What is Content?

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Before you dismiss this question out of hand, please consider my main points:

Most people think of content as type or format. You see that in buying stage content alignment graphics. But content is really comprised of three elements: contentS (information), package (format) and purpose (the job content must perform). Jim Burns, Execute Content Strategy blog. (Copy to reuse)

Content under-performs primarily because it doesn’t sufficiently support the purposes for which users and audiences need content. Unfortunately, purpose is seldom explicitly defined before content is created. Jim Burns, Execute Content Strategy blog. (Copy to re-use)

Consider the universally recommended prescription to define content requirements at each stage of the buying process. The graphic below from SiriusDecisions is a common framework.

Content Aligned to Buying Process

The problem is, defining content as formats doesn’t help in any way inform the contentS — the information.

ContentS are the “what” and “how” of content: what to say, and how to say it. These are the critical inputs for content creation as well as retrieval.

This weak model leaves everyone thinking, “we’ve defined our requirement” (as content type) but in fact, haven’t defined anything truly useful.

Common Definitions of Words Are Essential

Perhaps more importantly, it makes conversations about “content” confusing and fosters misalignment between communicators.

For example, a colleague and sales messaging expert Michael Canon writing about marketing content in an excellent article, 9 Strategies to Increase Marketing Effectiveness: Enabling Greater Competitive Differentiation and Faster Revenue Growth, said this:

“What you see is that it’s often not the content that’s the problem but rather the messaging in the content.”

What does he mean by “content?” What is the difference between content and messaging? Why would we ever separate the two?

I’m not really sure. But this happens all the time. (I’m not disagreeing with his main points, just this important distinction.)

We experience this when clients tell us, “we want to create an ‘X'” — a webinar, video, presentation, whitepaper, etc.

When we respond, “what do you want to say, what do you want to achieve?” they often answer, “that’s what we need to figure out.” They usually have the topic identified, but there is little if any documented requirement, and certainly not an outline of key points they want to make.

Another example is when sales says, “we need video, or case studies, or testimonials,” (thinking “better content”) marketing says, “right, I’ll get right on that.” And they deliver, only to hear, “this sucks.”

Lack of a clear documented purpose for content is a primary cause of poor or misaligned content. One of the best criteria for content quality is does it support the defined use case purpose. Jim Burns, Execute Content Strategy blog. (Copy to re-use)


It’s important when you develop your content strategy, or plan and prepare for each content project, to define three major quality criteria:

Purpose — support specific use case requirements, the job it must do

Questions — that buyers have or should have

Relevance — issues, key points, stories and language that resonate with each primary target audience

This 60 second video will explain a little further:

This is a simple, but important shift that will improve the quality of your content as well as the efficiency and effectiveness of your content operations. And this is the path to better content performance and business outcomes.

In a conversation with a customer I found myself extending my thinking and definition of content to include experiences that deliver on the purpose for content. This feels much more complete and effective for me. So content is information that is packaged to deliver an experience (Tweet this). This helps me keep contentS separate from packaging, but align both to my purpose for creating content in the first place. Here’s a visual.

Content defined

Please remember the admonition of David Ogilvy

“What really decides consumers to buy or not to buy
is the content of your advertising, not its form.”

How do you define content? Where have you experienced problems due to unclear definitions?