Content really IS the Right Word. Here’s Why

Using the word 'content'

Picking on the word “content” seems to be in fashion lately. Just this month, Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman took the word to task. In July, The New Yorker mockingly asked if you’re “ready to engage with rock-based content?” And right here in The Drum in May, Ogilvy’s John Long summarily proclaimed content “a terrible word” that we should “stop using.”

As someone who uses this word daily in conversations with marketing leaders, I feel some responsibility to offer up a defense. So without any further ado ...

For expediency’s sake, here’s the gist of Mr. Long’s argument: “...the word ‘content’ (is) a website term that was probably initially used by programmers to generically describe the stuff that wasn’t code, i.e., the stuff that was mere ‘fluff’ to them.”

Building on a definition of content from Webster’s dictionary, Long postulates that our use of the word “content” was born from engineers’ disdain for anything but code, “like, say, The Iliad.” By that measure, the word is a kind of misbegotten aberration that marketers should rise above using to describe the work of brands.

He goes on to argue that we should just call things what they are: “If you’re making social media, call it that...If you’re making short films, call them that. Copy for a website isn’t ‘content’ — it’s website copy. Pictures are photography, images or illustrations...Podcasts are podcasts” and so on.

Why content?

In fairness, I am sympathetic to Mr. Long’s wistful reference to simpler days. When marketing was limited in its channels, it was easy to refer to media in the specific. Not only were there fewer formats at our disposal, but more importantly, in an analog world they were actually different things: Newspaper ads were laid out by paste-up artists and television commercials were sent to stations on tapes.

The shift to digital collapsed all these things down to interchangeable bits, and subsequently lowered the barrier to entry significantly. As a result, brands today produce many more pieces of communication than before, each with a shorter life span than in the past, and each distributable through many more channels than ever before.

With this explosion of communications came a need for a better word to describe the superset of tools at marketers’ disposal. Content, for better or worse, is the best descriptor we’ve got.

Why can’t we just call it advertising?

Mr. Long suggests that we just “call things what they are” and that the word advertising “sure beats the hell out of ‘content’.”

Advertising is a fine word and I should make clear I’m someone who still believes in advertising as a very effective vehicle. But the word means something specific in both form and function. It represents (to most) a media space you spent money on, and a message that explicitly attempts to sell.

As we all know, there are now many channels at a marketer’s disposal that don’t require purchase. The brand’s website, email programs, and PR efforts would all qualify as important channels that aren’t bought and sold and, therefore, are not advertising.

What’s more, the function of marketing has shifted as we’ve gotten more fine-grained control over when and where we communicate and as we have learned more about what makes marketing work. Prior to starting Percolate I did communications strategy at Naked, where we spent a lot of time working with brands to better align channels with the various moments that occur in the lifecycle of a customer. What we think of as advertising is just one set of touchpoints in the repertoire that need to be orchestrated. Content (or communications as we used to call it at Naked) is a better way to describe that totality of possibilities.

Beyond that, advertising connotes a specific tone and approach that feels more outdated. The word advertising has evolved and morphed throughout history, but central to the concept has been some sense of trying to actively (and rationally) persuade and “convert” someone. The problem is that we’ve since learned (and Paul Feldwick has laid out beautifully in his book Anatomy of a Humbug) that advertising shouldn’t really work that way. People are led by emotions, not rational thinking, and therefore advertising can’t hope to work by subscribing to the notion. Despite that fact, for many those connotations hold and if we hope to change them we probably have to change the word. Advertising, in other words, has its own baggage.

Are we really talking about the word “content”?

What I’ve realized is that this whole conversation isn’t really about the word “content” or “advertising,” but rather about the fact that there are many marketers out there who are exploiting the shift happening to peddle nonsense instead of implement sound strategy. Whatever words are used, marketing doesn’t work unless you satisfy three critical requirements:

You’ve got to reach enough potential buyers to make a sale.

You’ve got to effectively capture their attention with your content (or advertisement or search ad or television commercial).

You’ve got to ensure that attention is attributed back to your brand or product.

If you fail at any of those, you fail at marketing, and calling it content or advertising or anything else won’t make that any less terrible.

Noah Brier is the chief technology officer and co-founder at Percolate

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