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Content Definition: What It Means in Content Marketing

A shrugging emoji conveys confusion about content definition in marketing.

Could you give a definition for content? Does everyone on your team agree with your definition? Do the people on other teams think content means the same thing you think it means?

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 content’s definition 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>> Share on X

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>> Share on X

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. Share on X

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>> Share on X

Given that my definition of content is “contextual, human-usable data,” this fits nicely.

— Rahel Anne Bailie (@rahelab) February 12, 2018

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 Share on X

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. Share on X

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?

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute