Introducing the Master Content Model

Cruce Saunders
Dec 13, 2018 · 11 min read

The world of content groans, heaves, and strains vocally under the onslaught of furious change.

It’s not just an incremental maturation that’s happening. It’s not something as amorphous as transformation. We all feel the change in every workflow, every system, and every process. It’s a sea change, and it’s coming at us faster than ever before.

As leaders within large-scale organizations, we engage with our prospects and customers through channels which seem to change on a monthly basis. Chatbots and voice assistants are two recent additions that call for specialized content and that interact with other channels such as websites, mobile applications, call centers, and social media.

The pressure to improve efficiencies grows more intense every day. Tightening product release cycles, increasing market specialization, and rapidly evolving customer expectations requiring integrated and personalized experiences, all force the convergence of content across an enterprise. Silos are no longer enough. In the past sources would have been prepared and published by isolated content producers within functional groups, from marketing communications, technical support documentation, customer support, sales, training, and operations. Today, due to the issues of addressing the scale of modern publishing needs and sheer market demand, we now need to orchestrate content from each business unit. We need to dynamically reuse content from all units, and for all content to come together to achieve one compelling story.

Telling One Story

Today, for most of us in organizations of size, telling “one cohesive story” is not even a remote reality yet. Customers buy and experience horizontally, but we create content vertically, in silos. The customer doesn’t care where the content is created. They are busy having an experience, in any order they choose. And because of the way content gets created, that customer experience might be at best “lumpy”, at worst, “totally confusing”. Each authoring group inside the company has their own content structures, terminology, tags, and tools. All of it is well-thought out, but none of it works well together.

Customers buy and experience horizontally, but we create content vertically

For content specialists, the combination of channel proliferation and content source convergence means one important thing. Content today must travel through, and be effective in, a wide array of application environments. It must be truly portable so that it can move between many tools and channels during the course of its full lifecycle. It must be fluid. Content must also be smart, given the roles being played by artificial intelligence enhanced interfaces, where software agents are playing an expanding role in helping people find, consume, and interact with content.

This means that the content must be modular and built in a way that applications can instantly select, filter, transform, and present to meet unique customer needs.

While this may sound abstract, it is in fact very practical. Today’s digital customers expect to engage with an organization and its content using the channel of their choice. And not infrequently they choose to use multiple channels at the same time if it adds value to their experience. They want the right content at the right time and on the right device so that they can chart their own customer journey. And the flow of this experience is not only a matter of channels, it is also an expectation of dealing with one organization, not a jarring series of different conversations with different business units. Clearly this places a huge demand on today’s organization to make sure it tells a single integrated story and that its message — and its content — works optimally for the customer, wherever they are.

Needless to say, none of this happens by itself. Conscious effort must be applied to the design of personalized content experiences that can service prospects and customers during their journey. This is true, regardless of what content customers need or what channels they choose to use.

To be practical and effective, the conscious design of content assets for an omnichannel and omnisource world is what we at [A] refer to as a Master Content Model (MCM)™.

The Challenge

Today’s changing content landscape throws a spotlight on the fact that organizations have not historically seen “content” as an asset that must flow between business units, applications, and customer experiences in order to yield value.

As a consequence, content has not typically been prepared in a way that reflects and addresses the different operational requirements that bear upon it. Instead, different business units prepare their own content for their own purposes. And while this may meet their own needs, it also means that the customer will never hear one organizational voice. Customers will hear a series of different voices — one for each business unit that their experience encounters. As we all well know, this is an excellent recipe for frustration, breakdowns in communication, and lost opportunities.

Something very similar happens when we look at channels used to engage prospects and customers. The key point here is that the prospect or customer chooses the channel, not the organization. An organization can choose to emphasize a particular channel and under service others, but it is the organization that pays the price when the customer turns away.

“It is the customer who chooses the channel, and when to change the channel.”

This means that an organization’s content must be able to flow seamlessly between channels, and across technologies, and then perform optimally in each. Historically organizations have not prepared or managed their content with this type of omnichannel experience in mind.

Technology challenges impact more than just the delivery channels. As the digital customer becomes more demanding, they expect to be able to access and use an expanding array of content types. This means that the content being delivered will come from more and more sources within an organization. These sources will be different business units. These sources will also be the different applications used by these various business units. Frequently these business units are external to the organization, part of its digital supply chain. So, similar to the case with channels, the organization does not get to choose where the best source of the content will be — or what software application it will need to be sourced from.

These are big challenges. We might even call them daunting. No surprise then that most organizations have opted to delay action on these challenges. Instead, they have tried to bridge the gap between content source applications and content delivery channels by using human effort. It is rather shocking to discover that the advance of sophisticated technologies for enabling smart, hands-free interactions are still supported by many people spending countless hours copying and pasting content. In industries where content accuracy is a serious concern, the content quality control becomes a function of a lot of eyes reviewing the content in each and every one of the delivery channels. This is expensive. This is error-prone. This is time-consuming. And this is definitely not sustainable.

There simply has to be a better way.

The Solution

And there is a better way. We can bring a responsible level of structure and precision to an organization’s content assets, one that works with the many different technologies that impact how content will be delivered and how it will be created in the first place.

And as elsewhere, the starting point is understanding where we are and where we need to go. It is about having a roadmap that shows us what paths our content will need to follow and even what investments we will need to make — to add a bridge here or to fix a broken pipe there. A Master Content Model is that roadmap.

An MCM establishes an enterprise view of an organization’s content assets. It defines how content will exist in every tool that will be used to work with it and every channel through which it will flow to a user. This is different than defining the content model that will apply within individual tools. Like its name suggests, a Master Content Model needs to look at all of the application-level content models and provide a single, overarching definition that coordinates all of those local investments.

If it sounds like hard work, that is because it is. But it is the only effective response to the content challenges confronting organizations today. In fact, it does seem rather obvious when we think about it. As an enterprise leader, we need to have a complete view of our content assets, the content lifecycle, and the pathways through which the content travels as they are planned, created, validated, delivered, and used. And of course the content must be able to flow between many different software applications during its creation, management and delivery. Since when has an organization ever been able to operate using a single software package?

The MCM is the only rational response to the very real problems that organizations have been wrestling with for years, that now call for an immediate and effective answer if organizations are going to adapt to the demands of a rapidly changing marketplace.

What is a Master Content Model™?

An MCM is a single, integrated model that defines how content assets will be structured and represented throughout their complete content lifecycle.

A few things in this definition merit elaboration:

  • The MCM focuses on the structure of content, literally its physical organization into components that can be enriched, reused, processed, and consumed.
  • By defining the structure of content assets, the MCM facilitates the creation, exchange, and utilization of semantic value. Here, semantics refers to the introduction of enriched meaning into the content in such a way that applications can find, interpret, and act on those details.
  • The MCM seeks to encompass the complete content asset lifecycle, from planning through delivery and use. This lifecycle orientation is important as it is a central goal of an MCM to facilitate the representation of content structures in all of the applications that will need to access, display, manage, and potentially modify the content. In this way, the MCM enables the flow of content between all of the applications that play a role in the content lifecycle.

What Goes into a Master Content Model?

At the end of the day, an MCM is a model — or more correctly, a set of interrelated models that together provide an organization with a comprehensive view of their content assets and their lifecycle.

Three components stand out:

  • Content Relationship Diagram
  • Content Type Definitions
  • Supporting Resources

Content Relationship Diagram (CRD)

A content relationship diagram is an integrated set of models that together establishes the lifecycle context for a given set of content assets and defines the structure and interrelationships of those assets. Consequently the CRD will feature lifecycle process diagrams and content inheritance and composition models. It may also include additional relationship diagrams, if they are necessary, to fully understand the content asset types and their interrelationships. Ideally, these diagrams are prepared in a way that applies a single, integrated modeling notation that keeps the focus on the content and its processes. The goal of the CRD is to identify the main entities operating within a given scope — Actors, Types, and Processes — and to determine what they are made up of (composition), how they are related to each other (inheritance), and how they will be handled and modified throughout their lifecycle (process).

Content Type Definitions (CTDs)

Once the key content asset types have been identified and their interrelationships established, their low level composition is specified in content type definitions. The CTD is a tabular breakdown of the constituent elements of each content type and an identification of the different physical representations each will take within its lifecycle. The CTD will define, for example, how a given element would be represented when applying a specific standard (e.g., DITA XML) or when being manipulated in a given application (e.g., MS Word) or when being presented to a consuming application (e.g., JavaScript Object Notation — Linked Data, JSON-LD). It is essential that these CTDs be understood as being independent of any one physical representation of the content structure. Only in this way can content assets be able to flow between multiple applications.

Supporting Resources

To be practically manageable and useful, the CRD and CTDs must be accompanied by a set of supporting resources, and organized in a way that facilitates the efficient maintenance and application of these models. Supporting resources will include, at a minimum, a set of reference resources and representative samples of legacy content assets, upon which the analysis was conducted that yielded the CRD. This proves to be an essential aspect of managing both scope and change in the models and in the capability they enable.

Supporting resources will also include exemplars, which are examples of every content type and process covered by the CRD. This is critical to establishing a testing and guidance regime so that the CRD is deployed effectively.

While this strategy seems obvious, many content modeling efforts proceed without an actively managed glossary that defines all of the key concepts within the modeling domain. A glossary is therefore a key supporting resource to the CRD. Finally, a CRD must be supported by guidance resources such as authoring guidelines, process documentation, and training materials so that the MCM will be deployed and used effectively.

How is a Master Content Model™ Constructed?

The Master Content Model stands upon the idea that content is a business-critical asset that deserves to be methodically designed and managed in accordance with the discipline of engineering science. Hence the term Content Engineering.

It follows then that the development of an MCM will proceed in a methodical way to ensure that the MCM, as well as the content process it enables, is grounded in sound analysis and documented design decisions.

This article continues in the form of a white paper, Mastering the Master Content Model at simplea.com.

Only when we unify structural models can our organizations unify content ecosystems and bridge content silos to achieve frictionless knowledge management and allow content intelligence to emerge.


[A] is the Content Intelligence Service. In partnership with leading global enterprises, [A] orchestrates content intelligence systems that unify the people, processes, and technology for omnichannel publishing and real-time personalized customer experiences at scale. The patterns in the [A] Content Intelligence Framework support strong returns on content asset investments, streamlined and integrated content operations, and a lean content supply chain.

Cruce Saunders

Written by

Founder of [A] (simplea.com), content engineering author & speaker. Topics: content systems, customer experience, strategy, digital transformation, AI

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