Get a handful of Web marketing people together and it’s only a short time until they start talking about "content." They’ll say things like, "Of course we need more content," or "We provide the best content for our audience," or "I’m trying to figure out how to make my content more engaging and relevant," or "Finding solid content creators is getting challenging."

But what do they mean? Content is such a vague and nondescriptive term that it can be frustrating getting from talking about content to actually doing whatever it is people do with content. Is content a blog post? An article? A video? Is it an idea? What?

Get a handful of Web marketing people together and it’s only a short time until they start talking about "content." They’ll say things like, "Of course we need more content," or "We provide the best content for our audience," or "I’m trying to figure out how to make my content more engaging and relevant," or "Finding solid content creators is getting challenging."

But what do they mean? Content is such a vague and nondescriptive term that it can be frustrating getting from talking about content to actually doing whatever it is people do with content. Is content a blog post? An article? A video? Is it an idea? What?

Content is a kind of intellectual product. It’s something that, in the purest sense, exists only in the minds of an audience. Content is an idea expressed clearly. The message that remains in your mind after reading an article, seeing a presentation or looking at a photograph — that’s content.

Let’s look at some of the different things associated with content.

Content and medium

Because we haven’t yet perfected telepathy, content needs some sort of container to get from your head into someone else’s head. The format of a piece of content is like a container. The idea, the content, is wrapped inside the medium.

For example, you could be wanting your audience to consume content that improves the likelihood of them choosing you to do business. You might come up with a specific message that you feel will accomplish this goal. Then you make a video with that message in it. The video is the medium that contains your content.

It’s easy to get caught up in medium. It’s easy to focus on blog posts or making video. There is a danger that, along the way, the content itself is lost or rendered ineffective.

For example, I’ve seen many videos that look stunning but contain no message that I remember. Super Bowl television advertising is a classic case of this: expensive, humorous short films for which one can often not even remember the sponsor. They are sometimes great little pieces of art or comedy, but the content (even if defined loosely as "Hey, look how great our brand is") gets lost in the medium.

While video is probably the most prone to misplacing the content, other media can also lose the content. A piece of text that is overly tuned for search engines and results in no meaningful message for the human audience would be an example.

Some kinds of content will shine better in different media. This is because different media have different dimensions. Video and audio both have an element of time built into them and they are typically experienced in a linear fashion — from start to finish. Text, on the other hand, has no element of time built into it and people can (and do) skim, skip and jump around. Photographs tend to be experienced all at once, and then smaller details emerge if people spend time examining the image.

Depending on the nature of content you’re making, different media will make for a more natural fit.

Because I know people like bullet lists, here’s one for different kinds of media (and this is by no means comprehensive):

  • video;
  • text;
  • image;
  • audio;
  • toy;
  • game;
  • sport;
  • food and drink;
  • performance.

You’ll notice that media tend to rely on a specific sensory experience of the world. This is one of the critical things about medium to ponder when figuring out which medium is the right match for your content.

Content and format

Getting more specific from medium is format. Format is a "standardized" way of preparing content for a particular medium. For example, within the text medium you might have the following formats:

  • novel;
  • essay;
  • blog post;
  • letter to the editor;
  • pitch letter;
  • conversion optimized landing page;
  • poem.

The purpose of format is to provide your audience with a framework for understanding your content. If they’re reading a blog post, they know where to look for cues into what your content is. Same with a letter to the editor — the audience knows where to go to find the content.

Format helps the audience know what to look for and what to listen for so that they don’t miss the content.

It also helps the content creator hang the message in a known framework; it’s much easier than working with an entirely blank canvas. For a songwriter, it’s typically easier to get started if they know they’re going to be making a "middle eight" pop song or an AABA "standard" tune. Once the format is known, the rest is simply a matter of technique and taste.

Just as with medium, certain bits of content will resonate more clearly with certain formats. In fact, some kinds of content are almost forced to exist within a certain format. Content about how your company is investment-worthy presented to a venture capitalist will almost certainly need to exist within the slideshow presentation format, for example.

I’m certain that many of this column’s readers have standard formats for how they do a listing presentation or how they do a house showing. These are formats within the performance medium. The audience instinctively knows where to look in order to get the content because the format of the performance leads them to the content. Success may depend on how accurate or relevant or delightful that content is. Or it might depend on how skillful the presentation is.

Content and device

What is challenging about content is that it is an intellectual thing. You don’t typically think about stopping by the airport newsstand and "picking up a stack of content." Instead, you might consider buying a newspaper.

Content itself exists in your mind. The newspaper exists in your hand. The pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras (and yeah, I get a kick out of name-dropping dudes who have an X in their name) once noted, "We think because we have hands." The connection between hand and mind is exceptionally strong.

The rise of digital technology has been the driver of all the talk about content primarily because the device that delivers the content is changing so rapidly. It used to be that a hand-sized object containing many words was called a book. Now it’s called a phone. It used to be that a text-bearing portable object about the width of a man and as long as his forearm was called a newspaper. Now it’s called a laptop computer.

It isn’t just that we are exchanging nondigital devices for digital ones. Even the capabilities of the digital devices are constantly changing. One day they deliver only the audio medium. Next thing you know they deliver text, audio, video and toy media. One day they exist only on your desk at work. Next thing you know your child is playing with it at home.

Device is the aspect of content that makes the ideas real and tangible in a sense. It is the final gateway between your content and the mind of your audience. Device will determine where the audience is likely to be when your content reaches them. Device will determine the time of day or specific moment your audience receives your content.

Real estate content

The challenge for real estate practitioners and content is to match their content with the appropriate medium, format and device.

Here are some types of content that are relevant to real estate:

  • property information;
  • listing presentation;
  • branding;
  • sales content directed at sellers;
  • sales content directed at buyers;
  • neighborhood information.

Different media will be more popular or more talked about, but may or may not be the best opportunity for delivering the content that is relevant to a real estate experience. Spending time gaining experience with a variety of media, and considering what makes them effective, is helpful. This is done by exploring a variety of formats within each medium.

Perhaps it’s not necessary to personally explore all media and formats (which would likely take more than a lifetime). But an understanding of the major formats and media will help you understand how content works and how to make it work better. It will make you a better content creator or a better patron of content creators (and hopefully prevent you from making a Super Bowl advertisement that lacks your own content).

The relationship between time, location and meaning of your content may suggest new and innovative ways of transferring your content to the minds of your audience.

Oh yeah, and the line between all of these distinctions is fuzzy.

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