Content modeling: Lessons learned from David Hasselhoff and Baywatch Nights

Image of a lifeguard jogging along the beach at night
April 25, 2023

Rose Paik



Are you learning content modeling for the first time? Or perhaps you’ve been at it a while but still don’t feel completely comfortable with its concepts? Maybe you’ve been working with Contentful for over a year and are still fuzzy on what composable content really means? I know how you feel. I was you.

Before I started working at Contentful and became responsible for helping people learn how to use it, I was a Contentful user. I was a content creator. So speaking from personal experience, I know that content creation in Contentful can be perplexing when you don’t understand one of its core concepts: content modeling. 

This post is here to help! Content modeling was explained to me in terms of blocks and Lego, but I watch a lot of television, so now I find it easier to understand it in terms of TV show production. 

The best content models combine multiple points of view

I thought content modeling was a developer’s job — something technical that had to do with APIs. As a result, I became passive and let developers create a model for me, which — as you might imagine — led to a less-than-intuitive user experience when it was my turn to start working in the web app.

Moving from legacy content management systems that make a lot of decisions for me to Contentful required a shift in how I thought about content creation. Unlike those systems I was used to, Contentful provides a blank canvas allowing teams to design their own types of content, customize the editorial interface, and invent their own taxonomy. Understanding content modeling was the key to unlocking all this potential.

I now understand that content modeling isn’t just about designing a technically optimized database for entering and delivering content. This is just one perspective, and the best content models combine multiple points of view. Modeling starts from a shared understanding of your content’s purpose and its different contexts.

Then you enhance your model with content structure and technology choices to make your content more flexible and reusable, to coordinate workflows and determine content governance, and ultimately, to empower authors with a more intuitive content creation experience. To achieve these goals, you need a team of players who have diverse roles, responsibilities, and perspectives across different stages of the content journey. 

That was the inspiration for my course, Practical content modeling. I want more people — including designers, editors, content strategists, marketing folks, and SEO managers — to understand what content modeling is, why it’s important, and that they have a valuable perspective to contribute to their project — no matter their previous content modeling or technical experience. 

Icon of a retro television set

TV shows and content models

In television production, a well-defined content strategy means you don’t have to go to the drawing board and start from scratch for every episode. Similarly, a well-defined digital strategy can inform your core focus areas, enabling you to prioritize and make decisions more easily and efficiently. It affords you consistency and continuity across your content ecosystem, which helps you develop and maintain a strong brand identity. 

Likewise, content modeling is the process of identifying your content (e.g., social media, blog posts, videos, web pages, and more) and what you’re trying to accomplish with it. Then you use this information to align with or develop design systems, structure content, make technical decisions, define roles and responsibilities, and more. 

Law & Order: A well-defined content model

Take a classic serialized show like Law & Order. Just about every episode fits into a template: You start with a crime scene, the detectives come, they chase leads, they find a suspect, the district attorney makes their case, and at the end of the episode they get the bad guy. That’s the Law & Order content model.

Every week there are different locations, directors, guest stars, etc., but every week you know that it's a Law & Order production because of the consistency that is built into it. The actors, the sets, the theme music are all familiar. And while it isn't the same episode every week, you always know what show you’re watching.

This structured framework enables Law & Order’s creators to systematically coordinate and streamline production. And it is the strength of this framework that has made the Law & Order series one of the longest running scripted television series in the United States. The original Law & Order premiered in 1990 and has since grown into a television franchise that comprises seven total series.

You can take any of these spin-offs and expect a baseline level of consistency and quality because, at its core, it’s a Law & Order show. The franchise grew and evolved because the producers figured out what worked, defined the parameters, and stayed within that framework — i.e., the Law & Order content model.

Baywatch Nights: A confusing content model

Even if you’ve never seen an episode of Baywatch, you probably still have an idea about what it is. When you think of Baywatch, you think of David Hasselhoff on the beach and women in red bathing suits saving lives. It wasn't a high-brow show, it wasn't a high-concept show, but it had an identity. And at one point, it was the most popular show in the world.

What you may not know is that they made a spin-off called Baywatch Nights.

Baywatch Nights began with the premise that Mitch Buchannon (David Hasselhoff) started a detective agency with his friend and investigated illicit ongoings for their clients while occasionally hanging out in the nightclub that operated below their offices. No sunshine, no beach, no red suits.

When the show struggled to find an audience they decided to adapt some science fiction elements of the popular series The X-Files. Safe to say that when the world’s most popular lifeguard is fighting an ancient Egyptian mummy, you’ve lost the thread at some point.

If you’re confused, you can understand how audiences felt. The show deviated from its original framework and, as a result, strayed further and further from its identity. It mercifully ended after two seasons, but you can still find the opening credits online featuring David Hasselhoff walking through a cemetery with cuts to skulls and wolf heads if you’re curious. 

Icon of sunglasses

Contribute to your project’s content model

To make a TV show, you need a crew of professionals who have diverse roles and responsibilities, such as cast, set construction, and visual effects. Every department has their distinct purview and workflows. But by the end of production, teams have to come together at different stages and have combined their efforts to make the project come to life. 

I know now that limited content modeling experience or technical expertise does not preclude any team member from having an important perspective to add to content modeling discussions. I understand the importance of incorporating a range of viewpoints — including non-technical stakeholders — in order to strengthen your model.

Whether you're just getting your content modeling feet wet or feel like you might be swimming out of your depth, the Practical content modeling course in the Contentful Learning Center will guide you toward a strong foundational understanding.

You'll learn which stakeholders to invite, how to identify the kinds of content you have, how to create content types from existing content, and how it all contributes to a content model that meets your business needs. Learn practical content modeling concepts, so you can contribute to content modeling discussions and unlock the full potential of composable content. 

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