What We Say and What We Mean

Content strategy terminology can be all over the place. Here are three steps toward gaining clarity in your word choices.

What We Say and What We Mean

When it comes to content strategy, some of the terms we use and encounter don’t yet have commonly shared definitions. Certainly clients interpret some terms in different ways, depending on their point of view and familiarity with content strategy.

We’ve observed this especially at the front end of strategy projects, when the discussion is rather conceptual. To help ground and align the conversation, Brain Traffic’s content strategy quad establishes a helpful framework for talking about the major concepts of editorial approach, experience design, content structure, and content process. However, go a level deeper—when working on actual client projects—and we often need labels to help explain specific concepts.

Here’s an example. Let’s say someone starts talking about “content types.” You can look at that phrase from a few different perspectives:

  • Discussions about editorial approach often include terms like content mix, subjects, topics, or, yes, types. Generally, these terms come up when exploring the parameters of what should, and should not, be included in the content.
  • Discussions about content structure may include terms like module, container, component, collection, view, element, or … types. Such terms are necessary when exploring the different ways content can be assembled, broken down, atomized, and reassembled. Because content can take many shapes within different media and presentation devices/modes, the meaning of such terms can vary wildly. That’s not necessarily bad; in fact, the flexibility can be useful.

So, which usage is correct? Eh, it depends. These terms are used differently depending on the person, project, and what the specific areas of focus are for the team and stakeholders.

Three steps toward clarity

Like any field, content strategy will continue to develop new lexicon, both to clarify existing topics and to define new processes and products. We’ll agree on definitions for some terms and debate others. Along the way, we can help our clients, colleagues, teams, and partners by aiming for clarity. We can:

  • Speak our assumptions. It’s easy to assume that people share an understanding of a term, especially when it’s a common word like the examples mentioned in this post. But when a term is used to identify a particular aspect of content strategy work during the course of a project, assumptions are ill-advised and potentially risky. Avoid this by explicitly defining terms and labels as they are introduced.
  • Examine our choices. In the rush to meet a deadline, the terms used in a draft recommendations document may not be the most accurate or useful. Pause and consider how well each term expresses the intended meaning: Is there a more accurate word? Are the various terms used distinct from one another?
  • Use terms consistently. Is the same term used to mean one thing in one deliverable, but something else in a related deliverable? Are two different terms used to refer to the same thing at different times? These things are easy to fix, if we take the time to notice. (A good proofreader will help spot them, too.)

Content people know that words matter, and that context, usage, and nuance can affect meaning in subtle or substantial ways. Paying attention to the terminology we use can help ensure our work is understood as intended, and lead to more successful projects.

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