The festival of WordPress
January 22, 2021

This is an archive of the January 2021 event

Content Modeling for WordPress

Content is still king. It should always come first. So, before you do the famous 5-minute install or pick out a theme, you need a solid content model to build on. While the most common display of your content will be via a WordPress theme, I’ll show you how to design and implement a content model that is independent of its presentation on your WordPress site. This, along with WordPress REST API, turns your content into a more portable and widely usable business asset.

Speaker: Larry Swanson

Time: 1:00am UTC
Region: Oceania
Stage: Global Stage

Hi, everyone. Thanks for coming to my talk. Uh, my name is Larry. I’m a long time web content person. I’ve been doing stuff since the, uh, the.com era of the late nineties, uh, doing a lot of content modeling, content strategy, information architecture, lots of digital publishing been using WordPress. I dunno, since the late.

Two thousands like 2009, something like that. It got real involved in the community for many years, worked on the, um, the community team for quite some time. Um, now I focus strictly on content strategy and, and in particular on content modeling. So I’m really happy to be here. I’m happy to be talking with you all about content modeling for WordPress.

Um, I want to start with this quote from Douglas Martin, a designer who said design is inevitable. Design is going to happen, whether we do it or not. And content modeling is a design practice. And, um, you can take the default, uh, content model that comes out of the box with WordPress or any other CMS, but I’m going to argue that, um, it’s, it’s good to be proactive about it too, and, and take the bull by the horns and, um, create a model that’s more suited to your business needs and your users.

Then to the CMS you’re using. And I would say that about any CMS, not just WordPress. Um, here’s an outline of what I want to get over to cover today. Um, we’re going to talk about safety first. There are some cautions about content modeling, nothing super dangerous, but I do want to hold her to, to some stuff.

Uh, I want them to take a look at the bigger content ecosystem that we’re operating in. Then we’ll look at, uh, kind of look at it from that point on we’ll. We’ll look at how to do content modeling. We’ll start with taking a look at how to research a content modeling project, how to get your folks aligned on language that this is tied in with, um, another part of the modeling process that’s, uh, but the, the outcome of which is.

Uh, that alignment, which is really helpful in many ways. And finally, I want to look at something you’re all already doing and are familiar with, but I want to give you my take on the separation of content from its presentation. Um, first, some cautions to get started. Now, anytime you start modeling a thing, anything like this thing, this cylinder hovering in space here.

Um, you can, for example, take a light and shine it on it from one side and project a circle. On the wall on the other end of that cylinder, if you shine a light from the other side, you can project a rectangle on the wall. Now that circle is true. The rectangle is true, but the truth is that cylinder in the middle.

So just be aware that we’re all modeling processes are, um, just attempts to get at the, at the truth. That actually underlies what we’re working with. Uh, it’s kinda like that old story, many cultures have this of the, uh, the blind why’s people running into an elephant, elephant and going like, what the heck is this thing?

And the one who grabs its tail is convinced that it’s a rope. The one who grabs its trunk is convinced that it’s a hose. Uh, the one’s touching its side. Think it’s a big kind of textured wall. And the one touching its leg thinks it’s, uh, a tree trunk. Anyhow, you get the idea. We’re all just blind wise people trying to figure out our content.

So that’s, that’s another way to think about this. Now that I look at it. I love this quote from George box. Uh, George is a, um, a statistician who says that all models are wrong, but some are useful. And I think, um, again, that notion of we’re all just approximating getting close to what we want to get another way to think about this.

Is, I love this. This is a, the abstract, a meter from the designer, Christoph, Niemann. Um, it, he talks about this. I think this is actually more suited to like things like mock-ups and prototypes things where you’re concerned about resolution. But I think a similar concept applies here and in content modeling that you want to find that just right spot in the middle, you don’t want that gory pierced anatomical heart that’s overly realistic and you don’t want that abstract.

Thing where it’s like, what does that red boxes and black lines scored is that, um, you want that sweet spot right in the middle. And that’s just the thing that you, you know, when you see it and you know what, when you feel it. And we’ll talk a little bit about that as we go, um, a couple of examples of, uh, rightness.

Um, so that’s just a few cautionary things as we set out, I want to talk now though, about modeling and models. If you look in the dictionary, excuse me. Oh, the definition of the dictionary, definition of model, um, you get stuff like model cars and mathematical models and role models and fashion models and artistic models in the dictionary I consulted, he had to get all the way down to definition.

Number nine, to get to what I’m talking about. A description or analogy used to help visualize something such as an Adam that cannot be directly observed. Um, when we’re talking about digitized content in a modern. You know, digital environment, uh, you definitely, uh, help you can dig into, you can definitely help things to visualize what it is you’re working on.

And that’s what a lot of this modeling is, is various attempts to visualize visualizing. What it is we’re working with, but that, um, that Adam referenced reminded me of, uh, an old friend of mine. He’s long gone now, but, um, I worked, um, early in my career before my web stuff. I worked in college textbook publishing, and I was lucky enough to work with a guy named Neil Campbell.

Who was a, um, uh, a, um, one of those guys kind of like bill Nye meets Carl Sagan meets in the older grass, Tyson. Just one of those really excitable, engaged, fun, interesting science guys who just got really worked up about all kinds of fun stuff. And he used to talk about the reason he loved biology so much.

Is it a span of the world from Atoms to ecosystems? And he just loved that about the field. And I I’ve always, I’ve thought often about that. And I’ve applied that analogy to that biology analogy to a couple of things, but I think it really applies in content. So bear with me. I’m going to run you through a pretty wordy slide here, but trust me, it’ll, we’ll, we’ll pair it down and make sense of it in just a minute, but.

Um, I want to talk about, so that Atoms ecosystem is not Atom. The word Atom is hidden behind me down here. Sorry about that. I couldn’t quite figure out how to do that. That’s the smallest unit in biology. It’s like an oxygen atom, uh, in our world of content that might be like a pixel on a graphical user interface.

The next level a unit up is, um, the smallest system, like a molecule, um, water. You get a couple of hydrogen. Atom’s in a water Atom and rub them together and you get a water molecule. Um, and that might be like a letter or a Sarah for some little collection of pixels on a page you get to cells, which are the building blocks.

That might be a nerve cell or in our case, a word tissues, which are starting to connect the building blocks like nerves, like the nerves that run down your arm. Or a phrase in the content world and Oregon, like a functional unit, like the brain or a sentence the organ system where things are working together, like the nervous system in your body, or a paragraph in a sign or written a piece of content they get to the organism level.

That’s the individual like a deer. Um, and that would be for us like a blog post, uh, the population level, a collection of individuals, like a herd of deer or a blog, which has a collection of, of blog posts in it. You get to the bigger community, you have a collection of populations, um, that might look like grass, the grass that the deer eat, the wolves, that prey on the deer.

And for us, that might be like a website. And, um, and I’ll leave that to you all, to, um, draw any analogies between the, the web work you’re doing and the prey and predatory and grazing and all these other analogies that are arising. Um, you get up to the big ecosystem level though, right? The the forest, uh, in, in biology or for us, it would be like the kind of related domains around what we’re doing and that the biggest level you have the biosphere, the big environment, the, the earth, the planet, um, and in our world, that would be the web.

So that’s a lot. And so when you really need to pair it down and focus, so we’re for our purposes, we’re focused in, on this content. And so we are here looking at the words and. Sentences and blog posts and the websites that we put together. Um, but you don’t want to forget the rest of that stuff. The context we operate in is really important.

Those, uh, the, you know, the little atomic units, uh, constrain what we can do. And the big picture context sort of informs what we do and, and, um, guides us in many ways. So we want to stay focused on what we’re working on, but aware of the bigger context. Um, now we can see. Bear strip away some of this stuff and take them just kind of cherry pick some of the more relevant, um, uh, topics in that, in that then that big old table of words.

And if you look at the building blocks, the functional units, the individual individuals and pieces of stuff and collections, for example, if you look at. Building block is a piece of data, a functional unit as a piece of information, an individual as a body of knowledge and a collection as a community’s wisdom, that’s sort of a classic way to look at data information, all the, you know, like information management or knowledge management or, or just the world of content and publishing and all this stuff that we do.

I think that’s a really useful model and, um, a helpful way to see the world. Um, It’s not exactly analogous, but content management systems kind of have a similar, you know, use of the same concepts they’ll take, they’ll hit. They all have some kind of basic building block, the content elements that make up the content you’re working with.

They’ll assemble those into some kind of modules that, uh, form of functional unit. Like if you go from. Like the first name, last name, building blocks, the elements and assemble a field name. That’s just name, uh, you you’ve got the most prototypical module, put a bunch of modules together, a whole list of names and you, you have a directory or something.

Um, that would be like a content type, but there’s many other types, of course. And then you collected all together and you have a website or a. Plug feed or, you know, API end point that you can query. Um, WordPress has their own particular way of doing this. Uh, the building blocks would be like those two main tables you work with all the time, the post and post meta tables, that store all the data, all the words, all the picture, you know, the links to all the pictures, the metadata about the, the content you’re working with.

That’s all, um, sort of the building blocks that we’re working with, the functional units, you’re all familiar with the fields that come native, you know, in, in, uh, Basic, you know, out of the box, WordPress installation, you know, the title field, for example. Um, but you also have advanced custom fields and, uh, things like the new Gutenberg blocks, especially the, um, the reusable blocks, uh, those begin to get into more, um, functional units that you can reuse in different places.

And then, oops, sorry. I did the wrong way. There we go. And um, and then you get to the individual representations in a sense assemblies of these things like the classics or the posts and the page, but there’s many con custom content types that you can create with, um, with WordPress, whether you do it yourself or use a plugin, and then the collection, you got the site, the feed, the end point, Sonya.

So that’s the ecosystem we’re operating in. Um, and WordPress works like any other content management system and that it. Has its way of, of, um, of, um, assigning things to their, their place in that little grid. Um, so that’s the ecosystem we’re working with.

No project to content modeling project starts with some research and discovery. The key thing here is listening, just getting out, hearing what people have to say. Um, and everybody has their own way of doing this. Every project you work on, every organization, the context people operate in the WordPress world is all over the map.

You might be a solo preneur dev designer. Who’s doing all this stuff yourself. Or you might be the WordPress front end person in a huge organization that has. 20 people. Um, so the, the way you do this and this extended, what you do, uh, and how involved you are in the modeling process is going to vary.

But, but in any case, you want to just listen to as many people that you can have as many conversations as you can, around what the content is that you’re modeling, what the content needs are. Um, you might survey your colleagues, your users, whoever you can get information from. Um, you might look around and see if there’s other been, been other work done like domain models.

Um, that’s a common thing more in enterprises, I think, uh, like enterprise knowledge, graphs and things like that. But. Some places will already have some work done around what’s the domain we operate in. And w what do you know, how, how have we described that? Probably more likely you’re going to find some work that either marketing or user experience folks have done around customer journey maps and, um, accessing those and looking at, you know, where people are in their journey and what kind of content they need.

Personas that are associated on the taking those journeys and the jobs that they have to accomplish the, um, the tasks they need to do the work that they need to get done. Um, there might be information architecture work that’s already been done around your content project. No. Okay. I don’t have time to go into it in depth here, but information architecture and content modeling or two.

Different things are closely related and overlap a lot, but it’s a separate thing. And anyhow, maybe, um, uh, some information architecture work that’s already been done that you can access to, um, to inform your modeling project. Um, you’ll hit points where you might just get stuck and need do some desk old fashioned desk research.

Luckily we all have computers in the internet now, so you can go out and fill in whatever gaps you need in your knowledge. And finally, and perhaps the most Jermaine, um, you want to do, uh, find out what. Do the rest of the folks on your content team have done. If the strategists have done, uh, you know, uh, some gap analysis and figured out, um, you know, what content they need to meet their strategic goals.

Um, uh, there’s been, you know, inventories, audits, um, gap analysis, any of that kind of stuff. Any content research that’s been done, you want to try to get your hands on that with all that in hand.

We can get going with our first draft of our conceptual model. And I’d like to start, you can do this just with whiteboards or, you know, index cards or post-its or cocktail napkin sketch. Um, but you want to just scope out the scope of what you’re working on, um, and identify all the entities that you’re working on in the domain that you’re in and then figure out what they, those entities consist of and how they fit together.

So let’s say for example, We want to re do meet up. We want to build a site that competes with meetup.com. Um, and so we have this core, core entity of the event. Uh, it is organized. There’s produced by a group that organizes the events. There’s a venue that hosts it. That’s organized by individual hosts for each event and their attendees who participate in it.

This is a really simple, actually not. That far off from probably the actual model for, um, uh, something like meet up, um, then what you want to do once you figured out what you’ve got, how it interacts with each other. Then you want to flush out the details of each item in there, like for each, um, entity, like the event you want to figure out all the things that are associated with it.

What’s that make it up the date, the time in the case of an event, the topic that’s going to be covered. The speaker, the speaker bio. And here we get to one of those places that I was talking about when we were talking about the abstract Amit, or like at what level do you break out and create. Uh, as an entity or include information about something in another entity, for example, this example of the speaker.

Um, if you do have like multiple speakers in an event or speakers talk it multiple events that you host, it might make sense to have a separate entity that. That’s a speaker, but most meetups. Yeah. Most of the time over, you know, millions of them that have happen. There’s, you know, a unique speaker for each event.

So it probably makes sense sense to just have that be an attribute of the event. So now let’s a quick aside on that, then you have maybe a description of the event, other attributes. Now this is where it gets fun for you go through for each of those entities, identify all the attributes. Then you want to label each of those entities and attributes, all of the stuff that you’re talking about.

Um, and the reason you do this is because everybody talks about stuff differently. Uh, sales might talk about things one way marketing and other way the designers talk about things. One way, developers talk about things and other. Whoever it is you’re dealing with. If you can get everybody in a room or if you can circulate a memo or start a spreadsheet, you know, a shared Google sheet or however you do it to try to get agreement.

On one label for each of the concepts you’re talking about, whether that’s an entity, its attributes, um, that will save you so much trouble down the road. You’ll all be speaking the same language. You’ll be kind of heading off potential misunderstandings. There’s just a lot of good reasons to adept to do that.

Yeah. There’s also, um, a lot of people that you may be working need to do like a formal taxonomies or maybe you’ve got ambitions to do ontological work, like knowledge graph stuff or things like that down the road. Doing this work upfront to agree on labels for stuff can really, um, uh, grease the skids for, uh, making all that kind of stuff a lot easier down the road.

Um, so that’s, that’s sort of, uh, it’s, it’s part of the process of modeling your content, but it also turns out to be, um, like what we in the content strategy world, we call a fantastic stakeholder alignment tool. Uh, so getting everyone on the same page and finally, the last thing I want to talk about. It’s sort of my take on the separation of content and its presentation.

Um, Want to start. This is a diagram that I use. I’m sort of a, um, self appointed evangelist for the field of content strategy. So I’m talking about it all the time, doing lunch and learns and meetups and speaking at universities and stuff. So, anyhow, here’s, here’s how I explain this. This started as me explaining to a friend, the difference between communication strategy and content strategy.

Now any organization does a lot of communication. You’ve got a website and maybe an app and technical documentation. You’re doing talks out in the world. You got content marketing content, white papers, maybe you’re blogging your HR departments, writing job descriptions. Those are all communications that you’re doing to the outside world.

There’s, you know, you look at any one of those and there’s whole professions around just creating those. Those individual artifacts. Um, but each of those, especially nowadays in a world where the customer doesn’t care, which of those things they’re looking at, they expect the same voice and tone and style and consistent terminology and accurate facts between everything.

And so ideally you won’t have a separate content strategy practice that underlies all of your content. Um, and. Content strategy consists of like a discovery process. Like we were talking about discovery and research, a strategy formulation process, uh, content design, which is, um, huge field to just on its own and engineering, which is this design and engineering.

This is probably where most of you are in the, in the WordPress world. I’m going to guess. Um, go content governance, like, you know, who’s gonna do what workflows, um, who gets to sign off on things, content operations, you know, in the content marketing world alone content operations is a huge industry, just all by itself, but it’s just one of many practices that make up content strategy.

And then the whole idea of measuring content effectiveness. That’s way more than just a web channel and page analytics. There’s a whole bunch of stuff you can do to, to evaluate, um, Content effectiveness. Uh, and you want to ideally do this kind of independent of each of these, um, uh, individual communications outside on the outside of this circle.

So that outside circle of all the communication you’re doing out in the world, that’s sort of what you’re doing. The content strategy gives you. The how of how you, um, organize your content management, um, how you design it, engineer it. Um, and ideally you want, if not, nobody has this yet, even the biggest, best funded, most content savvy enterprises don’t yet have a central content like services organization, or content as a service, but, but that’s coming.

Um, and, um, but regardless of what you have that just being aware that this other practice of content strategy exists. Underneath this, uh, of the, of the, how, how you, um, uh, craft the content for all these different communications needs. Um, but the real power of strategy or any kind of strategy practice is getting at the why.

Like, what’s your aim? What’s your intent? Why are you even doing this in the first place? And. If you do enough of that work, really Naval, gazing, and reflection and deep work on with your management team and your executive team to figure out your business goals and then do diligent, you know, ethnic graphic and other kinds of research on your users.

Just really nail that customer journey and who your persona persona is actually are. Uh, you mix all that up. And that’s the why then becomes like a powerful why, like your Unicorny kind of uniqueness. Um, so anyhow, that’s my quick pitch for content strategy and how it does, but the whole point of this is to get to this point, let’s strip away some of this stuff.

Oh, I did want to show you one other thing. Content modeling kind of fits firmly right. In between, and overlapping a lot with both content design and content engineering, but let’s strip away some of this stuff and just get back to that content happening. Inside presentation on the outside and look at the difference between content and its presentation.

You know, the simplest way to think about it is like markup versus layout, like HTML versus CSS. That’s the simplest, you know, the simplest content management system in the world is like some author who knows HTML, writing some stuff. And by designer who knows CSS writing some CSS and boom, you got a website, of course it’s more commonly done, like with a WordPress content management system.

And then the presentation layer is that WordPress theme that you’ve either. Bought or made yourself. Um, and increasingly nowadays you have headless CMS of serving content up to us, like a static site generator, generator, um, like headless using a headless, um, installation of WordPress to manage your content on the backend and then serving up to a, um, Gatsby website on the front end.

So that’s, that’s my pitch on them. On, uh, um, the separation of, of continents presentation. Now let’s look at how that looks in terms of the actual modeling. You’ve done all that work, all your research. You’ve really got in your head, how you’re going to keep this all separate. Um, this is when you start to assemble content into content type templates as they call them, like, so you might have like, you know, author, and this is a real common one, and this is still gonna look real familiar to many of you.

You’ve got the author and you’ve got all the associated metadata. Goes with it, the name, their job title, maybe the, the, in this, this can vary depending on your needs and what your authors do and what you need to share about them. You might have a headline and that might be their name. It might be some evocative description of them.

They need to have them biography. You might have affiliations that resume all kinds of possible things in your copy, but, but the point is that you model it. And you figure out what you want to talk about, about your authors. Um, Arthur authors are writing articles and then, so you have all the same similar kinds of, um, you know, templatized information, um, for your, for your authors.

Um, and, uh, and it goes down to like, and this, this can be. Uh, just, uh, like style guide level kind of stuff. At this point, when you get to the, how you’re going to do the sections, like you always begin a section with an H two heading, for example, something like that, anyhow, that you document. What an article is going to look like the metadata associated with it, the media associated with it, and the metadata associated with that media.

Um, you might have a special kind of article, how to article that’s different enough to warrant its own, um, uh, its own template. And the thing that might be different about a, how to article is like instead of sections, you have tasks and that becomes relevant in it’s relevant enough that maybe you need a whole other.

Task content type template to fill that slot in the other ones. So you’d, you’d have, um, a task that, you know, again, it’s got all the usual metadata associated associated with it, but something like a task might have in addition, metadata about a trigger, like in voice interface design, there’s this notion of utterances that, that trigger, um, uh, sharing a task.

Uh, so you might include that in the metadata for a task. Um, tasks might consist that steps, you know, that might be a relevant, um, unit, uh, to, of, of, um, of the, the, the content actual part of the, of the model of the template. And, um, and the metadata might include like you more so than in like a normal, regular article where it’s not super crucial where the media, where the photo or the other illustrations and up you might want to have, uh, Uh, metadata with the media that associated with a particular step.

So it shows up in the right place in whatever presentation, um, you’re doing. Um, and then we’ll get into the presentation templates. This is just going to breeze through this because it’s, um, this is way more in your ballywick than mine, but this is like the wireframes like if you have a, a web or a webpage or an app page, the graphical user interface, you, um, Have the page navigate across the top.

You have the content with whatever article module or, you know, the, the simplest would be like you have an article module and the author bio and. There you go. And then the page footer, and then onto the next thing. Um, but there’s increasingly, um, other ways that this might show up other presentation templates that your content might end up in like a voice skill.

Um, this is for the most part, this stuff is showing up in, um, dedicated platforms like Alexa, big SPE or the other voice platforms, but it’s still in, depending on how you’re. Content team is set up. It may very well make sense to at least have this content someplace, maybe in WordPress, maybe in another, um, place, but to account for it in your content model, because those skills that you’re sharing on your website there, they better match up to the skills you share on your voice interfaces.

You know, again, for that consistent experience across the, for the customer across all their interactions with you. And then of course the final presentation template would just be like API APIs. Like that’s such a common way to share information now. Um, so it’s that separation of content and presentation.

I’m not saying it’s, that should be pretty much wall, you know, that you then traverse later with API APIs or, or themes, or however it is that you, um, stitch the content back to its presentation. But, but, um, but I, um, Uh, urge you to keep that always keep that, that, that, um, that separation between the content and its presentation in mind, especially in a platform like WordPress, that’s still so much about Wiziwig and we’re kind of in a post Wiziwig era.

Um, so, um, so that’s all I got on that, on the content versus presentations. So what’s, let’s wrap up here and just kind of summarize what we’ve just been through. Um, You know, always try to be true to the truth, you know, be aware of that when you’re modeling, uh, you’re, you’re going to have to make some decisions about, uh, resolution and, and abstractness and, and, um, just how close you can get to actually representing the truth, but always keep the truth in mind as a goal, but realize that you realize that you’re probably just projecting some true thing onto your, onto your content model.

Um, always remember the context that you’re content, you know, you, it’s easy to get focused on the website and the stuff that you’re working with, but it happens in a much bigger context, the whole ecosystem of, um, bigger concerns that inform what you’re up to and smaller concerns and constrain what you are to, um, do your homework, do your research.

Um, any project is going to benefit from that, but especially a content modeling project. Get your folks aligned, you know, do the diligent work to figure out how you’re going to talk about things to work over the labeling the words, how you’re going to talk about what you talk about and decide on the labels and, um, and then use those labels to, um, keep everybody aligned as you, as you go forward with your content work.

And finally, always keep that. That, um, that wall between your content and its presentation, that’ll, uh, in this modern world, um, that’s going to serve you really well to have your content as tidy and as independent of its presentation as possible. Uh, the last thing I want to leave you with is. Uh, and this is Jay Hoffman.

I can’t remember where I first came across this. Any how’d you help the old school WordPress guy said, um, before any content is created, it needs to be organized. And I think, especially again, in just the modern world, there’s so many good tools now that make it so easy to start building and creating right off the bat that you, even if you’ve got these great tools like WordPress to, to build in and, uh, and create, and just, you know, a five minute install and boom you’re blogging, um, That’s that’s good and fine and fun.

And if you’ve got a lot of stored up things to share, that’s great. But in many, if not most cases, it’s really good to do some organizing and modeling and planning of your work ahead of time. So thanks for your attention again. My name is Larry I’m Larry Swanson at Twitter and at LinkedIn. I also, if you have, if you’re curious at all about content strategy, I do a podcast called content strategy insights, and you can find out about that@mywebsiteatlsmedia.com.

So, thanks so much for your attention. I hope to see you at a real life event really soon.

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