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What is content architecture and why do you need it?

by Gaby Turner
22nd March 2023

You know that everything you publish has a purpose and an audience.

A structure and a meaning. But in reality? It’s words, words and more words, floating around in the big, bad content swamp. That is, until you use structures like metadata, tags and attributes to help shape, sort and relate your content.

By structuring your content, it becomes easy to organise, reuse and localise across all your channels. When you get content architecture right, you’ll spend less time maintaining content, and more time enhancing and advancing your digital products.

What is content architecture?

The goal of content architecture is to define how content is structured, stored, processed and managed in back-end systems.

This allows us to:

  • Give structure and attributes to content, so it’s easier for systems to reuse
  • Make customer experiences consistent across multiple channels
  • Enable the automation and smart features that power personalised experiences
  • Build content authoring, management and publishing requirements into a website, app or platform.

Content architecture needs to work hand in hand with the people who commission, create, upload, approve and publish content. It’s the people who are at heart of content operations - the Product Managers, marketing teams, Producers and page builders - who feel the consequences of content architecture failing.

How do you know if you’ve got a problem with your content architecture?

When we talk about content with our clients, we’ll often hear the same complaints. “Our content is impossible to manage”, ”Our CMS is holding us back!”, “How can we fix our publishing workflows?”

These problems might stem back to decisions made many years ago, when your Content Management System (CMS) was set up. As time goes by, bad habits creep in. Teams change. Processes get forgotten: ignoring a template here, removing a user type there, a cheeky workaround that becomes part of business as usual…

This is how content architecture breaks down. Content loses its structure, becomes less clearly defined, making it hard to work with. Content becomes ‘blobby’. The gradual ’blobification’ of content is a natural part of its life cycle; the key thing is to recognise when your content is getting bent out of shape and taking quick action before things slide too far towards the content swamp.

The opposite of content architecture: the content swamp

When content isn’t structured, has poor metadata or no attributes, and there are no rules around how to manage it - there’s nothing to hold onto any more. It’s like trying to build a house out of mud: you will fail and be left swimming in goo, clasping around in the slippery dark.

In practice, this means long pages of unstructured text. Or a page that’s tagged with every item in your taxonomy - or none of them. It’s when anyone in your company can happily publish anything to your live site with no review process. Your site contains lots of pages about everything, written in different ways, by different people, at different times. Images don’t have alt-text (or any metadata at all) and there are 200 versions of the company logo uploaded to your Digital Asset Management system (DAM) or CMS.

Costs spiral: keeping your head above water is eye-wateringly expensive. Employee satisfaction crumbles. In this situation, it’s hard to see a way out of the ‘business as usual’ daily grind. Figuring out how to innovate your digital presence or adding other channels or personalisation into the mix? Impossible.

But you don’t have to stay stuck in the content swamp forever. By embracing content architecture to redefine structure and rules, you can set yourself free.

The elements of content architecture

Content architecture borrows concepts and techniques from business analysis, information science, data management and even philosophy.

The main elements of content architecture are:

  1. Content models
  2. Semantics and metadata
  3. Workflows and permissions.

Content models define how content should be structured in the back end. They map the types of content that are required within a digital content ecosystem. Content models document the answers to questions like:

  • How is content structured, and what rules does it follow?
  • Where is content authored, delivered and reused?
  • What sources and systems are involved?

Semantics are what connect content models with other data sources. Metadata is at the heart of this: centralised vocabularies, taxonomies and ontologies allow content models to work together. This is essential when a content infrastructure combines different systems. This metadata can describe topics, internal classification, channel information, audience, segments, intentions or user attributes.

Workflows and permissions dictate who’s allowed to do what, and in what order, when it comes to creating, managing, reviewing and publishing content. These are essential when building systems for distributed teams, where content governance is complex or where automation is required. They underpin the content lifecycle, turning content-related policies into a technical implementation.

These three factors enable your organisation to save money and deliver better content experiences to customers through content that is useful, organised, relevant and well managed.

The use cases for content architecture

With the right content architecture in place, content can:

  • Serve multiple channels, reducing production time and overheads, and offering consistency
  • Flow seamlessly between systems like translation memories and DAMs
  • Be modularised to integrate with data-heavy systems like product information management (PIM) and customer relationship management (CRM) tools
  • Be personalised to audiences or individual users, improving relevance and conversion
  • Be published through automated workflows, relieving content teams from tedious, repetitive tasks
  • Improve internal search, resolving the age-old problem of inefficient internal search features.

The benefits of content architecture

In short, by embracing content architecture:

  • Content works harder for your business
  • Content operations become more efficient
  • Technology solutions are more cost-effective, sustainable and fit for purpose.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. When our content strategy teams work with companies to engineer the content processes, systems and features that will take them into the future, teams become more hopeful, positive and empowered.

Interested in avoiding - or finding your way out of - the content swamp? We can help.

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