Thoughts from a content manager on adpative content

Today’s thoughts put to post are inspired by notes I checked out yesterday from a talk. While I wasn’t at An Event Apart, I read Brad Hopkin’s notes on Karen McGrane’s talk after catching this tweet from Zeldman and it got my brain in a tizzy (in a good way.) Jotting those thoughts here to refer to later.

“Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Content” is what caught my eye. In reading the notes I was intrigued by the idea of fully separating content from form. I’m not sure that’s what the speaker was saying, but I did agree with this:

The coupling of content and form. We need to get past the idea that there is a tight connection between the content and the form.

It’s getting away from that “tight connection” I agree with. I don’t think it’s practical to separate content from form entirely. Besides, I think “everything in moderation” is also good from strategy. The notes got me thinking on the topic and how I’ve approached content management to strike a balance between which content gets the full structured content treatment, and which gets the standard structure of long title (page header), short title (nav/headline), main content.

How I’ve Approached Content Management

I love the idea of structured content — to have a piece of writing that is coupled with metadata so we can decide where that story could and should be told. My concern with completely separarating form from content is hindering writers by asking them to create stories without that contextual “home” in mind. That would be asking them to churn out “stuff” like products and that feels out of sync with the culture of higher ed. Instead, I identify a “primary home” for content. Some content isn’t designed to be shared, other content is. So we have decisions to make whenever we create a site: what gets placed in the site alone, and what can be distributed.

In general, we distribute similar content types like news and announcements, major publications (such as the college catalogue), and bio pages; we also set up structured data and scripts to manage frequently asked questions, deadlines, and event listings (when the latter do not fit in the central campus calendar); then “house” pages that are appropriate to be in one site as standard pages in our CMS — but we make those shareable too in case we need them in the future.

So everything is shareable, thanks to the way we’ve guided our content strategy and applied it with the CMS. Below are some instances of how we have things set up.

News and Announcements

When we started out with our CMS we envisioned, and developed, a bucket for stories each with all associated metadata to handle each from brainstorm to production-ready — it became immediately cumbersome to work with. From long headline to short headline, tracking the author, dates, summaries, multiple legnths — it slowed us down.

We replaced that simpler form for just “headlines” — press releases, announcements, and links in the media (the latter just has a field for an “override url” in place of the main content — click the headline and the script sends you to that URL instead of a story page.)

We were able to adapt that simpler structure to add feature stories — breaking away from having press releases as our primary content for headlines and moving towards something less rigid or dry in presentation possibilities. We had to add a couple fields to the metadata and decide on some new scripts to make that happen. Now our web developer is programming an upgrade to our home-grown system to use that metadata to share stories with appropriate sites and feeds.

College Publications

For our major publications — the catalogue, student handbook, and college regulations — I broke up each document into individual sections. We have each publication in the CMS as a standalone piece, but the website that displays the pages actually feeds in the content from the CMS — it’s seperate. Each page publishes out as a flat HTML file. That way we can not only display it as an online document, but each section can be fed to another site and other mediums — for instance the section on emergency evacution can be fed directly to both the Residential Life site and the Campus Safety and Security site as well as an emergency alerts site.

A use for another medium is the editing process. We’re able to put a whole document or selected sections into Word or PDF for review and updating; changes have to make it back into the CMS of course, but if our editor wants to print out a publication and mark it up in red to make it easier for her she can.

I aplaud things that make it easier for people to do their work. I cringe at things that hinder that workflow. Our strategy is to strike a balance rather than cater to any extreme to make things as efficient and useful as possible.

Apologies for the length of this post… must get back to work.


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