How to Use a Content Ecosystem Map

What do you do with that shiny new content ecosystem map you’ve created? Here’s how to effectively put your map into practice.

How to Use a Content Ecosystem Map

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

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I’ve written previously about how to create a content ecosystem map, and took a deep dive on all the stuff in your content ecosystem that’s useful to map. Now, I want to talk about specific applications of ecosystem maps in your content strategy practice. This is in response to the number one question I get about ecosystem mapping: “What the heck do I do with this thing?”

Use mapping to align on the truth of your content reality.

Content strategists engage in all kinds of activities designed to increase understanding, like content audits and stakeholder interviews. An ecosystem map can be used in the same way. Creating a content ecosystem map is an activity that increases understanding, not just the production of a deliverable.

Ecosystem mapping can help executives and business leaders understand just how vast their content ecosystem really is and how many commitments their (probably under-resourced) teams are already managing. (That’s you.)

I typically involve executives at the beginning and end of the process—a kickoff and a road show, respectively. Getting info on their products and responsibilities in an exploratory interview can help as well, though I usually keep that brief and don’t get into the nitty-gritty of mapping.

Mapping creates alignment on terminology.

It’s quite common to find that different teams use different words to talk about the exact same audiences, channels, technology platforms, and processes. For instance, you might find that every time you say “style guide,” the UX team thought you meant their UI pattern library, when you were actually talking about the voice and tone guide.

If you’re building your map in a sprint, make sure each team that contributes to the ecosystem has a representative in the process. If you’re building it out over several sessions, consider a 90-minute working session with each of the teams. You’ll want to give a quick orientation to the process, conventions, and goals of the mapping process before you start. I find it’s best to actively update the map during the discussion, even if you have to go back and clean it up later.

Mapping creates alignment by articulating ownership.

Labeling connections between channels and the roles or teams that support them is often one of the hardest parts because we’ve never had good answers to those questions. We know the UX team does ... things ... on the main corporate website, but do they ... own it? Support it? Manage it? Lead it? Guide it? If they own the site, do they own the content too? Do we need to separate interface content from other content? (Probably yes, and you can articulate that in the map!)

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These are the types of questions that a full governance framework can and should address, but content ecosystem mapping is a fantastic starting point. Even knowing explicitly that you don’t have the answer yet, and writing down that you don’t have the answer, creates greater clarity than you had before. Question marks and unlabeled connections can give you an outline for conversations about the current state of roles and responsibilities within your content ecosystem.

Use your map to plan and prioritize content strategy projects.

There are always more content strategy problems than you can fix, and you can’t work on all the problems at once. Being a content strategist is a journey, of sorts, through your content ecosystem. Your ecosystem map can help you plan that journey.

A content ecosystem map lets you “walk around” your content world. You could start your content strategy journey by focusing on your content model, for example, or by focusing on guidelines and policies that apply to writers. Or maybe you want to start by reducing your content footprint and retiring poorly planned channels. Any of these scenarios could be drawn as a layer on your map, by color coding or simply circling things with a Sharpie. “I’m going to work on this, and then that will help us work on this, and then later this year we’ll focus on this. One, two, three.”

Use your map to facilitate conversations about problems and pain points.

Maps help people open up. There’s a layer of abstraction between the map and the organization that it represents. It can be easier, politically and emotionally, to criticize the map than to criticize the org structure, policies, processes, etc. “What’s not working for you right now about how this is structured?” is a less scary question than “What’s effed up about our company?”

A map also helps people expand their thinking when you ask the magic wand question: “If you could change or fix anything about our content world, what would it be?” If I ask this on the phone, with nothing to look at, I get, “Uh, hmm, good question.” If I ask it while we’re all looking at the map, I get a quick and passionate list.

Use your map to keep conversations focused on content strategy.

Use the ecosystem map as something to look at to keep the attention of stakeholders and focus conversations on content strategy concerns. This helps prevent jumping ahead in the conversation to things like wireframes and visual designs.

You can use your ecosystem map in any meeting about content. Whatever is being discussed—governance issues, change management, campaign planning, content maintenance, even the wording of a single headline on a single page—connects to some part of your ecosystem, and you can literally point to it on the map to make sure everyone understands exactly what you’re talking about.

The map reinforces reality. There’s no room for confusion about which team, which channels, which tech.

Anchoring a conversation around the map also helps jog your memory—you won’t momentarily forget about a database that powers contact information for the sales team or a policy that applies to certain sites because of their market, because it’s all right there on the map.

Use your map to model changes to your content ecosystem.

Content strategists like to change stuff. New rules, new tools, new systems, new workflows. Change is scary and hard, and it can often be difficult to understand for those who aren’t as familiar with the inner workings of the content ecosystem as you are.

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Let’s say you have three sites that are being powered by three different installations of the same content management system. To make life simpler and improve the maintenance experience, you want to consolidate them to run off a new multi-site version of the same CMS. This is the kind of conversation that can go south quickly without a clear picture. “You want to do what? We need all of those sites, they aren’t even related; how can you possibly combine them?!” Map to the rescue! You can clearly show that all three sites are still things (bubbles) on the diagram, and that’s not changing. All that’s changing is that the three different CMS installs will now be one, and the same teams will still support it. Easy!

It’s pretty much never going to be the case that you get to design a site or system completely from scratch. A map representing current state that is familiar to people makes conversations about change much easier. In my experience, a map also makes these conversations more collaborative, as it feels like something you can safely “play with” to explore alternatives.

Actively document changes to the content ecosystem. 

A rolling content audit is more accurate and useful than one big audit every few years. The same goes for ecosystem mapping. As new channels come online, as old sites are retired, and as new roles are created, you can and should update the content ecosystem map to reflect this. The map is a source of truth, and by extension, you become the keeper of the truth. This is powerful. Being the person who knows what’s up, who can help people clarify their thinking and better utilize the existing content ecosystem to achieve their aims, will help you build trust and energy around content strategy.

Onward ...

These are just a few of the key ways I’ve found to use ecosystem maps in my work as a content strategist. You’re sure to find more of your own!

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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