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Modelling Content Strategy with Content Flow Diagrams

Content Strategy has recently emerged as “the next big thing” for digital designers and marketers. More than ever, businesses and brands are seeking to provide utility to customers, prospects and partners in the digital channel. At the same time, the proliferation of the mobile web and social media are redefining how we access, consume and engage with content online. As a result, there’s been a collective awakening to the importance of defining, designing, delivering and maintaining compelling content on the web.

Content strategy often requires a systems approach, emphasizing the structural whole as well as the sum of the parts. Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy or standard way to express this organizational structure. We can outline the high-level goals of the content strategy, and we can enumerate the necessary constituent parts (the content itself, people, processes, resources, etc.) But we don’t have a good way to document and describe how these parts relate to each other and the overall goals of the system.

The Content Flow Diagram (CFD) is a modelling technique designed to fill this gap.

Download CFD Omnigraffle Stencil

Basic Elements

CFDs can help us visualize and think about a strategic content system’s macrostructure. There are 5 basic elements:

  • Entities (box) — the content itself, e.g. articles, media, collections
  • Actors (stick figure) – e.g. users, content producers, editors
  • Processes (circle) – e.g. publish, approve, rate and review
  • Resources (document) – e.g. ontologies, attribute sets, guidelines
  • Connectors (solid and dotted line) – directed paths and references

The primary structure of the CFD is the flow, consisting of a subject (usually an actor), a process, and an object (usually an entity), connected by a path. Here is an example of a typical flow:

Notice that in this case the process Create references Guidelines as a resource. This convention is helpful because it shows who will be using a given resource and for what purposes.

When a flow maps one entity onto another (i.e. there isn’t an actor involved), the process encapsulates a functional requirement for the underlying system:

It is often useful to show how resources are generated and maintained. This is achieved by designating a resource as the object of a flow:

Additional Elements

Although the five basic elements outlined above are sufficient to describe a wide range of strategic content systems, there are a few additional elements that can give us even more descriptive power.

  • Goals (cloud) help us capture the underlying motivation and intent of the various actors involved. By including goals, we state our assumptions about strategic rationales behind the flows captured in the CFD.
  • Portals (trapezoid) indicate what channels, platforms and points of entry actors use to access and manipulate content.
  • Systems (cube) are essentially non-human actors. Content strategies often incorporate various proprietary and vendor-based solutions to facilitate community, search, data-flow and processing functions, etc. Incorporating these into the CFD helps us capture functional requirements for these systems and understand how they fit into to a larger operational strategy.
  • External links (bracket) indicate where organizational boundaries lie and allow us to embed external resources and entities.
  • Areas (rounded rectangle) show contextual groupings of flows. These groupings help readers parse more complex CFDs and understand the contextual domains that exist within the overall strategic content system.

It is also possible to layer on other dimensions of information through visual cues like colour, shading, line weight, etc. For example, one might use colour to indicate update frequency—e.g. evergreen content vs. responses to social media events that occur regularly.

Here is a more comprehensive example showing one possible (and fairly basic) content strategy for enabling online customer support (click to view larger version):

Click to view larger version

Conclusions

Content flow diagrams help us apply systems thinking to our content strategies by standardizing notation and making things visual and concrete. This modelling technique can be used casually—as in sketching ideas out on a whiteboard—or as a formal mode of documentation.

Content strategists should try to make their CFDs as intuitive and simple as possible, in order to promote collaboration. However, the CFD is a network diagram that can very easily grow in complexity. Therefore, it is often wise to break the overall system into logical pieces and model these separately, noting external connections where appropriate. Additionally, we can keep CFDs simple and purposeful by focusing on three primary questions:

  • where does the content come from, and how does it lives and flow through the system?
  • what are strategic resources necessary for and how will they be used?
  • what are the major operational dependencies and responsibilities?

The CFD is one tool among many within the broader practice of content strategy. For example, one might conduct research, define high-level goals, generate resources such as templates, guidelines, policies etc. before or along-side the CFD. That said, the fact that content strategy is so multifaceted and multidisciplinary makes a systems-focused tool like CFDs even more necessary and helpful.

I hope that others find our contribution to this topic helpful and look forward to further improving and refining this technique.

David Gillis More posts by David Gillis