The Content Lifecycle

One of the misconceptions about the production of content is that of the content “supply chain”. Books published in print works on a supply chain model: create, print, sell, done. There is a distinct beginning and end.

That’s become a less common scenario in today’s business environments. Content production is circular, and works on a lifecycle model of create, manage, and deliver, repeated many times over. This creates a very different set of tensions and complexities than exist in a supply chain.

Working within content lifecycle means recognising that the business of producing content follows a standardised, repeatable process. The sub-processes may be subject to variations – the lifecycle for marketing campaigns is very different than for product content, and even within product content, there are variations within the production cycle – yet the overall process must remain stable and predictable.

The content lifecycle describes an organic system, and is system-agnostic. The phases of the lifecycle take into account the production of content from cradle to grave, from the planning of the need for content, through the base lifecycle and all of its subsequent iterations, through to when that content is retired. Those iterations can run from a single cycle to dozens or hundreds. Content can survive many sprints, many iterations, and many products.

content lifecycle with four quadrants
Content lifecycle

The success of a lifecycle is directly related to the effort put into planning the content strategy. (A strategy is a fancy word for plan, so content strategy is the plan that you make to manage content throughout all the phases of a lifecycle.) The multitude of components and intersections of content have become too complicated to begin implementation on faith alone, with the hope that someone will connect the dots later on. Companies have racked up huge amounts of content debt that way, often debt that becomes crippling over time, and unable to remediate.

When constructing a house, a builder works from a set of architectural plans that specifies not only the structural dimensions, but also the heating, ventilation, and plumbing. By comparison, a content strategist creates the blueprint by which designers, writers, and developers can build a successful model for delivering content. A strategist is similar to an architect in that way, designing for the system by which content producers will manage content throughout the lifecycle. There are many types of strategies for many circumstances and many content genres, trying to systemise content production for many different purposes. However, there are commonalities across the board. Much as every house has some sort of floor, roof, and entry way, every content lifecycle has four general phases:

  • At the beginning is an analysis phase, where you decide what type of content is needed, or whether content is needed at all.
  • Then, there is an acquisition phase, in which the content is collected, either by creating it or getting some another source.
  • The next phase is managing the content, which involves making sure the content conformed to whatever rules and tools are used to control the content.
  • The following phase is delivering the content for publication, and deciding what happens after the delivery – is this the end of the line for this content, or does it go through the next iteration?

A lot of lifecycles are assisted or enforced through the use of technology, but don’t need to be. A lifecycle is a concept that governs content production, whether the lifecycle is explicit – published somewhere for people to follow – or implicit – an unofficial understanding of how the lifecycle works.

Lifecycle variants

While all content has a lifecycle, not all lifecycles are created equal. An organisation may have many content genres, each one with its own lifecycle. For example, marketing content works on a very different rhythm than product content. Within product content, several types of content can come together, each with a different lifecycle. Content, such as a compliance disclaimer, might get used once and then be reviewed on a regular basis. Other content gets aggregated from multiple sources for presentation as an integrated unit—for example, product descriptions sent by vendors, pricing from an ERP system, and a publishing cycle with multiple dependencies, from promotional schedules to geo-boundaries. In the world of technical content, an entirely different set of tensions inform the content lifecycle. Conditional processing, re-use maps, and publishing pipelines are of paramount importance.

The content lifecycle is the foundation of every content strategy, whether it’s for an editorial strategy, multimedia strategy, or technical strategy. It connects content to the rest of the content ecosystem. It eases the process of forming a strategy, and becomes the backbone that holds together the operational model for content production.