Once upon a time, we lived in a browser-centric world. 

Today, it’s mobile, not the browser, that sits at the center of our digital experiences. We consume content on the go. We ask questions to Siri, Cortana and Alexa, and they give us answers. We no longer process content only by reading, but also by hearing.

It’s an exciting time.

Is Your Content Trapped and Yearning to Breathe Free? 

It’s doubly exciting for content creators because we have more channels than ever to deliver content to our target audiences. But we must ask: is our content modeled, structured and stored in ways that reach those channels?

When content planned for a browser-centric world is co-mingled with layout, it gets trapped inside divs and spans with no way out. What a waste! 

In a previous CMSWire article, I wrote about the benefits of a structured content approach to avoid holding content hostage. I argued that when you plan and manage content outside of an interface, you set it free. It lives on your website, but can travel freely to faraway places. That freedom lets your content find its target audience wherever they happen to be.

In this piece, I’ll dive into content modeling, a critical element of creating structured content. 

One Example of a Content Model 

Recently, Josh Tong, digital content strategist at IREX, helped plan and implement a site redesign. IREX is an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to building a more just, prosperous and inclusive world. Creating a content model saved countless hours during and after the redesign and resulted in a new site aimed at better meeting the needs of its visitors. 

Here’s the content model IREX used:

content modeling example from IREX

The IREX content model plots its building blocks of content and the relationships between them using the rectangles in the image above. For example, a success story could be associated with a region, country, issue or project. 

A success story about training teachers to improve students’ computer skills in Tunisia would then appear on:

  • 1 region page 
  • 1 country page
  • 2 issue pages
  • 1 project page

Without such a content model, the IREX content team would need to add the same success story to each of these five pages manually. To remove the success story later, another five manual edits would be required. 

According to Tong, “Multiply that by the number of pieces that we manage in a year and the number of manual changes would quickly become unmanageable.” 

Adding Relationships to a Content Model 

Recently, I created a content model to describe the products my company sells. Here’s what my model looks like:

another content model example

Some of the relationships captured in our model:

  • Product attributes and feature descriptions both have calls to action (CTAs)
  • Each feature description has feature details 
  • Each feature detail represents a certain feature detail type such as benefit or how-to-use
  • A marketing asset is authored or presented by a person
  • A testimonial is attributed to a person

Like the IREX site strategy, my company’s content types also appear in multiple sections of our site. For instance, our homepage features four customer testimonials. Our content model gives us the flexibility to add one or more of those testimonials to various product pages, where they can serve as proof points for our product.

Learning Opportunities

IREX’s Tong notes that a content model is essential “if you’re creating a moderately complex site, one that involves tagging, sorting, filtering, personalizing, reusing or hiding content based on business rules or users’ input.”

The Importance of Content Modeling 

The importance of content modeling cannot be understated.

If you want content to surface when and where it’s needed by your target audience, it needs to go beyond web pages and be planned independently from your website structure. Model the structures and relationships that exist in the real world because those structures and relationships will remain constant as your content moves from website to mobile to IoT device. 

According to Carrie Hane, principal strategist at Tanzen, “To meet the demands of content in 2017 and beyond, it's imperative that we think in terms of content types and not web pages. Sure, web pages still exist, but we have to think of them as a display of a specific set of information, not the structure of the information itself.”

Make Content Part of Your Design Process 

At IREX, content models are conceptualized at the beginning of projects, based on learning during stakeholder interviews and user research. “It's like drafting an outline before writing an article, or sketching wireframes before a team meeting. The point isn't to get it exactly right on the first try,” said Tong.

These early drafts help the IREX team think through options and put everyone in the organization on the same page. According to Tong, “As the project proceeds, the content model gets refined based on the decisions that we make as a team. It just happens as part of the design process and it saves time by facilitating productive conversations along the way.”

Laying the Content Foundation

The content model is like the foundation of a house. Once the cement is laid, the really exciting things come from building atop that foundation. 

The IREX team recently launched a news update module aimed at making key pages of their site more useful to visitors. “Because we were starting with a robust content model, we didn't need to go back and add metadata fields in the CMS, tag hundreds of pages or retrofit content types,” observed Tong. “It was relatively easy and inexpensive to build the new functionality because we designed our taxonomy and content types with the future in mind.”

Future-Proofing Your Content

According to Tanzen’s Hane, “Because we cannot predict how our content might be used in the future, we need to set up content types that prepare us for anything." 

At our company, we’re starting to think about where our content will surface in the future. 

For example, as proof of concept, we developed an Alexa skill to access content in our CMS. Now, when we ask the Amazon Echo a question, Alexa retrieves answers based on semantic tags associated with content items in our content model. 

Content will increasingly surface via voice user interfaces. And that begs the question, “Hey Alexa, where will content surface tomorrow?” With a strong content model, your content will be ready however Alexa responds.

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