Context vs. container

I recently shared a set of answers about “context first” with Canadian publishing site Quill & Quire. I’ve found a link to the interview, but you may get stuck in front of a subscription wall.

This post addresses the difference between “context” and “container. The second post outlines a business case for context. The final post explains why context is “here to stay”.

Can you define, and provide an example of, the container-first and context-first models?

“Container-first” workflows, the prevailing model, are built to create, maintain and distribute content in a single format, typically print. Other uses, including digital formats like eBooks, are derived or secondary. Discovery and access to published content takes place at the level of the format (an individual title). Examples include most traditional publishing houses.

“Context-first” workflows are built to collect and maintain links to metadata that can include research, footnoted links, sources, audio and video background and tagged content, as well as title-level metadata. The approach is format agnostic, presuming both multiple uses and likely reuse of content. In a search-driven environment, this contextual framework provides readers with multiple ways to find and consume content. Examples I’ve cited include, a food site, and Bloomberg LLP, which distributes content across multiple platforms on a real-time basis.

What are the key differences between the two concepts?

The container model focuses on creating products – books, magazines, newspapers. Discovery relies on metadata applied at the level of the (typically) physical object. “Context first” starts with the reader (both current and potential), organizes content for use and reuse (structural tagging) and includes metadata to help make content more discoverable (contextual tagging).

Why is traditional container-model “damaging” to publishing?

In my view, containers define content in two dimensions, excluding both content and context (metadata) that doesn’t fit. Filling containers strips out the context that is a luxury in the physical world, but a critical asset in digital ones. As we move to finding and consuming “content in browsers”, publishers are no longer selling content, or at least not content alone. They have to compete on context. If they don’t, they risk being replaced by those who do.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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