How to Use Structured Content for Dynamic Storytelling

In a previous post about why you should use structured content, we looked at the technical reasons for using structured content. It helps make your content findable, scalable, and ready for omnichannel publishing. But, wait, there's more!

When you use structured content you enable dynamic storytelling. What I mean is you can mix and match the same content to tell multiple stories. This is possible because all your content is broken into chunks and connected through entity relationships. Much like a tangram puzzle, you can move pieces around to form different things. You don't have to think of every possible story when you start. You can make things up along the way – and your visitors can too.

A tangram puzzle has a set of shapes that can be put together in different ways to form various shapes.

A tangram puzzle has a set of shapes that can be put together in different ways to form various shapes.

Let's look at how and why you would use the same content for different stories.


If you are the trusted source of information for your subject area and people naturally come to you for the latest or most relevant information, you need to do some curation. They don't want just a list of all the articles on a topic. People are coming to you to find out what they should know now. Maybe there has been a news story that leads someone to look for more information on your topic.

For example, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) is a credible, reliable source of information about the built world. When there is a natural disaster or tragedy that affected infrastructure or buildings, journalists, engineers, and policy makers would turn to the organization for background. In particular, the ASCE website.

One such event was Superstorm Sandy in 2012. The result was massive flooding, power outages, beach erosion, and many other effects. Civil engineering is involved in all of these things. And people looked to ASCE to help get the East Coast back to normal. In response, the staff put together a resource page to showcase the most relevant information needed to recover from the storm.

Curation without structured content

Without structured content, someone would need to take the following steps to create this page:

  1. Scour the website to find content of various types – books, journal articles, magazine articles, standards, policy statements – related to hurricanes and their damage to infrastructure, coasts, and buildings.
  2. Create a web page that listed all of this information, entering each title, where it came from, and link to the appropriate page on the website.
  3. Update the home page and other related pages to point to the hurricane-resource page.
  4. Continually update all of these pages as resources are added.

Repeat all four steps every time something similar happened – a bridge collapse, a tornado, a tsunami, a sinkhole.

Curation with structured content

With structured content, this effort becomes much easier. And the process is done once and reusable for each incident.

  1. Create a template page that brings together specified content types (for example, books, journal articles, magazine articles, standards, policy statements) on a selected topic.
  2. Using template, select topic and publish.
  3. Activate widget for home page and related pages to point to topic page.

Repeats steps 2 and 3 whenever needed. If a new resource is added, it will automatically appear in the curated list.

The end result might look exactly the same in the interface, but there is much less effort for curating content when you have a bunch of entities rather than a bunch of formless web pages. And the subject matter expert could create it instead of having to have someone from the web team work with an expert to define what to put on the list of resources.

Editorial decisions

Sometimes you want to be able to tell a story by exposing a specific set of resources or even a specific piece of content. You want to go beyond curation on a topic and make more of a statement about what your organization is doing or where it fits into a wider universe of the subject area.

Say you are a steward of a large public park. At any time throughout the park, there are restoration and renovation projects happening. Of course, you want to communicate with park visitors what's closed for restoration. That's easy enough with a list of projects and details about each one.

But maybe you also want to tell a story about a certain area of the park. This area has playgrounds, paths, and woodlands. Before your organization began its renovation work, this area was derelict and most people avoided it. Under your stewardship, the area has been transformed into a vibrant space, full of children and families on the weekends and exercise groups at lunchtime on weekdays. You want to show off the work you did to transform this area as proof of your contribution to the park.

Making editorial decisions without structured content

On a static website full of distinct pages, you might do the following:

  1. Write a story and include photos of the area before and after the projects started.
  2. Include some information about the restoration projects done over the last 5 years.
  3. Link to specific project pages with the details of each project on it. Each project page is entered at a different time, and they may or may not have consistent formatting or types of information.
  4. Make room on the home page for the story by displacing other content, linking to the story page.
  5. When a project gets updated or added, you change or add that project page and add a link to the story page.

After two months, this content is stale and you need to show a different part of the park, or highlight different types of projects. Whatever you do, you need to start all over and create a new page and format it with photos and a new list of projects or other links.

Making editorial decisions with structured content

Using structured content, you've got all the projects set up consistently with fields for each bit of information and tagged with various category metadata like neighborhood, project type, and completion date. To showcase this area you:

  1. Create a showcase landing page template and a widget for the home page, both of which let you select a neighborhood to feature.
  2. Select the neighborhood.
  3. The home page widget displays the appropriate information and links to the landing page.
  4. As projects get updated or added, the respective lists gets updated.

Because it's so easy and fast to update this, you can plan a new "story" every 2-4 weeks, keeping content fresh and adaptable for out-of-the-ordinary editorial needs. You only need to anticipate the types of content needed for the widget and the landing page and how you might want to filter them to tell a story. Everything else can be decided at the time of publication.

Like curation, the website visitor won't notice the difference, other than seeing a different story each time they come to the site. That in itself creates a type of engagement that might even entice some people to get involved in the park by volunteering, donating, or advocating for a new project to be approved.

User-defined journey

The first two types of storytelling are defined by your organization. But sometimes you want to let visitors choose their own adventure through your content. With the metadata and relationships of structured content, you can allow visitors to click through different paths without having to imagine them all at the outset.

For this one, let's use an example of a scientific society that provides career support for undergraduate and graduate students, as well as early-career professionals. These people want to know their options when it comes to specialties in their fields as well as types of jobs opportunties they might have.

User-defined journey without structured content

This just really isn't possible. You can only provide one set of options to your visitors because you've only got a series of web pages linked together through manual hyperlinks.

User-defined journey with structured content

In the "exploring careers in [scientific field]" section, there are these content types and categories:

  • Specialties
  • Career paths
  • Profiles (of working professionals)
  • Fellowships
  • Certifications
  • Supplemental courses
  • Volunteer opportunities
  • Job listings

Without knowing how a person might want to explore all of these opportunities, you can set up relationships between all the content types by specialty or career path. As explained in the curation section here, you could create templates for indexes of each content type that could be filtered by category. As the visitor clicks through to different index pages, it would dynamically populate based on a variable. You do not need to anticipate all the permutations of the order of the visit. And you certainly do not need to create and maintain each page manually.

That sounded very technical. So let me show you how this might look.

These pages are linked together by dynamic lists, allowing visitors to choose how they want to explore the topics.

These pages are linked together by dynamic lists, allowing visitors to choose how they want to explore the topics.

How do you want to tell your story?

Are you excited by some possible applications of structured content for telling a story? The permutations and applications are far ranging, and possibly endless. There is no need to be a fortune teller to make your website work in the future. Set it up to be flexible and scalable and let the stories tell themselves.