Laying the Groundwork for Content Modeling
A content model is more than just a tool for mapping your web content or content management system. It’s a powerful way to bring teams together, get inspired, and shift your perspective about content’s purpose.
When creating a content model, stakeholders must consider, identify, and articulate the concepts that matter most for their audience. During a content modeling exercise, you’ll come away with a better understanding of your own business. In turn, the content that supports your business will become more strategic and effective.
In the first chapter of the Content Modeling Guide, we covered the basics: what a content model is and how content modeling benefits your organization. This chapter will lay the groundwork for building a content model.
Content modeling is becoming increasingly popular. While this is a good thing, it means there’s now a wealth of misinformation floating around the web. Let’s clear up some of the major misconceptions.
Myth: Content modeling is just a tool for building a content management system (CMS).
Reality: A content model is a representation of all the types of content an organization uses to fulfill its mission and meet its audience’s needs. Thinking of a content model as a means to an end when building a CMS is inherently limiting and unscalable. With this approach, a strategic activity that streamlines collaboration and provides organizational transparency around content is reduced to a tactic for defining a single database.
Myth: Content modeling is mostly good for mapping out what your website will look like.
Reality: Content modeling helps teams think about what resources to create rather than what a website will contain or look like. The idea behind content modeling—and structured content more broadly—is to create content that you can repurpose across your ecosystem, allowing your organization to scale faster.
Myth: Developers can create a content model on their own.
Reality: A content model is a content strategy tool as well as a business tool. Remember, the goal is not to model the website or database schema—it’s to model the business and its content. It’s to map out things that exist in the real world, outside any digital property. When developers create content models in isolation, they tend to miss the broader implications of how the content will be used and maintaned in favor of technically correct but unusable database design.
Myth: Creating a content model helps you think about what pages to include in your website.
Reality: It’s about more than “pages.” It’s about content types. There’s immense power in thinking about a product rather than a product page. The latter can only be used once. The former can be used indefinitely.
First-time (and even second-time!) content modelers often worry that today’s content model won’t apply to tomorrow’s products and services. But that’s okay. Actually, it’s more than okay. Content models are much more future-friendly than webpages or app screens in isolation.
A content model is designed to help you think about your business, not just your website. Since the model isn’t tied to a specific website or screen template, it serves two functions:
- Provides clarity on what you need for the task at hand, like launching a marketing campaign for a new product
- Changes to your business
In other words, your content model is a living document. As your needs evolve, you’ll return to the model, and it will evolve with you. Content modeling doesn’t have to solve every problem at once—in fact, it shouldn’t. Instead, start by focusing on a very specific problem and expand the model from there.
Future-proof your content model by following these guidelines:
Don’t conflate a content type with a page type. When you create a content model based on pages, you’re locked into that format until you redesign it. When you create a website based on content, you’ve built flexibility into your architecture. You will eventually incorporate the model into page design, but not yet.
Take care with the level of abstraction you build into the model. Don’t be too abstract. Instead, think concretely about the nouns and verbs that make up your business. A software as a service company solicits testimonials provided by people who work for customers. (Nouns in italic.) Instead of thinking about how each of those concepts (nouns) could be set up in a database, think about how they relate to each other in context of the business.
Perfection is not the goal. The goal is “good enough.” Consider the future, but don’t try to predict it.
Get comfortable with change. Your business changes; your model will change too. Develop a routine for re-evaluating your content model to make sure it meets your needs at any time. It can be once a year, once a quarter, whenever you launch a new product line, whenever you build out a new part of the website.…The choice is yours.
Content modeling is an exercise in defining content types. A content type is a reusable container for storing content that has a common structure and purpose. It describes the consistent form that similar types of content take.
When you think of content types, think nouns. For example, a concert promotion and production company would include the content types venue, performance, act, and ticket.
Each individual content type has attributes. Attributes are characteristics of an object, which is the content type, in this case. For the content type venue in the concert promotion and production company’s model, attributes might include the name of the venue, the address phone number, social media accounts, hours, and capacity. We choose only the attributes that matter in the context of the model. A different model may choose a different set of attributes for the same object or content type.
As you’re thinking through content types, you might find yourself trying to decide whether something is a content type, attribute, or a webpage. A webpage is a display of content on a website. It does not belong in a content model since the model is not for a specific interface. You will eventually add pages to a website’s site map, but don’t worry about that now.
Content types are the nuts and bolts of your content model. Before you pick up the stickies and markers and start modeling, you’ll want to begin by gathering potential content types. In other words, it’s time to go hunting for nouns!
There are a variety of ways you can gather content types. Some of the most helpful include content auditing, market research, and stakeholder interviews.
Many editors and content strategists use regular content audits to take stock of what they have. While there are many methods for conducting content audits, you’ll want to focus on specific elements that will inform your model. Here are a few suggestions to use as a springboard.
- Develop a content inventory: a complete list of all your content (not just web content!), including webpages, videos, PDFs, documentation, and other collateral.
- Categorize your content by buyer's journey stage, format, and audience.
- Look into the content that’s performing well. What are you doing right? What are audiences responding to?
- Ask whether audiences that come to you for something you offer. Do you have it? Do they find it on your website?
As you look at your inventory and analyze it using these questions, content types will emerge. Add a category to your audit to note the content type for each piece of content. Don’t worry about having too many or too few at this stage. Go with your instinct in naming the content types. Avoid using the format—video, document, article, PDF—to name a content type. They aren’t necessarily wrong, but any content type could include a number of formats.
Since the goal of content modeling is to map out your business content ecosystem, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with your market.
- Perform a competitive analysis. What are your competitors doing? What are they doing well? What is missing that you can offer?
- Do a deep dive into your audiences. What kind of audiences are you trying to reach? Where are you succeeding? Where are you failing?
- Where is the market headed? How can your content anticipate the audience’s needs?
Like the inventory, the results of your market research will reveal content types as well. How do you categorize the types of content you found? Note that down. Other companies might have the same content types as you do. That’s okay. What you really want to look for is ones that are not in your inventory. You can add those to your model and decide if it make senses to add them to your future inventory. Keep in mind that just because you add a content type to your content model doesn’t mean that you have to immediately create content of that type. Content models should be expansive and inclusive, not restricted and exclusive.
During your discovery with stakeholders, ask questions that get at what their audience wants and how they can give them what they need. Here are some questions that will help you with this task:
- What is your role and department’s function? This question establishes context and provides insight into the content they produce.
- Who is your primary audience? Use this question to get context about the people they serve.
- How much do you use the organization’s digital channels to reach and engage with that audience? In what ways are those digital channels effective for you? How could they become more effective? Again, these questions establish context about how they currently communicate with their audience and what they might want to do in the future.
- What is a typical conversation or interaction with one of those people? Content types, and their connections, will come out of this question.
- What is the biggest concern of your primary audience? This helps establish audience needs.
- How do you provide help to address that concern? Use this question to get more of the content types out into the open.
Pick out the nouns—the content types—from the answers. Like the other methods of discovering content types, don’t be selective here. You’ll make decisions about which nouns are really content types later.
Through your discovery work, you’ll end up with a long list of potential content types. Hang on to them for the next step: creating a content model. That is when you’ll decide whether you want to put what you have found in your model.
As you think about modeling, here are a few common pitfalls to be aware of.
It’s easy for users who are accustomed to a traditional rather than headless CMS to confine their thinking to the presentation of the content rather than its meaning. But that kind of thinking makes it harder to imagine how you might repurpose content in the future.
Focus on the meaning and intent of the content rather than how it’s presented on a page. The goal is to understand your audience, not figure out how to present a piece of content on a specific website or product screen.
Even if your company is a retailer or a community-focused digital publication focused on selling products or providing advice, you can model your content.
Go back to your pre-digital roots to find the intent of content outside of how it’s presented on a website or app. There have always been marketing offers, guides or manuals, quizzes, campaigns, fashion models, authors, trends, styles. These are all potential content types as well. You can bring their parts together in many different ways to tell the story you want to tell at any given time or place.
While content modeling is a useful tool to help you achieve your business goals, it’s important to avoid prioritizing how your business thinks and organizes itself over your audience’s mental model of what your business provides them. Find the overlap.
For example, say your organization’s education department offers webinars that fulfill professional development requirements and marketing puts on webinars that are for information only. These aren’t two different content types because different teams organize and own them. This is a single content type called Webinar, which will have attributes that will allow a range of types of webinars to use it. Having a single content type in your model now won’t stop you from separating them on your website later.
Ideally, get buy-in from stakeholders before you embark on a content modeling exercise so you can get maximum participation and alignment. But don’t let lack of widespread buy-in stop you from doing it. Better to start with an informal sketch you create at your desk than nothing at all. After all, boxes and arrows are easier to change than code. If you don’t start with buy-in, you can build that as you gain allies and show successes.
Be sure to restrict your content model to the types of content that matter to your organization. But don’t make your world too small, either. It’s equally important to broaden the scope of your model to include concepts relevant to your entire business, not just a single product or service.
Our next chapter will cover how to create a content model, including step-by-step instructions for choosing content types and attributes.