A brief history of the Australian railway, or why structured content matters

An illustration depicting a locomotive framed by the Austrlian continent outline.
Published
October 19, 2020
Author

Jo Fraser

Category

Strategy

What happens when a nation decides to leave big decisions up to individual stakeholders without any collaboration, standardization or consideration for the future? Well, the Australian railway network happens. And spoiler alert: it’s a bit of a mess.

The Australian railway and structured content

Picture this: You're a passenger on an Australian train going north from Sydney to Brisbane. It's the middle of a cold, blustery night and you've just fallen asleep to the click-clack of the train tracks. And then, out of nowhere, you're being asked to collect your things and get out. The reason? You need to continue your journey on another train. 

The change marks an almost invisible border between the states of New South Wales and Queensland. For the avid traveller, a train change like this might not sound like a big deal. If you're travelling around Europe, you find yourself running between platforms clutching a half-eaten sandwich along with your suitcase all of the time. However, with the case of the Australian railroad, the inconvenience of changing trains isn't due to scheduling or network reasons. Instead, it's a case of extremely poor coordination between stakeholders — and a future that wasn't considered for a second. 

Let me explain. Each of Australia's states and territories was responsible for building its own railway system. While the states and territories consulted each other briefly about the infrastructure, they ultimately went their separate ways to build their railway system. This was a problem because of the crucial detail of track gauge. The gauge of a railway refers to the width between train tracks, and surprisingly, there is no standard or widely used gauge. In this instance, each state and territory decided on a different gauge. New South Wales chose to build their railways using Standard Gauge track — although this was anything but standard back then. Queensland chose to use Narrow Gauge because it was cheaper. And Victoria decided to use Broad Gauge — for... potentially no reason whatsoever. 

Once Australia became more connected — and interstate travel and trade became the norm — this posed a very serious problem. Because of the gauge changes, they discovered that they couldn't connect all of the railway networks. Every time a train reached a border, all the passengers would have to get out and change trains. Thus, the need for a midnight switcheroo between places like New South Wales and Queensland. If the train were carrying cargo, the border would mean all of the cargo would have to be removed and reloaded. What could have been a simple journey across Australia became a logistical nightmare. 

But enough about trains for a moment; how does this relate to structured content? Imagine your company is building a new website. You have five teams — sales, support, marketing communications, product management and design — working on the project. Now, imagine these teams head off to work on their piece of the pie, without consulting each one another — a little bit like the states of Australia heading off to create their own railroad.  

There would be no standardized content, brand consistency, a working template or homogeneous voice. It likely would require extensive reworking and months of extra work. This is an extreme example and (hopefully) wouldn't happen — there would be at least a little bit of project planning and communication. 

However, it helps to think of your digital experience as Australia and your content as the railway. With a little planning, collaboration and know-how, Australia could have avoided this mess altogether. They would have a unified, working railroad that worked for everyone. And the same goes for structured content. Yes, it takes more work in the beginning. But in the end, you have a unified system that will save you time, money, frustration and, ultimately, customers, in the long run. In short, don't be like Australia. 

What is structured content? 

Defining structured content can be a little tricky for a few reasons. It's often described by what it's not — commingled code and content — or by using fun terms such as “technology-agnostic” or “chunks and blobs.” However, it really only comes down to three things. The definition of structured content is the following:  

  • It is content that is machine-readable. It makes sense to both people and computers. Unlike regular content, it has been engineered for technology. 

  • It is ready for any interface, be it your iPhone or a digital screen. The content and code are separate so that every digital device can understand and display it. 

  • Structured content is reusable. You can use the same piece of content everywhere you need it, or as we like to say: create once, publish everywhere. 

If we get back to our Australian railroad (choo, choo), creating structured content is like building a railroad which uses the same gauge in every state. It's future-proof, standardized, and will always work seamlessly. 

Why is having structured content beneficial? 

So, why is structured content the way to go? There are numerous benefits to structured content. Here's our top four: 

You don't have to work as hard

Structured content matters because you can get so much more out of your content with a lot less work. Having a standardized content structure allows you to reuse any piece of content more than once. For example, you can use a product photo that you shot for an advertising campaign on social media, in a product page, and as part of a digital display. Unlike traditional CMSes where that product photo was glued to the rest of a webpage, structured content is individual components. It's all about working smarter, not harder.  

For anyone who works with a lot of content, you'll know that locating the pieces of content you're looking for is one of the hardest things. Content can be spread far and wide — text documents are in one place, illustrator files are in another; images can be impossible to index and search. Maybe it goes one step further, and all of your content is spread across multiple platforms and CMSes too. 

Structured content in a content platform like Contentful fights this type of content sprawl. All of the content is kept in one central place regardless of whether it's a video file, a text file or an image. It's a complete repository of everything you need. The content becomes easy to identify, filter, rearrange and relocate. As we mentioned before, structured content is also in individual components rather than locked into a page. You won't have to extricate content pieces — or worse, create them anew — because the components allow you to mix and match your content in fresh new ways. This reusability is particularly cool for creating websites. You can reuse elements of content, such as buttons, images and other simple components, across multiple pages, without having to create anything new. Reusing content means you can spin up new web pages — such as a slick new landing page — in no time at all. Reusing components in this way can cut your turnaround time in half. 

Personalized content

Structured content makes personalization quicker and easier because of tagging and metadata. Structured content allows you to categorize content at a more granular level — an image instead of a page, as an example. The result is personalization becomes even more specific. With personalization becoming more and more popular, this is good news for content creators. 

When you're creating structured content, it helps to think about what your customers might be looking for and naming your content accordingly. This practice will give you better results than naming your content for organization purposes. 

Multiple channels

Customers will most likely go through several of your digital touchpoints. While they might start with an app, their journey can include several web pages, social media and an email. What's important is that all of these touchpoints tell the same story, and the best way to do that is personalized consistent content. 

Structured content makes working with multiple channels, and publishing to multiple channels, a lot more straightforward. It structures your components in a way that adapts to different device displays because it doesn't combine content and code. And the best part is that you’ll be ready for whatever channels and devices are coming. When AI and machine learning become commonplace, structured content will no doubt make the transition smooth. Both technologies work best with content that has been made into individual components. 

It gives you detailed analytics

Structured content gives you more detailed and in-depth analytics. You're able to tell at a granular level which content is performing well, and which content is underperforming, and from there you can iterate and adapt as needed.  

To this day, the three most populous Australian states have different gauges. There has been some standardization, but ultimately most of the tracks are still different gauges. It’s one of the reasons why Australia as a whole doesn’t have an extensive railway network and has people relying on air travel, and long, long car rides instead.  

Try out structured content with Contentful for free with the Community edition

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