Discerning structure for content

One of the most important things your content strategy must do is to define the structure that holds the content.

One of the most important things your content strategy must do is to define the structure that holds the content. Effective content has to have strong structure — I don’t think it’s going too far to say that it’s designed content. Not in terms of what it looks like — the fonts, the page layout [though that’s critically important, too] — but in terms of the internal structure of the content itself. The relationship between the content and meaning.

On a very simplistic level, we can break this down into the kinds of content structure that middle-aged Americans learned about in grammar class:

My 7th grader has never learned to diagram sentences, and I am not the first to complain that this is a flaw in modern education [though I have heard many more people shout praise to the heavens that this exercise has fallen by the wayside]. The value in diagramming is in evaluating the basic structure in our language. It gets you into the habit of seeing the structure behind the words.

When you think about the structure of your content on a web page, you can build a similar diagram. Most of us who’ve been around web design and development for any length of time have seen wireframes, the architectural drawings that reveal the structure of a web page.

But many wireframes simply separate the page into blocks or a grid; they are not content-specific. So as content strategists, we have to create our own structure for the content.

When we talk about the structure for content, we are getting to some of the core principles of information architecture. This structure might be quite simple, too. For instance, you might say that the structure of a blog post on this website is revealed here:

This starts to give us a very basic structure for the content itself. This level of structure is the basic information you need if you’re using a content management system or some kind of HTML or CSS. Different elements on the page are treated differently in the design and layout, because of their function. The headline gets a larger, colored font. The tags are links and are designed differently as a result. The date and the post each have their own look and feel.

But the implications of content structure go far beyond the design of the page. Done well, planning the structure of the content can also reveal or enhance the meaning, as well. This is where some real opportunity lies for content strategists to provide value in the web and software development process.

All words aren’t equal. My 3 paragraphs on banking aren’t the same as your 3 paragraphs. Neither will align with 1 paragraph and 2 bullet lists. When you start looking at the internal structure of your content itself, you will discover many ways to enhance your meaning. In some cases, you will discover opportunities to display your content differently, but almost every time, you will discover ways to structure your content differently to enhance the meaning. To discern the structure, evaluate the goal and your content’s message against the words on the page, and you’ll find the places where you need to improve the structure.

Some of this will again go back to grammar school for many of us, back to the fundamentals of good writing:

  • Do you have a topic sentence in your paragraph?
  • Are all the sentences in this paragraph on the same topic?
  • Do they flow?
  • When you need to introduce a secondary point, how will you separate it from the other text but still make it feel like part of the whole?
  • Are you delivering information in the most effective way?
  • Where do you need an image instead of a word?
  • Where a list instead of a paragraph?

These are structural elements that you’ll reveal on the page to the end user. For digital content, you also need a strong meta-structure to allow you to use your content effectively. More on that next time.

For now — how conscious of your content’s structure are you? Can more attention to structure strengthen your content?