By Kim Moutsos published March 2, 2018

Content Definition: What Are We Even Talking About?


How do you define content? Does everyone on your team agree with your definition? Do the people on other teams define content the same way?

Sure, there’s a dictionary definition for content (in fact, multiple definitions for multiple usages). A Wikipedia entry offers two slightly different definitions in its first two sentences.

This question of how to define content came up in the Content Marketing Institute LinkedIn group a few weeks ago. It pops up in Twitter chats and conversations fairly regularly. And there’s a healthy search volume around related phrases.

If definitions exist, why does this question keep coming up?

Is the definition of content simply information?

Plenty of people have explored what’s meant when people talk about content as it’s used in businesses and other organizations.

Michael Brenner teased out the differences between content and content marketing in an article so popular we’ve run it a few times. To paraphrase, Michael says “content” is typically produced because someone in the organization asked for it, while “content” paired with “marketing” is what the audience wants.

#Content paired w/ #marketing is what the audience wants, says @BrennerMichael. Read more>> Click To Tweet

It’s an important distinction, but it’s not quite a definition.

In 2013, the TopRank Marketing community offered definitions. In its resulting post, CMI founder Joe Pulizzi said content is “compelling information that informs, engages, or amuses.”

Simple enough. Content is information that provides a benefit to the person who consumes it.

Other definitions in the round-up article echoed Joe’s with nuances.

A few felt a definition isn’t even possible, as Olivier Blanchard suggests:

The thing about the term ‘content’ is that it’s just vague enough to mean everything and anything, which is to say it doesn’t mean anything at all. It’s essentially a word that means “stuff to fill an empty space with.” It could be photos, video, marketing copy, thorough analysis, poetry, farts, vacuous nonsense, cat hair, or cheese cubes. The only thing it hints at is that there is a finite volume of the space it must fill. Ironically, the word itself is a vessel for more content: Here’s an empty word. Now fill it with meaning.

The word #content is an empty vessel. Fill it with meaning. @OABlanchard Read more>> Click To Tweet

Take a spin through TopRank’s post to notice the range of responses and how often “stuff” and “things” show up in the definitions. Those are more indications of how strangely hard content is to define.

#Content is strangely hard to define, says @Kmoutsos. Click To Tweet

What the dictionary says

Dictionary definitions don’t completely satisfy. Here’s how Merriam-Webster breaks down “content”:

  • “1a: something contained – usually used in plural.” Merriam-Webster’s examples include “the jar’s contents” and “the drawer’s contents.” Specifying the plural usage shows this isn’t exactly what we mean by content.
  • “1b: the topics or matter treated in a written work.” This usage is much closer, as it’s tied to publishing (think “table of ”). But you’ve likely spotted the problem: Content transcends written works to include audio and visual formats.
  • “1c: the principal substance (such as written matter, illustrations, or music) offered by a website.” This entry includes a Ben Gerson quote to clarify: “…Internet users have evolved an ethos of free content in the Internet.”

If you want to go off on a slight tangent, check out the Yarrr! Content episode of PBS Idea Channel, which explored the term (and why some people hate it) and settles on a similar definition.

But the content many of us work on isn’t limited to websites, apps, or any digital form.

Merriam-Webster offers a few more entries for content:

  • “2a: substance, gist”
  • “2b: meaning, significance”
  • “2c: the events, physical detail, and information in a work of art. ‘The film was rated R for its violent content.’”

Notice how option c goes back to content as information. Still, as talented as the content community is, works of art might be a bit of a stretch for our definition.

Where does that leave us? I like the definition Rahel Anne Bailie offered recently on Twitter. Content is “contextual, human-usable data.”

#Content is contextual, human-usable data, says @rahelab. Read more>> Click To Tweet

Information is data in context, and content is contextual data created for people.

I’d like that explanation even better if it borrows from that great Dr. Brené Brown quote about stories. What if we defined content as information with a soul? When I imagine what exactly that might be, my definition of content is “compelling information that informs, engages, or amuses.”

Why a content definition matters

If you thought of content as useful, helpful, engaging, and even soulful information, would that change how you approach your job?

That definition, with its built-in aspiration, serves as a reminder to aim high and think of the value to the audience first.

A definition for #content that incl built-in aspiration reminds us to aim high & value audience. @Kmoutsos Click To Tweet

Would it change how others perceive your team and the work it does? Let’s say you evangelize the “helpful information” definition of content across your organization.

When your colleagues hear the phrase “sales content,” they would immediately think “helpful information for people who are ready to buy.” Note how nicely this notion of sales content aligns with Marcus Sheridan’s advice to rally sales and content teams around a shared mission to be the best teachers in your niche.

A shared, inspirational content definition could even go a long way to unite teams that are typically siloed. In a recent article on SpinSucks, Public Relations vs. Marketing: Is This Still a Thing? (spoiler alert: it is), Mike Connell wrote about content as the great uniter between those disciplines:

The truth is, there’s no arguing that marketing and PR are different, but ultimately their goals should align, and practices can converge under a common component: content.

#Marketing and PR are different, but their goals should align under #content, says @themuna. Click To Tweet

If marketing and PR practices converge through content (read: helpful information), why can’t sales and marketing, customer service and marketing, and so on and so on. A shared definition can only help. 

Once your team agrees on what content means, don’t keep it to yourself. Explain your definition in your meetings with other teams. Post it in your organization’s intranet. Keep it visible and accessible.

Content by any other name

How much does the name we give a thing matter? Perhaps the name matters less than its shared definition.

Some people dislike the term content. Some are simply confused by it. Still, content as a label won’t likely go away soon – in part because no other name has popped up to replace it.

Sure, instead of CMI, Joe could have called it the Engaging Information Marketing Institute, the Helpful Information Marketing Institute, or the Information With a Soul Marketing Institute. But he led with content.

I’m content with that choice. How about you?

Gather with other like-minded folks who realize the value of shared definitions, structures, frameworks, etc., for more successful content marketing. There’s still time to register for Intelligent Content Conference March 20-22 in Las Vegas. Use code BLOG100 to save $100.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Kim Moutsos

Kim Moutsos is thrilled to join the talented team at the Content Marketing Institute as vice president of editorial. After working in content marketing for enterprises and startups for more than 20 years, she’s looking forward to exchanging ideas and lessons learned with other content marketing practitioners. You can follow her on Twitter at @KMoutsos or connect on LinkedIn.

Other posts by Kim Moutsos

  • Carlos Abler

    Content is meaningful information delivered in an understandable form.

    • Kim Moutsos

      Clear and succinct. I like it. Thanks, Carlos!

      • Carlos Abler

        It’s pretty bare bones, for content stakeholders who ask ‘but what is content’, even though content marketing or other content application definitions have been given.

  • Vinish Garg

    “Content is presence. Absence of content means missing.”

    • Kim Moutsos

      That’s an interesting perspective. Care to elaborate? I’m intrigued!

      • Vinish Garg

        In most of my projects, I do a team workshop at an early stage to setup a ‘shared understanding’ of what different teams are trying to achieve, and what brings them together, and why. And I use this picture as example and:
        – Ask the marketers to propose 3 strategies that ‘can’ convert users on this page (with whatever success rate)
        – Ask the design team if they would like to make any changes in the design, and why or why not

        All are quiet because there is no content.
        So to me, a brand is ‘absent’ in the absence of content (unless we plan to show a half-burnt cigarette for a non-smoking campaign). Which means that ‘content is presence’.

        • Kim Moutsos

          That seems like a useful exercise, thanks for sharing it.

  • Adnopsis Agency

    Helpful post. Content is here to stay.

    • Kim Moutsos

      Glad you found it useful. Thanks for your comment!

  • Jim

    Great info and insight here. I’ll be sharing this on LinkedIn, making sure the team here at Spry has a look. Thank you!

    How about this one… “Content isn’t what it IS… content is what it DOES.”

    As a fourth generation publisher, it has always and only been about finding and developing an audience, constantly understanding and addressing their problems, then monetizing those relationships.

    • Kim Moutsos

      I like that idea, Jim. We want content to do more than simply exist, for sure. Thanks for your comments and for sharing!

  • Don Montgomery

    Saying that marketing and PR are different things is like saying automobiles and engines are different things. While it’s a true statement, it’s a non sequitur. One (engine, PR) is a subset of the other (automobile, marketing).

    I would propose that marketing and PR do not align under content, but rather that content must be consistent throughout all the marketing functions, including PR, sales, marcomm, and product management.

    This part of the content definition discussion is served by long-standing terms we use like value proposition, unique selling proposition, positioning statements, and others. Those things must be consistent wherever they are used.