What is content? Content marketing lessons from 2004 – and before

Lee Odden at one of our events

Lee Odden at one of our events

It’s hard to find a decent definition of content marketing or any other term related to the use of content for marketing purposes people can agree upon. You know why. But it gets even harder. Many people in the industry are also debating the definition of content. Yes, indeed: what is content?

My friend and author of Optimize, Lee Odden, popped the question ‘What is content?’ on his blog. He lets 40+ experts answer it and at the end of the blog Lee asks what the reader’s definition of content is. So, here is my answer. It was too long for the comment field.

What is content? We didn’t ask that question when we were talking about content management systems over a decade ago. Every day we used to talk about content without ever once asking that almost metaphysical question. And, after all, we had a definition we were happy with.

Bob Boiko in the Content Management Bible on page 7 (at least in my copy): ‘content is information put to use’ and then Bob gave some examples: text such as articles, books, and news; sounds, such as music, conversations, and reading; images, such as photographs and illustrations,…

Bob went on: motion, computer files, etc. Even functionality was content. On page 8 he cited Elizabeth (Liz) Orna, author of ‘Information Strategy in Practice’. Liz: “Information is what human beings transform their knowledge into when they want to communicate it to other people. It is knowledge made visible or audible, in written or printed words or in speech”.

Content defined: information that we seek and pay attention to, put to action?

She added: “From the point of view of the user, information is what we seek and pay attention to in our outside world when we need to add to or enrich our knowledge in order to act upon it…It’s the meeting between a human mind and information embodied in information products that brings the results”.

Information. And when put to use it’s content, Bob said. In fact, Bob wrote a full chapter in his book, called ‘Defining data, Information, and Content’. So, if you want to think about a definition of content, you know where to go to find some inspiration.

The Internet is not about technology, it’s about people communicating, people offering and searching for information (Gerry McGovern, 1999)

Now, note that we’re talking 2004-2005 here and Bob wrote about web content (management). At that time I had a website (in Dutch), called CMSCenter, also about content and content management. Each year, with a partner we published an annual ‘New Media & CMS Guide’. The topics were web content and document management as well. I started looking in the edition 2006 of the book today, after reading Lee’s post and, on top of giving a definition of content, I wrote “content is the starting point and object of every conversation, all communication and each action…by offering relevant and targeted content tailored to a specific target audience, you can develop a community…a content strategy is a continuous process…that cannot be fulfilled without extensive cooperation…across the various departments“.

It feels weird to read these words and realize we are still – or is it again – talking about the same issues. The role of relevance, personalization, silos, community,… Sometimes one wonders if he’s in the right business. Did we talk about content marketing in 2006? I don’t know (and frankly, don’t care too much). We just DID it as many of you just did it. Or is it as Steve Krug said? “Your guess [about the future of technology] is as good as mine. The only thing I’m sure of is (a) most of the predictions I hear are almost certainly wrong, and (b) the things that will turn out to be important will come as a surprise, even though in hindsight they’ll seem perfectly obvious.”

What is content in a social context?

Today we live in the age of ‘content marketing’ and ‘social media marketing’ and apparently we need to debate the definition. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Many people have interesting definitions. Brian Solis says content is a social object, using a term launched by Jyri Engeström. (PS: Brian’s new book is out, so buy it, you can also read the first two chapters here). I like that: social means interaction and action, it includes a relationship between at least two people, even if it’s a silent one. You are now reading my content and having a connection or even a dialogue with me. You might think “what the heck is this dude talking about” or “wonder where he’s going with this” or “doesn’t that guy have anything better to do”? I don’t hear you but you think and silently talk.

We can argue Bob Boiko’s definition, knowing that it comes from that web content management context. And isn’t information more than knowledge? Isn’t also emotion? Aren’t emotional aspects crucial when answer the question ‘what is content?’.

Brian Solis and Jan Van den Bergh at one of our events

Brian Solis and Jan Van den Bergh at one of our events – small world

I remember that around that same time I had a talk with – back then – Belgian digital agency director Jan Van den Bergh, who just wrote “I’m a recommender“, unfortunately again in Dutch (remember that Italian restaurant in Brussels, Jan?) and we argued to what extent brands would become and behave like publishers. I wrote a piece about it. Sorry, in Dutch. But, again we just used that same word all the time: content. However, now more from a branding perspective and looking at how people emotionally connected with brands, on top of my – usually B2B – perspective: a more social and relational look at ‘content’. I think that many people at that time were going through similar thought processes. We knew how crucial content was and would be. Heck, I even ran a very tiny company for a while, called WebWare and our baseline was ‘Content is king’. Do forgive me, the context of those days.

What is content? Lessons from 1992: what makes others succeed.

I’m taking you on a trip further down memory lane, a last one. The first time I started using content marketing as it is now called was in 1992. This is a case I want to share with you. I just started my career and was an internal sales manager at Ingram Micro, among others the world’s largest distributor of ICT products. It was long before my career as a marketer, publisher and consultant (in that order). I was already a freelance journalist though. I just loved writing and producing content. Oops, wait we’re still asking what content is, right?

Raw information becomes content when it is given a usable form for one or more purposes (Bob Boiko, 2004)

If you were around in 1992 you might remember that it was the time that the margins of hardware and software started eroding – and fast. Our whole go-to-market partner ecosystem (retailers, resellers, smaller distributors, VARs, you name it) suffered. Fortunately there was another evolution going on: businesses increasingly started using Local Area Networks (LAN). Yes, once connecting computers in an office was new and connecting them with another branch via Wide Area Networks (WAN) was just ‘wow’.

Ingram Micro distributed products to build such networks and it was clear that many resellers would be able to more than compensate their decreasing margins by selling these LAN products with higher margins and most of all with additional services and support. However: most resellers didn’t understand how to do that yet. As my job was to sell them those products, there was but one solution: help them sell, help them succeed. The marketing team at Ingram Micro produced a brochure or rather some kind of book for which I wrote the “educational content”. And in it – using words, images and a glossary – resellers could learn what they needed to know in order to sell networks and thus succeed. I needed to get these resellers succeed if I wanted my sales crew to succeed as their margins were also essential. So, let’s use content to get those guys (mainly guys at that time) in the “channel” sell to their customers. Heck, let’s even make pre-defined models and texts about the installation of a LAN. And so we did. Job done.

I repeated the same basic concept the rest of my life, asking the same question over and over again: what do they need to succeed? I repeated it at Ingram Micro many times too. I had to! Our job was to sell as much as we could to resellers and often we were under pressure to push – indeed, push – specific products. However, resellers were scared to take too much stock. They were having hard times. And I didn’t want them too buy too much either as sooner or later they would send it back. Heck, I even felt I had to shield some of them from going bankrupt because of taking too much stock because “we had such a good relationship”. I also didn’t want to drop my margins and sell based on lower prices as many others did. So what did we do in order to get resellers buy more Logitech handscanners, to give just an example (remember those?). Well, these resellers were tech people, not marketers so I created the content they needed to sell more to THEIR customers. That same content was also used to train other sales reps so they could help their customers do the same.

And this is in the end what social media is all about too. What do they want and what do their customers want? Just replace the word resellers by customers, connections, target personas or whatever you want and you’ll see what I mean.

Later I started using the Internet for marketing, it was just a logical consequence of having worked on the crossroads of writing, sales, marketing, networks and IT. In ’96 I was project manager for the first website of a Belgian distributor. What do you think we used to sell more? Again, content to help resellers sell more! The content was even repurposed from the neutral and educational content I had written for the catalogue. So, throughout all the digital evolutions that followed and that I decided to follow in ’99 for a living, the same answer came back, often in different formats and integrated approaches: what do they need, what do THEY want? And content was nearly always involved in the answer.

The three success factors of content marketing and efficient content

So, while we debate the question what content is (and definitions are important, don’t get me wrong) I would like you to just consider this: content is what people pay attention to in order to succeed, inform themselves, fulfill a need, feel gratification, share, interact, etc. That’s ‘their viewpoint’.

From your – professional – viewpoint it’s what you need to create/curate/aggregate/ask to relate your brand, goal – in the end, growing profit – and what your customers need to achieve whatever they want. Just like those resellers did.

But here is my final takeaway. I wrote this post and went back in time and got Bob Boiko’s book from under the dust because I wanted to reply to Lee Odden’s nice post and here is something else I found in Bob’s book I wanted to share and you’ll understood why he’s on our top content marketing inspiration list (as are Lee Odden and Brian Solis).

You know what three crucial steps are in Bob’s definition of – what back then we called – e-business?

  1. Know your audiences.
  2. Know your business.
  3. Relate the business to the audience.

The same things we keep repeating over and over again. And, to me, the 3 essential criteria for ‘engaging’ and effective content marketing and marketing content across different stages and touchpoints.

Fundamentally, content = information. Content = experience. Content = nothing specific. (Lee Odden, 2013)

Indeed, this is what I read in a book on content management, dating from 2004. And I can give you examples from earlier too if you want.

So, can we please wake up and use content to relate the business to the audience by putting the audience – the customer, the segment, the persona, the target group, the social ecosystem, the whatnot – first and getting them the content they need and we need for whatever possible marketing goal?

Yeah, what is content? You got me thinking and writing, Lee. Guess that’s content and silent interaction turned into information.

Join us on June 10th in Antwerp, Belgium, for the Content Marketing Conference Europe. With confirmed speakers such as Jay Baer, Lee Odden, Mike Corak, Kelly Hungerford, Dado Van Peteghem, Tristan Lavender, Guido Everaert, Tom De Baere and Xaviera Ringeling (more to be announced), we'll take you across a learning experience leading to tangible insights and actionable inspiration, moderated by media expert Jo Caudron!

Content Marketing Conference Europe

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