Why we need to stop using the word ‘content’


Let me come clean from the outset. I have a problem with the word ‘content’. Content isn’t really anything in particular. It’s just the stuff that fills the space. And therein lies the problem I have with content.

More often than not, content just becomes a space filler rather than a purposeful piece of media/material/news or information designed to address a specific goal or purpose.

Digital and content have become synonymous.

We so frequently hear and read (perhaps even say) the words “what a great piece of content”. But what does that really mean? Content has become one of those buzzwords that we don’t really think about; it just rolls off the tongue.

What we are really intending to say is – “what an informative video” or “that is such an interesting letter” or “before I saw that picture, I didn’t understand what x was all about” and instead we just lump it all together as “content”.

If we don’t think about what it means, then we don’t think about why we’re creating it.

So much of what it is produced doesn’t really need to exist and when it comes to business and charity I blame a lot of that on the “content strategy”.

I don’t believe there is such a thing as a content strategy in relation to communications and marketing. Or at least there shouldn’t be.

Strategy should address the big picture and accomplish a specific goal. Content (be it a video, leaflet, phone call, newsletter etc.) should support that goal but shouldn’t take the lead role.

People first, strategy second and coming up the rear … content in third place.

This is how I see it (and how we try to work at Child’s i Foundation). We need to ditch the marketing jargon and think like a real human being. Toss aside the concept of the strategy, the audience and the content for a moment.

Think about the dinner party approach. Let’s talk to people at the party in a different way, dependent on who they are and what they might want to hear about:

Family – well they know a lot about us, so let’s give them the nitty gritty on what is happening with the little ones at school or Lily-Rose-May’s ballet lessons.

Friends – well it really depends on the friendship. Some friends need and want more personal information than others. Some just want the headlines and then chew the fat about topics important to both parties.

Acquaintances – you need to remember that shared thing you have in common and start from there. It could be some time before you list all of little Johnny’s swimming achievements or your partner’s latest promotion.

Strangers – find out about them first, stand back and observe then seize your moment and pitch what seems appropriate to bring them onside.

Without teaching marketers to suck eggs, it is that kind of thinking that should inform your overall strategy. Not everyone wants to hear about everything, or understands everything you could possibly tell them. So tailor your messaging to suit the relationship (audience) and then create the required content (I say this reluctantly) to achieve your goals.

An example from Child’s i Foundation

Our goal: We want our donors and supporters to know that we need and appreciate them. If we lose their support then we can’t do what we do. Some call this a retention strategy. The content needed to support this comes in various guises.

This is our five-pronged approach:

  1. Send a personal video for our golden apples (those who really stand out as super-supporters)

  1. Say a personal thank you for every donation (usually by email, phone call, a letter in the post or a text message for mobile givers).
  2. Sign off all communication with thanks and appreciation.
  3. Encourage one-off givers to give regularly by sending them information (personalised PDF report) of where the money is most needed and how it is spent.
  4. Overall, remember to stay true to our core values (transparency, doing things differently, collaboration and community)

We can’t forget about ‘content’ as without producing something tangible we don’t have the tools to tell people what we need and why. But that’s what we need to do first – decide what we are trying to say, why and to whom and then we can draw a picture, tell a story, write a letter or make a movie – whatever works to get our message across. Just don’t call it ‘content’!

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I work on a freelance basis for both private sector and charity clients and have over 15 years experience in digital comms, strategy and project management. Since it's inception 2008 I've has also been the core Digital Strategist and Communications Manager for the charity Child's i Foundation that reunites abandoned children with their families. The charity has been lauded for it's digital success and appeared at number 16 in Headstream's first Social Brands 100 report - the only charity in the list. I regularly speak at conferences and run workshops about digital strategy and social communications.