4 Principles of Content
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.