Improving content discovery through typologies

Brands face a challenge: how to improve the content discovery process. They want to offer fresh, interesting content to audiences, but aren’t sure what an individual might like. The individual may also not be sure: they have a hard time specifying which content seems interesting, and which kind seems dull. Fortunately, content discovery can be improved. Brands can use the concept of typologies to improve the relevance of content they recommend.

Why content discovery is an issue

General interest content has grown dramatically. Audiences seek content to relax with, and make them feel better informed. Most general interest content is content people want to use, rather than need to use. Brands hope to create sticky content that audiences like and share. But brands can’t rely solely on social media referrals to position interesting content in front of audiences. Audiences are flooded with content that is pushed at them, including from their social contacts, but only a fraction of that content really resonates.

General interest content can be tricky to recommend. What one person finds interesting about a topic will be different from another person. Two people both like stories about food, but one person wants to know what’s new, while another wants to improve his cooking knowledge. People, and content systems, tend to think about content in terms of topics, but for general interest topics, just naming the topic of interest isn’t enough. People have trouble saying what exactly they find interesting. Subconsciously, they search for ”stories about gardening that aren’t boring.” They don’t want any story about gardening, but aren’t prepared to limit the content by type of plant.

What’s the opportunity?

Marketing and other forms of branded content make extensive use of general interest content. Presented in the right way, it attracts a diverse audience. But general interest content needs to be distinctive enough to stand out, to make an impression on audiences. Such content needs to be differentiated, not simply good.

Audiences find distinctive content more relevant. Brands benefit when they offer more relevant suggestions to their audiences. Better content recommendations increase the usage of brand content, resulting in happier, more loyal audiences.

To improve the relevance of recommendations, brands should focus on defining the elements that make their content distinctive. Typologies are a tool that can enable that.

What’s a typology?

Typology is a term not often used in content strategy — but should be. Sometimes content strategists talk about content types to refer to a content format with a regular structure such as a press release. I am using typology in a different sense, to refer to the qualities of content, not its structural elements. Typologies are a well-established approach used in the social sciences “A typology is generally multidimensional and conceptual” with a goal of reducing complexity by identifying similarities, notes Kenneth Bailey in his book, Typologies and Taxonomies: An Introduction to Classification Techniques. Archeologists use typologies to characterize items they unearth, looking at the qualities of artifacts to determine commonalities among these items. Psychologists rely on typology to map distinct personality types based on different dimensions, such as whether a person’s social orientation tends toward extraversion or introversion.

Typologies examine the attributes or dimensions of stuff, seeking to determine the most important dimensions that form the essence of something. For each separate dimension, two or more values are possible. The goal of a typology is to find patterns, to examine which values tend to occur in which dimensions for which items. Not all combinations of dimensions and values are important. Some combinations are more common, and seem familiar to people. We all instinctively recognize different styles of music, but don’t generally think of these styles in terms of their individual dimensions, such as tempo, rhythm, mood, instrumentation, loudness, and so on. Sometimes we don’t even have a label in our minds for the music we like, we just know we like certain music that has certain qualities.

Typologies serve a different role than taxonomies, the standard way to categorize content. Taxonomies are hierarchical and generally focused on concrete attributes (nouns), aiming for precise specificity. In contrast to the specificity and literalism of taxonomies, typologies focus on qualities (adjectives and concepts), and seek to make generalizations based on these qualities.

illustration of urns to show relationship to typology
All are urns, but what distinctions matter to their users: style, symbolism, status? (image courtesy Getty open images)

What typologies reveal in content

To develop a typology for content, one needs to think like the audience. The easiest way to do that is to talk to them. Brands can ask their audiences what content on a general topic they like, and what they don’t like. Ask fans what they most like about certain content. Ask them what they don’t like about other content that is on the same topic. Assuming the content is accurate and free of defects, the feedback should yield insights into the emotional qualities of content different audiences most value.

When doing this research, listen for when someone mentions dimensions such as the style of the content, its perspective or point of view, its approach to help, and the kind of occasion it would be viewed. These factors are dimensions you should consider including in your content typology.

Another way to get insights into these dimensions is by looking at specific content that is popular with a specific segment, and what you know about that segment’s lives and values. If a segment with an especially busy lifestyle likes certain content, then it may offer a clue that other people with busy lives might consider the content as time-saving. You can validate that assumption in user research.

How to develop and use a typology

Let’s look at how to characterize content according to content dimensions. I’ve developed an illustrative list of content dimensions, based on a review of some leading examples of branded content, as identified by Kapost (mostly B2B), as well as some typical B2C content. I also summarize how these qualities can vary.

Dimension Value 1 (No value for dimension) Value 2
Educational value Practical N/A Expertise and thought leadership
Curation style What’s new and notable N/A What experts say
Forum approach Peer-to-peer discussion N/A Ask an expert
How news reported Surprise: you didn’t think this could happen N/A or neutral What you suspected is true
Trendiness Trend embracing Neutral Fad-wary
Attitude toward social change Advocacy, trying to make change happen Neutral Adaptation — how to deal with change
Content personality We are just like you Neutral People look to us for authoritative advice

This is just a sample of dimensions and is by no means a complete list. I’ve included just two values (plus the empty value of not applicable) for simplicity, and some dimensions may not be applicable to your content. You’ll want to find the dimensions and values most relevant to your own content, by identifying content items with distinctive qualities.

Suppose a nonprofit needs to address several audiences, who may view a range of content depending on their interests at a given time. The nonprofit has three different core topics they address. Some of the content is meant to help people take action in their personal lives. Other content is intended to catalyze collective action. Some content is meant to build community discussion and solidarity around deeply held perspectives, while other content needs to get people aware of new issues. Using a typology, the organization might classify one piece of content as “practical advice for people having to deal with [topic x].” Another content item may be “breaking advocacy news on [topic x].” Even though both items of content address the same broad topic, they do so in different ways. By recommending an article about a topic that has similar qualities, instead of any article about that topic, the brand can improve the likelihood audiences view recommended content.

A content typology will be used to develop a audience-responsive recommendation engine. The closer the match between the qualities of the current content, and recommended content, the more likely the recommendation will be relevant.

Who is using content typologies?

Content typologies work behind the scenes, so it is not obvious to audiences when they are used. But in general, few brands use content typologies. At most, they focus on one quality of content only, and consider that quality a unique category. They might classify content that uses anecdotes as a feature, and place it in a category called “feature article.” Or they rely too heavily on audience segmentation, and categorize their content by audience segment, making broad assumptions about the qualities each segment wants. They haven’t yet made the effort to characterize their content according to multiple, distinctive qualities. As a result, discovery is hindered, because audiences can’t see content outside the narrow category in which the content was placed.

One notable brand using typologies is Netflix. Netflix has developed a very rich and detailed typology of film genres generated through the tagging of film attributes, looking at everything from how funny the film is, the personality of the audience to which the film might appeal, to the qualities of a lead actor or actress in the film. Netflix uses these taggings, together with extensive data analytics, to make recommendations of other films it believes are of a similar type.

Netflix’s typology is impressive in its sophistication, and the scope of content it covers. Fortunately, most organizations have far simpler content to characterize, and can use a simple system to do that. A content typology need not be complex, and a recommendation engine can use simple rules to improve relevance.

Making content emotionally intelligent

Intelligent content is “structurally-rich and semantically categorized that is, therefore, automatically discoverable,” according to Ann Rockley in the Language of Content Strategy. Structure is key to discoverability. But most of the focus of intelligent content thus far has been on factual details, rather than the essence of the content, its rhetorical intentions and its appeal.

Discoverability needs to include desirability. Categories need to include the distinctive qualities that matter to audiences, not just topics. Fully intelligent content will be content that is emotionally intelligent, self-aware of how it presents itself to audiences. Content typologies can provide additional metadata that improves content relevance.

— Michael Andrews

2 thoughts on “Improving content discovery through typologies

  1. Hey, Michael! I’m so honored that you put a link in to my content typology blog post–thank you! Would you edit your link to send it to the address above?–I’d be much obliged. ~ Stephen

    1. Thanks for reaching out Stephen. I’ve updated the link to your article with your new domain. Cheers.

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