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Published on June 26th, 2009 | by Rahel Bailie

19

A practical definition of content

In light of the previous post about the definition of content strategy, this post gets down to brass tacks about the other end of  content strategy: the content itself.

Content can be described as “everything” (Rachel Lovinger quoting Chris Sizemore) but let’s refine that definition to something more tangible, a definition that can be employed by practitioners and stakeholders for the purpose of designing user experiences.

Simply put, content is contextualized data.

A few years back, I read an anecdote about someone who would send the Google folks a period email with a number. That was the entire email, a single number. Eventually, the recipients figured out that the number was a comment on too many words on the Google home page. Was that email content or data? There is no absolutely right or wrong, but I would posit that without the context of the number, it wasn’t content, it was data.

The number 12 is an example of data. It may have a context in the sense that we know it is more than 11 and less than 13. But it doesn’t have meaning for a reader until there is a practical context:

  • a dozen eggs
  • December
  • players on a team
  • children on a schoolbus
  • dollars to purchase a product

There is a different type of contrast:

In each case, the commonality is that the context that helps with cognitive processing of content.

The practical application of this definition of content could be understood through the following example. A catalogue in a catalogue will have content attached to it: a product description, a photo, perhaps a video of the product in use. There will also be data that gets attached to the content – a SKU, a price. As soon as the data can be understood in context, it has become part of the content.

Content strategists understand the importance of managing content throughout its entire lifecycle, from analysis of business requirements and planning right through to archiving and forensic e-discovery. I believe that what differentiates us from the information management side is that we don’t treat information as data to be managed. For us, context is a critical part of designing the user experience. So while information management and content management is more consumed more with the technologies behind the management and delivery mechanisms, content strategy is closer to the contextual understanding of content, including contextualized data, for the benefit of the consumers of that content.


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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,



19 Responses to A practical definition of content

  1. Rahel – I love this! This is, essentially, why I call my blog “Meaningful Data” :) Still, it may be a little too poetic to be considered a “practical” definition of content.

    Well, I should say, this is a practical approach to one question that does tend to come up a lot: When does data become content? A lot of people have trouble thinking of data as content, and once they think of some data as content, they don’t know where to draw the line. You’ve proposed a fairly practical and useful approach to that issue, I think (but then, in my case you’re preaching to the converted).

    The reason I think people may struggle with this is because there are a lot of things that are considered content, but very few would think to call them data – the text of an article, a photo, a video, the body of an email. These things are, at their core, data which have a lot of context built into them. Perhaps you should address that aspect directly in your definition.

  2. Great points!

    I agree that a huge benefit of content strategy is addressing context. Context makes data or information communicate something to people. (Data meaningfulness, as Rachel says!)

    I also like your tact on differentiating data, content, and information.

  3. Excellent points.

    The current popularity of modular documentation, especially as expressed in DITA, puts context in the spotlight.

    I think providing the right amount of context as you build modules or DITA topics is a serious challenge, and one that is often unmet). Regardless of how you try, you can’t ignore context in building topics. Even the lack of context (i.e., a requirement to make completely independent topics) is context:).

  4. Rahel,

    You took the words right out of my, um, mouth. Seriously, I’m blown away. My new blog, which is up on the web but which I haven’t announced yet due to its broken design (migrating from MAMP has proven a bit troublesome) and consequently impoverished content, is entitled … wait for it … Content in Context.

    Can you guess what I’ve been thinking about lately? It’s a zeitgeist!

    You go, Rahel. And Rachel, I agree with your point about data vs. content. I have a similar reaction to the term “information.” There was some conversation on this topic recently on the CS google list, no?

  5. David Wright says:

    James Martin of Information engineering fame said:

    “Information = Process + Data”.

    Information is data made useful. So I would put Information closer to this definition of Content rather than equating it to data; perhaps Content is the form information takes when delivered ? Some clearer semantics could arise from this discussion.

    Also love this view of information from George S. Patton:

    “Information is like eggs; the fresher, the better.”

  6. Rahel Bailie says:

    You all make some excellent points. I shied away from the term “information” because while technically correct, there are other connotations that go in a completely different direction. Maybe it’s because I did a stint in the telecommunications industry, but when information starts getting measured as “stuff” that gets “transmitted”, then a departure makes sense. (See the Wikipedia entry for information, where Claude Shannon is cited for having endowed “information not only with a technical meaning but also a measure”. A mathematical measure of content is, somewhat, how we’re at the current situation: where information migration is measured, and that’s what goes onto a project plan as a line item. So I think of content as qualitative, not quantitative. Arbitrary, yes, I do recognize that, and I stand by my distinction.

  7. This is terrific, Rahel! I like that it ties back so well to the “data, information, knowledge, wisdom” continuum – which, I think, goes all the way back to a T.S. Eliot poem. Content lives in the interstitial “so what” between those layers, and context runs in parallel, shepherding nascent meaning up the chain of command to wisdom.

    Your content here gives this more meaning in our industry – and context!

  8. Tom Johnson says:

    Rahel, you’re getting a lot of great comments. I also enjoyed this post. You do a good job of taking a fuzzy, abstract term and making it more meaningful.

  9. Carlos Abler says:

    Rahel

    This reminds me of the classic ascending scale of Data > Information > Knowledge.

    I think your focus is implicitly drawing attention to the circumstance of consumption. When people go online (or where ever) to access something to read, watch or experience in whatever way; are not consuming 1s and 0s, they are always engaging something that has “meaning”. Meaning and context are co-temporal. The ambiguous stuff of the universe (data, matter) becomes experienced meaningfully within contexts. No context, no meaning, no significance, no qualities.

    One way that I clarify the issue of content for the online space, is when I draw the distinction between content and utility.

    The bulk of what shapes information and communication technologies products, is “content” (what is accessed, consumed, managed, manipulated, created, shared) and “utility” the interface and back-end infrastructure that accesses, delivers, manages, manipulates, creates and shared.

    The one limitation I see with limiting content to context (at least in the “meaningfulness” sense that I think is implicit in your definition) is that a person does not need to be meaningfully engaging content in order to do things like collect and manage it. In the collection and management process, content can be data, and information and so forth.

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  12. Joe Gollner says:

    While many will find it hard to believe, and others will point at my blog as manifest proof to the contrary, I am a huge fan of “practical definitions”. Still others will say, “No Joe, you are a fan of definitions and sometimes pass these off as practical”. To all this I will respond that definitions are fundamentally practical and we need to continue refining them if we hope to be able to communicate with escalating precision and improving effectiveness.

    And this is very true of our industry (notice how I have blithely grouped us all into one community) and “content” is clearly the root concept around which we do need more clarity if we wish to make more practical progress. In this quest, it is interesting how the pursuit of a common definition of content often gets derailed. I myself was confronted by one colleague who challenged one of my definitions for “content” with the comment that it was indistinguishable from what is commonly meant by “information”. Now this intervener did hail from the extreme end of the technolophilia spectrum, so there was no small amount of Claude Shannon at work here, but the charge caused me to revisit my own rubric.

    Rahel, I really like the gritty practicality and simplicity of your definition for content. I like in particular the framing of the definition amid the picture of someone considering the context of content being designed / created and the myriad contexts of its various consumers. In one presentation a couple of years ago, on the not too distant topic of “Finding Information”, I said that the problem – on multiple levels with one of these sadly being computational – is one of “matching contexts”. You have corroborated my supposition but done so in a much more grounded, and practical, way.

    I have a recent series of posts on these very topics (see jgollner.typepad.com) and in several of them I come at the specific challenge of distinguishing content from information. These explorations would not yet qualify for the moniker of practical.

  13. Rahel Bailie says:

    Joe, first let me say that I love your blog, The Fractal Enterprise. Your blog gives me a lot to think about, for sure. in your post called The Truth About Content (http://jgollner.typepad.com/scripta/2009/08/the-truth-about-content.html), you position information as a [smaller, lesser, less contextual] unit than data, whereas I position data as a smaller unit. In other words, a number of data points, understood as a unit, is information. And information is content.

    Someone just pointed me to this article: http://www.changeminds.org/explanations/critical_theory/concepts/signifier_signified.htm which explains the signifier and the signified, according to Saussure’s theory of the sign, where these are a matched pair that, together, The author’s statement “A signifier without the signified is noise.” To say that content is “whatever carries meaning” loops back to my statement that content is contextualized data. But at the risk of sounding like I’m going in circles, if information relied on “matching contexts”, then multiple contexts implies a quantity of content.

    I could come at this question from another couple of angles, but will save that effort for my book and, next time we bump into one another at an event, for discussion over a cold one.

  14. Joe Gollner says:

    Rahel, your points have prompted a new post on this subject entitled “Connecting with Content” (http://jgollner.typepad.com/scripta/2009/09/connecting-with-content.html). This post is primarily an effort, or perhaps admission, that it is important to see content from several sides or as you say angles.

    In my admittedly impenetrable post on “The Truth about Content”, content occupies the most mercurial role among the players. Data, information and knowledge are connected through an escalating process of “meaningful organization”. But content is a slightly different animal. My pyramid illustration tries, but only tries, to convey that content in fact has a touch point at each level – the data it envelops, the information is produces and the knowledge that emerges amid the connections amongst our information exchanges.

    I think the line from my sprawling post that comes closes to aligning with your practical definition (although in itself it’s not that practical) follows:

    “More recently, I have come to think of content as an abstraction layer that separates data representations from information transactions – the layer [content] in which we, as the content owners and information actors, plan the many different ways in which we may want to engage audiences and to lay out our resources and processes accordingly.” This is basically where the “connecting with content” post starts.

    As you say, this sounds like matter for our next encounter.

    Oh yes, one last thing. Having been a “hard-core post-structuralist” in my murky past, I find that any reference to Saussure, Lacan or Derrida is enough to make me shed all pretext of brevity. As you can imagine what this means, I am working hard to resist temptation…for all our sakes…

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