What is content?

Recently in the UK marketing publication Campaign, author, serial agency founder and regular columnist Dave Trott wrote about what he thought about the future of content in Content, Content, Content.

In the article he rather glumly recalls a discussion during a future of content event;

No-one defined it because, to everyone else, it didn’t seem important to define it; it just seemed important to say it a lot: content creation, content curation, content marketing, branded content, sponsored content, high-quality content, relevant content, engaging content, mass-market content, specialist content, digital content, promoted content.

And the piece concludes that the delivery of content (the vessel) and all the paraphernalia around it has overtaken the importance of the idea.

Subsequently Campaign published a counter point: Content without ideas isn’t content: a retort to Dave Trott by Richard Cable, the digital publishing director for Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

This article defines content as:

Where advertising is a marketing communication that interrupts what you are doing (whether you like it or not), content is a marketing communication that you choose to spend time with. It’s not about being the thing people block, skip or ignore, but the thing they appreciate, seek out and share.

I like this definition (and the arguments in the article against Trott’s observations) and that this definition includes a reference to interruption, which is often overlooked when people define content marketing. Yes, it ain’t always so different from your fathers marketing; it is an interruption – but it’s an interruption that the audiences chooses.

However, I think this is more of a definition of the goal of content marketing and to use this to define ‘content’ suggests that there is no bad content. If every single piece of content was something we chose to spend time with, we’d never get anything done.

I call the good stuff, that people choose to spend time with bacon content. Although this has not yet been adopted by the industry as an accepted standard!

So, I thought I’d have a go at answering the question – what is content?

I don’t consider ‘content’ to be necessarily new or always different from the thing people have engaged with forever through traditional marketing and even advertising, as some commentators suggest.

I recall a friend of mine Robert Rose (author and Chief Strategy Officer at the Content Marketing Institute) referring to John Deere’s The Furrow publication as an example of content marketing that’s been around since 1895.

Today The Furrow is recognizable as content marketing, but people have chosen to spend time with traditional advertising too.

There are plenty of examples of brands sponsoring TV entertainment and blurring the line between advertising and entertainment content from as early as the 50’s.

One example that sticks out in my mind is from 1980’s / early 90’s when Gold Blend (a UK instant coffee brand) ran a set of commercials that followed the story of a couple’s slow romance over a cup of the brands coffee – christened the Gold Blend couple.

I think in both these cases what differentiates content marketing and the kind of old school traditional interruption marketing is intent.

The intention for the campaign or content to be useful or entertaining.

In which case I propose:

con·tent /käntent/
noun: content; Marketing communication that is intended to be useful or to entertain.

You can then assume that if this content fulfills it’s intention, it will do all those things that Cable describes; you would choose to spend time with it, folks would not block, skip or ignore it, they would appreciate, seek out and share it.

What do you think?


 You might also be interested in a great article that shares the history of The Furrow on Content.ly

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2 thoughts on “What is content?

  1. Thought provoking post, but I might argue that advertising is also content. Certainly the line between the two is negligibly thin.

    >Where advertising is a marketing communication that interrupts what you are doing (whether you like it or not), content is a marketing communication that you choose to spend time with.

    FWIW, I like this distinction but if advertising is content then you’d need another word for marketing communications you choose to spend time with.

    I’m hair-splitting of course, but that’s content too 🙂

    1. Hi Simon – Absolutely! I agree, that was exactly my point, well two points actually:

      1. That there is this view of a clear delineation between what has gone before and the new world of ‘content’. Which is not true – the lines are indeed blurred and people have been doing content marketing forever and advertising is content (it’s just often bad content).

      2. You cannot only call it content if people choose to spend time with it. If I choose not to spend time with it, but you do – is it still content? The fact that you chose to spend time with it (assuming you are the intended audience) means it is successful content.

      People choosing to spend time wth the content is a definition of it’s success, a metric, it isn’t the definition of the thing.

      If I flip this around – what do we call content that people *don’t* choose to spend time with?

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