Ad and marketing creatives
The Character of Our Content
What are you reading right here, right now? A sentence? A paragraph? An article? Yes, yes, and yes, but think more globally and generally. In the universe of 21st-century media and marketing, these words on this website, and the image that accompanies them, are content.
And not only here on the Visual Thesaurus: content is all around. As the old dishwashing-liquid ad used to tell us, we're soaking in it. Blog posts are content. YouTube videos are content. For the cookware retailer Williams-Sonoma, recipes are content. For General Electric and thousands of other companies, Instagram posts are content. White papers, graphs, podcasts, webinars, e-books: all content.
Content is produced by content creators and content providers, some of whom toil in content farms or content factories. It's distributed through content management systems and shaped by content strategists who may report to a chief content officer for whom content marketing is — as the business author Seth Godin put it in 2008 — "the only marketing that's left." When it looks like journalism but is in fact a corporate promotion, it's sponsored content, or sponcon.
What does all this content have in common? That glorious, maddening series of tubes, the internet.
Content hasn't always been tacitly modified by "digital." The word has been with us since the 15th century, when it was imported from the Latin contentus, the past participle of a verb meaning "to contain." The identical Latin root gives us the adjective content (accent on the second syllable), for which the OED's definition verges on the poetic: "Having one's desires bounded" — that is, contained — "by what one has (though that may be less than one could have wished)."
From the beginning, content was often seen in its plural form: the contents of a cask, a flask, or a package. In the singular, it could mean quantity or amount: the sugar content of food, the mineral content of water.
But, as a March 2019 post in Merriam-Webster's "Words We're Watching" observes:
The emergence of the internet helped to shift the meaning of content from "the topics or matter treated in a written work" (as in a table of contents) to "the principal substance (such as written matter, illustrations, or music) offered by a website."
"Principal substance" is subjective; interested parties disagree on what content contains. The online OED has no entry yet for the "on-the-internet" sense. The relevant Merriam-Webster definition is "the principal substance (such as written matter, illustrations, or music) offered by a website." A Wikipedia entry says, succinctly, that content "is what the user derives value from."
Kristina Halvorson, a content strategist who founded the Minneapolis web-content company Brain Traffic in 2008, told me she thinks of content as "business assets" and "information in context." Kim Moutsos, vice president of editorial at the Content Marketing Institute – which was founded in 2011 and now calls itself "the leading global content marketing education and training organization" — defines content as "information that provides a benefit to the person who consumes it." Reached by email, content strategist Chappell Ellison offered a blunter definition: "mass-scale quantities of digital information."
Assets, value, benefit, consumes, quantities: These words should tip you off that while content may involve words, photographs, and illustrations, its primary purpose isn't aesthetic delight. Rather, content is all about honing a message, reaching a target, closing a deal. It's often "monetizable" — having the potential of turning into revenue — but not always: Ellison once worked as a content strategist in government, where turning a profit was not the goal.
Whatever its context, the rise of content parallels the advent of online life. Halvorson, who began her career as a copywriter, before content was attached to job descriptions, is explicit about the internet-ness of content: "Our writing services are called 'content creation' because we don't do print," she told me.
The digital sense of content began its ascent between 2007 and 2008, when several influential articles about content strategy — including one by Halvorson — were published (online, of course). But at least one content compound — content provider — is much older. The OED defines it as "a person who or organization that furnishes the matter or substance relayed in an act of communication; spec. a company that writes or produces material for dissemination by another agency via any of various (frequently electronic) media." Today a content provider may not even be human: one definition, from Android, is "the standard interface that connects data in one process with code running in another process." But the OED's earliest citation, from 1962, is from a teacher-training manual: "What is the relevance of the contents and procedures of teacher training for the functions which a teacher performs by virtue of being a content provider for, stimulant to, and supporter and overseer of the intellectual development of children?"
Content marketing also predates widespread use of the web, but only slightly. Several sources credit its coinage to the newspaper editor and publisher John Oppedahl, who used the term during a 1996 meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Two years later, the position of "online and content marketing" was created at the pioneering internet-browser company Netscape. Back then, content marketing consisted mostly of email barrages. Today, it encompasses a much broader array of messages designed to win over an audience. Michael Brenner, a speaker and marketing "influencer," defined content marketing as "attracting an audience to an experience … to achieve your marketing objectives."
If you're discontented with the contemporary usages of content, you're not alone. Kristina Halvorson acknowledges that a lot of people "hate the word content" because "it commoditizes the work." James Callan, a content strategist at San Francisco–based TrussWorks, a software company, concedes the point. "One place where I see some justifiable irritation from creators," he told me in an email, "is the now-common use of 'content' in the most generic sense — when it doesn't really matter what the specific piece that's being created is, as long as we're shoveling new content in front of eyeballs."
On the other hand, when I posed a question about content on Twitter, several writers responded that they'd changed their job titles to "content creator" or "content developer" to get more or better work. James Callan recalls that when he first read about content strategy, about 10 years ago, he was working as a copywriter. "I envied the user experience and information architecture practitioners I knew," he told me, "and they pointed a giant neon sign in the direction I wanted to take my career."
For better or worse, content is what we're stuck with for the time being. After all, what other word is flexible enough to cover everything from a list to a meme, from a graph to a video, from a Facebook post to … well, this column? Contentious as it may be, content is here to stay.