This week, @dhh from @37signals published an article on the insufficiency of the term “content” to mean…well…content. I understand. It’s like how I love the container label “resources” or “tools” to hold all sorts of items: People always seems to suggest them for labels, yet when you turn it around and ask, “So…what would you expect to find in a drawer with that label?” The only possible answer is “Resources.” So helpful.
“Content” is in many respects an unhelpful label because it’s often expanded as “everything on your website.” While it can be useful to distinguish the “stuff” on your site from the “design” of your site, or its “architecture,” “content” doesn’t tell you anything about what kind of content you envision there, nor what that content is supposed to do.
Why “content” isn’t enough
There are practical ramifications to the term’s generality. When “content owners” are talking about what they own and want to convey, they themselves are rarely able to put it into specific buckets, let alone craft the contents of those buckets to succeed for their intended audience. Recently, I was working with an HR group that wanted to “update” their content. I suggested that they “explain” the HR processes and policies, which hadn’t necessarily changed, and so didn’t need to be updated. It caused a big fright, though, because no one had ever undertaken to “explain” how it all works, and suddenly it was all at risk of being revealed and clear. They weren’t sure they wanted to go there.
So I have been considering trying to classify content, literally into “classes,” according to what those classes “do” or “intend.” These content classes differ fundamentally from content “models.” A content model is the encoding of a parcel for a content management system, comprising the metadata and components that bring it to live on the web page. Content classes are more like your content goals. For example, you have a paragraph of text on a web page (or a video, or a photo, or a chart). That content is sitting there trying with all its might to do something. What is that something? Is it a description? Is it an explanation? Is it an opinion? Is it a sales pitch? If you don’t know what that content is trying to do, how can you tell whether it has succeeded? The answer will be specific to that class.
For exmple, an “explanation” intends to make something clear to the reader, or at least to answer the reader’s question. Has the reader understood the explanation? At least we know the right question to judge its effectiveness. Another example: An “overview” intends to give the user a good sense of all the material covered in a particular area. Can the user, after having read or watched the overview, describe the general layout of the material about to be covered?
A Taxonomy of Content
I offer this first attempt to classify to engender conversation in the Content Strategy community. I’ve just brainstormed it into existence today. I want to highlight that these classes are irrespective of “medium.” A block of text, a video, or a drawing might all be intending to accomplish the same goal. So while you might think of text initially as you read these classes, try to think also of other media for doing the same thing.
As I’ll explore later on, these classes and subclasses can then be combined into compound and complex systems of content.
Most content is just straight out “expository.” It relates some topic, it teaches something, it expands an idea, or it conveys a series of facts or ideas in prose. Some of the sub-classes of exposition might include:
Content often offers an evaluation of something, whether a product, a vacation, an idea, or a candidate. There are many types of evaluations on the web, from blog rants to customer reviews. These include:
A summary is different from an exposition because it reduces content into a more focused, compact form. We use them all the time:
There are many kinds of persuasive content, much of it marketing, but sometimes it’s just trying to win over people’s views or call them to action. We might think of:
Communities rely on brief bits of information that call attention to things. I call these announcements, but they also include all the practical messaging on the website:
- Error Message
Content that draws the line around a topic or field of endeavor indicates a boundary. Lots of web content is specifically intended to draw lines around thing, like the terms of service, or the return policy.
Any effort to gather information, whether practical or rhetorical, fits into the inquiry class.
Web pages are full of lists, of all kinds. A list is a fundamental content class, and includes any simple collection of items:
Reference content simply points to other content somewhere else. Like in a paper when sources are listed at the bottom, or when one article points to another, related article. These include:
Every form to sign up for something, and any shopping cart to buy something, and any commitment to receive e-mail blasts fits within the enrollment class.
Location content just helps in wayfinding. It includes signs and signals, maps, breadcrumbs, navigational links, and menus.
Content that makes the expected course of action clear is a plan. Conference programs, educational curricula, and menus of options might go here. I’d also include processes.
A lot of the content on websites serves to identify things, like product names, company logos, intended audiences, authors, article titles, list headings, and even deep in the code, the “class” assigned to html elements.
- Name (Title)
Data and Visualization
When we publish data, we often include some sort of visualization. Among this class you might find:
- Organization chart
How content classes become content types
OK, so if my ideas are helpful, if you were looking to build a new kind of content for your website, you could use these classes to make sure that you ended up with a full content type. Taking the example from my previous writing about content modeling, if you were launching a cooking site, each recipe might draw upon a whole series of classes:
- Description of the dish and its origins
- List of ingredients, and perhaps of the tools required
- Instruction in the preparation of the dish
- Demonstration of the more obscure, technical steps
- Specifications for the quality of ingredients, the times to cook, and the temperatures.
- Illustration of particular steps and the final product.
- Recommendations for serving, or for adjustments from other cooks’ commentaries
- Plan for a complete menu to accompany this dish, and perhaps a schedule for make-ahead preparations
- Ratings from other cooks who have made this dish
Just the beginning…
In conclusion, I think of this sort of taxonomic exercise as important both to combat overly-general labels and to provide some way to evaluate content effectiveness. If you find this kind of approach helpful, let’s see whether we can’t build it out into some useful framework.