Content & Decisions: A Unified Framework

Many organizations face a chasm between what they say they want to do, and what they are doing in practice.  Many say they want to transition toward digital strategy.  In practice, most still rely on measuring the performance of individual web pages, using the same basic approach that’s been around for donkey’s years. They have trouble linking the performance of their digital operations to their high level goals. They are missing a unified framework that would let them evaluate the relationship between content and decisions.

Why is a Unified Framework important?

Organizations, when tracking how successful they are doing, tend to focus on web pages: abandonment rates, clicks, conversions, email opening rates, likes, views, and so on. Such granular measurements don’t reveal the bigger picture of how content is performing within the publishing organization. Even multi-page measurements such as funnels are little more than an arbitrary linking of discrete web pages.

Tracking the performance of specific web pages is necessary, but not sufficient. But because each page is potentially unique, summary metrics of different pages don’t explain variations in performance.   Page-level metrics tell how specific pages perform, but they don’t address important variables that transcend different pages, such as which content themes are popular, or which design features are being adopted.

Explaining how content fits into digital business strategy is a bit like trying to describe an elephant without being able to see the entire animal. Various people within an organization focus on different digital metrics. How all these metrics interact gets murky.  Operational staff commonly track lower level variables about specific elements or items. Executives track metrics that represent higher level activities and events, which have resource and revenue implications that don’t correspond to specific web pages.

Metadata can play an important role connecting information about various activities and events, and transcend the limitations of page-level metrics.  But first, organizations need a unified framework to see the bigger picture of how their digital strategy relates to their customers.

Layers of Activities and Decisions

To reveal how content relates to other decisions, we need to examine content at different layers. Think of these layers as a stack. One layer consists of the organization publishing content.  Another layer comprises the customers of the organization, the users of the organization’s content and products.  At the center is the digital interface, where organizations interact with their users.

We also need to identify how content interacts with other kinds of decisions within each layer.  Content always plays a supporting role.  The challenge is to measure how good a job it is doing supporting the goals of various actors.

Diagram showing relationships between organizations, their digital assets, and users/customers, and the interaction between content and platforms..

First let’s consider what’s happening within the organization that is publishing content.  The organization makes business decisions that define what the business sells to its customers, and how it services its customers.  Content needs to support these decisions.  The content strategy needs to support the business strategy.  As a practical matter, this means that the overall publishing activity (initiatives, goals, resources) needs to reflect the important business decisions that executives have made about what to emphasize and accomplish.  For example, publishing activity would reflect marketing priorities, or branding goals.  Conversely, an outsider could view the totality of an organization’s content, by viewing their website, and should get a sense of what’s important to that organization.  Publishing activity reveals an organization’s brand and priorities.

The middle layer is composed of assets that the organization has created for their customers to use.  This layer has two sides: the stock of content that’s available, and digital platforms customers access.  The stock of content reflects the organization’s publishing activity .  The digital platforms reflect the organization’s business decisions.  Digital platforms are increasingly an extension of the products and services the organization offers.  Customers need to access the digital platforms to buy the product or service, to use the product or service, and to resolve any problems after purchase.  Content provides the communications that customers need to access the platform.  Because of this relationship, the creation of content assets and the designs for digital platforms are commonly coordinated during their implementation.

Within the user layer, the customer accesses content and platforms.  They choose what content to view, and make decisions about how to buy, use, and maintain various products and services.  The relationship between content activity and user decisions is vital, and will be discussed shortly.  But its importance should not overshadow the influence of the other layers.  The user layer should not be considered in isolation from other decisions and activities that an organization has made.

Feedback loops Between and Within Layers

Let’s consider how the layers interact.  Each layer has a content dimension, and a platform dimension, at opposite ends.  Content dimensions interact with each other within feedback loops, as do platform dimensions.  The content and platform dimensions ultimately directly interact with each other in a feedback loop within the user layer.

On the content side, the first feedback loop, the publishing operations loop, relates to how publishing activity affects the stock of content.  The organization decides the broad direction of its publishing. For many organizations, this direction is notional, but more sophisticated organizations will use structured planning to align their stock of content with the comprehensive goals they’ve set for the content overall.  This planning involves not only the creation of new content, but the revision of the existing stock of content to reflect changes in branding, marketing, or service themes.   The stock of content evolves as the direction of overall publishing activity changes.  At the same time, the stock of content reflects back on the orientation of publishing activity.  Some content is created or adjusted outside of a formal plan.  Such organic changes may be triggered in response to signals indicating how customers are using existing content. Publishers can compare their plans, goals, and activities, with the inventory of content that’s available.

The second content feedback loop, the content utilization loop, concerns how audiences are using content.  Given a stock of content available, publishers must decide what content to prioritize.  They make choices concerning how to promote content (such as where to position links to items), and how to deliver content (such as which platforms to make available for customers to access information).  At the same time, audiences are making their own choices about what content to consume.  These choices collectively suggest preferences of certain kinds of content that are available within the stock of content.

When organizations consider the interaction between the two loops of feedback, they can see the connection between overall publishing activity, and content usage activity.  Is the content the organization wants to publish the content that audiences want to view?

Two feedback loops are at work on the platform side as well.  The first, the business operations loop, concerns how organizations define and measure goals for their digital platforms.  Product managers will have specific goals, reflecting larger business priorities, and these goals get embodied in digital platforms for customers to access.  Product metrics on how customers access the platform provide feedback for adjusting goals, and inform the architectural design of platforms to realize those goals.

The second platform loop, the design optimization loop, concerns how the details of platform designs are adjusted.  For example, designs may be composed of different reusable web components, which could be tied to specific business goals.  Design might, as an example, feature a chatbot that provides a cost savings or new revenue opportunity. The design optimization loop might look at how to improve the utilization of that chatbot functionality.  How users adopt that functionality will influence the optimization (iterative evolution) of its design. The architectural decision to introduce a chatbot, in contrast, would have happened within the business operations loop.

As with the content side, the two feedback loops on the platform side can be linked, so that the relationship between business decisions and user decisions is clearer.  User decisions may prompt minor changes within the design optimization loop, or if significant, potentially larger changes within the business operations loop.  Like content, a digital platform is an asset that requires continual refinement to satisfy both user and business goals.

The two parallel sides, content and design, meet at the user layer.  User decisions are shaped both by the design of the platforms they are accessing, as well as content they are consuming while on the platform.  Users need to know what they can do, and want to do it.  Designs need to support users access to content they need when making a decision. That content needs to provide users with the knowledge and confidence for their decision.

The relationship between content and design can sometimes seem obvious when looking at a web page.  But in cases where content and design don’t support each other, web pages aren’t necessarily the right structure to fix problems.  User experiences can span time and devices.  Some pages will be more about content, and other pages more about functionality. Relevant content and functionality won’t always appear together.  Both content and designs are frequently composed from reusable components.  Many web pages may suffer from common problems stemming from faulty components, or the wrong mix of components. The assets (content and functionality) available to customers may be determined by upstream decisions that can’t be fixed on a page level. Organizations need ways to understand larger patterns of user behavior, to see how content and designs support each other, or fail to.

Better Feedback

Content and design interact across many layers of activities and decisions. Organizations must first decide what digital assets to create and offer customers, and then must refine these so that they work well for users.  Organizations need more precise and comprehensible feedback on how their customers access information and services.  The content and designs that customers access are often composed from reusable components that appear in different contexts. In such cases, page-level metrics are not sufficient to provide situational insights.  Organizations need usage feedback that can be considered at the strategic layer.  They need the ability to evaluate global patterns of use to identify broad areas to change.

In a future post, I will draw on this framework to return to the topic of how descriptive, structural, technical and administrative metadata can help organizations develop deeper insights into the performance of both their content and their designs.  If you are not already familiar with these types of metadata, I invite you to learn about them in my recent book, Metadata Basics for Web Content, available on Amazon.

— Michael Andrews