Discoverable, adaptive, and reusable, oh my! Learn how to make your digital content super flexible and findable using a concept called “structured content.”
You publish hundreds of content assets a year – everything from e-books and videos to blog posts and snackable social content. You “atomize” content, reusing and repurposing narrative content and visuals across overlapping projects. So far, so good.
Managing your content development and reuse on a case-by-case basis makes sense when you publish just a few hundred assets in a given year. Scale it to thousands (or tens of thousands) and the process gets seriously gummed up.
When your production team tries to update hundreds of assets published in the last six months due to an unexpected regulatory change, they find that keeping track of which assets need revision is cumbersome. Writers are frustrated because they know the company has reams of great content – if only the different pieces could be easily aggregated into a new content asset. And designers wish each new project didn’t feel like a start-from-scratch endeavor.
Until recently, structured content was largely the domain of technologists and technical communicators. Technologists use the approach to solve large, complex business problems like pulling customer data into an automatic-invoicing application. Technical communicators use it to make product documentation manageable. Today, more and more marketers are discovering the utility of structured content as a way to scale their content marketing efforts.
Think of it as a methodology that enables customers to find your content more easily online and employees to redeploy it more efficiently into multiple formats and media types. In combination with a strong content marketing and editorial strategy, structured content is an essential building block.
Structured content at a glance
Structured content is a technology-agnostic way of organizing and tagging content in consistent, predictable ways. Think of it as a way of enabling people and systems to take advantage of patterns across a body of content, making it easier to find, mix and match, and redeploy content components at a moment’s notice to any device, channel, or format.
What makes content structured?
- Widely recurring content types having the same set of elements or attributes – for example, every article starting with an introduction and ending with a conclusion
- Consistent application of metadata to those elements or attributes in a content management system
As content strategist Rachel Lovinger explains in a report for Razorfish, “Simply put, digital content needs to be free to go where and when people want it most. The more structure you put into content the freer it will become.”
To understand the principles of structured content, it’s easiest to explore a core component – the content model. In layman’s terms, the content model is a way of defining and cataloging raw ingredients (e.g., content attributes and interdependencies) and detailing how those ingredients combine into multiple content “recipes.” Because content modeling can be tackled in small, manageable increments, it’s an excellent introductory activity for an organization overwhelmed by a large volume of unstructured, uncategorized content.
The level of detail in the content model is up to you; you can use a diagram, spreadsheet, or other format that works for you and your team. The important thing to remember is that the content model should support your strategic priorities and be tailored for your audience.
Structured content in action
How does it work in the real world? The marketing team at Rust-Oleum publishes content for its DIY homeowner audience (e.g., how to stain your back deck) and crafting aficionados (e.g., applying gold enamel to a serving tray) – two distinct groups. The company uses a structured content methodology to ensure that the right content is served up to the right audience at the right time.
Each project’s content asset includes a narrative and images, and is encoded with metadata – such as challenge level, estimated project time, project type, and products required to complete. Site visitors experience a stream of content that fits their interests and needs. A clear, consistent set of web content templates also makes publishing and reuse straightforward and efficient.
Rust-Oleum has seen a 150-percent increase in organic search results since the company’s new website launched, says Lisa Bialecki, senior director of integrated communication. The team customized its content management system to increase emphasis on metadata; the company even hired a copywriter with experience creating metadata for a product catalog to help Rust-Oleum’s content perform better in search engines and with its DIY audience on Pinterest.
Don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and get started with structured content. “No model survives first contact with real content,” advises technologist and content strategy advocate Cleve Gibbon. “So go ahead and break your models. Test them by running various scenarios using real content. Inspect, then adapt your models because that’s design. This kind of model design is best done early and often.”
Once your organization sees some practical examples of the structured content model in action, ideas and enthusiasm for solving more business problems with structured content will grow.
Ready to learn about other content strategy methods? Read about how to set up an effective content reuse strategy: Content Strategists Can Follow Their Own Big Bang Theory.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Chief Content Officer