Sipping a mug of hot coffee while gazing over a snowy landscape yesterday morning, I came across an interesting post by Matt Owen of Econsultancy summarizing the hottest topics from the Festival of Marketing recently held in London. As part of his analysis, Matt created a wordcloud that reflected the most frequently used words within the 5,000+ tweets sent during the two-day festival. As I casually gazed at the illustration, one word in particular – the biggest and therefore the most frequently used word, in fact – jumped out at me: Content.


Photo Image Credit: Econsultancy

Sure, plenty of other digital marketing buzzwords like social, mobile, and brand surround the word Content, but they are smaller, less relevant, almost seeming to orbit Content like so many planets orbiting a sun.

At that moment a simple but profound question came to mind: WTF is Content, anyway? In a general sense, what exactly does it mean? In a marketing sense, why exactly is it the most heavily used word out there?

It was only then that I realized I hadn’t the faintest idea.

Content Confusion

Recalling that clues to words often can be gleaned from their initial word origins, I opted to spend some time digging up the etymology of the word Content. The word is Middle English as it turns out, originally from Latin contentus, past participle ofcontinēre, “to contain.”

Not very helpful.

Perhaps the dictionary would shed further light on my Content quandary. With that in mind, I headed straight to (Google) look up the term in Merriam Webster’s.

Plucked right from the dictionary’s website, here are the first three parts of the definition of Content when treated as a noun:


a :  something contained – usually used in plural <the jar’scontents> (heard that one before…)

b :  the topics or matter treated in a written work <table ofcontents> (closer, but not quite there…)

c :  the principal substance (as written matter, illustrations, or music) offered by a World Wide Web site (sounds about right…)

Mashing up the relevant dictionary inputs with my own understanding and experience of the term, I put together this unofficial and unadorned definition of Content as it relates to marketing:

All of the stuff contained on a webpage or any other piece of digital or non-digital marketing collateral.

I quickly realized that, when it comes to marketing at least, Content really is the whole ball of wax…

Content Matters

The word Content has grown and morphed over time such that it now refers to virtually all of the physical matter comprising the marketing universe – every video, tag line, tip sheet, about us section, radio & TV spot – everything. Moreover, I would humbly submit that the use of the term Content has become so popular among marketers as to make it one of the most all-encompassing and overarching – but functionally useless – words in marketing today.

In this way it ranks right up there with the term “Matter” in science, which variously refers to literally all of the stuff in the known universe, big and small (planets, stars, galaxies, molecules, atoms, muons, your computer, etc).

The difference is that scientists, not surprisingly, have had the good sense to break down their overarching term with the aid of handy classification systems like the Periodic Table of Elements. A long time ago, some scientific genius must’ve quickly realized that doing so would avoid the many ambiguities that make some terms so overly generalized as to become functionally obsolete.

A good thing, too; just imagine a group of chemists trying to operate with only the noun “Matter” in their lexical arsenal: “check out the atomic weight of this Matter, and also its coloration – much more lustrous than that Matter. The Matter over there, on the other hand, not as pigmented but really conductive.”


So have we marketers become in our relentless use of the term Content.

I suppose this comes as no surprise that, given our background as creatives and communicators, we would take every opportunity to adorn our overly generalized term with all manner of colorful descriptors: phrases like “data-driven Content, informative Content, engaging Content” can be found sprinkled throughout many a business/marketing website, blog post, and book for that matter (including mine).

In our excitement to spread the gospel about the efficacy of content marketing, however, I wonder if we haven’t collectively fallen into a rampant overuse of the term Content, and in doing so, whether we run the risk of focusing on form over substance…

I can think of at least one aspect of marketing, web design, which is on firmer ground when using Content as a noun in such a generalized way. In a recent post, I expanded on the role of content in web design:

In web design parlance, content refers to everything on a website: the worlds, images, and videos, etc. Just like you need matter to fill the universe and a body to fill a suit, you need content to fill a website page. Setting aside for now any debate over the merits of content marketing, in the context of web design content is a thing, not a strategy, tactic, or tool. Moreover, it’s an “are,” not an “is” – think plural rather than singular. When we refer to web-based content, then, we are referring to all the things that occupy or populate a web page in aggregate.

Content Clarity

Perhaps we need a Periodic Table of Content Marketing, something that provides a framework for classifying content into various sub-functions. As fate would have, Chris Lake of Econsultancy endeavored to do just that in a March 2014 post. Though a valiant effort by all accounts, unless I am mistaken his content marketing classification system has yet to enjoy widespread acceptance and/or uniform adoption.

Perhaps we should be like the techies and create an ICANN or W3C-type governance body to develop universally accepted and open standards and definitions for Content as it relates to marketing. Or maybe we just need to be less lazy and start using more precise language when referring to particular aspects of content marketing.

In truth, we may never find the silver bullet for achieving Content clarity. But I sincerely believe that, if we all work together, we may one day have a better understanding of WTF content marketing is after all.