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The Meaning of Content: Just a Utility, not Royalty

Content is just another word for stff

In the marketing world, buzzwords reign supreme. Often they are words that have already existed for years that suddenly become trendy, and then are used incessantly throughout the industry until they eventually lose all real meaning. One the best examples of this is the word “content.”

Content is everywhere. It’s king, it’s queen, it’s the entire royal family and it’s the key to success! It’s even in my title.

It all sounds so exciting. However, the word “content” simply means any and all information on a website. It’s the flashier lead generation material, it’s product descriptions and user reviews, and it’s the less glamorous stuff like terms and conditions, disclaimers and boilerplates. It’s just a big catch-all for what you fill in your wireframes with; from meticulously researched scientific studies to cat memes.

"I don’t like the word content. To me, it’s like saying the word ‘stuff.’"
-Marty Baron, editor in chief of the Washington Post in Newsonomics

Using the word content to refer to creative assets such as blog posts, photos, or video (as it often is) is misleading; Somehow, it makes it seem like some sort of brilliant artistic endeavor, and while some pieces might be, in reality they’re still just the things that are used to try and drive a customer to perform a desired action. If you ever read a blog post and signed up for an email, shared it on one of your social media channels, or the holy grail of all marketing, made a purchase, then that brand has won the content game.

The need to fill websites with different assets, media, and information in order to drive customers to “engage with a brand” -- aka “buy more stuff” -- continues to grow. Now there are content specific roles -- content marketer, content strategist, content manager, etc. If content is really all the copy, assets, and media you produce for a website, doesn’t that make ALL marketing content marketing? Aren’t content marketers really just marketers with strong writing skills? Are there any marketers out there that don’t create some kind of content for their organization? In a recent article, Techcrunch took content marketing to task on this: “The tools and channels change, but the process remains the same. ‘Content marketers’ are doing nothing different from what creative teams have always done.”

The term “content marketing’ just sounds a little less slimy than advertising. Ads are bad but marketing is less bad and content is good...right? It makes sense considering consumers are wary of ads; they’ve seen Mad Men, they’ve seen behind the curtain of the Great and Powerful Oz and they’re quick to call BS. On top of that skepticism, they’re becoming increasingly aware that all of their online actions on a website are tracked. That information needs to be put to good use via another buzzword: personalization. This pressure to deliver a custom web experience to every individual visitor, paired with increasingly shorter attention spans has led to content overkill. Quantity replaces quality and in the end, it’s actually making things worse, not better. Now the Internet is filled with completely useless garbage that’s masquerading as valuable information, art, or “what they customer wants.”

Instead of thought provoking pieces, you get blog posts stuffed to the brim with keywords in hopes of boosting SEO. Google has weaponized language, and now marketers are forced to battle each other for premium search engine rankings. You get a million articles that say the exact same thing. You get clickbait. You get sponsored content masquerading as actual articles instead of advertising. You get videos whose sole reason for even existing is the faint hope of “going viral.”

Bob Hoffman has been throwing major shade at the word "content" on his blog, Ad Contrarian. A couple weeks ago, he broke down the mythos of word: “Everything meaningful has a specific designation. So if you write something with meaning and value it's called a book, or a play, or a poem, or an essay. But if you write something that does not have a specific designation -- if it is not a book, or a play, or a poem, or an essay -- if it's just a cluster of words you have gathered to ‘engage’ an unsuspecting reader with your brand or your persona, it's almost certainly a piece of…” You get the point.

Techcrunch echoed Hoffman’s sentiments: “In the end, all marketing is ‘content marketing’ because all marketing uses content. Most people who use the generic word “content” are unsure of what they are precisely doing.”

But it doesn’t have to be like this. When messaging needs to reach your audience, take a moment to pause and think about the best medium to articulate it. Is it a blog post? Is it a paper? Is it a video? Think about if something similar exists. Think about why you need it and more importantly, why your audience needs it... or if they even need it at all. Create responsibly!

I know this; I know all of this. I know it because I have been guilty of the sins of content marketing; writing for the sake of always keeping a website “fresh.” Writing pieces that I knew really had no value to the customer. Writing for the sake of writing. But I’m working to change that, one post at a time. I’m scraping off the frosting. This is the beginning of my redemption.

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