A Content Model Is Not a Design System

Do you remember when having a great website was enough? Now, people are getting answers from Siri, Google search snippets, and mobile apps, not just our websites. Forward-thinking organizations have adopted an omnichannel content strategy, whose mission is to reach audiences across multiple digital channels and platforms.

But how do you set up a content management system (CMS) to reach your audience now and in the future? I learned the hard way that creating a content model—a definition of content types, attributes, and relationships that let people and systems understand content—with my more familiar design-system thinking would capsize my customer’s omnichannel content strategy. You can avoid that outcome by creating content models that are semantic and that also connect related content. 

I recently had the opportunity to lead the CMS implementation for a Fortune 500 company. The client was excited by the benefits of an omnichannel content strategy, including content reuse, multichannel marketing, and robot delivery—designing content to be intelligible to bots, Google knowledge panels, snippets, and voice user interfaces. 

A content model is a critical foundation for an omnichannel content strategy, and for our content to be understood by multiple systems, the model needed semantic types—types named according to their meaning instead of their presentation. Our goal was to let authors create content and reuse it wherever it was relevant. But as the project proceeded, I realized that supporting content reuse at the scale that my customer needed required the whole team to recognize a new pattern.

Despite our best intentions, we kept drawing from what we were more familiar with: design systems. Unlike web-focused content strategies, an omnichannel content strategy can’t rely on WYSIWYG tools for design and layout. Our tendency to approach the content model with our familiar design-system thinking constantly led us to veer away from one of the primary purposes of a content model: delivering content to audiences on multiple marketing channels.

Two essential principles for an effective content model

We needed to help our designers, developers, and stakeholders understand that we were doing something very different from their prior web projects, where it was natural for everyone to think about content as visual building blocks fitting into layouts. The previous approach was not only more familiar but also more intuitive—at least at first—because it made the designs feel more tangible. We discovered two princi

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