How to develop the right content modeling strategy for your project

Illustration with a king chess piece moving across a patterned background, representing content modeling strategy
April 5, 2021


Content modeling is of paramount importance when building a digital solution. We discovered this at an early stage, when we were still only working with monolithic content management systems. In the last couple of years, we’ve shifted from monolithic systems to digital experience stacks composed of extensible microservices, such as Contentful. Because content is decoupled in these platforms, getting the content model right is even more important.

Get it wrong, and you’ll slow down the development process and make it difficult for teams to use down the line. Get it right, and you’ll speed development and minimize time to market.

Structuring content in the early days

When we used to use monolithic systems, we had many options for creating content models, often called templates. At first, our approach to choosing templates was very technical by creating a sophisticated hierarchy. Template inheritance was one of the possibilities — so why not use it, we thought. We also designed a hierarchical structure for our content, because a content tree was a very important UI in our CMS.

Most of the time the result was a well-designed template structure that we could easily connect to our models in our implementation. Doing more implementations over the years we discovered that our approach was maybe a little bit too technical. Talking with editors and admins made us realize that we had to adjust our approach. This meant that we should have more focus on specific models instead of generic reusable ones.

Illustration of two individuals working on a content model strategy, sitting together at a desktop

The shift

Years went on and people discovered that monolithic CMSes did not always give them the freedom to use industry-leading tools or to adapt quickly to market changes. Headless CMSes emerged and the importance of an API-first approach grew.

We believed (and still believe) in this approach. We built up the necessary knowledge and developed digital experience stacks for our customers. 

We help our customers differentiate themselves by giving them the freedom to choose the services they want to incorporate into their digital solutions. A headless content management system is central to an experience stack, and we started working with Contentful because the platform works fast, intuitive and is secure (ISO-27001 compliant!).

Abstract illustration representing the shift from a monolithic approach to a content modeling strategy to a content platform driven one

How to structure content in a digital experience stack

Our years of experience with monolithic systems was helpful during our first Contentful implementations. Although content platforms like Contentful differ from monolithic systems in almost every way, the content modeling lessons we learned were very helpful. 

We embrace the theory of Contentful to have a “three phase approach”: get all stakeholders together, start the design phase by sketching and build models in the Contentful web app. As a final step, it’s important to start adding demo content before building your UI.

The role of the customer is crucial; however, getting them involved can be difficult. Most customers do not know the considerations regarding content modeling, and you’ll need to guide them through this process. For example, we often stumble upon customers that would like unlimited authorization when composing pages. Although that sounds great at first, it causes problems down the line and content managers become very busy bringing everything back in line with the brand. 

Content-oriented approach to content modeling

In the content modeling workshops we have with our customers, we always explain the difference between two different approaches: page-oriented and content-oriented content models.

A content-oriented model is independent of presentation, easily reusable and channel independent. The model is helpful when you intend to reuse content across multiple channels, and the design of the channels are more or less fixed. 

Let’s say a designer created a concept with a navigation structure and a homepage that tells a very specific story. In this case, it does not make sense to give a content editor the possibility to adjust the main menu or add generic components to the homepage. In this scenario the content editor will manage content like news articles, blog posts and FAQ items. The implementation will determine how and which content it will use. 

Channel-oriented approach to content modeling

A channel-oriented model organizes content around a channel. Often presentation settings are stored in the model. It allows flexibility for the content managers. This model is a great fit if a certain channel needs to be component-based and the presentation is flexible. 

Let’s say a designer created a concept where a page is an empty container and the components that make up a page are generic. A content manager is free to create a page by combining components. While that gives the content manager more opportunities, the presentation will often result in a more generic and less attractive page.

Most of the time, a content model will result in a combination of both channel-oriented and content-oriented. A good example is having a fixed navigation structure in your application but giving content managers the opportunity to create flexible landing pages.  

Invest in planning for future success

Content modeling is crucial to have a successful implementation of any digital experience stack. It is important to spend time and resources designing the appropriate content model at the beginning of the process. And each project requires a new content model — tailor made for it.

We can help you design that content model. You can also read more about How agencies can help brands deliver cutting-edge digital experiences.

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