Content Isn’t What You Think It Is



I’m no language purist. I’ve accepted that literally can now mean not-literally, begging the question now means what you intuitively feel like it should mean (not what it meant more than 2000 years ago), and no one knows anymore what is or isn’t ironic.

Words mean what we collectively say they mean. Language evolves and adapts to suit usage. But as someone who has had content in his job title for the past decade, I feel keenly equipped to nudge us — if not just remind us — toward what content is and isn’t.

Content is a Four-letter Word

In a former life at a former job, I sat at my open-office desk — with every sniffle and chair creak echoing through the space — when a co-worker poked their head around the corner and said, “Scott, we’re sending out an email and we’re going to need some content for it. Just a heads up.”

They un-poked their head as quickly as it had appeared, and I was left with more questions than direction.

What did they mean when they said content? Were they looking for articles or infographics to link to from the email? Sometimes people use content to mean subject lines, calls to action, or other short-form, high-impact, advertising-type copy. Could it be that? Or maybe they want to send some long-form writeup for the body of the actual email — unique insights for our email subscribers?

However they meant it, they weren’t necessarily wrong — I’m not here to be the linguistics police — but I’m sure we’ve all been in enough meetings with marketers or sales teams or executives where the c-word gets tossed around willy-nilly and there’s ambiguity around what exactly is going on.

Content Marketing Basics

More traditional advertising and marketing efforts focus on laying out the features and benefits of various products and services a brand offers. But people know when they’re being advertised to and typically don’t like it.

So instead of focusing on those company-specific offerings, content marketing focuses on educational, entertaining and engaging information. Content marketing positions the brand as a trusted and valuable ongoing resource for industry insights, actionable advice, and detailed understanding of relevant fundamentals. It creates a partnership instead of a sales pitch.

So What Is Content?

Of course, traditional advertising and modern content marketing both require content — in the broadest sense of the word. Someone has to write and design some sort of something to go in the thing. But when it comes to the content marketing discipline, if everything is content then nothing is.

Content marketing certainly isn’t some unique, delicate flower that dare not be sullied by the riffraff of those other types of marketing. But if every social media post or email campaign or SEM page is called content then the places where an information-first approach (as opposed to a brand-first approach) could provide a unique advantage become indistinguishable from the rest — and your marketing will become a giant, gray mush.

Luckily, there’s a simple solution — solved mostly by a shift in mindset:

Content is the product. Content marketing is the tactic.

Content is a Product

I’ve helped build content marketing programs for companies big and small over the past 10+ years. And while there is not a universal solution, and there’s going to be give and take, and someone is going to use content at some point when they really mean copy, every successful program needs to have someone who treats content like a product.

Companies will offer a wide range of products and services, and informational, educational, inspirational content should be one of those products. You have in-house experts who have a thing to say about the industry. You have opportunities to drive the conversation among your peers. You have insights that set your company apart from the rest.

Content can be marketed in a lot of different ways — social media, email, paid search, organic traffic, and more — but those are all tactics. The Twitter post linking to an article is not the content, nor is the Google ad. Content is a product that facilitates learning and understanding. Content is a product to educate and inform. Content should have a product manager who oversees content strategy, development, publishing and tracking. It should have its own product budget. It should have its own KPIs and accountability.

Words Have Meaning

So while your third-grade teacher — who told you to never end a sentence with a preposition and to never split your infinitives — isn’t going to break down your door next time you casually toss around content when you actually meant a new sales page for your website, you may want to avoid conflating various marketing tactics. Take a moment to clarify exactly what you mean when you talk about content and when you talk about content marketing.

We all have only so many tools in our toolbox, and if all we have is our content hammer, everything is going to look like a nail.

Written by


Modus is a full service digital agency headquartered in New York City. We build human-centered digital experiences that drive businesses forward.

Modus is a full service digital agency headquartered in New York City. We build human-centered digital experiences that drive businesses forward.

More Ideas & Insights