Content’s Defining Problem (and How To Solve It)

Content lacks alignment of functions, disciplines, and job titles. Learn how defining terminology benefits organizations and the community of practitioners.

Content’s Defining Problem (and How To Solve It)

Content practitioners live for clear, purposeful communication. We’re all about content that conveys the right ideas in the right way to the right people at the right time. In many ways, we exist to explain things, so we understand deep in our bones that words and their definitions matter. Say what you mean. Mean what you say.

So it’s more than a little ironic that content as a field has yet to fully define itself.

There’s a painfully obvious lack of agreement about how to define the organizational functions, practical disciplines, and job titles that fall under the capital-c content umbrella.

In other words, the cobbler’s children have no shoes. And that, my barefoot friends, is a problem.

For proof, consider this partial list of content practices and roles:

Content strategy. Content design. UX writing. ContentOps. Content marketing. Content management. Content engineering. Digital communications. Technical communications. Web content creation. Conversation design.

Is your head spinning yet? Now imagine how everyone else in your organization feels.

Despite our best efforts, these terms and their respective definitions are currently about as clear as mud to anyone outside the content community (and most of us within it, too). No wonder so many of our colleagues and clients throw up their hands and revert to calling us all “writers.”  

Listen. Our lack of alignment isn’t anyone’s fault, but it is increasingly problematic. Functionally, it means we aren’t clearly communicating content’s value to the people we serve. It’s why so many of us struggle to confidently write job listings, explain what we do to our colleagues, demonstrate our value to our boss’s boss, and reliably identify kindred content spirits “in the wild.”

It’s time we did something about it.

Why the “World of Content” needs clear definitions (and why we don’t have them yet)

When we fail to align on the words we use to talk about content as both a practice and a series of roles, people’s wires get crossed. They get crossed in terms of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, who is responsible, and how we expect it to affect user satisfaction and business goals.

This doesn’t just cause confusion. It also creates wide-ranging inefficiencies, including the failure to allocate appropriate resources and assign accountability to the right people and roles. In short, it all adds up to a big, messy mess.

That we’ve arrived in this ambiguous place isn’t such a big surprise. Content as a field emerged in a more or less grassroots fashion, with all the energy, inclusivity, and zeal any grassroots movement typically includes. As a group, we’ve been collectively defining and redefining content and its subdisciplines for more than 20 years now—emphasis on “collective.” Without a central governing body, content’s trajectory has been an exercise in hive-mind evolution.

In so many ways, this is so cool. It’s part of the appeal, right? No gatekeepers. No cliques. We’re by and large a bunch of excited, curious people who want to make content better for everyone—and we’re making it up as we go. The sky’s the limit!

The unfortunate fallout, though, is that we’re still all over the place in terms of what we call the things we do. And here’s the thing: As the field of content matures, that ambiguity looks less like unbridled grassroots energy and more like a lack of self-awareness.

It’s also worth mentioning that the word “content”—the root on which all these terms are built—isn’t really doing us any favors. And yeah, we’ve all argued about it. It’s this tiny little reductive word that is so frequently boiled down to just (gestures wildly) “the stuff you put in the container.”

But it’s what we have to run with, so it’s our job to help others understand: Content is a complex ecosystem that includes activities, outputs, tools, rules, results, and consequences. Which is partly why there are so many overlapping ways of labeling, categorizing, and qualifying the whole business.

The call for clear definitions

So what’s next?

As a community, we need to develop clear, universally agreed-upon definitions for what it is we do and why it’s so important.

This is critical not just because we’re word people and words matter. Developing a consistent shared language is urgently necessary for the health and future growth of content as a discipline and a community.

I hasten to point out that this next step in self-definition is not an exercise in territorial gatekeeping. It’s actually how we keep this great big, arms-flung-wide, everyone-and-their-bestie-is-welcome party going. It’s the key to making content more accessible, visible, and impactful than ever.

Let’s talk about why that is.

The benefits of defining content’s roles, disciplines, and job titles

There are a million reasons why we’d all be better off with a shared terminology to define content and its subdisciplines. But for the sake of brevity, we’ll focus on just a few. As you’ll see, these benefits can be realized at both the organizational and community levels.

Organizational benefits

From Google to Facebook to Shopify, many organizations define content-related disciplines, roles, and (especially) job titles on their own terms. Those organizations are often in loose conversation with each other. Ultimately, though, they act independently. That approach (sorta kinda) works … if you’re willing to tack on all the other available terminological permutations every time you list a job for the title of your choice. More than just the frustrating workarounds it creates, this fractured approach subtly undermines content’s value at the organizational level and beyond.

Within individual organizations, a clearly defined, universally shared lexicon would allow us to:

  • Clarify our roles. Clearly defined terms equal clearly defined roles. The more universal our definitions are, the less likely they are to be perceived as one-off organizational quirks or fancy words for “writing.”
  • Demonstrate our value. Too often, leadership equates content with “just the words.” That’s the result of a lack of differentiation between content-related roles, job titles, and fields of practice. With clearer definitions comes a clearer appreciation for what content brings to the table.
  • Attract the right candidates. Wouldn’t you like to know precisely how to advertise your next job listing in order to attract candidates whose skills and interests perfectly align with your organization’s needs? A clear set of shared definitions is how you get there.
  • Make a bigger impact. The more your organization understands content’s role and value, the more likely they are to give content a seat at the table—and the greater your impact can be.

Community benefits

A shared lexicon would allow us to:

  • Broaden the content community. Aligning around a set of definitions makes it infinitely easier for content folks to find each other. (Or even, in some cases, to “find themselves” within a particular discipline they didn’t know they already inhabited.) A shared identity means we all belong at the family reunion. (Who’s bringing the deviled eggs?) It enables us to make content an even more diverse and inclusive space for people to build meaningful careers and communities.  
  • Raise content’s visibility. Unifying around a shared set of content-related definitions enables us to more effectively toot content’s horn and highlight all the ways it contributes to better outcomes.
  • Advance the field. A more inclusive community means fewer isolated practitioners toiling away in their own shadowy little corners. A shared terminology makes it easier to engage in healthy dialogue with one another—and push the field forward.

How our global content community can approach definitions

All of this is much easier said than done, of course. Many of our best and brightest thinkers have already worked to craft clear definitions for various content activities (not to mention clarifying the difference between roles and jobs). But we’ve yet to achieve consensus. For now, I’ll simply leave you with a few thoughts about how we ought to approach this shared challenge.

Simple is better

As we work to define terms, we must consider our audience. In this case, we’re mostly talking about two groups:

  1. People who don’t understand content (what we do and why).
  2. People who do understand or even work in content but don’t have a broader context for how their particular responsibilities and skillsets fit into the larger picture.

In both cases, the simpler and clearer the language, the better. We should aim for high-level definitions. Trying to capture all the details and nuances will inevitably overcomplicate our descriptions. And that will only undermine our objective, which is to get light bulbs to blink on.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

It’s not enough to define content. We’ve got to socialize the terms by using them again and again (and again). Otherwise, we might as well set them on a dusty shelf in some neglected storage room.

I often talk about “campaign slogans” when coaching content leaders on how to gain internal sponsorship. Pick a few key terms (e.g. “human-centered content,” “top tasks”) or slogans (e.g. “This content isn’t for us, it’s for our users”). This is how we make content’s role and value common knowledge—even among organizational units that “don’t do content.”  

Evolve the wording, keep the core principles

This is all bound to change as content continues to evolve. Which means we definitely shouldn’t chisel today’s chosen definitions in stone. This whole arduous process of identifying “gold standard” definitions is just that: a process. The technology, business models, processes, and content formats that shape our work will continue to evolve. And so should our language. As that happens, our goal should be to continue to capture what’s really true about content at any given time—while keeping our core principles intact.

A parting word

I know this is frustrating. I know it feels impossible to resolve. And I know this conversation often devolves into intense navel-gazing. At best, it’s annoying. At worst, it pulls focus from our actual desired outcome: to articulate the value of what we do so we’re empowered to help people—those we work with, sell to, and serve—succeed.

But we have a fantastic reason to keep at it. This work we do? It’s vitally important. Let’s tell it like it is.

Kristina Halvorson is widely recognized as one of the most important voices in content strategy and UX. She is the owner of Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy; the author of Content Strategy for the Web; the host of The Content Strategy Podcast; and the founder of the popular Confab and Button conferences. Kristina speaks worldwide about the importance of content strategy, educating and inspiring audiences across every industry. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with her two fantastic teens.

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