graphical user interface

Back in 1931, a Polish scientist stated that “the word is not the thing.” This sounds superficially silly, stay with me – the word we use for something is not the actual thing itself. Representations of a thing are not the thing.

When we say, “I found your house on a map,” we don’t actually mean that, of course. What we mean is that we found a representation of a house on a piece of paper, which is a representation of some physical territory.

The word is not the thing. The map is not the territory.

Likewise, an artifact is not content.

Let me explain.

An artifact is a consumable unit of media. It’s a thing a human can perceive and ingest and understand.

We get these confused with content all the time. We look at a web page and say, “That’s content!”

No, it’s not. That’s a web page. It’s an artifact made from content.

Content is…pure. It exists in the abstract. It’s an encapsulated idea, a message, a feeling that you want to communicate. Artifacts are just the horses on which they ride.

You might be thinking of “the separation of content and presentation,” which is the terribly common phrase in content management. This is the idea that the content exists in a presentation-free state, and that some form of visual formatting is applied at the last minute. However, it also implies that this is just a question of appearance – we separate these things just so we can make mass changes to how content appears.

No, it’s way more than that.

First, we need to start acknowledging that a singular item of content can give birth to multiple artifacts. Yes, you’ll turn that press release (content) into a web page (an artifact), but can you do more with it? Can you turn it into an email, a social media update, an SMS message?

For a long time in the CMS world, we created content and artifact at the same time. We typed words in a form, and out came a web page. This used to be fine – most organizations primarily communicated on the web – but we need to adapt to multiple channels, and we need to break the tendency for 1:1 thinking.

One piece of content, multiple artifacts. Once you acknowledge this separation, you’ll start looking at your content and process differently.

Second, the team that creates content is increasingly not the same team that produces the artifact. In CMS, there are “templated” artifacts and then there are “composed” artifacts. They differ markedly.

Templated artifacts may be something like an employee bio, for example – there’s a rigid set of fields and it’s presented in one way. There’s no work to get from content to artifact – you feed content in, and an artifact comes out. On the other side, composed artifacts require a production step, and the team doing the production is not always the same team creating the content.

An infographic, for example – you might have a team that creates the copy, gathers the statistics, and crafts the message, but the interpretational design is done by another team. Other types of media are the same way – I can record a video in front of my webcam, but I can’t edit it, add subtitles, a soundtrack, or other things. This is something I need a producer for.

When we don’t separate content from artifact – especially composed artifacts – our process gets complicated. We have multiple teams trying to work in the same system for different ends and purposes.

Third, separation of content and artifact encourages us to “bank” content for the future and start treating it like the long-term asset it should be. Content is perpetual and strategic, while an artifact is more ephemeral and tactical.

Over the years, I’ve written blog posts that are basically eternal. They speak to content problems and issues that will be relevant forever. I’ve published these as web pages, but used them in slide decks, tweeted them, sent them emails, etc. And I’ve done this with the same content, over and over, for years.

Artifacts are public facing. They’re content adapted to channel. As such, they get morphed to adapt, and they’re often published to places and in formats not known to everyone in the enterprise.

What you need is a “content bank” – a place where you create content (not artifacts) and supply enough metadata and context so that it can be used and adapted over time. This becomes a system of storage and collaboration, more than a system of publication. You need both but storing and preserving content well is the first step to re-using it over time.

I know, I know – you’re thinking, “This is why we should use a headless CMS! They just manage content; they don’t concern themselves with artifacts!”

True, but that’s often a step too far.

I’ll concede that web content management has traditionally gotten too cozy with the content/artifact relationship. Some systems were better than others, of course – for example, Optimizely’s CMS Content Cloud has always kept a very clean, pure separation between data and output.

However, even if the separation exists, you’re still working with both in the same system, which can be limited and muddies the separation. As I mentioned above, content and artifact are often developed by different teams using different workflows.

Being able to distribute these teams while still being “artifact aware” is ideal. Content systems need to operate independently of their artifacts, but still be aware of them to enforce channel limitations and allow things like preview and integration with the post-publish optimization tools that the artifact delivery environment provides.

Additionally, content isn’t created in a vacuum, and it’s not ready to be turned into an artifact until later in its development cycle. Content creation needs tools to enable collaboration far more than it needs tool to create artifacts.

At Optimizely, we’re building a system to provide for everything I’ve discussed here. Our acquisition of Welcome software gave us a world-class content marketing platform that gives teams everything they need to start creating and collaborating on content and preserving it as an asset for future use.

On the artifact side, the Optimizely CMS allows your production team to take those assets and turn them into publishable artifacts that can connect with your customers.

Let your authors create content. Let your producers create artifacts. If you break the coupling between these two things, you’ll get higher quality content and more value from your artifacts over time.

About the author