Unleash the power of content types

Maish Nichani

What are content types

Content types are distinctive kinds of content, such as minutes of meetings, events, recipes, press releases, case studies. They each have a name, purpose and structure, and are accepted in the community they are used in.

Let’s consider the content type ‘minutes of meeting’:

  • The purpose is to record the proceedings of a meeting, along with decisions taken and ownership of responsibilities for next steps.
  • It has an expected structure. Eg, title, date, attendees, topics discussed, responsibilities and next steps.
  • It is accepted in the project management community.
3-legged stool of content types
Content types have a purpose and structure and are socially accepted in the community of use.

Why have content types

We can understand the benefits of content types by looking at their 3 legs.

  • Purpose: Content types bring the purpose to life. Eg, BBC’s purpose is to inform, educate and entertain. Their content types, such as news, commentaries and documentaries, bring their purpose to life.
  • Social acceptance: Content types help build a community. Eg, Buzzfeed’s catchy, gossipy type of content has a loyal following.
  •  Structure: There are two parts here:
    • The structure of a content type helps give audiences a sense of expectation. Eg, Buzzfeed’s audience knows what to expect the next day.
    • Parts of the structure (substructure or attributes) can be reused in new ways. Eg, an analyst report may have a statistical chart that can be used in other other content types such as a blog post.

It’s the reuse aspect of content types that gets the content strategists excited. Karen McGrane calls finely-structured content types “chunks” and their coarsely-structured counterparts “blobs”. Her mantra: Go chunks!

What content types tell us

Studying content types can tell us a lot about a community, including the following:

Activities

Content types are created to meet the communication needs of a community, so studying them can reveal what a community does. For example, project managers will use different content types from a cancer support group because their needs are different.

Sometimes you can even identify a community from its content types. Can you tell which community these content types belong to?

  • Appeals
  • Cases
  • Court decisions
  • Litigations
  • Precedents

Context

Consider two law firms (the answer to the previous question). By looking at their core content types we can easily guess their business offerings.

Going a step further, if you see many references to transport, you can infer that the law firm offers transport and trucking legal services. If you find many content types relating to consultants, you can infer that the firm relies on external help.

Gaps

Consider the project management community. They have recognisable content types such as:

  • Project charter
  • Minutes of meeting
  • To-dos
  • Status reports
  • Closing reports

Now, if the community wants to make its knowledge available to the rest of the community, it can’t do that with the existing content types. Why? Because knowledgecontent types are different. They include:

  • After action reviews
  • Case studies
  • Lessons learned
  • Retrospects

Studying content types can thus reveal gaps in the business strategy.

Priorities

If we find gaps and want to address them, which knowledge content types should we start with?

The business may choose to go with Q&As first as they have a simple structure. However, if the business chooses to start with case studies, they must account for the significant effort to collect and write the case studies. For example, they could create a new policy to create case studies at the end of big projects. However, a new policy takes time to unfold.

So, which one should the business go for: Q&A or case studies? A study of content types and business readiness will help answer such questions.

How to find content types

A content audit is a good way to find content types. A quick scan of existing content in a community can reveal the content types used. You can also explore different communities to find common or shared content types and specific content types.

An important type of exploration is the identification of sub-content-types. For example, a closing report might have ‘issues faced or lessons learned’ subtypes. Such subtypes need to be identified if they are to meet the overall business objectives, say, of sharing project knowledge.

How to study content types

A content audit may help you identify content types, but to study them, you need to interview the people using them. The findings from such interviews will give answers to what’s working and what is not.

Take a look at these sample interview findings for a project closing report. Your findings should answer these questions:

A table defining a content type
Using findings from a content audit to define a content type.

How to design content types

So you’ve now identified your content types and your strategy. How, then, should you design your content types? One way to do that is by content modelling.

A content model defines the structure of a content type (also called attributes) and the relationship between different content types.

To go about modelling your content, you can use the 4-view approach:

  • Map – for exploration of content types
  • List – for exploration of content type attributes
  • Table – for details
  • Authoring – for the interface

These 4 views can help you fully understand your content types and relationships between them.

How to use content types

The key to creating content types is to streamline the flow of information in the community so that it is:

  • Effective – for the purpose and community (meets the right objectives for the right people)
  • Efficient – in the structure (can change and scale without waste)

Over the years, structure has become the focus of attention because of the demands of a digital world. Today’s content needs to be nimble so that it can be ripped, mixed and served to meet the appetite of an ever-hungry digital community and their gadgets.

A good case study into the use of content types is National Public Radio’s COPE strategy. COPE stands for Create Once, Publish Everywhere.

The question NPR answered was: How might we offer our news story to readers who use all kinds of digital devices and do it without waste?

Their approach was to take the news story content type and chunk it so that it can offer an optimal experience, serving the specific needs of specific devices. Here’s how it was done:

  • Study the news story content type. Understand all its uses and requirements.
  • Model the content type by identifying the attributes and relationships to other content types.
  • Build an Application Programming Interface (API) that can rip, mix and serve the relevant content to the relevant devices or channels.

The content is created once, but is repurposed and served to different channels without waste.

Repurposing content
COPE strategy

Conclusion

Content types are the building blocks of a sound content strategy. Along with editorial strategy and workflows they present a toolbox for organisations to better manage their communications.

Content types can be a slippery concept to grasp. If you’re from a print background, you may think of content types as akin to digital genres. You’re not wrong. Content types and genres have many similarities. But the digital revolution has embraced the genre concept and adapted it to meet the growing demands of a digital society.

This article was written to present the different facets of content types to help those new to content strategy to understand it better.