Five Drupal Content Migration Fundamentals

ArticleAugust 31, 2018

Drupal content migration is an essential part of any website redesign process (the most important, some would say). If content is king, then content migration is the armored chariot to take said king from the old castle to the new one. If bandits assail the king along the way, that fancy new castle won’t mean much. 

Awkward metaphors aside, content migration is an important part of the migration is an important part of the Drupal website redesign process and here are some content migration fundamentals you should know. 


#1 Drupal Content Migration Costs Money

Let’s get this out of the way first. 

Whether you do it yourself or outsource your Drupal content migration, content migrations are never, ever free. Ironically, with all the money put towards design and technology to deliver content, migration of the actual content itself is often overlooked by those embarking on a digital transformation journey. It's important to note that there are often significant costs associated with content migration. Typical costs include:

  • Writing and testing automatic migration scripts
  • Auditing content before migration
  • Manually creating new pages and rebuilding content
  • Tagging or retagging assets
  • Training and coordination

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get into some other Drupal content migration fundamentals. 


#2 Structured Content vs Unstructured Content

It’s important to understand the types of content before talking about Drupal content migration in detail. There are two basic types of content, structured and unstructured content. You probably have a bit of both on your site right now.

Unstructured content vs structured content

Unstructured content vs structured content

Structured content is your blog posts, press releases, product detail pages, webinars, anything with repeatable fields that are consistent between individual posts. Usually, meta information such as dates, categories or tags is associated with structured content as well.

Unstructured content, on the other hand, comes in the form of your long-form narrative pages, explorative brochure pages, or older static pages with no CMS at all. Basically, anything that is not structured content is unstructured. 

Think about your content for a moment. What type seems most common? What kind of quantity of each kind do you have? These questions that inform the migration process and are good ones to consider early. 

#3 Programmatic Migration vs Manual Migration

Now that we understand the types of content in play, there are also two main types of migration, programmatic migration and manual migration. Each has their uses depending on the kind of content you have.

Programmatic Migration

Programmatic migration is where structured content organized in database fields is exported from one content management system and imported into another via scripts. However, it’s no magic bullet. Fields are rarely identified in the same way between systems, which requires them to be remapped before migrating data. It’s a little like translating words in a foreign language. One site might use a content field “Address” while the other uses “Location.” A migration script acts a kind of Rosetta Stone to tell the data where to go.

Programmatic migration is a great tool for huge quantities of similar content with predictable fields and variations, but it’s not perfect. Like any automated process, it’s vulnerable to inconsistencies and one-off cases. 


  • Handles huge amounts of content
  • Automated
  • Can be adjusted and re-run


  • No nuance or intelligence during migration (all or nothing)
  • Can be labor intensive to write 

Best For

  • Structured content like articles, blogs, press releases.

Manual Migration

Like the name implies, manual migration is where human users move content from one system to the other through the Drupal UI, often editing and tidying as they go. Manual migration is best done with someone familiar with the site’s content, has an eye for layout, an ear for tone, or both. This is especially critical when the way content is presented shifts dramatically from one system to another (more on that later). 

Manual migration is best for non-structured content where decision making is needed for a good result. It can be time-consuming, but until AI swoops in to save the day, there is no way around it.

  • Ability to adapt to inconsistency between pages
  • Edit and migrate at the same time


  • Labor intensive
  • Human error

Best For

  • Narrative content, visually-driven layouts

The trick with any content migration to Drupal is weighing the effort between volume, complexity, and consistency. Typically, migrations are always a combination of both processes.


#4 Page Templates vs Components

The old way of thinking about websites consists of rigid, cookie-cutter page templates filled with a variety of information. Today, component-based design philosophy takes the approach of providing content admins sets of components to build and arrange new pages on the fly, resulting in hundreds of possible “page template” combinations. 

Sounds great, right? It is, but problems often arise during migration. In extreme cases, such as dated websites consisting of single, wall-of-text-style content moving to modular, component-based content must be manual. It’s simply not something a machine can do (yet) and it’s a challenge for even the best site administrators.

Long-form copy transformed into components

Long-form content transformed into components. 

You can imagine the complexity here. It’s a bit like trying to fit one huge peg into a dozen tiny holes—you have to cut it apart, sand the edges, and make it fit. And that takes work. Imagine the example page above times ten, or a hundred. Or a thousand. Suddenly those technical integrations scattered across your requirements don’t seem so daunting, do they?


#5 The Importance of Humans

But not to worry. Where there is a will, there's a way. By now you’ve come to see how vital competent, experienced people are in migrating site content. It can be a tedious, arduous process requiring patience and commitment, but ultimately what's needed for a great experience for your end users. But before you hire a squad of rag-tag content management mercenaries to help you migration, consider some of the following:

More is not necessarily better
When nuance, copy editing and layout involved in a migration, a large, inexperienced team isn’t always better. A small, core team of trained admins with the authority and experience to make good decisions can be far more effective.

Documentation upkeep
Making sure spreadsheets, workflow approval documents and copy revisions are up-to-date, synced and available for the whole team is hugely important for content migration. The devil is in the details, and they will turn on you if you don’t keep an eye out.

Elect a migration manager
A single point of content to coordinate teams is helpful to divide workload and keep track of parallel teams. This person should be well-trained in your new Drupal CMS to be able to field questions and be the go-to client-side resource.

Training and practice
We always prefer to train hands-on right as teams are starting the process so the knowledge is fresh. Reps are what make migrations efficient, and once people have a few pages under their belt, the process can be incredibly quick. This process also provides an additional QA cycle to ensure all functionality on the admin side is working correctly.


Wrap Up

If you thought your Drupal migration project was daunting before, it probably feels even more so. But there is good news. Agencies like us have the experience needed to manage massive migrations. Just ask Cvent, the largest event management SaaS provider in the world, who we helped execute a massive Drupal 8 content migration.