You’ve got your content pillars. You’ve got a content calendar.
But your ideation process is still chaotic: frantically brainstorm, come up with a handful of ideas, pop them in your content calendar, and hope that a) leadership signs off and b) your random acts of content are favoured by Google.
In this article, I’m going to show you how to properly structure your ideation using visual content maps. They’re a great way to come up with unique ideas, build effective content clusters, and sell your content plan internally.
- What Is a Visual Content Map?
- Why Are Visual Content Maps Useful?
- How to Create a Visual Content Map
- Best Tools for Visual Content Mapping
- Next Steps
What Is a Visual Content Map?
A visual content map is a type of diagram that’s useful for organising your brand’s content. It works best with SEO content created using a content clustering/hub-and-spoke approach.
Specifically, a content map is a rooted tree diagram that organises pages and articles into topical clusters. Each page/article is represented as a node. Nodes are organised based on specificity – the more broadly a single page/article covers the topic in question, the higher up the tree it will be.
Your broadest, highest-level article/page is the root node; this is known as your ‘pillar piece’. Each content map should only have one pillar piece. Subsequent levels of child nodes or ‘satellite pieces’ should cover the topic in increasingly specific ways.
Here’s an example:
(This isn’t, by any means, a complete example – I’ve only added a handful of child nodes to give you an idea of how content maps work.)
The pillar piece is The Essential Guide to Coffee, an article that covers everything to do with coffee. The first layer of satellite pieces gets more specific – we have articles looking at how coffee is grown, how it’s roasted, and what the different varieties are. The second layer is more specific still. In the example, we can see how subtopics such as ‘coffee plant’ and ‘coffee-growing regions’ are extrapolated from How Is Coffee Grown and Harvested? In the third and fourth layers, the topics are even deeper and more complex.
Creating a content map is essentially the art of taking a head topic and drilling down into it until you’ve separated out every conceivable sub-topic. Specific lines of inquiry should be followed until their logical end – that is, when you reach a topic that you can’t reasonably go any deeper on.
For example, let’s say we kept drilling down from Growing Your Own Coffee Plant: A Guide. Maybe we end up at How to Grow Arabica Coffee in Australia. That topic is so niche and specific that going deeper doesn’t really make sense, especially for SEO – after all, what else would a reader need to know about growing C. arabica in Australia that wouldn’t be covered by that article?
Create Around Entities, Not Keywords
The most important thing to understand about visual content maps is that they use an entity-based approach over a keyword-based approach. Each map should cover the different dimensions of a particular head topic.
While you might do keyword research for prioritisation and optimisation purposes, that’s not how the map itself should be created. In other words: use logic and topic research to chart your maps, not keyword tools.
Why Are Visual Content Maps Useful?
Content maps have three primary uses:
- They’re excellent ideation tools.
- They can be used to manage internal links.
- They’re useful for selling content plans internally.
The main thing I use visual content maps for is content ideation. If you come up with content ideas on ad hoc or keyword-centric basis (even if you use content pillars to keep your output focused), it’s very hard to cover every angle of a head topic.
These approaches tend to generate a) fundamental topics that every other brand has already covered and b) trending topics (which every other brand is starting to cover). You miss out on the hidden gems: the high-specificity, high-intent ideas that get longtail traction and help you become a genuine authority.
By using a content map to exhaust every possible line of inquiry, you can identify impactful topics that your competitors are overlooking.
Managing Internal Links
One of the ways that content clusters build topical authority is through strategic internal linking. By interlinking multiple related topics, you make it easier for Google to see that you’re covering different aspects of the same entity.
But managing internal links isn’t easy – especially if you’re dealing with a site that previously had poorly defined editorial processes. Content assets could be missing internal links, unnecessarily diluting PageRank, or sitting in isolation as orphan pages.
Although you can use tools like Google Search Console and Screaming Frog to see the number of incoming and outgoing internal links per page (Screaming Frog even lets you analyse link position, which is incredibly handy for larger sites), getting a high-level view of where those links lead is harder.
To simplify it, add internal links to your visual content map. If you’re using a tool like Octopus.do, which I strongly recommend, you’ll have access to a dedicated internal linking function that lets you connect different nodes with arrows. While this isn’t an ideal fix for larger content clusters (it does get messy after a while), it can be helpful for smaller sites that want to make sure their topic clusters are interlinked in the right way.
Selling Content Plans Internally
A third benefit of visual content maps is that they’re incredibly helpful for selling content plans internally. Your standard content plan gets presented to senior stakeholders as a calendar – “Here’s how we’re going to tackle content output for the next quarter.”
While there’s nothing wrong with content calendars, they can be uninspiring as a presentation tool. (After all, only marketers get excited by a Google Sheet labelled ‘Q1 Blog Posts’.) Content maps, on the other hand, are colourful, visual, and in a logical format that all stakeholders, including non-marketers, can easily recognise. You’re also not just presenting a roadmap – you’re giving them a list of all possible options, and then using a more concrete tool like a calendar or prioritisation framework to show them your plan of attack.
Currently, my preferred approach is to pair all three: a visual content map built with Octopus.do, content topics organised by solution proximity in Airtable, then proposed topics for the reporting period organised by delivery date (i.e. a content calendar), also in Airtable. This makes it easier to get sign-off, because clients can see a) that we’ve covered all possible bases with the map, b) that we’ve then ordered the topics using a logical, revenue-centric framework, and c) that we’ve then selected the highest-priority topics for delivery at a cadence that aligns with previously agreed goals.
How to Create a Visual Content Map
Here’s a step-by-step guide to creating a visual content map for your own content cluster. We’ll be building this cluster from scratch; the process might look a little different if you’re building a map for existing content assets.
- Log in to Octopus.do (my preferred visual content mapping tool).
- Click ‘New Project’.
- Delete all example pages except for the parent node.
- Rename it as your pillar page and delete all the wireframe blocks. You can use a descriptive, title-style name (such as The Essential Guide to Coffee) or a plain, entity-style name (such as ‘coffee’).
- Start researching your topic. Every time you find what feels like a unique idea, add it to your content map. You can add a wireframe block with descriptive text if you need to clarify what the topic should cover.
- The best research resources are books. They’re comprehensive enough that they’ll cover a given topic in full, versus merely covering one aspect (as blog posts do).
- Organise your topics as you go. Remember, start broad and high-level, and go deep and specific. Each topic should sit under a logical parent – a broader topic that touches on the content in question.
- Learn how to pursue lines of inquiry and recognise worthwhile concepts.
- Example: Let’s say you’re researching different kinds of coffee. You read this article. You see the reference to ‘mushroom coffee’. That’s a good line of inquiry to pursue – you’ll end up with a huge number of topics around the best types of functional mushrooms for coffees, how functional mushrooms affect caffeine absorption, the best types of pre-mixed mushroom coffee brands, and so on. Following lines of inquiry is exactly how you build unique, comprehensive content maps.
- Once you’ve completed your content map, click the colour legend at the bottom. Assign different colours to different project statuses. For example:
- Blue = approved topic
- Orange = assigned/in progress topic
- Green = live topic
- Grey = recommended but not approved topic
- Red = live but requires consolidation/deletion
- Begin colour-coding your nodes as required.
- You’re done! You have a content map that can now be shared with stakeholders and used to select topics for delivery.
Best Tools for Visual Content Mapping
Pricing: From Free
Octopus.do is the gold standard in visual content mapping tools (all content maps in this article have been built using it). I’ve personally been using the Pro version for years, and it’s well worth the US$8 per month. Even the Team version – which you’ll need if you want to work collaboratively on content maps – is just $34 per month.
Because this is a purpose-built tool for sitemaps, it has incredibly robust feature set. You can easily add child or sibling nodes with a click, colour-code nodes, add internal links, include notes and wireframe blocks for each node, create multiple map sections, export static maps or share live interactive links, and so much more.
While there are a few small bugbears – for example, the click-mapping with internal link selection is occasionally sloppy, and it would be nice if all internal links highlighted when a node was clicked – Octopus is far and away the best tool for content mapping.
I’ll also note that the collaboration aspects, even without the Team plan, are excellent. If you share an interactive link with stakeholders, they can actually add comments to each individual node (anonymous or otherwise), which is great if you’re seeking feedback on larger maps.
Gloomaps was the tool I used before I discovered Octopus.do. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it – it’s a perfectly functional visual sitemap builder that serves utility in no-frills interface. You can create rooted tree diagrams, easily add child and sibling nodes, change node colours and fonts, leave notes on individual nodes, and share your map via live link or exported file.
The nice part: it’s 100% free. The main reason it plays second fiddle to Octopus is that it lacks the polish you really want in a visual content map. Keep in mind that people will almost always react better to deliverables that look pretty, and Gloomaps falls a bit short in that department. It also doesn’t have an internal linking feature, and maps only stay active for 14 days unless you reopen the link (no good for long-term projects).
Pricing: From US$18 per month
Flowmapp is a great sitemap tool – a little too great. While its feature set is impressive (I’m trialling it as a way to combine sitemaps with high-fi wireframes for clients), it’s actually a little sluggish for use as a content mapping tool. You simply don’t need wireframes and templates and the level of detail that Flowmapp provides, and I don’t love how overstuffed it feels compared to Octopus.do. It also doesn’t have a way to visually track internal links.
One thing I do really like is the labels feature (Octopus doesn’t have this). You can actually use word- and colour-based labels to indicate asset status instead relying on a colour legend, which is very helpful.
Personally, I’d be keeping Flowmapp for sitemaps, but, if you don’t want the hassle of two subscriptions, it can function as a decent content mapping tool too.
(Note: Flowmapp technically has a Free plan, but it only allows up to 15 nodes per map, which, for content map creation, isn’t really feasible. You’ll need the Pro plan to properly use this tool.)
Miro and Other Mind Map Tools
Pricing: From Free
Miro, MindNode, Whimsical and other mind mapping tools are birds of the same feather. They’re fine for quickly sketching out ideas, but they’re not really suitable for proper content mapping. I’d recommend steering clear of them, especially as Octopus.do and Gloomaps are both free.
If you’re sold on the idea of using visual content maps in your marketing workflows, you’re probably asking, “What next?”
From here, you’ve got two options.
- Go out and create your own maps. This guide should have given you everything you need to get started, and the learning curve isn’t too steep. Any marketer who’s familiar with the basic principles of SEO and content ideation should be able to get on board fairly quickly.
- Pay a content strategist to create maps for you. The downside the content mapping is that it isn’t a 30-minute process. You’ll generally need to lay aside a reasonable amount of time (anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days, depending on the complexity of the content cluster) to effectively plumb every aspect of the topic in question. You’ll also need someone who understands how to think in terms of entities, not keywords. I’ve seen marketers come up with multiple topic ideas that are just slightly reworded versions of each other and put them down as different ideas – don’t do this. It’s not an effective use of resources, you could risk keyword cannibalisation, and you’ll confuse your writers. As such, outsourcing creation of your content maps to someone who’s done it before can be a better option than doing it in house.
Prefer option two? Book a free 30-minute consultation with me to talk about what content mapping could look like for your team.