An Introduction to Content Ecosystem Maps

A content ecosystem map is a visual representation of your content reality—what you have and where it is. And yes, you definitely need one.

An Introduction to Content Ecosystem Maps

Editor’s note: This post is part 1 of a series on content ecosystem maps. Part 2, part 3, and part 4 are also available for your reading enjoyment.

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Tell me if any of these sound familiar:

  • “I’m just trying to get my head around what all we’re doing with content.”
  • “I don’t know how many domains we have.”
  • “Our content teams are all in silos and nobody knows what anybody else is doing.”
  • “There’s so much happening with content and we’re not sure where to even start.”

If so, consider creating a content ecosystem map. Content ecosystem maps are my preferred tool for understanding and documenting an organization’s content reality. They can be quick little diagrams made in an afternoon or part of a robust, multi-week discovery and documentation process.

Having a picture of your content reality makes it easier to talk about with others. It’s also a way to stop feeling so overwhelmed. At many organizations, the only complete picture of their content reality exists inside a single person’s head. That’s a lot of pressure!

In this post, I want to answer some common questions about the goals and process of creating content ecosystem maps.

What are content ecosystem maps?

A content ecosystem map is a picture of your content ecosystem. Your content ecosystem includes all of your products, brands, content types, teams, technologies, and/or channels. Finding the boundaries of what you think of as your content ecosystem is part of the point of creating the map. What’s in? What’s out? What matters in your content world?

We borrow the term “ecosystem” from the life sciences because it’s an apt metaphor. A forest is more than its trees, and your content ecosystem is more than posts and pages on a single website.

We borrow the term “map” from … the, uh, the cartographic sciences? From map people … because they are exactly that—guides to the territory that help you orient, plan your route, and give directions.

My maps are usually in the form of a concept model, which is a fancy name for a diagram that describes relationships between ideas. Concept models can describe all kinds of things, from the nature of the universe to the structure of a web application. With a content ecosystem map, you’re describing relationships between all of that stuff that’s part of your content reality.

Here’s a super simple example:

content ecosystem map

Your complete ecosystem map will have many more concepts and connections than this, and could incorporate color, icons, and even visual metaphors. But hopefully this gives you a rough idea of what we’re talking about here. 

When should I create a content ecosystem map?

Right now! Well, I mean not right-right now. Please finish reading this article, but then.

Documenting current state is one of the things that content ecosystem maps do best. Yes, you can use them to design a perfect, imaginary future, but in my experience, you’ll have a hard time getting to that perfect future without a decent picture of your less-than-perfect present.

Some particularly good times to create a content ecosystem map:

  • Before you redesign the website. If you’re going to remodel a building, you get the original blueprints. If you’re going to rewire an amplifier, you hunt down the manufacturer’s schematics. Get a picture of reality before you go trying to change it.
  • After you redesign the website. Maybe you just did the big redesign and are only now receiving the wisdom of this amazing article. No worries! Document now while you’ve got a clean slate, before everything gets all wonky again.
  • When you finally get to change your job title to content strategist. Congrats! Now is a great time to take stock of what all exactly you just agreed to be in charge of.
  • Before you add another channel. Content ecosystem maps are a great way to identify redundancies and opportunities. Mapping helps you think critically about how new channels and other publishing opportunities fit into the mix.

What are the limitations of a content ecosystem map?

It’s helpful to know what a content ecosystem map is not. They are great tools for getting a handle on content chaos and communicating with others, but they can’t do everything.

A content ecosystem map is not a workflow.

Content ecosystem maps are a great way to capture all of your various workflows listed together in one place along with the people, content, and channels those workflows support. However, they are too high-level to document the complete production workflow of a given content type.

A content ecosystem map is not a content inventory.

Inventories and ecosystem maps play nicely together. A content inventory is often the next step after ecosystem mapping. That said, spreadsheets are still best when it comes to documenting every bit of data associated with all of the pages on a particular website.

The mapping process will help you decide which channels need to be inventoried in the first place. It also helps you align on vocabulary for things like audience groups, stakeholder groups, and publishing tools, ensuring greater consistency during the auditing process.

A content ecosystem map is not a content model.

A content model is a cohesive set of blueprints and assembly instructions for all of your different content types (e.g., product listings). A content model is not a diagram, though you might make diagrams to describe the content model.

If you have more than a few content types and/or highly structured content, you probably won’t want or need to capture all of that detail in your ecosystem map. Instead, use the map to keep you anchored in space, so to speak, as you go deep into the abstractions of metadata, taxonomies, and information architecture necessitated by content modeling. (Here’s a bit more on metadata and taxonomies, for the curious.)

Tip: If you already have a content model, be sure to use the same language for content types and components in your ecosystem map.

Who is the map for?

It’s for you and anyone else who wants to understand the current state of your content ecosystem. To get the most of your map, you’ll want to either build it collaboratively with others, or use it as a visual aid in telling a story about your organization’s content. Like any map, they’re easier to make sense of with the help of a competent guide.

OK, but what do I do with it?

What’s that old traveler’s saying? The journey is the destination? That’s often the case for content ecosystem mapping. There are opportunities all along the way to clarify and/or make decisions about things like vocabulary, ownership, scope, organizational structure, content governance, and more.

Once the initial map is complete, it becomes a tool for onboarding more content collaborators, for process planning, for conducting gap analysis, and for prioritizing content projects. The maps are particularly useful in the context of change management, giving you a less abstract way to talk about how things are now and how they could be in the future.

Scott, what program is that?

I make my maps in OmniGraffle. It’s simple and inexpensive. One downside of OmniGraffle is that it’s less common in business environments. I’ve also made maps with sticky notes and a whiteboard. And I don’t see why one couldn’t make a map in Illustrator or Sketch or Axure or whatever you have handy. The only real requirement I have for my mapping tool is that I can move things around. That means pen-and-paper is out.

OK, I’m sold. What’s the process for creating a content ecosystem map?

There are some important particulars I hope to get into in future posts, but at a high level, my process goes like this:

Step 1: List out all the stuff in your content ecosystem that readily comes to mind. 

Websites, teams, audiences, people, channels, systems, guidelines, governance documents, etc. This list is usually a mix of specific stuff like XYZ Corp. enterprise content team and generic stuff like social media accounts. (Check out the next post in this series for a deep-dive on what to include in your content ecosystem map.)

Step 2: Place a few key concepts on a canvas and draw arrows between them. 

Don’t overthink it. Just start making connections. What’s obviously connected? What concepts are important to you? What connections are interesting?

Step 3: Define relationships by labeling the arrows. 

Defining relationships is what makes this a picture of your content ecosystem and not just any given content ecosystem (it also distinguishes it from the useless org-chart-style diagrams I often find during discovery). The labels are verbs, and don’t have to be fancy: ishasownsmanagespublishesinfluencesis related to, etc. Here are a few connections from actual maps I’ve made for projects:

content ecosystem map connections

Step 4: Refine and fill in details until it looks true and reasonably comprehensive. 

For a bigger project, I might schedule several 90-minute working sessions over a couple of weeks, giving me time to clean up the map a bit in between working sessions with my collaborators. I’ve also worked out nearly complete maps on a whiteboard in half a day. It all depends on how complex your content reality is and the story you’re trying to tell about it.

Step 5: Socialize and verify. 

If the diagram only makes sense to you, it’s more of a riddle than a map. Socialize the map and get feedback, especially from subject matter experts. See if your understanding of reality matches theirs. Adjust to fit until folks are more or less aligned on the truth of the map.

And there you go! You’ve just done the impossible. You’ve drawn a picture of your content reality and gotten people to agree that it is, in fact, reality. You now have a very powerful tool for driving conversations about future content strategy efforts. Good luck, and remember to hydrate!

Scott Kubie is the lead content strategist here at Brain Traffic and the author of Writing for Designers from A Book Apart. Scott has focused on the content side of digital experiences since 2009, and was the first UX content strategist at Wolfram Research. He grew up in rural Nebraska, and studied electronic media and journalism at Drake University.

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