Content models are a key delivery of every content strategy. They tell the people who realize the content what to produce and where to put it. Without a content model, the content of an organization will remain a non manageable chaos.

A content model is a notation system used to describe, with a certain amount of precision, all the pieces of a digital property, such as a website, knowledge base, documentation set, or other entity containing content. According to Cleve Gibbon, CTO of Cognified, a content model is a formal representation of structured content as a collection of content types and their interrelationships. 1 A content model works similar to a blueprint of a building, where an architect creates an overall model of the building by describing each type of component that goes inside of the building.

For digital properties, it is not enough for a content model to simply describe each of the elements, the content types. The model also needs to describe how the content types interact in the context of the overall project. This is the role of content flows, which describe the links between a content type and the destination of each of its elements.

It may be helpful to think of a content model in the following way:
* Content type: a set of common elements that, together, form an entity (for example, an “event” or “recipe”)
* Content flow: a way to show where each element of the content type will be used (for example, one element on the home page, another group of elements on a landing page)
* Content model: a way to show how the elements work together across the digital property (for example, which elements come together on a home page, which come together, and from where, to make a landing page)

A content model documents all the different types of content you will have for a given project. It contains detailed definitions of each elements within a content type and their relationships to each other. 2

If you were to design the content model for a university, you would assemble content types such as a program, a curriculum, a course, an instructor biography, a news item, and so on. These types are defined and then connected – for example, connecting an instructor name to a specific course being taught. In a content model, each element of each content type is explicitly defined. The content model names exactly which elements must be part of a piece of content of a certain type, and which elements are used, in which combination, across the project.

Content modeling helps us understand not only the representation of content types by formal models, but also the process of defining the different content types. The formal model makes the requirements of the different types explicit.

What is the purpose of a content model?

To understand the purpose of the content model, we should start with the premise that we undertake a content strategy in response to articulated business needs – for example: the website is not performing as well as we think it can, and content is an important part of its performance. An extension of those needs becomes the content model. The anticipated content delivery is formalized using a structure that can be implemented and processed by software systems, in ways that deliver content so that it fulfills the business requirements.

The content model represents the way a number of content types come together. A content type is a specification for a structured, standardized, reusable, and mutually exclusive kind of information entity. An event, for example, is a specific content type because it requires a specific set of elements such as an event name, event location, date, start time, duration, and so on. There are international standards for many content types, from the generic type of “thing” to specialised types such as “stock ticker”. Having standards for content types makes it easy to exchange content between different systems – for example, showing weather data from the local meteorological service on a news website.

There are multiple benefits to organizing content into content types:
* Structure. Each content type requires specific information elements before it can be considered valid. For example, the content type “person” requires a first and last name, whereas the content type for “corporation” does not; that would not make sense.
* Usability. Most Web CMSes will allow developers to create editing interfaces specific to the content type you are working with. When editing a news release, for example, the CMS might render a date selection dropdown.
* Search. A CMS can display a list of related search results if it can distinguish which content type it is supposed to search – for example, it can show a list of news release summaries on a News page in a list because it can search by content type.3

How are content models used in real-world projects?

The content model is the “glue” between the User Experience professionals, visual designers, and the software developers.

According to Rachel Lovinger,

the content model both influences and is influenced by the work of several other disciplines. A content model helps clarify requirements and encourages collaboration between the designers, the developers creating the CMS, and the content creators.

  • For information architects and visual designers – The content model helps ensure that the page designs accommodate all the content types for the site and provides guidance on the bits of text and media that will be available for the page […]
  • For developers – The content model helps with understanding the content needs and requirements as they configure the CMS […]
  • For content authors and producers The content model gives content authors and producers guidelines on what content to write or create and how to enter it into the CMS.2

On the technical side, content models are translated into the content types used by the content management system to display and process content in very prescribed ways. On the editorial side, the content types are translated into content templates (in many cases: page templates) used by authors, editors and reviewers for creating and editing content.

There is a temptation for developers to want to manage content as they would manage data. But content has so much more nuance and ambiguity than data. It is the responsibility of the content strategist to ensure that developers understand that nuance so that the business rules they create inside the CMS does for content what it was intended to do.

The goals of the content should be the most important factor in the modeling phase. However, in real world scenarios, content modeling needs to fit within the framework of the content management system, and within the working capacities and literacy of the producers of the content. In other words, the technical limitations of a CMS sometimes limit what can be done with the content model. This speaks to the reason why it is important to understand the needs of content before choosing the technology platform for delivering the content.

Further Reading

Atherton, M. (2013, April 4). Modeling Structured Content.
Gollner, J. (2013, December 7). Content Modelling.
Knowles, C. (2013, May 21). Content Modelling: The Most Overlooked Route to a Successful WordPress Site.

References


  1. Gibbon, C. (2014, July 10). Term of the Week: Content Model – The Language of Content Strategy. Retrieved February 14, 2015, from http://www.thelanguageofcontentstrategy.com/2014/07/term-of-the-week%3A-content-model#.VN8z5lOG8Vl 
  2. Lovinger, R. (2012, April 24). Content Modeling: A Master Skill. Retrieved from http://alistapart.com/article/content-modelling-a-master-skill 
  3. Barker, D. (2015). Web Content Management Patterns and Best Practices (Early Release). Oreilly & Associates Inc. 

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