Why you should not be content with 'content'

The term ‘content’ may be a necessary evil, but there is a better way to describe what goes on corporate websites, David Bowen says.

We are about to publish a research report on content strategy. It will be most useful for people struggling to know what to put where in a world where new channels and devices are appearing all over the place.

But I do have one small worry, which may seem trivial, but I don’t think is. I wish it didn’t have to be called ‘content strategy’. In my view the use of the word ‘content’ has had a deadening effect on the quality of websites. Is it too late to start using a new and more invigorating word?

That which is contained in websites

I first heard the word ‘content’ in its current sense in the late Nineties. Before that it either had stress on the second syllable and meant happy. Or it had an ‘s’ on the end and meant ‘that which is contained in anything’. The Oxford English Dictionary still doesn’t acknowledge the new singular noun, but it undoubtedly fills a gap: we could reasonably describe it as ‘that which is contained in websites and other online channels’. 

So far, so useful – the internet has created a need for many new words, and here is one of them. What’s the problem?

Not just filling space and time

I used to be an editor on magazines and newspapers. I – and the many others like me – didn’t talk about needing content, or even contents. It would have sounded as though our job was filling in a hole with whatever we could find; that words and pictures were simply things that stopped the pages being blank. We thought we were being more positive, creating excellent editorial that made our readers feel they had spent their money or time wisely, and thus inclined to read the next issue when it came out. We wanted a mix of news, features, columns, graphics, quizzes and whatever else that would maximise the chance of that happening. If we failed, we would become ex-editors.

Dulling down

Weren’t websites the same when they arrived? Only some of them by nature:  those that were explicitly publications. Like print publications, they had to be read, or they could not continue to exist. Most sites – including corporate sites – were different in four ways. First, they were not discreet ‘editions’ – they were one site, updated at greater or lesser intervals. Second, they had no obvious and direct commercial imperative. Third, other people in the company wanted – perhaps demanded – that their material should be displayed. And fourth – most importantly – they were not treated as publications. Few had editors – in the proper sense of the word – and too often they were run by people who thought their job was to fill them up with whatever came to hand. Not surprisingly, most were deeply dull.

Content implies anything goes

There have been improvements.  ‘Web writing’ has become a skill – based on the belief that screens are not the same as paper. Relatively few sites (at least in Western Europe and North America) still have great slabs of text. A recent fashion for ‘stories’ has improved some sites greatly, though too many simply relabelled their turgid pieces as stories.

A handful of corporate sites did get treated like real publications. Siemens launched a series of high quality videos. Coca-Cola rebranded its sites as Coca-Cola Journey and has been doing its best to run it like Buzzfeed or the Huffington Post. SABMiller deployed engaging headlines and impressive pictures to create an interesting magazine all about beer.

But too many corporate websites are still treated as a receptacles waiting to be filled up with ‘content’. Press releases, words ripped out of a brochure, words written by people who are not writers. There may be some interactivity – but it is remarkably rare given that this is a ‘web only’ strength.

An art informed by science

And I think the word ‘content’ is one of the culprits. It is strangely lifeless – it speaks of a raw material whose value comes from how it is manipulated, not its fundamental quality. Words are delicate and valuable things that require lightness of touch – not commodities that can be shovelled in to fill up space. The same is true for pictures, for films and for all the other little elements that can (and should) make up a wonderful website.

One of the problems is that what should be a strength has too often become a weakness – everything on the web is measurable, so it is easy to see website curation as a science not, as it should be, an art that is informed by science.

Marketing hijack

The other problem is that the word content has been hijacked by marketing folk. ‘Content marketing ’ is very much the thing at the moment. When I was a journalist we might have called it ‘advertorial’ – advertising disguised as editorial – but it is a perfectly sensible way of getting people interested, if you do it well and don’t try to pretend it is something it isn’t.

You might, perhaps should, argue that a corporate website is your most expansive example of content marketing. The whole site is designed to ‘sell’ your company as a whole, to customers, jobseekers, investors, whoever. That is fine – but if this is so, it is even more important that it is well done – well written, well edited, carefully tuned to the audience using web-only technology where appropriate. That needs an editor – as we have said (and say repeatedly in our report), alongside the attitude that the website is a company’s most exciting publication. And perhaps we might start talking about ‘editorial’ rather than ‘content’ – it sounds more like something that has been thought about and carefully prepared, rather than a commodity ready to shove into a hole.

The Bowen Craggs content strategy report will be published at our annual Web Effectiveness Conference on June 24th. To be sent a copy when it is published, email Dan Drury: ddrury@bowencraggs.com.

First published 10 June, 2015
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