Is DITA Right for Content Marketing?

At conferences and meetings last year, I noticed DITA coming up as a topic of conversation more frequently. This sparked my curiosity. I wanted to know if DITA could reduce costs and improve content quality for my marketing clients. To get some answers, I attended a joint meetup with PDX DITA and Write the Docs PDX last month. What I learned was encouraging.

The generous hosts at Jive Software accommodated about 30 people in their office for a free exchange of ideas. Jive has been using DITA to single source its product documentation for more than 5 years. Leona Campbell (@runleonarun) and Melanie Jennings (@seniortechwriter) introduced us to DITA with a short presentation and a demonstration using an example project in oXygen, a visual DITA editor.

Benefits of DITA

Campbell explained that she didn’t choose DITA; it was a requirement for working at Jive. Although the learning curve was steep, like her coworkers, Campbell became a DITA enthusiast.

“DITA made me fall in love with technical writing all over again,” she said.

Here’s why. DITA enables her to single source the content she develops at Jive—to separate content from formatting and automate the production process. She writes her content once and delivers it in multiple formats for publication across a variety of channels (for example, HTML5, PDF, ePub, WebHelp, and so on). She can also tag content to enable filtering for specific audiences. Once the content and markup process is complete, she can create multiple deliverables, each targeted for a specific audience, from a single repository—with the click of a mouse button. This saves her time and the company money.

DITA benefits include:

  • Greater messaging consistency
  • Content reuse
  • Multiple output formats and multiple channel delivery
  • Improved semantic-guided search through metadata tagging
  • Lower translation and production costs

What is DITA?

DITA stands for Darwin information typing architecture. Originally developed by IBM to efficiently reuse content in product documentation, DITA is an XML-based open standard for structuring, developing, managing, and publishing content. In 2004, IBM donated their DITA work to the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) for further development and release to the public.

DITA itself is not a tool, but many tools support DITA. The DITA Open Toolkit (DITA-OT) is open source, and provides a starter set for working with DITA. Many DITA developers, however, find it easier and more productive to use commercial DITA tools.

DITA for Content Marketing

When I searched for use cases of DITA in marketing, I found an interesting IBM presentation delivered at the 2014 Intelligent Content Conference. I wish I’d been there to hear it. According to the presentation, the IBM marketing group has developed a strategy for using DITA to create personalized experiences for 1:1 marketing, with content collections pre-filtered based on their knowledge of a persona, specific user, and the path they took to arrive at the content. I’ll be interested in learning more about this story as it evolves.

While DITA has gained widespread adoption in the technical documentation world, DITA adoption has lagged in content marketing groups. I believe that’s going to change because the benefits can be significant and getting started in DITA is getting easier. DITA has the largest membership of any OASIS technical committee; this active DITA community means help is available if you need it. Also, OASIS members are developing a specification for a lightweight DITA architecture to simplify DITA implementation and boost adoption for technical and marketing content.


Conceptually, DITA sounds wonderful. As a business owner of a content agency, I love the promise of increased efficiency and cost savings that could give me and my clients a competitive advantage. However, the initial time investment to learn DITA can be significant, and there are other costs to consider.

“DITA is free, and you are free to troubleshoot problems all day long,” warned Melanie Jennings from Jive.

For Jive, the cost and time savings from single sourcing content pays off the learning curve and troubleshooting challenges. Several people at the meeting suggested that if you can reuse 20 percent of your content, the investment in DITA makes sense. The savings can be huge if you are localizing your content into multiple languages.

You can calculate the potential cost savings if you multiply quantitative estimates of:

  • Amount content you have, in a modular units (for example, pages x words/page)
  • Cost per unit of content
  • The fraction of content that can be reused

Weigh these cost savings against the total cost of ownership (TCO). To calculate TCO, include the costs of the software licenses and the hardware infrastructure needed in IT to support the content publishing system (CMS). Also include the expense to retrain writers to write topics using new editing tools. Add in other personnel costs, such as turnover and new costs for specialists who can analyze and organize your content for structured delivery. Some people at the meeting recommended reading DITA Metrics 101 for more details on how to make the business case for DITA.

For More Information

Thanks to PDX DITA, Write the Docs PDX, and the writing team at Jive for a great discussion on DITA.

If you want more information on DITA, here are a few helpful resources:

What is DITA and Why Should You Care

DITA Metrics 101

DITA 1.2 Specification and Download

DITA Awareness Group on LinkedIn

If you have a marketing use case for DITA to share, please comment below. I’d love to hear about how people are using DITA for marketing purposes.

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