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“Content” and me: a Christmas confession guest post

This post was anonymously written as part of Blog Secret Santa. There’s a list of all Secret Santa posts, including one written by me, on Santa’s list of 2013 gift posts. Secret Santa, thanks for this guest post!

As long as I can remember, I’ve been a blurter.

I can’t keep secrets. I over-share. And I’m always the one to break an uncomfortable silence. There’s just something about the attention, the quietness, that makes me want to speak up. I’m not one of those idiots in a crowd who shouts something inappropriate during a silent memorial, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t at least understand that urge.

Still, I can mostly keep the impulse under control. As long as nobody does anything stupid, like letting me post anonymously on a leading international content strategy blog, I’ll be just…

Oh.

Well, in that case, here goes: it’s confession time.

I HATE CONTENT.

Ah, that feels so much better. It’s remarkable how freeing it is to finally have my dark secret out in the open. Who knows? Perhaps others will agree…

Oh. Wait. I should probably rephrase that:

I HATE “CONTENT”.

Literally, the word “content”.

The other day, I heard a radio DJ tell listeners to “check out” the station’s website in order to “get all the Christmas content”. On behalf of the whole industry, I cringed. Somehow, it felt as if this word was a secret: something about the work, not to be shared with the public who wouldn’t understand. Who would immediately seize all the worst connotations of the word.

Because, let’s be honest: “content” is a terrible word for what we do. At every stage it limits and misrepresents us. And if there’s one lesson that’s coming loud and clear through Margot’s blog lately (and hello to Margot, by the way: nice place you have here), it’s that the words we choose really do matter.

“Content” is vague.

Would you eat a pie full of “content”?

No. It’s a vague, grey, formless, low-status word. It doesn’t describe anything and, worse, because it says so little, it implies we don’t care. It’s a shrug of a word: a word that describes pale, lifeless slop. In a bucket. You might as well give up and call it “stuff”.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have fallen into the oldest trap in the book: in trying to find a handy catch-all term to describe all the dizzying array of information, assets and formats we work with, we’ve ended up with a word that describes nothing at all.

“Content” is passive.

Not only does “content” fail to say what it is, it is entirely silent on what it does. Indeed, the word doesn’t really give any clue that one might even expect the content to do anything. It’s just a thing. It sits there. At best, it gets (shudder) “consumed”.

Of course, we all know great content makes a difference. It has an impact, produces an effect, and moves the user to action.

So what word could be further removed from the truth?

“Content” implies a container.

By its very definition, “content” is a thing which is contained. And we wonder why developers and designers think we’ll be happy to start from Lorem Ipsum.

It’s our own fault: we define ourselves using a word meaning “filler”, so they give us something to fill.

After all, a bucket of slop takes its size and shape from the bucket.

But there’s a more fundamental issue at stake here. Margot knows (and explains with far more clarity than I can) how much words can betray the thinking beneath until, eventually, they shape it. And the thought I can’t shake is this:

Why are we talking about “content” at all?

Doesn’t that put the focus completely in the wrong place? Isn’t the issue more what the content does for its audience? What the business objectives are? What matters to the user? You know, the strategy part?

It’s a limited builder who starts by looking at the tools and materials available when deciding what to build. Isn’t it a better approach to first think about what kind of building is needed?

Content is a way of delivering outcomes. It is not the outcome. So why do we make it the centre of attention (and get upset when colleagues fail to see the importance of the bigger picture)?

Calling what we do “content strategy” is like calling architecture “brick strategy”.

Rembrandt was not a paint strategist, any more than Mozart was a note marketer.

We deliver education. Inspiration. Engagement. Empowerment. Value. Hopefully sometimes even fun… and the best word we can come up with is “content”?

Please.

So what can we do?

Well, nothing really. The problem now for each one of us is that everyone else who does this job calls it “content strategy” too.

Even if, say, 50 of the world’s top practitioners were all to stumble on a call-to-arms kind of blog post, and arbitrarily decide to change their job titles en masse on 1st January 2014, it would still take some kind of comment box discussion to arrive at a consensus. I mean, you’d have to have dozens of them, all reading on (or shortly after) Christmas Day, and leaving a one-line comment on what they’d change the word “content” to, if it were entirely up to them.

And what, pray, are the chances of something like that happening?

Exactly. It would be a Christmas miracle.

Thanks to the inestimable Margot Bloomstein for letting me be silly for a few minutes, on what is usually a very considered and thoughtful blog. Happy Christmas to you, Margot, and to your readers (I hope I haven’t frightened too many away). Thanks also to Secret Santa, for having the best idea ever (and the insanity to see it through).

Thank you, Blog Secret Santa! – Ed.

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