What Is Content, and What Can It Do? (content strategy, part 3)

(NOTE: This posting is part of a series on content strategy. You may want to start reading from the introduction.)

“Content” is what you have to say, however you say it: text, pictures, audio, video, spoken word, math, sign language, smoke signals, Morse code, cuneiform, music, body language, etc.

Whenever we communicate – whether with the whole world, a specific audience, a closed group, or just with ourselves – we rely on content to convey our message. It’s how we package our thoughts and observations.

In turn, content is wrapped in context – which is only partly determined by your intention behind the message you’re sending. This means that ultimately you have surprisingly limited influence over the meaning someone receives from your content.

This makes trying to accomplish goals, connect with others, and express yourself a tricky business…


In the big picture, content can accomplish almost anything. Usually, most of what it accomplishes will not be exactly what you’d hoped. This uncertainty is both good (serendipitous, educational) and bad (counterproductive, embarrassing).

All content has intended and unintended effects on you, others, and the world. Here are some examples of intended or welcome effects you probably hope your content will cause:

  • Building or maintaining healthy relationships
  • Spreading news or information
  • Establishing, shifting, or repairing your identity or reputation
  • Obtaining cooperation, validation, or support – sometimes from unexpected quarters
  • Teaching and learning
  • Soliciting ideas, questions, or other feedback
  • Creative or practical collaboration
  • Clarifying and addressing issues, opportunities, or problems
  • Persuading people to do specific things (actions)

Here are some examples of unexpected or unwelcome effects your content also might cause:

  • Negative media, legal, regulatory, personal, or other attention
  • Public criticism
  • Sabotaging or confusing your identity or reputation
  • Undermining healthy relationships, or creating or worsening unhealthy ones (including new opposition or enemies)
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Polarization or rigidity
  • People thinking or doing the opposite of what you’d hoped or recommended
  • Confusion, which in turn causes inaction, disengagement, and frustration
  • Misunderstandings, whether subtle or gross
  • A higher response volume than you can handle
  • The spread of misinformation by others, either because they misunderstood you or they’re twisting your message to suit their own purposes
  • Personal embarrassment or discomfort at being forced to acknowledge your error, oversight, or miscalculation; or at having make a public change or retraction
  • No effect at all (they ignore you)

You are always affected by the content you create. Simply crafting and sending a message influences how you think and feel, what you perceive, and what you do – sometimes consciously, often not. It can also influence other people within your organization or on your team. It’s important to be aware of these internal effects of content and communication. Too often they’re overlooked in favor of a sole focus on external effects.

By communicating, you’re playing a role in a system: the ecology of influence. Influence is always mutual. No one exists outside that system – not even you.


One of the hardest parts of developing your content strategy is learning to give up the illusion of certainty and control.

Look at it this way – the formats and terminology of most legal, legislative, regulatory, insurance, medical, academic, and scientific language have evolved to a virtually unintelligible state. Why? Mainly because people in these fields usually wish to control every nuance of how their messages are interpreted and used. Based on your personal experience, how helpful is that approach? Are they generally achieving that goal?

Strong communicators expect and accept that their message probably will not be received and used precisely as intended. Therefore a robust, effective content strategy is:

  • Iterative: No message is communicated as a one-shot deal. You increase your chances of success if you transmit each core message in different ways, at different times, and even using different channels. This creates resonance with your audience, and it allows people to gain a richer, clearer understanding of your intended meaning. Think of that as mental depth perception.
  • Interactive: Effective communication relies as much on listening and empathy as it does on crafting and sending messages. The strongest content strategies are conversational in that they allow and encourage direct feedback: comments, questions, observations, praise, criticism, etc. It’s even better if you encourage all recipients of your message to discuss it among themselves, ideally in ways that you can participate in or at least follow passively. All of this indicates how your message has been received and is being used, by whom. You can use that information to refine future messages, predict results, and prevent problems.
  • Fluid: Your content strategy should enable you to “go with the flow,” to spot important developments early, and to adapt gracefully. This is easier if you seek to influence – not control – the flow and effects of communication. It’s important to be flexible, creative, and curious. Aim for consistency and authenticity, rather than uniformity and “officialness.” Most importantly, be open to and aware of the shifting, myriad contexts in which your messages exist. Such flexibility often depends on the communication tools and channels you choose, as well as your attitude toward communication and your audience. Simple tools, basic respect and interest, and being genuine generally work best.

Once you become aware of these larger realities of the nature of content, your ideal content strategy will become simpler and more apparent to you. Content decisions will get easier to make because they’ll be steered mainly by focusing on your goals and audiences. Also, the unexpected will become less difficult to cope with – even more serendipitous. You’ll find the communication process less tedious and scary, and more creative, rewarding, energizing, and fun.

And best of all, you and your organization will get more done.

The first step on this path is to clarify your goals…

COMING NEXT: What are your goals?…

PREVIOUSLY: Why communicate at all?

Index and intro to this series.