Metadata are the workhorses of a content management system (CMS). Simply put, metadata tell your CMS platform what your content is about and let you do things with your content.

What Are Metadata?

Metadata are simply data about data. In our context, it’s information about our content, placed in pre-defined fields. Metadata ensures we’re collecting the same information about each content item. You can have different metadata for different types of content, such as an image, a video, an event, an article, or a landing page. Each metadata field is defined as a certain type of field, just as in a database. You can have fields like a text field, a date field, a contact field, a controlled list field, among others.

What Metadata Do We Use?

As an organization, you define what you want to know about your different types of content. As you work through a content strategy project, some of the things you’ll define are:

  • Audiences
  • User journey stages
  • Topics
  • Content workflow and governance
  • Business goals for content

Each type of content, whether its an image, video, event, article, or long content page, will need certain attributes so you can track it:

  • Which team or business unit created this content?
  • Who is responsible for keeping it up to date?
  • When does the content expire?
  • What is the topic about?
  • What kind of content is it?
  • Which audiences is it targeted at?

From there, you can list out the different metadata (or information about your content) that you need to track, for example:

  • Image: Team that created the content, team that needs to ensure the content is up to date, what the image is about, the image format
  • Video: Same as the image, plus the audience to which the video is targeted, the topics, and expiration date, the video format, the video thumbnail
  • Long content page: Same as image and video (except not the format and thumbnails)

Each of these items, the image, video, long content page, event, article, will become content types. Each content type has its metadata defined. Often the same metadata fields can be used on different content types, but certain content types will have different metadata. An image will have exif data. A video will have duration. Long content pages will have neither.

How Do We Define Content Types?

Once you have this list of fields that you need, you’ll need to define the fields for each content type.

Just as with any specification, you can list out fields for the content type, whether they appear on the page or are used for more administrative purposes and aren’t shown to the user. For example, the business unit may not be displayed to the user, but the topic and content type may be.

Each content type should list:

  • The metadata fields
  • The on-page fields (you may or may not know these in the early stage of development, so it’s fine to iterate on this area)
  • Whether each field is required or not
  • The type of allowed value (date, text, contact, controlled list, number, etc.)
  • Number of times the field can be used (do you allow it to be used once or do you allow multiple values for the field?)

These fields should be programmed into the CMS with the help of the appropriate developer.

Who Adds Metadata?

Now that you have the metadata you want to collect programmed into your CMS, you’ll need to collect the actual values. The metadata can be collected at the appropriate point in your content workflow process. You might delegate metadata creation along these lines:

  • Subject matter experts (SMEs) assign the topics the content is about and at whom the content is targeted
  • Content authors who are writing the content and working in the CMS input the format, expiration date, content type

What Do We Do With It Once We Have It?

Once you have all this metadata, then you start using it to:

  • Dynamically display content in different areas of your site, such as by audience, topic, content type
  • Display related content on a particular page
  • Personalize content, if you have a logged-on user experience or use some kind of personalization tool
  • Take content through content workflow and governance
  • Allow filtering and search results refinement on your site

Essentially, the world is your oyster! You can do all this because you have metadata. If you didn’t have metadata, you would not be able to use your content in these ways.

It’s a Fine Line…

As a final note, it’s a fine line between collecting too little metadata and too much metadata. The fields you use and the metadata you collect should be centered around your business and user needs. It’s best not to collect metadata for things you may do in the future. You’ll spend time and money collecting the information and you may never do anything with it, while at the same time creating administrative overhead and headaches for SMEs and content authors.

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