How I Use the Core Model to Create Better Web Content

I've been publishing content on the web since 1999(ish). From the very start, it was natural for me to apply the principles of good web writing:

  1. Be as clear and succinct as possible
  2. Keep the reader in mind
  3. Use plain language
  4. Put the most important message first
  5. Don't make people think

Wherever I have worked, I've had the pleasure of helping others understand how to write better for the web. From working with stakeholders and clients to leading seminars and workshops on writing for the web, I've reached many people and helped them learn how to make their piece of the web a little better.

In 2014 I learned something that made helping people learn to write for the web even better. It was a happy coincidence that Beka Wueste, content strategist on the ASCE web team I led, attended Confab Central, where Ida Aalen from Netlife was speaking about using the core model to reach objectives. That spring we were getting ready to start producing content for our new website. It all came together like magic!

Beka used Netlife's core model worksheet and workshop format to get all 35 web editors on board with a collaborative and collective process for create our new content. Was it perfect? No. Did it allow us to limit the number of pages on the site? Yes. Did it improve the quality of content published? Definitely.

Ever since then, I have incorporated the core model methodology into creating new web content. Before explaining how I've used it, I want to thank Netlife for sharing this wonderful methodology. And especially Ida Aalen and Audun Rundberg, whom I've had the pleasure of meeting and appearing with at conferences.

What is the Core Model?

Ida Aalen best explains what the core model is:

The core model is first and foremost a thinking tool. It helps the content strategist identify the most important pages on the site. It helps the UX designer identify which modules she needs on a page. It helps the graphic designer know which are the most important elements to emphasize in the design. It helps include clients or stakeholders who are less web-savvy in your project strategy. It helps the copywriters and editors leave silo thinking behind and create better content.
Source: The Core Model: Designing Inside Out for Better Results

It gets to the core reason you are creating web content: to meet user needs while helping achieve business goals.

A page is only core if it satisfies both a real need and helps you meet business objectives. When you can identify the core content, it helps you prioritize what gets attention in the information architecture of the site as well as with stakeholders. You'll end up with some non-core pages, but by helping your users get what they came for, you'll also be able to lead them to the things you want them to do, like donate.

Use the Core Model worksheet in the writing process

The core model worksheet is the tool I use without fail before writing for the web. It helps gets the writer out of their own head and into the user's.

Instead of starting with what you want to say and writing it, start with identifying the primary audience for the page - just one! Ask, "Who is the person reading this?" Of course there are multiple types of people who could read it, but you will meet their needs if you meet the target reader's. For example, write for a undergrad student even if their faculty advisor also would read the page. After all, they are really just conduits on the way to the student.

With that target reader in mind, write down their need, starting with a verb and making it as specific as possible. It might help to ask, "What are they here for?"

NO: Use career resources for hiring.

YES: Post a job description to job board.

Now you can write the business goals connected to this page. Using the example of a job board, perhaps the goal is to increase revenue from job postings.

Here's an example of a completed one:

Completed top part of a core model worksheet

Completed top part of a core model worksheet

Still not writing yet! You've identified who and why, now you can figure out what.

Start by defining the inward paths so you have context for a user’s visit. This could be Google, an email, a social media post, or via a printed brochure. Thinking about how and why someone ends up at this page also connects your web page to the promotion of it.

The next step is to identify what content will satisfy the user's needs and help you achieve your goals in the Core Content & Call to Action section. Once again, ruthlessly prioritize and put the most important thing at the top. Answer “so what?” first. You might need to ask that a few times to get the right answer.

You want to make sure the reader is interested so they’ll keep going. Calls to action need to be specific: “Join our community” or “Become an advocate.” And only one per page. If you have multiple calls to action on a page, you have missed something along the way. Go back to the start and see where you can prioritize better or split the page into two pages.

Finally, think about where they are likely to go after reading this page and prepare yourself and them for the next step on their journey. Sometimes the forward path is to leave your site. That is OK! It's part of the context and helps you link pages on your site better. It's here that you can start thinking about some of those non-core pages that someone might actually want to go to now that they have satisfied their need. (In Netlife's Norweign Cancer Society case study, donations more than doubled even though the Donate page was not a core page.)

Use it yourself

The core model worksheet can be used on your own or in a group workshop. Netlife advises doing workshops with a variety of stakeholders participating. We did this at ASCE to kick off the content creation process. For starters, it helps to train people to use the worksheet and think differently about what content to create.

Workshops also get authors, who are usually stakeholders deeply invested in their audience, out of their own headspace. Because you walk through each step together in a group and not everyone is familiar with each others' audience or subject area, people will ask clarifying questions of each other. As this happens, the facilitator collects the input and completes the worksheet for use when it's is time to write.

If you are a team of one or don't have the authority to get your entire organization on board with this technique, you can still use this worksheet to help you create new content or rewrite existing content. Anyone can print this off and use it before they start to write. Or get with a buddy and check each other's work to make sure it's clear to someone who isn't as immersed in your audience and subject area.

Sometimes, as you're thinking through the target audience, their needs, and what is important, you find you don't need as much content. If multiple pages have the same audience, need, and business goal, that's a sign you need to trim a page or three. Because when it comes to the web, less is more.

Dig deeper into the core model methodology

Once again, thank you Netlife for sharing this methodology so widely! This post is just an introduction into what is possible with the core model. Get more guidance in these places, directly from Ida and Auden and the rest of the Netlife team:

Want to start designing from the inside-out? Tanzen incorporates this technique into each content strategy engagement and we also offer facilitation of workshops to get your team started.