Content has become part of the everyday marketing vocabulary, but the broadness of content discipline can lead to confusion. MercerBell’s Managing Editor Gary Andrews, who heads up the agency’s work in this space, outlines why content needs a change of thinking.



Have you heard the one about the content marketer who hated the word content? This isn’t the start of a bad joke – although there’s plenty of content that falls into that category – but both a plea and a mission statement to stop using the word content and start adding a little more rigour to what can be a confusing discipline.

As MercerBell’s Managing Editor and the individual in charge of content, my stance against the word initially caused a level of confusion. Yes, I have joined to head up our content offering. No, we won’t be calling it content. And no, I’m not trying to talk myself out of a job.

For the record, I love producing “content”, I just hate the word. It’s why the first question on any “content” task is to ask what “content” means. It’s never the same answer. It can be anything from text on a web page, to a video promoted through Facebook, to the output of a community manager on Twitter, to work produced by influencers, to a full blown online brand-run magazine.

Similarly, if you look at the objectives of content, this can be anything from improving SEO rankings, gaining engagement on social media, a shoppable image on Instagram that takes you straight to conversion or an article that’s designed to tease clicks from an email for existing customers as part of a CRM program.

Content, then, means everything and nothing. It’s hard to think of any other discipline that is so ill-defined, yet people are so certain they know what content marketing should be. To paraphrase Inigo Montoya in the Princess Bride, you keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.

One of the earliest examples of “content marketing” was the Michelin restaurant guide, conceived in 1900 to encourage car drivers to make more journeys and, in turn, buy more tyres from the French company. It was a pamphlet, not a piece of content.

Likewise, if you were to call a supermarket’s in-store publication “content”, the marketing team would tell you it was quite obviously a print magazine. Put the same articles on a website, though, and suddenly you have a team together talking about content strategy, despite there being no discernible difference.

Advertising legend Dave Trott has called content “just stuff” and I’d be inclined to agree. It’s become shorthand for “something that fills a space somewhere on the internet.”

Using the word content devalues the discipline. At his ADMA talk last year, Digiday’s editor-in-chief Brian Morrissey used the term viral sameness in reference to both publishers and branded content. Everybody was creating the same articles, chasing the same hits because that’s what they thought people wanted.

To follow on from Morrissey’s idea of viral sameness, in the absence of a clear definition, there’s a tendency to gravitate towards whatever works, format wise, and whatever’s most popular at the time. This may drive engagement, but comes at the expense of the brand. Can you honestly remember who produced that last top-down view food recipe you watched on Facebook?

It’s why I try wherever possible to use the word editorial instead of content. It’s still broad enough to cover many of the same channels, but it adds more rigour, structure and focus to the production process, as any good newsroom would do. An editorial direction for a brand implies a long-term commitment and a clearly defined strategic direction. Editorial is a discipline, content is an abstract.

If you’re producing weekly Facebook posts, you need a calendar, planning, ideation and an editor to oversee quality control. If you’re creating regular articles for SEO, you need a calendar planning, ideation and an editor to oversee quality control. You get the idea.

Not all editorial is content, but it’s still perfectly possible to brief your activity without calling it content. It can be called Facebook advertising, YouTube videos, an Instagram Story, a piece of advertorial, or a piece of product web copy. All make far more sense than calling them content, and all are clear what you’re asking of your creative team.

At MercerBell, we produce all of the above without needing to use the word content. Our content brief template has been consigned to history. It’s not stopped us from producing great work that’s read, watched, shared and liked.

So, I’d like to end on a plea. Let’s make 2018 the year somebody writes a clickbait article entitled “content marketing is dead” and for once nobody disagrees with them. Let’s get back to being precise and focused in what we want from a brief, whether it’s ongoing editorial or a promoted social post. And please, if any of your colleagues use the C-word, call them out. It’s unacceptable in this day and age.