Do you still remember when a good website was enough? Now people are getting answers from Siri, Google search snippets and mobile apps, not just our sites. Foresighted organizations have a omnichannel content strategy, whose mission is to reach audiences across multiple digital channels and platforms.

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But how do you set up a content management system (CMS) to reach your audience now and in the future? I learned the hard way to get a content model-a definition of content types, attributes and relationships with which people and systems can understand content -with my more familiar design system thinking, my client’s omnichannel content strategy would be overturned. You can avoid the outcome by creating content models that are semantic and also link related content.

I recently had the opportunity to lead the CMS implementation for a Fortune 500 business. The client was excited about the benefits of an omnichannel content strategy, including reuse of content, multichannel marketing, en delivery of the robot– design content to be understandable for bots, Google Knowledge Panels, snippets and voice user interfaces.

A content model is a critical foundation for an omnichannel content strategy, and for the content to be understood by multiple systems, the model is necessary semantics types – types that are named according to their meaning instead of their presentation. Our goal was to get writers to create and reuse content wherever it was applicable. But as the project continued, I realized that the entire team needed to recognize a new pattern to support the reuse of content on the scale my client needed.

Despite our best intentions, we continued to draw from what we were more familiar with: design systems. Unlike web-oriented content strategies, an omnichannel content strategy cannot rely on WYSIWYG design and layout tools. Our tendency to approach the content model with our well-known design system thinking has led us to constantly deviate from one of the main objectives of a content model: delivering content to audiences across multiple marketing channels.

Two essential principles for an effective content model#section 2

We had to help our designers, developers, and stakeholders understand that we were doing something completely different from their previous web projects, where it was natural for everyone to think of content as visual building blocks that fit into the layout. The previous approach was not only more familiar, but also more intuitive – at least initially – because it made the designs feel more tangible. We discovered two principles that helped the team understand how a content model differs from the design systems we were used to:

  1. Content models should define semantics instead of interpretation.
  2. And content models need to connect content that belongs together.

Semantic content models# section3

A semantic content model use type and attribute names that reflect the meaning of the content, not how it will be displayed. For example, in a nonsemantic model, teams can create types such as tergers, media blocks, en cards. While this type makes it easier to lay out content, it does not help delivery channels to understand the meaning of the content, which in turn would have opened the door to the content offered in each marketing channel. In contrast, a semantic content model uses types of names such as product, service, en testimonial so that each delivery channel can understand the content and use it as it sees fit.

If you are creating a semantic content model, this is a good place to look at the types and characteristics that, a community-driven resource for types of definitions that are understandable for platforms like Google search.

A semantic content model has several advantages:

  • Even if your team does not care about omnichannel content, a semantic content model disconnect content from its presentation so that teams can develop the design of the website without reactivating its content. This way, content can withstand disruptive redesigns of the site.
  • A semantic content model also offers a competitive advantage. By adding structured data based on the types and features of, a website may provide tips to help Google understand the content, display it in search clips or knowledge panels, and use it to answer user questions about the voice interface. Potential visitors can discover your content without ever setting foot on your site.
  • In addition to the practical benefits, you also need a semantic content model if you want to deliver omnichannel content. To use the same content across multiple marketing channels, delivery channels must be able to understand this. For example, if your content model contains a list of questions and answers, it can easily be displayed on a FAQ page, but it can also be used in a voice interface or by a bot that responds frequently asked questions.

For example, using a semantic content model for articles, events, people, and locations A list separately provides well-structured data for search engines so that in future users can read the content on the site, in Google’s knowledge panels and even with hypothetical voice interfaces.

Content models that connect# section4

After struggling to describe what a good content model is, I realized that the best models are those that are semantic and also connect related content components (such as a question and answer pair of a FAQ item), instead to cut related content across different content components. A good content model connects content that needs to stay together so that multiple delivery channels can use it without putting the pieces back together first.

Think about writing an article or essay. The meaning and usefulness of an article depends on its components. Would one of the headings or paragraphs in itself be meaningful without the context of the full article? On our project, our well-known design system thinking often led us to want to create content models that would cut content into different pieces to fit the web-centered layout. This had a similar impact on an article that would be separated from the heading. Because we have cut the content into separate pieces based on the layout, content that belongs together has become difficult to manage and it is almost impossible for multiple delivery channels to understand it.

To illustrate this, let’s look at how connection-related content applies in an actual scenario. The design team for our customers presented a complex layout for a software product page that includes several tabs and sections. Our instincts would follow suit with the content model. Shouldn’t we make it as easy and as flexible as possible to add a number of tabs in the future?

Because our design system instincts were so well known, it felt like we needed a content type called ‘tab section’ so that multiple tab sections could be added to a page. Each tab section contains different types of content. One tab may provide the software overview or specifications. Another tab may contain a list of sources.

Our tendency to break down the content model into pieces of ‘tabs’ would have led to an unnecessarily complex model and a cumbersome editing experience, and it would also have created content that could not be understood by additional delivery channels. For example, how could another system say which ‘tab’ section refers to the specifications of a product or the source list – would the other system need to count tabs and content blocks? This would have prevented the tabs from ever being rearranged, and it would have been necessary to add logic to every other delivery channel to interpret the design of the design system. Furthermore, if the customer no longer wanted to display this content in a tab layout, it would have been tedious to switch to a new content model to reflect the new page redesign.

Illustration of a data tree flowing in a list of maps (data), flowing to a navigation menu on a website
A content model based on design components is unnecessarily complex and incomprehensible to systems.

We got a breakthrough when we realized that our customers have a specific goal in mind for each tab: it will reveal specific information, such as the overview of the software product, specifications, related resources and prices. Once implementation has begun, we tend to focus on what is visual and familiar, hiding the intent of the designs. With a little digging, it did not take long to realize that the concept of tabs was not relevant to the content model. The meaning of the content they intended to display on the tabs was important.

In fact, the customer could have decided to display this content in a different way – without tabs – in a different place. This realization prompted us to define content types for the software product based on the meaningful features that the customer wanted to deliver on the internet. There were clear semantic properties such as name and description as well as rich properties such as screenshots, software requirements, en feature lists. The product information of the software stays together because it is not cut into separate components, such as ‘tab sections’ that come from the content presentation. Every delivery channel – including future ones – can understand and present this content.

Illustration of a data tree flowing to a formatted list and to a navigation menu on a website
A good content model connects content that belongs together so that it can be easily managed and reused.

In this omnichannel marketing project, we discovered that the best way to keep our content model on track was to ensure that it semantics (with type and attribute names that reflect the meaning of the content) and that it content held together that belongs together (instead of fragmenting it). These two concepts limited our temptation to shape the content model based on the design. So if you’re working on a content model to support an omnichannel content strategy – or even if you just want to make sure Google and other interfaces understand your content – remember:

  • A design system is not a content model. Team members may be tempted to combine them and have your content model reflected in your design system, so you need to protect the semantic value and contextual structure of the content strategy throughout the implementation process. This will allow each delivery channel to consume the content without the need for a magic decoder ring.
  • If your team is struggling to make this transition, you can still reap some benefits by using structured data on your site. Even if there are no more delivery channels, the benefit of search engine optimization in itself is a compelling reason.
  • Remind the team that decoupling the content model from the design allows them to update the designs more easily because it cannot be held back by the cost of content migrations. They will be able to create new designs without the compatibility between the design and the content, and they are ready for the next big thing.

Strictly adhering to these principles will help your team treat content as it deserves – as the most important item in your user experience and the best way to connect with your audience.

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