Digital experience done well looks a bit like magic. Poof! Your DXP or content platform just delivered personalized content to the right customer at the right moment. Amazing.

But magic isn’t effortless. Look at Harry Potter, who spent six years at Hogwarts perfecting his spells and potions. Just like Harry, marketers and content strategists need to put in some grunt work before they can do fantastic things. They need to build a foundation for digital experience, and that foundation is taxonomy.

Harry Potter and his world of wizards and beasts, as it turns out, can help us understand how to create an effective taxonomy. Read on to reveal four taxonomy secrets.

Why You Need a Taxonomy for Digital Content

First a quick primer: A taxonomy is a scheme of classification, a way to organize digital content using clear, logical categories and associated tags. You create a taxonomy by assembling a vocabulary of terms, placed into a hierarchy with different levels of categories and subcategories. Then that taxonomy is baked into the back-end of your CMS or digital platform, allowing you to categorize and tag every content element or asset — by product line, by topic, by content type, by customer journey stage, and so on.

multiple hierarchical taxonomy
A non-Harry Potter example of a multi-hierarchical taxonomy, with four separate hierarchies, each up to four levels deep.iStockphoto

With a taxonomy in place, you can unlock the magic of your digital platform. Here are just a few of the possibilities:

  • Deliver personalized content experiences to each visitor, based on their behavior or customer attributes.
  • Create dynamic pages that bundle and reuse content, assembling them by topic.
  • Add “related content” CTAs to pages, driving further engagement.
  • Help chatbots and other AI-powered tools to answer questions effectively.

But remember the grunt work I mentioned at the beginning? You have to get through that first before you can deliver these types of content experiences. Creating a taxonomy isn’t a simple task that you can wrap up in one afternoon. It takes effort and a smart approach.

So where do you start?

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Taxonomy Secret #1: Enter the Mind of Your Customer

Start with your customers, both internal and external. A good taxonomy captures how they think about your content and how they might organize it — rather than how you’d organize it. If you build your taxonomy in a vacuum, without customer input, it won’t reflect how your users will look for information once they reach your platform. It won’t incorporate the terminology they prefer.

You can enter the minds of your customers in one of two ways:

  • Use legilimency, a form of magic that allows you to probe another person’s mind and read their thoughts, like Voldemort did to Harry in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
  • Or just ask them to help! Would they be willing participate in a little taxonomy exercise or stakeholder interview? Maybe sweeten the deal with a Starbucks gift card.

Taxonomy Secret #2: Let Your Cards Reveal the Truth

A range of tools and techniques can help you build a customer-centric taxonomy. My favorite approach to getting customer input is through card sorting. This time-tested exercise asks participants to organize content topics — one on each “card” — into groups that make sense to them, and then to name each group in a way that they feel accurately describes the content. This is called an open card sort.

To illustrate how it works, let’s dive into a Harry Potter card sort exercise. Imagine a pile of index cards, each with the name of a human or beast from the Harry Potter universe.

Learning Opportunities

multi-hierarchical taxoonomy

What are all the ways you could group the characters together? In a complex fantasy world like Harry Potter, you’ve got lots of options.

magical type
by job
hogwarts house

Taxonomy Secret #3: Embrace Agreement … and Disagreement

The three Harry Potter examples above reveal several important takeaways for your own taxonomy development:

  • Expect a diversity of categorizations and groupings. Sorting by job (students, teachers, etc.) isn’t necessarily more correct than by magical type (beings, beasts, etc.). When you perform a card sort with your stakeholders, you’ll likely get a diversity of approaches. That’s a good thing.
  • Agreement and disagreement are both helpful. Strong agreement (for example, if most participants categorize Harry Potter characters by magical type) may indicate consensus around a single categorization framework. But disagreement allows us to understand alternative ways to categorize the same information.
  • There is room in your taxonomy for multiple approaches. In a multi-hierarchical taxonomy (see example above), you don’t have to make hard choices and jettison a well-defined grouping. Your digital platform can organize content in as many ways as you need: by product line, industry, journey stage … or Hogwarts house.

Taxonomy Secret #4: Analyze and Test

The process of taxonomy development is both art and science, with a sprinkling of magic. But don’t shortchange the science and research part. Your card sorting results will require a rigorous analysis to identify areas of agreement around classifications. For example, a similarity matrix can reveal the cards your participants paired together in the same group the most often. Dendrograms and cluster analyses can illustrate potential groupings.

Example of a similarity matrix for taxonomy analysis.iStockphoto

Once you’ve mapped out your taxonomy’s hierarchies and categories, it’s time to test them. Take individual pieces of content and apply your taxonomy tags and categories. Does the system work consistently? Are any terms redundant? Is there any content that doesn’t fit your labels?

hermione granger
Hermione passes the taxonomy test! (And if you know anything about Hermione, this is no surprise.)

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Final Taxonomy Takeaways for Muggles

In my experience, taxonomy is one of the most overlooked elements of digital strategy. That’s too bad, because the effort applied in developing a solid taxonomy pays off in profound ways. Digital content is the centerpiece of your marketing strategy, and a taxonomy allows your content to be:

  • Accurate: The standardized nomenclature provides consistent labels for all your content and assets across all formats.
  • Flexible: Using a tagging system means that content can be reused more easily — for example, bundles of topical theme-driven content can be gathered instantaneously and related content accurately associated.
  • Found: When a taxonomy is used to standardize copy and tag content, it means that your site is more likely to have accurate search results and get users what they want.
  • Easy: When the editorial and production staff has a clear sense of the content and how to use it, they are more likely to maximize its potential.

If you’re convinced that taxonomy is worth the trouble, then wave your magic wand and get started. Good luck!