Skip to content

4 Principles of Content

2012 September 19

Content can be confusing. It’s tough to get people to agree exactly what it is and isn’t.  Much like an eminent jurist once said about pornography, you know it when you see it, but that is hardly a working definition.

To make things even more difficult, content requires intense integration of diverse capabilities.  Creativity, storytelling, information technology, user experience, and other skills all must come together to build an effective product that touches hearts and minds.

The core challenge for any organization which seeks to build great content is that the capabilities and skills that need to be integrated come with people attached to them and those people tend to have varied perspectives  and see things differently.   In order to build a successful effort, it’s imperative to build common working principles.  Here’s a start:

1. Content is more than Information

Many people like to think of content as information.  It isn’t.  As I’ve explained before, information theory already gives us a working definition for information; it is the absence of ambiguity.  So, if we are to define content, that’s a good place to start.

A coin flipping through the air has no information until it lands, then it is either heads or tails.  We call this elemental unit of information a binary digit or a “bit.”  That simple principle achieves a lot.  In fact, it is central to how we manage information. We add bits to make messages more reliable and subtract them to make it easier to transmit

Claude Shannon, who created information theory, pointed out that information often doesn’t have any meaning.  There are probably millions of coins flipping as you read this. Who cares?  In the next year, we will create more information than existed for most of history.  So what?

Content, then, is information with meaning – a principle that many people should think about before they tweet.

2. Content has Dominant Design

Marketers often confuse content with a long form ad.  I once had a creative director design a report in landscape so that it would be “different.”  In his view, content should “cut through” just as if it was a 30 second TV commercial or a banner ad.  That’s a grave mistake.  You don’t create content to get attention, you create content to hold attention.

A key principle of media user experience is dominant design.  A report should look like a report (i.e. in portrait format) just like a search box should be in the upper right hand corner of a web page.  Why?  Because that’s what people expect.  If you break those conventions, you use up valuable attention span for information that has no meaning.

Dick Stolley, one of the great editors of the 20th century, often likes to make the point that every great media product has both consistency and surprise.  Without dominant design, there can be neither.  You just have a mess.

3. A Turing Test for Curation and Aggregation

One significant new feature of content is the widespread use of aggregation and curation, much of it by algorithm.  Many purists believe that these things don’t qualify as content. However, many others insist that it does and that traditionalists need to embrace the new form.

In a previous post, I proposed a content Turing test, based on Alan Turing’s 1950 paper in which he described a method of determining machine intelligence.  The idea was simple: have a panel ask a computer questions and, if they can’t tell that it is a computer and not a person, than the computer should be considered intelligent.

In similar vein, curation and aggregation are perfectly legitimate forms of content creation as long as the consumer can derive meaning from the final product, just as they would with original content.  However, curation without purpose or meaning is simply information, with very little value for either the consumer or the producer.

4. Great Content Informs, Excites and Inspires

As a publisher who has launched dozens of content products, I have learned through long and hard experience that the primary feature of content is its purpose.  That, after all, is what gives content its meaning.  It’s purpose is to inform, excite and inspire consumers about a particular subject area.

Content only informs when it tells us something we didn’t already know.  It only excites when it makes that information meaningful and it only inspires if it drives us to action. Google created the most powerful search engine the world has ever seen by realizing that important information would drive others to link to it.

To create an engaging content product, you have to be able to do all three.  Information that isn’t presented in a usable, interesting way won’t be consumed, not matter how clever the ideas behind it.  Those who seek to excite and inspire without delivering any information that is important to us will only succeed in being empty and superficial.

The Content Imperative

Content came to the forefront because marketers have realized that owned media assets can be far more influential than paid advertising.  The reality, however, is that most content marketing efforts fall flat.  They are a waste of time and effort.

That’s because marketers focus far too much on content strategy and far too little on content skills.  Eating in a restaurant doesn’t make you a chef.  Gazing out into the night sky doesn’t make you an astrophysicist. Taking meetings with media salespeople doesn’t make you an editor or a producer.

Creating compelling and engaging content requires the construction of a meaningful value exchange.  Merely taking an advertising concept, giving it a bigger budget and making it longer isn’t investing in content, it’s simply wasting money.  Therefore, it is imperative for marketers to acquire people with relevant skills and integrate them effectively into their organization.

There’s more to writing than typing.

– Greg

10 Responses leave one →
  1. September 19, 2012

    Hi Greg
    Truly excellent piece of writing. I couldn’t agree more.
    I wonder though – will enough people finally ‘get’ the importance of the ‘chef in the restaurant’ or will the internet become just a long strip of soleless drive thrus? I’d say the jury is out.

  2. September 19, 2012

    Thx Jeremy. I’m a bit more optimistic though. I do think that content is getting immeasurably better. Like most things that are successful though, it attracts more and more people and they tend to start slowly…

    – Greg

  3. September 19, 2012

    Maybe. The problem right now is that the big money is being spent on the quick fixes – chasing Facebook fans or whatever without proper thought about long term engagement and the content this requires.
    Like this for example:
    The web promises quick fixes (why is that?) and it has made people lazy. Readers and listeners think great content (words, music, images) should be theirs for free, marketers think they can just buy fans and followers without investing in proper content… and why bother? No one values it.
    Hmm. I remain less positive… I see a downward spiral.

  4. September 19, 2012

    Good point. My favorite example is the services that trick you into tweeting when completing an action.

    As I alluded to in the post, I think part of the problem is the undefined concept of “engagement.” Nobody really knows what it means so they try and substitute social metrics like tweets and likes for it. It’s much more useful to think in terms of value exchange:

    – Greg

  5. September 19, 2012

    Greg – decent piece as always. Content marketing has been a stalwart of B2B marketing particularly in arenas where the buying process is well-understood and the content requirements deeply researched. Contact strategies became an artful way of creating digital breadcrumbs for an interested prospect to follow – or to surprisingly find delivered to his mailbox. You’re right to characterize the core precept of content marketing as understanding the value exchange and delivering it appropriately. B2B marketers have learnt painfully that prospects wont fill out 3 pages of personal details to receive a 2-page white paper – but they will give up an email address perhaps. B2C companies are learning this too. Unfortunately not all B2C categories have well-defined and long cycle buying processes where you can build a story arc from one content piece to another. Like you, I remain optimistic that we’ll see more refined, artful content plays in the future.

  6. September 19, 2012

    Thx Hilton. Always great to hear from you.

    – Greg

  7. stuart permalink
    September 19, 2012

    Hi Greg,
    As always your pieces leave me wanting more.I think the points you raise are right on the money, but i would really hope that you have a follow-up where perhaps you could give us some examples of content that you think really fulfill your criteria.

  8. September 19, 2012

    Hi Stuart,

    I try to keep my posts pithy and manageable, but always include links for interested readers to explore further. Here are some that were included in this post:

    How to Create Fantastic Media User Experience:

    4 Things Marketers Should Know About Publishing:

    Content Strategy vs. Content Skills:

    You can also check out the “Publishing” “User Experience” and “Value Exchange” tags at the top of the post where you’ll find more examples.

    Hope that’s helpful.

    – Greg

  9. November 25, 2013

    Hey Greg,
    Wonderful article here! i definitely agree with you that great content informs, excites, and inspires. Here is something that I like to do to make my content do just that.

    I keep customers in the buying part of their brain. This is especially crucial when using types of indirect marketing. For example, internet sites, a marketing item, email blast, social media or an article. Develop content that is so great that it gets to be ‘forward-able,’ meaning it is so great readers will forward it to buddies or business associates who could become potential clients. This can relieve several of the pressures a buyer feels when ‘being sold’ on a product or company.

    Thanks again for a super awesome article,
    ‘TC’ Teresa Clark

  10. November 25, 2013

    Thanks Teresa! Keep up the good work!

    – Greg

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS