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What do we mean by ‘content’?

Back in 2007, pioneering content strategist Rachel Lovinger defined the main goal of content strategy as “to use words and data to create unambiguous content that supports meaningful, interactive experiences.” Her mission blossomed into a new discipline, and in terms of defining the ‘why’ of content strategy the rest is history. Passionate arguments for why the world needs content strategy abound, with IAs and ux designers advocating for it as well.

Even with the ‘why’ defined, the ‘how’ of content strategy is a source of confusion. Whether it’s questions about processes, deliverables, how content strategy fits into ux design, or where the content strategist’s job ends and the IA’s begins, exactly how to do content strategy seems to be up for debate.

Part of the problem in defining methodology is that content is such a small, generic-sounding label for the big, diverse, unruly, ever-changing universe of digital stuff we consume. To complicate things further, what stuff we can call content seems to be up for debate (there have even been backlashes against the word ‘content’ itself).

But instead of arguing about what is and isn’t content, could it be more helpful — in order to better come up with the ‘how’ of content strategy — to start instead by looking at how to work with particular types of content? Think of content as falling into one of these four major groups: informational, branded, user-generated, and systemic. The lines between them aren’t always completely clear, but each type tends to bring up a unique set of goals and challenges, and desired outcomes.

Informational content

This is probably first thing people think of when they hear the word ‘content.’ Informational content includes much of the text we consume: articles, corporate and product information, blog posts, FAQ, and so on. Anything that can be put into a copy deck or is is part of your standard publishing calendar usually fits into this category. Informational content is more than text-based though, and can include video and photo based content, as well as microcopy, which you’ll find on forms, buttons, and as contextual help.

Reduced to its essence, the goal of informational content is to meet one of your users’ most obvious needs — to give them the information they’re looking for. Relevance, clarity and consistency are crucial. To make that happen, one of the biggest challenges is in managing production flow and lifecycle. You need to understand who the authors, approvers and editors are; how content gets from ideation to publication; where it gets published (on your site, to an app, social media channels?) and when — does it change hourly, daily, weekly? And finally, how it will be managed and governed.

The advantage of working with informational content is that a number of tools and processes have become the norm, and offer great starting points: stakeholder interviews, user research, content audits, briefs, and workflow diagrams can all be incredibly useful for analyzing and planning informational content. In some cases these methods can be applied to other content types, but on their own they won’t be adequate to rise to the challenges posed by our other content types: branded content, UGC and functional content.

Branded content

Rather than strictly informing, branded content builds connections with users on an emotional level. Its goal is to build and support brand messages, persuade people, tell stories, and encourage engagement.

This type of content is quickly becoming as ubiquitous as editorial content, with content marketing and the concept of brands as publishers gaining momentum.

A big challenge for branded content is that since it’s often part of a focused, short-lived campaign, as well as being connected with a larger brand story, its lifecycle needs to be very tightly managed. Audits and inventories may be less relevant here, and brand guidelines and content partnerships need to be considered. Managing the lifecycle within these guidelines and relationships while publishing to multiple channels is a huge challenge here, as is finding the most effective way to measure success.

User generated content

Whether it’s through social media, commenting, or more intensive uses of UGC, having content produced by your audience is an effective way to build engagement and loyalty with content, and as a result it has become key to many content marketing strategies. Since real users are contributing content, UGC is often seen to bring both authenticity to brands and engagement to the audience, benefitting from things people are already doing online. In many cases, UGC is being produced in alongside (often in response to) informational or branded content.

It also poses very specific challenges. UGC is unpredictable, can pose copyright/rights management issues, and can’t be expected to follow the same editorial or brand standards as your other content. Filtering, sorting, prioritizing and moderating are crucial for planning and managing this type of content. The editorial calendar that works for informational content just doesn’t apply here, but having a solid set of curation and moderation policies probably will.

Systemic content

Coming from data sources, systemic content includes data, metadata, and also structured content -– content that’s been broken down and classified using xml or another system. This is where you’ll find content that describes content, making it findable, helping it flow to the right places, supporting SEO and even setting it free from the constraints of platform by giving it structure and extensibility, allowing for reuse. It is often available through an api, and helps publishers to identify, organize, and publish content in ways that are meaningful to users.

If systemic content is broken, if won’t work. It doesn’t tell a story or directly answer a user need, although it does support content that does exactly that. A consistently updated inventory, a testing plan, and a solid metadata schema are some of the tools that will help analyse and manage systemic content.

I’ve really just touched upon these different content types, and in the future I’d like to think through each of them in greater depth. But considering them separately is a way to start planning how you will approach a content project. On any site or platform, the content ecosystem is going to be made up of one or more of these content types. By delving more deeply into the each of these types and clearly defining what outcomes you want from each of them, the ‘how’ of content strategy –- processes, tools, and roles should be involved, for example — starts to become more clear.

Kim Lawless More posts by Kim Lawless