Remember how NPR could publish the same story to a website and an audio player? Having both text and audio gives them more options.

You might need to consider alternatives for the following:


Content Managment

Scaling images and infographics across a tiny mobile phone and a giant Retina display just won’t work. You will need additional image sizes cropped. If the image can’t be cropped or scaled without losing its meaning, then you will need an alternative: find another image or describe the image’s content in the body text or alt text.

Data visualizations

Interactive data visualizations can be engaging both on the desktop and on touchscreens, provided they’re built for reuse across platforms. In situations where the screen size or device capabilities won’t support their display, have a fallback mechanism,
like displaying a simple table of the data.

Audio and video

Alternative formats (taking advantage of HTML5’s support for multiple video formats) will help ensure that everyone can access these forms of media. Beyond that, providing a transcript or text summary for any audio or video content will make it more flexible for reuse (as well as more accessible to people with disabilities and friendly to search engines).

Managed reuse

Have you ever searched around in your email, Word documents, or website, looking for a snippet of content you’d previously created and wanted to reuse? Across a variety of different forms of professional communication—cover letters, business proposals, legal documents—it doesn’t make sense to keep creating and recreating the wheel. Most people handle this process opportunistically: they hunt around for the paragraph or graphic they want to re-purpose, then copy and paste it into place. Others might handle it in a more organized fashion, maintaining a library of boilerplate documents that they can efficiently browse or search.


But what most people don’t have is a system that manages content for planned reuse. Because you’re copying and pasting each content element uniquely, you’re creating different instances of the content. If you want to make change to that content object, you’ll have to change it everywhere you used it. That might work for your individual publishing workflow, but it’s not going to fly when you’re planning for large-scale, multi-channel publishing. Effective content reuse across platforms means you need a way to update content in one place and have the changes reflected everywhere. To support that, you’ll need the next aspect of adaptive content, which is structured content.

The preceding post is an excerpt from Karen McGrane’s book, Content Strategy for Mobile. To get more of Karen’s great advice follow her on twitter @KarenMcGrane or check out her blog at www.karenmcgrane.com!

HOW Interactive

Want more of Karen on content strategy? Don’t miss her at the HOW Interactive Design Conference series this fall, coming to a city near you.