Content Strategy and ExpressionEngine: It All Starts with a Good Plan

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Before you install ExpressionEngine and start tweaking preferences, it’s best to take some time to think about the content you’ll be managing with EE and plan out that content’s structure. It goes a long way in making that content valuable and reusable for years to come. (I’ve found it helps the design process immensely to know the chunks of content you’re designing for as well. Otherwise, you’re just designing your visual wish and cramming in content to fit the look.) In this overview, you’ll learn why and how to plan your site’s content. Since it’s an overview on the concepts behind content structure, we won’t be getting into any actual implentation within EE.

ExpressionEngine presents a completely different way of structuring, storing, and displaying content than you might expect, so it helps to understand why ExpressionEngine treats content the way it does before jumping into your first project. We built EE to be as flexible as possible, so that means it also makes as few assumptions as possible with respect to your content. If EE was only meant as a blogging tool, for example, it might come pre-installed with two content fields for each entry: one for the entry’s title and another for the rest of the entry’s content, typically labeled Body. Since we don’t know what kind of content you’ll be publishing with EE, however, we leave it to you to plan out the different fields you’ll use to store your content.

Let’s suppose you want to start a new website to showcase reviews of books you’ve been reading. Great! If you’re going to be using the kind of typical CMS described above, you might not think about the content of the reviews before you start writing your first entry. And as you get started, you’ll likely find yourself cramming all sorts of different bits of content from the review into the body field — bits like the author, title, and photo of the book, your one-line summary review, an Amazon affiliate link so your readers can purchase the book, etc. Unfortunately, you’ll also find yourself designing how all those bits of content will be displayed right there in the body field’s WYSIWYG.

You might think that’s fine, but there are two big problems here:

  1. It will be nearly impossible to get anyone else to help write book reviews. This sort of content publishing workflow doesn’t scale beyond 1 person, and the mechanics of structuring the content to consistently look right within that one clunky WYSIWYG is a lot for even 1 person to remember. If you’re setting this up for a client to try to reproduce, it’s almost guaranteed they won’t get it right. What an awful experience for your client!

  2. It will be nearly impossible to redesign the way this content is displayed on the front-end of the website. The content will be delivered to the front-end as one blob of WYSIWYG-generated HTML straight from the CMS, and you’ll be unable to tease out the different bits of content to use in any other way.

But take heart! You’re not using the typical CMS. You’re using ExpressionEngine! You have control over your content’s structure, and you can separate it up into meaningful chunks. First, let’s do a bit of planning to outline the different chunks of content the reviews will include. This should take some real consideration. If you’re working with a team or a client on this project, make sure this stage of the planning process involves lots of clear communication. Those chunks of content might be:

  • Title of the review
  • Book title
  • Book author
  • Image of the book cover
  • Amazon affiliate link
  • Your favorite quote from the book
  • Attribution for the quote
  • A one-line summary review
  • A short, 3–4 sentence teaser
  • The full text of the review

When deciding how to chunk up your content, it’s important to think about how that content might be used. You probably think of EE as a way to publish content to the web, and it certainly excels there. But it’s great for delivering content to other mediums as well. EE can produce RSS, JSON, and XML feeds, for example, which could deliver content to mobile and desktop apps, share data with web apps running on other servers or platforms, generate eBooks, etc. This is why it’s so important to separate your content up into meaningful chunks!

So how might the content chunks in our example be used? Well, on the website, we could have a listing of the 10 most recent reviews on the home page. For each review in the list, we could use the book title, author, and cover image, along with the title of the review and the review teaser. The RSS feed for the site might include the same chunks. When readers click through to read a particular review, we’d show them all the review’s chunks of content except the teaser. Search results might show the relevant excerpt from the full review along with the title of the review. You might even offer subscribers to your site the opportunity to receive a monthly digest of your reviews in the form of an eBook. (And remember, eBooks come in many formats, too!)

These are just some basic examples for how the content might be used, of course, but hopefully you’re beginning to see the possibilities.

Remember the clunky WYSIWYG from the typical blogging system mentioned earlier? Full-featured visual editing tools like this can cause real problems for designers and content strategists since it encourages those adding content to the site to become pseudo-designers and decide the visual presentation of content on the front-end of the site. Just look at everything an editor is promised he or she can do with this many options! It’s no wonder so many sites end up with content in a single, garbled blob of HTML. Good luck trying to use that content in any other medium.

That’s why ExpressionEngine ships with a streamlined content editing tool, the Rich Text Editor. We meticulously designed the Rich Text Editor from the ground up, every part of it aligned with this philosophy of chunking up content and separating content from presentation. The RTE doesn’t let the person editing content drift into layout design. Nope. It lets the content editor add and update content with rich text elements like bold text, links, and bullet points, all viewed in a user-friendly edit field. With the kind of content produced by the RTE, the designer is then able to determine the way that content is presented (in a variety of mediums, mind you) without having to anticipate design interference from the person editing content.

This content philosophy we’ve been discussing is actually a concept in digital publishing called COPE (Create Once, Publish Everywhere). Ultimately, the point is that your content shouldn’t be just single-use, and you shouldn’t be rewriting similar content for different contexts. If you’re going to put effort into producing great content, plan ahead to make sure it’s available in as many contexts for consumption as possible, both now and in the future. After all, new ways of consuming content are being introduced all the time. Storing your content in meaningful chunks from the start is the best way to be ready for whatever the future holds, and COPE and ExpressionEngine are simply made for each other.

Ready to go deeper with this topic? You might enjoy reading about how NPR stores and publishes content with COPE in mind.

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