What We Talk About When We Talk About 'Content'

Regarding the Peculiar Journey From 'Content Producer' to 'Content Marketing'

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Any day now I'm expecting to hear that a progressive school district somewhere -- perhaps one that already offers programming classes -- is radically rethinking how it teaches the language arts.

Instead of term papers and essays, students will have to write -- nay, produce -- engaging content. Instead of English Comp, kids will enroll in Content 101. Shareability and clickworthiness will factor into how work is graded.

Why not? It's what the marketplace demands.

Credit: Kelsey Dake for Ad Age

I remember when people first started referring to "content." The term really gained currency circa Web 1.0 -- during that moment when coders gained the upper-hand, and creative types, backed into a corner, felt compelled to defensively declare things like "Content is king."

Honestly, I'm a bit nostalgic about my pre-BuzzFeed, pre-Upworthy, pre-HuffPo, pre-social-media upbringing. Growing up, we were told (and to this day, kids are still told) that we're all special snowflakes and our creative expression matters specifically because it's unique. When I was a kid, nobody talked about words and pictures as "content."

This'll sound pretentious (because it is), but I aspired to work with language and ideas when I grew up; the notion that creative expression was destined to be a commodity was foreign to me. ("Where can I find the content?" "Aisle 4, next to the stuff and the things.") Content implies interchangeable output -- stuff that's, like, extruded, poured into a mold, and then sent riding down some sort of virtual conveyor belt on its way to consumers.

Then again, at the same time that, early in my career, I was bristling at the thought that I'd grown up to be some sort of "content producer," I was moving into management roles at digital properties where, yes, I just needed content. Stuff to fill webpages. Stuff to sell ads against. Things that would make people want to click.

Keeping a website going, you can't help but think about how, basically, you're just shoveling content into the internet's ravenous maw. After a while it does all start to seem interchangeable, because the internet is not at all discerning; it'll devour anything and everything.

With everybody having to produce more and more content, faster and faster, standards erode. Inevitably, more marginal stuff -- even cynical stuff (e.g., endless slide shows that gin up page views) -- gets published.

It gets harder and harder to hold onto pretensions. If you're on the "church" side of the so-called church-state divide (i.e., the edit-advertising divide), you've probably been slowly but surely losing your religion.

'Content' reborn
But wouldn't you know it? Along the way, something funny happened to the word content: It got appropriated by the "state" side of the church-state divide. Marketing types started referring to what used to be called advertorial as content marketing. (A key moment in that shift came in Feb. 2010, when the Custom Publishing Council changed its name to the Custom Content Council.) It was alchemical, really.

And of course it doesn't necessarily make any sense. Because what counts as content in an advertising context? Aren't all ads, at some level, content? When does an ad cross over from mere marketing to content marketing? If the goal is to get people to connect -- to share and talk about an ad in social media and beyond -- can't a traditional (but good) ad function as content just as well as actual "content marketing"?

If you think about it, we're at a pretty surreal crossroads in the history of media. Just as a lot of "church"-side content producers are obsessing about producing more short, mobile-friendly, "snackable" content (honestly, I just want to punch myself in the face for just having used the word snackable), "state"-side content marketers are talking about producing stuff that has more depth, that allows for more engagement, that conveys a brand's message with real resonance beyond just a tagline. Storytelling and narrative are the new watchwords.

So content is king once again, I guess? At least if it's content-marketing content?

To content marketers, I say: More power to you. But just try to keep in mind what the shovel-wielding high priests of "church"-made content have learned the hard way about the bottomless pit known as the internet.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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