Do we need a new word for content?

Has the C-word got stretched so far as to become meaningless? How did we get here – and where are we going next?

When Sticky Content was launched almost 20 years ago, back in the embryonic days of the digital industry, there was very little sense of ‘content’ as a thing worthy of discussion in itself. In fact, I’m not even sure that we used the phrase ‘content agency’ very much.

And for every brave pioneer of the ‘content is king’ argument back then, there were a dozen naysayers who said ‘connectivity’ or ‘convergence’ or ‘context’ was really where it’s at. (Anything, so long as it still alliterated and wasn’t ‘content’, basically.) No one cared about what went on the site so much – it was about nabbing a url, securing the next round of funding, and selling your half-cooked baby on to the next guy.

Today, on the other hand, the C-word has eaten the marketing Internet; my Google search on ‘digital content’ yields 36,100,000 results for the term in 0.6 seconds. That’s an approximate value, of course, but it’s symbolically massive. And while, as a content person, I am naturally pleased to see ‘content’ front and centre of the digital conversation, you do start to wonder: has the C-word now been so overused as to become meaningless?

Is it not now almost easier to list the things that don’t count as ‘content’ than the things that do? And do we, perhaps, need a new way of talking about the various things we want to refer to when we say ‘content’?

What is content anyway?

Content can mean so many things to marketers these days. It covers email newsletters and videos; podcasts and white papers; Tweets, memes, and Vines. It can also mean error messages and T&Cs; printed leave-behinds and branded magazines; forum chatter and text messages.

All mediated artefacts, true, but content is now also often taken to mean live experiences such as speaking events, webinars, and even the conversations that happen across the Genius Bar in the Apple Store or between customers and service agents.

It is, when you think about it, an incredibly capacious and flexible word that can be happily applied both to a set of wellness tips from an insurance company …and to a man conducting a sponsored space jump. (But then again, perhaps, if an antelope is a document, why not?)

Why did we call it ‘content’ anyway?

One view of why all these things got to be called ‘content’ is that the term was popularised by people who didn’t have to think about such things before. ‘Twenty years ago, the IT department probably ran the website,’ comments content strategist Martin Wake. ‘The idea of having a content strategy that was separate from your marketing strategy or your communications strategy would have been inexplicable.’

Perhaps the reason there is a thing called ‘content’ at all, he argues, is that in those days, ‘the people running Web projects also had other things to work on, so they saw it through that prism – design, UX, build, content.

‘But perhaps in five years, this will all just be called “communications” – and the shift from websites being in the tech department to digital being in the marketing department will be complete. We’ll all have learnt to see content as a combination of tone of voice, visual identity, channel, message, audience, etc – all the things that go into a communications strategy, in other words – rather than as just a separate strand of an IT project.’

Another view is that this is a familiar story about the typical development of an industry – with ‘content’ following the same trajectory as, for example, ‘brand’ and ‘branding’. First, there’s an effort to promote the new word (a brand is more than a logo, content is as important as design, etc.); then, as the industry matures, specialisms develop and the word needs to be qualified (eg challenger brand, luxury brand, personal brand, and brand architect; or content marketing, micro-content, evergreen content, and content strategist).

But regardless of how it got here, why not just keep saying ‘content’ if we all know what it means?

Time for a more nuanced vocabulary

Well, I’m not sure that we do. The things we lump together as content actually fall into very different categories, clearly distinct in what they look like (format), what they’re for (purpose), and what skills you need to plan and execute them (specialism).

The content work of a customer service agent on Twitter, for instance, has nothing to do with the skills of a video producer or a data visualisation journalist. The wittily visual custodian of your branded Instagram account might struggle to create the in-depth product content for the catalogue they’re always linking to.

And the sort of content person who can research an authoritative white paper on a key industry trend is unlikely to also be the best person to write compelling, user-friendly UX microcopy to optimise conversions through the transactional areas of your website (and then rewrite, based on testing data).

Content can be promotional, informative, entertaining, functional, navigational, service-focused. Many of these strands are owned by different functions in your organisation, and may be resourced and measured differently. And to add to the complexity, these purposes cut across channels and media too – and several may often be present in combination in a single content asset.

Yet, for all of this complexity, we persist in trying to produce advice and insight that looks at lumping all these different content types and functions together as if ‘content’ were a single entity. To take one example almost at random, this Accenture survey describes content as ‘to business what water is to life: an essential element for health and growth’. Yet, aside from a single reference to ‘external and internal facing digital content’, there is nowhere in this C-level discussion of content processes, content strategy, content overload, and content production headaches any attempt to break down the phrase ‘digital content’ at all.

This broad-brush approach is a bit like trying to assess the effectiveness of colour in your marketing: it just all depends on context, and only a more granular, cross-disciplinary approach will tell you anything worth knowing. So I’m not arguing for a new word for ‘content’, but rather for a more nuanced, expressive vocabulary—for an end to using one big clunky word to stand in for lots of very different things.

As shape-shifting marketers, we need to look hard at the providers of content insights who never stop to clarify their frame of reference. And we need to define what content means for us in our world, build skills and knowledge in our teams accordingly—and be prepared to adapt as those definitions evolve.

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