Breaking Content Down

Too often, today’s content is stuck. But as connected devices get more varied, robust, and ubiquitous—and as users expect to find, relate, and share content in more and more ways—we need to stop making more content for every new device or channel, and start doing more with the content we make.

In this excerpt from Chapter 3 of Content Everywhere, on sale today from Rosenfeld Media, Sara Wachter-Boettcher shows you how to start evaluating and modeling your content for flexibility and reuse.

The challenge of making content more flexible begins with its name: content. Vague and expansive, the term alone does little to explain itself—and makes it easy to assume that any one piece of it is the same as another. But as anyone who’s worked with just a bit of content knows, there’s quite a variety that can exist within those seven little letters. From 140-character Tweets to 10,000-word articles, video clips to thumbnail images, all kinds of things can fall into this big, bursting content bucket.

In order to set your content free from the limitations of generic pages, you need to get much more specific about what that content is—understanding its meaningful dimensions and its inherent form—so you can ensure the way you structure and store it makes sense.

Deconstructing to Construct

If you’re new to content modeling, think of it like this: It’s the process of first understanding the concept of a specific type of content—how your users perceive and understand the various pieces and parts it comprises—and then creating a structure that supports those components and relationships. By modeling, you create a tangible representation of the content that will serve as your guide as you write, edit, design templates, configure content management systems, and more.

Why do all this? Well, content modeling is the first step toward winning the war between “blobs versus chunks,” as Karen McGrane calls them—between content that’s shapeless and fixed and content that’s modular and flexible. In other words, you can’t have content everywhere unless you start with a smart model.

Breaking content down into its logical parts also provides practical benefits right on a single site, including:

  • Allowing you to move forward with website and CMS specifications before all the content is complete, because you know what each template should be able to support.
  • Giving those tasked with collecting, writing, and editing content a clear list of items to create or assemble.
  • Providing user experience and interface designers with concrete elements to incorporate in their wireframes and comps.

Most of all, content modeling gives you systemic knowledge; it allows you to see what types of content you have, which elements they include, and how they can operate in a standardized way—so you can work with archetypes, rather than designing each one individually.

Note: Models and Types and Elements, Oh My!

Before we get too deep, let’s define some terms. The terminology out there may vary, but I refer to a content type as the actual thing a user would read or use, like an article, a recipe, or a help guide entry. Meanwhile, content elements are the modules and chunks that make up that content type: ingredients, summaries, teasers, and the like. A content model is the connective tissue between all of them—the expression of how all those types and elements coexist. You can make models of individual content types that show how each chunk of content comes together, as well as models of entire content systems, which show how multiple content types are interconnected based on rules and relationships.

A content model typically ends up being documented in a diagram that can get translated to a database and CMS structure. But we’re not quite ready to build a model yet. First, we’ll spend this chapter learning how to deconstruct content along meaningful lines that make sense to users and also map to organizational goals and strategies. Only then will we be ready to document our models and get them implemented.

First Meaning, Then Modeling

Content modeling isn’t unique to today’s mobile, multichannel world. Many IAs have been doing it for years, as have technical communicators, database developers, CMS vendors, and even a content or metadata specialist or two.

The difference is, these efforts often focused more on data storage and retrieval than on the content itself. So today, we’re not going to dive right into making diagrams and specs. Instead, we’re going to spend some time thinking about meaning before we get to modeling. Why? Because while it takes a little bit of technical know-how to implement a model, content can be ambiguous—which means that the art of modeling must start long before the spreadsheets and data tables come out.

As content strategist R. Stephen Gracey puts it, “content modeling is more than fields”:

We find ourselves pushed into the thick of technical specification before we’ve had a chance to imagine what the content is supposed to be and do, let alone how it should be structured.

In my view, we’d be nearer the truth of “modeling” if we took our cues from other disciplines… The sculptor “models” in clay before casting in bronze… The industrial designer creates digital “models” before production… Content must be modeled in this creative sense, as well as in the technical sense.

In other words, arbitrarily chunking content into parts gives us a model, but it doesn’t necessarily make it a meaningful one. Shaping the right model in the first place takes work.

Naturally, I learned this the hard way, as many of us who got into digital work without formal training did. A few years ago, I worked on a project for a large international brand where we were adding retail locations to one of the company’s many sites. Someone from the corporate office sent over a CSV file of location data. It was handed straight to the development team, and the fields in that file immediately became the fields in the CMS template (shown in Figure 3.1) without anyone giving it a moment’s thought.

Figure 3.1 Dsd? Kind? When you consider your content’s purpose when making database decisions, you can avoid poor labeling and useless fields like these.

Between indecipherable labels like “Dsd” and open-entry fields labeled “Kind”—kind of what, exactly?—half the fields were either unintelligible or unnecessary. As a result, those responsible for content governance had no idea how to manage these listings effectively.

Fifteen minutes spent thinking about the content within that spreadsheet before the CMS template was built would have solved this problem. But the developer imported what he was given, and that was that.

Written down like this, the scenario sounds almost silly. Who let this happen? But in truth, content ends up being modeled like this all the time, in organizations large and small. Maybe even in your own.

We can do better than this, but only when we begin to understand which core elements make our content types come to life—and then share that knowledge with the folks building the physical systems and structures that will support our lively, user-satisfying content.

As content management expert Deane Barker has written, “structuring content can suck the soul out of the authoring process” by making those responsible for content stop thinking in wholes and start acting like machines. That’s probably true, but it needn’t be. If those of us who care about delivering great content and experience—like writers, editors, UXers, strategists, and designers—take the lead on making content models that are rich and meaningful, then we won’t have to choose between structure and soul.

Sound good? Then it’s time to get to work by exploring your content more closely than ever and getting at the center of what makes it tick.

A Tale of Two Content Models

To understand why close evaluation of content is so critical for modeling, let’s take a look at a content type you’ve likely seen and perhaps even worked with: a recipe.

Which content elements does a recipe need? If you said title, ingredients, and directions, that’s a start. But oftentimes, there may be much more to it.

I learned this while working on a website overhaul for a quickly growing grocery company. With hundreds of locations and a focus on fresh, natural products, the chain had a large following of fans interested in healthy eating and specialty diets like vegan and gluten-free, as well as a repository of recipes that had been previously published in its email newsletters. To meet the goals of engaging site visitors and reinforcing the chain’s fast, fresh, and healthy brand messages—while driving fans to buy more products, of course—we decided to publish relevant recipes alongside product pages across the site.

As we began scratching the surface, we saw a whole universe of elements contributing to this content’s meaning and helping us toward our goals. This led us to build a content model (shown in Figure 3.2) that included not just the basics like ingredients, directions, and yield, but also:

  • Teasers to provide context and drive interest when displayed throughout the site.
  • Nutritional information to support the brand’s health-conscious appeal
  • Specialty tags, like vegan or gluten-free, to assist those with dietary restrictions.
  • Cooking and prep time data to reinforce the idea that healthy, homecooked meals don’t need to be hard.
  • Categories that mapped back to the brick-and-mortar stores’ layout, allowing site visitors to easily know where to shop for ingredients when in the store, while also allowing the chain to display more relevant supplemental content to people visiting those sections of the website.

Figure 3.2 A grocery chain’s recipe content model, where content elements match the store’s fast, fresh, and healthy branding.

These content attributes aren’t the only meaningful dimensions you could glean from a recipe, however. For a different perspective, let’s look at another approach to the same type of content: the recipe model used by Epicurious, as seen in this top-rated pizza recipe shown in Figure 3.3.

Figure 3.3 A recipe for some tasty-looking goat cheese pizza from (click the image to view a larger version).

While we can’t speak to Epicurious’ specific business goals, we can make some reasonable assumptions. First, the site is owned by Condé Nast. As a publisher that runs extensive banner advertising, Epicurious likely wants to increase page views in order to bolster ad revenue, and get recipe hunters to view content on or subscribe to its other food-related media properties, like Bon Appétit—very different goals than our grocery friends, and aims that have led Epicurious to use a long list of content elements, as shown in Figure 3.4:

  • Main ingredients
  • Type
  • Dietary considerations
  • Related menus Related recipes
  • Title
  • Byline
  • Publication attribution
  • Yield
  • Active time
  • Total time
  • Teaser description
  • Image
  • Ingredients
  • Preparation
  • Wine pairings
  • Reviews

Figure 3.4 What Epicurious’ recipe content model appears to look like. Note that it’s both more detailed and just plain different than the model in Figure 3.2.

Two recipes, two very different content models—each seemingly complete. So how do you figure out the right one for your content? What level of detail do you need? To answer that question, we need to take a step back and determine what you’re trying to accomplish in the first place.

Enter, Content Strategy

Content modeling requires you to simultaneously understand your goals at the highest level and get intimate with your content’s most minute attributes, and there’s a pretty big chasm in between. Luckily, there’s an entire discipline dedicated to bridging that divide: content strategy.

At its most basic, a content strategy outlines how content will be used to support both overall organizational goals and audiences’ needs. While there are many approaches to articulating a content strategy and a million ways to customize one for a specific project or problem, it should at a minimum include several items:

  • Goals: How will content support your overall strategy? What should it accomplish for your organization? For your users?
  • Resources: How much time and money do you have for your content? What skill sets are on hand?
  • Key messages: What are the top organizational messages you want content to communicate? What do your users need?
  • Voice and tone: How does your brand translate to your online presence? What should you sound like?

If you’re new to content strategy, and don’t foresee your project benefiting from a dedicated content strategist anytime soon, I highly suggest you spend a little extra time figuring this part out. It will serve you well as we travel the long road into the future, because each decision you make about content—what you publish, how it’s structured, and where it goes—will come out of this strategy.

Keep reading Content Everywhere. Buy it now from Rosenfeld Media (UXmas readers can save 15% on any title from Rosenfeld Media by using the code UXMAS).

Just getting started with content strategy? Check out Erin Kissane’s The Elements of Content Strategy, Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach’s Content Strategy for the Web, or find a content strategy meetup near you.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Sara Wachter-Boettcher is a content strategist, writer, and the editor-in-chief of A List Apart. An advocate for meaningful, memorable, future-friendly content, Sara is the author of Content Everywhere from Rosenfeld Media, a frequent conference speaker, and an occasional blogger. She will scold you for skipping breakfast.

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