It’s safe to say that practically no one reading this has the word “taxonomy” in their official job title. The majority of folks don’t have it anywhere in their written job description either. Even if you work in communications, it’s likely the concept of taxonomy at least somewhat vexes you.

If this is true, don’t worry: you’re in good company. Taxonomy is a word with multiple meanings, and receives relatively little attention from executives in our sector. Yet for any nonprofit that wants to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its digital content, taxonomy is an essential strategic resource. 

Our goal in this blog post is to convince you to actually care about—and, if we’re really lucky, start to invest in improving—your organization’s taxonomy. To do this, we of course need to start by defining what “taxonomy” is (hint: it’s about more than just your website). 

A taxonomy classifies and organizes your valuable information

Biologists are, of course, the most famous taxonomists: humans are homo sapiens, for example, under the hominid family. And hominids are a subset of the primate class (which itself is just one of many types of mammal). This elegant system helps scientists understand the relationships between different types of living organisms.

In the digital space, a taxonomy is any system that classifies digital content produced by your organization (e.g. web and email copy, reports, audio and video files, photos, infographics). Just like biologists, anyone creating digital assets for your nonprofit can ideally make use of intuitive labels or categories to organize content into groups that share similar characteristics.

Here’s one basic example that’s familiar to many nonprofits. When publishing a new story or blog post on your website, your system likely prompts you to identify tags (or keywords) that capture the essence of the content you’ve created. If a web user clicks one of these tags, they may be taken to other stories or content from your organization that relates to the same topic, region, or program area.

This example helps to illustrate the concept of taxonomy, but it’s limited in important ways. For one, it’s mostly backwards-looking. Many people think of taxonomy primarily as organizing content that already exists—when the truth is that it helps smart leaders to strategically plan and optimize their future investments. Also, to the extent people think of taxonomy, it’s typically with regard to websites. Yet taxonomy can link with other outreach systems (e.g. email marketing services, social publishing platforms, CRM systems) to unlock an exciting new world of capabilities that deepen audience engagement.


An expanded view of how taxonomy benefits your organization

Best-in-class organizations develop a unified classification system for all their digital content, aligned with their strategic plan, and developed in collaboration with folks across departments. These taxonomies are consistently implemented by all staff, thanks to strong governance policies and procedures. And they knit together data across multiple systems to create maximum impact (with data typically centralized in a CRM).

With these pieces in place, taxonomy becomes a dynamic, forward-looking force that helps organizations achieve marketing results that were previously unattainable. Such a comprehensive approach to taxonomy allows you to:

Generate meaningful data insights that boost outreach performance. Which topics and types of content are getting the most engagement from your audiences? Are there types of content that require relatively little staff effort, but are making a big impact? When taxonomy is rigorously applied across the organization, your team starts to identify reliable performance trends across content types, and use these insights to boost effectiveness. This may lead you to generate new content in areas that are particularly valuable for users, or that haven’t been addressed in a long time. You may also promote and elevate high-impact content that hasn’t yet gotten enough sunlight. 

Do more with less by enabling marketing automation and personalization. Your outreach teams want to craft compelling messages for all of their key audience segments. Yet they juggle many responsibilities, and have limited time and resources. By marrying marketing automation with smart personalization, nonprofits deliver targeted communications, tailored to the interests that stakeholders have revealed through their past online behaviors. This can fuel dramatic improvements in the efficiency of outreach. 

Deliver a consistent, cohesive audience experience across platforms. All of your systems—including your website CMS, email, and social publishing systems—work together to create a cohesive experience for your audiences. Or at least they should! Taxonomy is the connective tissue between these various systems. With a well-managed taxonomy, your organization constantly tracks and learns about audience members’ interests in a structured way, no matter which digital platforms they use to engage with your work. This, in turn, allows you to direct consistent messages to them across each platform.

Align content strategy with your broader organizational strategy. When taxonomy is linked to your organizational strategy (as well as your audience engagement strategy), it helps you clearly identify where there are major gaps in existing content. This supports efforts to invest scarce time and resources in new content that directly supports your organizational priorities. Likewise, it empowers you to redirect resources away from topics and areas that are no longer strategic priorities and where sufficient content already exists.

Inform the development of your next strategic plan. If you work for an organization whose primary work is to inform and engage its audiences online—for example, a think tank, trade association, or membership organization—your effectiveness hinges upon actionable data about the types of content that create the most value for members and stakeholders. Empowered by the performance data that flows from a good taxonomy, you grow able to identify the specific resources and digital assets that matter most, as well as quantify their impact.

Save your staff time. Inconsistent categorization of files causes teams to lose hours searching for key digital assets—a fact that became startling clear for many groups in the wake of the pandemic, with the rush to remote work. A strong taxonomy, with clear policies and processes governing usage, helps ensure that these assets are clearly and intuitively organized for maximum efficiency and ease of use.

Position your content well for next-generation search. When it comes to voice and other new search technologies, your organization has little margin for error: no one will listen to a half hour of Alexa results. Your key content needs to be the first or second to emerge in a search query or it will wither on the vine. As these technologies grow more popular, taxonomy services will be a big differentiator for forward-thinking organizations.

Put taxonomy at the front of the train, not the back

To the degree that taxonomy currently gets attention from nonprofit executives, it tends to happen during big web redesign projects. This when organizations are forced (often with not so much enthusiasm) to revisit their taxonomy. It’s at the back of the train, rather than leading the train.

Fortunately, you don’t need to wait for a big-ticket tech investment before embarking on a comprehensive, holistic effort to strengthen your organization’s taxonomy. It can happen any time! And it makes strategic sense to prioritize the effort in advance of other big moves, so that future strategic investments you make are primed for a more transformational impact. 

Intrigued about the potential for improved taxonomy to strengthen your organization’s operating system for audience engagement? We’re happy to walk you through the process of making it happen. Please feel free to schedule a brief call, or email me directly with questions.