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I Content Strategize, Therefore I Am

by Melissa Rach on January 20th, 2011

Descartes: Drunken Fart

With all of the focus on content strategy recently, discussions about the definition of the word “content” have erupted into a philosophical debate that would make Kant, Descartes, and Heidegger proud. Some people say “everything is content.” Others say “there’s no such thing as content.” And then there are the hundreds of well-argued definitions in between.  

It was all fun and games, until reality hit

While philosophical debates can be super fun (René Descartes was a drunken fart, Immanuel Kant was a real pissant, etc.), they can make day-to-day project work confusing. If content is everything, where does content strategy begin and end? And, if content is nothing, why does it seem to be so important to businesses?

We admit it. We Brain Traffickers lean philosophically toward the “content is everything” camp.  But, we realized early on that content strategy projects require a simple, flexible, and limiting definition of content that everyone on a project team can align on.

At first, finding the right way to corral content was a struggle. Things finally clicked when we started differentiating between content and content-related elements we call “content facilitators.”  (Apologies to people who are called content facilitators. We’re stealing your job title until we think of something else.)

So, what is “content”?

Content isn’t always a confusing word. When you talk about offline channels, such as books or presentations, content is a pretty easy concept to define.

Consider this: What is the content of an average biology textbook? If you’re like most people, you’d probably say something like, “It’s about biology: cells, animals, plants, and stuff.” And, if you happen to have a biology textbook, you could grab it and look at the (ahem) “table of contents” to get more specific details.

Although other communication channels are often more complex, the basic concept remains the same. The content is the meat—it’s what the user came to read, learn, see, or experience. From the business perspective, the content is the critical information the book, site, etc., was created to contain or communicate. (Think contents, not content.)

And, what are “content facilitators”?

Every communication channel has content facilitators—informational elements that exist to help people find, use, and understand the content. The real confusion about content started with the advent of the web, where the line between content and content facilitators started to blur.

Our biology book has several facilitators, such as a table of contents, an index, a bio of the author, and an unnecessarily large picture of a dewy grasshopper on the front cover. All of these things are helpful (even the grasshopper provides context), but they’re not the reason most people buy the book.  In fact, they’re really optional.        

Online, however, facilitators—such as navigation, metadata, taxonomy, brand imagery, help text, etc.—are mission critical. The content is unusable and unrecognizable without them.

Let’s face it. With a few exceptions (you know who you are), people don’t go online to see metadata. But they’d be awfully screwed without it. Metadata generally doesn’t fit our definition of content, but it sure as heck needs to be considered during the content strategy process.

Philosophically speaking …

Establishing working definitions for content and content facilitators has made a big difference in our content strategy practice. Although both are extremely important in any content strategy, distinguishing between the two makes it easier for us to communicate project goals, set priorities, and work with partners.   

As an added bonus, clients like it. They have an easier time communicating internally, and because our definition of content isn’t limited by format (text, pictures, data, etc.), topic, or channel, Brain Traffic is better able to adapt our work to every client’s specific situation.

But, we still love an etymology debate (we’re wordnerds, after all). Give us a few drinks and we’re happy to wax philosophical about it. Just like Heidegger, that boozy beggar who could think you under the table.

  • http://borislavkiprin.com Borislav Kiprin

    Short and sweet. Great job, Melissa & Brain Traffickers! Keep them coming!

  • http://twitter.com/ticjones Tiffani Jones Brown

    Can I quadruple like this?

  • http://twitter.com/brittaalexander Britta Alexander

    I love the use of “content facilitators,” mostly because it doesn’t require a long, heady definition that still leaves you scratching your head. Other people on a web project are likely to get it without an explanation. Clients are likely to get it after a first introduction.

    Bonus: I think you guys have your t-shirt headline for the Confab SWAG bag. (See title.)

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