June 12, 2020

Why content modeling is important

Official(made by Sanity team)

By Ronald Aveling & Knut Melvær

Modeling content is a great way to gain consensus, unblock interdisciplinary work, and uncover hidden opportunities. Learn how working with well-structured content will benefit teams of all shapes and sizes.

In part 1 of this guide we talked about what content modeling is, and who’s involved in it.

Lets now shift our focus to the value of structured content and the role that content modeling plays in creating it. We’ll also take a tour through the technical, administrative, and audience-facing advantages of aligning content to the realities of what you do.

Create consensus

It’s a great way to develop a shared understanding of:

  • The context (or domain) that your organisation exists within.
  • The value it brings your audience.
  • The methods and channels through which that value is expressed to them.
  • How workflows between people and departments can be improved to promote more effective movement of ideas and assets.

Protip

What is the “domain”?

In the world of content and information architecture - the term “domain” refers to the context that your organisation or project operates within. Another way to think of it is:

  • The things your organisation does
  • The audiences it does those things with

Here are some examples:

  • Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) operate within the domain of humanitarian aid.
  • Netflix operates within the streaming media domain.
  • Toyota are situated in the domain of automobile manufacturing.

The context, products, services, and audience needs of these three domains are all very different.

While a single person may interact with all three organisations as a client, customer, or owner – their needs and interactions will vary greatly depending on which one they are dealing with.

Span organisational silos

Think of content as something that permeates all parts of a business. It can exist within web pages, legal documents, ideas, marketing stuff, accounting records, manufacturing data, and social media posts – to name a few.

A successful content modeling exercise will shed light on the needs of all your departments and pave the way for a centralized source of structured content – your single source of truth from which to operate.

When you give a voice to all of your departments you get ideas about areas of common interest. You can also uncover inefficiencies in your content (that may have come from silo-based thinking) which can be fixed with a centralized content platform.

Unearth hidden opportunities

Content modeling reveals valuable insights and connections between things that you might have overlooked, such as:

  • New relationships between things that can make you more efficient, or your content more valuable.
  • Bad content habits you can improve on (they may have come about due to working with an inflexible CMS).
  • Outdated perspectives on how you thought content could and should work.

Build a bridge to better content strategy

Content Strategists love well-structured content because it makes their job easier.

When content is rooted in what you do, and made accessible from a central place, strategists can coordinate and fulfil content tasks much faster, and with less repetition.

Organizations are becoming more aware of the impact that rhetorical quality has on their business.

The web has made it easier for users to access your information, but it has also made it easier for them to detect content that is inconsistent in tone and style, outdated, redundant, incomplete, or just plain useless.

The web did not create these flaws, but it made them painfully apparent. It has also given organizations a much more direct way to see and to measure the impact of their content and of its flaws.

Organizations can no longer ignore major rhetorical faults. This has led to the emergence of content strategy – as organisations feel the impact of poor content quality and see content quality as a strategic value.

Mark Baker, Structured Writing: Rhetoric & Process

Make an awesome primer for a database

A well-defined content model is a great springboard for backend development. It’ll fast-track the creation of data structures and relationships that are in aligment with the real-world needs of your organisation and audience. It also saves your devs from making best guesses as to what your organisation actually needs. They can take the model and get straight to work on implementing it.

Capture value better

When content has been structured to fit the way your organisation works, it travels farther, does more things, and requires less repetition along the way:

Less technical debt

Content structure that directly relates to what you do can go a long way to reduce your exposure to "technical debt". When your needs change (as they inevitably will) your burden will be reduced to fine-tuning how your content is presented and distributed, instead of being stuck with the job of rebuilding data structures from scratch.

Protip

Durable core, flexible exterior

We live in a world of rapidly changing technologies, devices, and consumption trends. Modern organisations need to operate with a certain amount of agility in order to remain viable in the midst of so much change.

When it comes to change, what you do and who you serve changes a lot less than the presentation and distribution trends of today. That’s why building your content structure around the fundamentals of your business and domain is so important. They’ll be around much longer than the latest technical trend.

You can think of a centralized content model as a long lived tree capable of withstanding the tempests of change. As consumer and distribution trends evolve, your model can flex at the edges to meet those needs. But the fundamentals of your domain, operations, and audience will remain unaffected at the heart of your well-thought-out content model. It's an investment that pays increasing dividends over time.

Gotcha

When domain and database structures don’t get along

Organisations often experience friction between the reality of their needs, and the way that their data has been structured.

A common scenario is when you choose off-the-shelf software out of a sense of perceived convenience, or cost savings. One-size-fits-all products often fulfil a basic or immediate set of requirements in the short term, but can end up being a source of frustration and unnecessary expense in the long run.

The issue is not the software per-se, but the lack of compatibility between:

  • The business model behind the software’s development (they're often built to serve as many customers as possible).
  • The unique domain-specific needs that nearly every business has.

This friction is commonplace with many opinionated Content Management Systems (CMS). They lock you in to their perspectives of “what content should be” from the outset. You start out content types and taxonomies that you don’t actually need, then wrap what you do need around them – creating patches and workarounds in order to get things done.

Over time this leads to of unnecessary constraint anf maintenance debt. Content operators also pay the price because it takes them longer to publish, and their content doesn’t reach as far, or last as long as it should.

Avoid this by sticking close to your own operational needs and logic.

There is no one structured writing system that is a perfect fit for every organization. The attempt to create a single system to meet all needs has been a large factor in the poor partitioning of many content systems.

Mark Baker, Structured Writing: Rhetoric & Process

Make content creation more fun and efficient

When your content is structured in harmony with your organisation and audience, the process of creating and maintaining content becomes more fun!

  • Editors will be able to find things easier and faster.
  • The content types, fields, and attributes of your model will relate to terms and labels your business already uses. No more head-scratching while out what a field actually means or does.
  • Your content types can also relate to one another the same way the do in your business. For a great example of this check out how RBW's powered their E-commerce experience direct from manufacturing data.

The closer your data model and organisation are in form, the easier it is to maintain documentation and onboarding flows. Because things:

  • are labeled the right way,
  • live in the right places, and
  • do what you expect them to.

Believe it or not – working with content and software doesn’t have to be repetitive and onerous. It’s never been easier to tailor content the way you need , collaborate on it in real time, and send it wherever you like from a single source of truth.

What we’ve learned

We now know that content modeling is valuable for organisations and projects of all kinds. It brings people together, captures more value, and is a great primer for database design.

Next up, we discuss the best time to undertake a content modeling effort for projects young and old.

Protip

Got questions? Join our Slack community

Because content design is highly contextual, it’s hard to provide blanket answers for every situation in this guide.

So if you have a question that we haven’t answered, consider joining our Sanity Slack community. We have a channel dedicated to #content-modeling, and love to talk about the many ways you can solve content problems by design.

λ npm install -g @sanity/cli
λ sanity init
Get started for free

Other guides by authors

Hierarchies, Graphs, and Navigation

Hierarchies are handy for organizing, but they can also fence you in. Learn how to build them, when to use them, and why you might want to treat navigation as a separate concern.

Go to Hierarchies, Graphs, and Navigation