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Content marketing and content design: do they compete or complement?

Di Mace

November 18th, 2021

Written by

Di Mace

Category

Design & UX

Experience teaches us that change happens. Similarly… our strategies, tactics and approaches evolve in response to those changes, in our market, society and people’s expectations – as each expands, contracts and adapts. Content marketing isn’t immune to that fate. 

Firstly, it must be said: the power of content marketing is timeless. 

Brands (and people) have used content marketing to solve problems and educate readers, for centuries. In 1733, Benjamin Franklin began publishing the “Poor Richard's Almanack” and throughout its 25-year life, it helped build his personal popularity and economic success within colonial America. Franklin himself:

“[...] considered it a vehicle of instruction for common people who could not afford books, a literature for the masses.” 

Despite it being published under the pseudonym of Richard Saunders, Franklin’s almanac is widely considered an early content marketing effort – aimed at building his personal brand. 

Similarly, the John Deer brand is considered the ‘OG content marketer’ of brand content. Their agricultural magazine, “The Furrow'', started in 1895 and is still in circulation. And again, it’s now considered content marketing, but at its inception the magazine was simply “a helpful resource for farmers.”

During their creation, it’s likely that both ideas started with the identification of a need, concern, or lack of information. Then the content creators aligned the written content with the stage of awareness and/or journey phase that those people were going through (awareness, research, consideration, decision). But that’s jumping ahead. What exactly is meant by content?

What is content?

Googling that question gives you about 13,030,000,000 results, in 0.68 seconds. After a quick filter, here's a post from Top Rank Marketing, that supplies 40+ definitions for ‘what is content’, from industry experts. They boil down to:

“Content is many things to different people and situations due to context.  Fundamentally, content = information. Content = experience. Content = nothing specific.”

What that says, is that the term ‘content’ is very broad, so let's stretch it even further. 

In this book “Content Mapping”, author Henry Adaso defines content thus [my bolding]:

 “Content is anything that tells a story. It doesn’t have to be produced by a brand or media company to be considered content. People make content all the time.”

What makes good content?

Armed with that broad scope, let’s shape and color it a little. Great content (of all types) involves (in no particular order):

  1. Empathy and emotions
  2. Purpose and strategy
  3. Design and color
  4. Needs and desires
  5. Motivations and aspirations
  6. Research and analytics
  7. Flows and journeys
  8. Structure and hierarchies
  9. Information and logic
  10. Behavioural frames
  11. Mental models
  12. Shape and space
  13. Interactions and usability
  14. User experiences
  15. Prototyping
  16. Language and tone
  17. Illustration and images
  18. Readability and accessibility
  19. Entertainment and virality
  20. Conversions

Content can be words, but it’s other things, too. Iconography, layout, hierarchy, illustration and tone of voice all play a part in the dance between people’s attention and memorability. Generally, words are the foundation, but they’re not always written words, and other design aspects play a pivotal role. Crucially though, nothing should be created in a vacuum.

The next step in content marketing is defining why you’re creating the content.

Changing names, same old questions

Hindsight has categorised both “The Furrow” and “Poor Richard’s Almanack” as content marketing, but it’s obvious neither began that way. Then, they were educational. And they shared the goal of attracting, educating, engaging, or helping people. In the long run, those people became supporters, believers, users, buyers, or even evangelists. 

Which is the exact reason why they’ve become iconic, historical examples of content marketing.

For some, the idea of not pushing your products or services sounds counterintuitive, but it's that very essence – a low-push, high-pull approach – that makes content marketing so appealing, authentic, and successful. It engenders trust, bypasses resistance, and builds a relationship with people. As people. Not prospects.

A critical aspect of creating content is to always start with the question: “Who’s this for?”

The second question is: “What is that person trying to achieve or understand?”

Great content goals don't aim to pitch your product or service. No, greater goals are at stake:

  1. You’re concerned with people’s interests and problems 
  2. You’re answering nagging questions and leaving people with valuable information
  3. You’re placing people (not your business) at the centre of your efforts to help them

In short, you’re providing truly relevant and useful information that helps people solve their issues and get their ‘jobs-to-be-done’. To do that, it requires in depth research and understanding of the journey people are on to satisfy their needs and desires.

Now consider what type of content you’re creating.

What’s content creation?

Broadly speaking, content creation is the process of developing valuable, topic-based information( be it textual, visual, or auditory) that’s distributed across a variety of media (such as physical, print and digital) that specifically appeals to the types (and tastes) of particular people. 

It comes down to the right message, at the right place, and the right time.

Content types - the list is growing everyday 

Hubspot defines a list of twelve content types:

  1. Blogs
  2. Videos
  3. Infographics
  4. Case Studies
  5. eBooks
  6. User-generated content
  7. Checklists
  8. Memes
  9. Testimonials/Reviews
  10. White papers
  11. How-to Guides/Academic content
  12. Influencers/Paid Ad content

As we’ve taken a wide scope, there's a few other types of content to add to that list:

  1. Articles
  2. Podcasts
  3. Interfaces and dashboards
  4. Error screen messages
  5. Landing and selling pages
  6. Emails and onboarding
  7. Tutorials and Wikis
  8. Social media 
  9. Events and activations

A lengthy list of possibilities, isn’t it?

So is it content creation, content marketing, or content design?

It can be confusing. But to be honest, it’s all of them. The differing words and titles purely reflect the evolution that's occurred:

  • Content writing and marketing (as we know it) began in the 1990s
  • UX writing came to the party with the tech boom
  • Content design is the most recent – with a broader scope than UX writing and includes some aspects of content strategy 

As Tom Waterton from IBM Design, said in his Medium article Confessions of a Content Designer:

“Even three years ago, while there were clearly marketing copywriters and technical writers and other writing folk, very few people were using the term ‘content’, nor exploring the boundaries between one type of writing and another, nor considering the entire content experience as a whole.”

In the same article Waterton goes on to say: 

“There is a vast amount that can get included under the ‘content’ banner. Everything from research and early design exploration, to planning and strategy, to content auditing and review, to SEO and data analytics, to checking terminology and writing web or product UI copy. Because of this vast breadth, chances are that no one content professional covers everything.”

And again:

“For example, you’ll find that Facebook and Shopify call their content folk Content Strategists (of which Facebook have over 300! 🤯); Google and Microsoft seem to opt for UX Writer; while Deliveroo, IBM, and others predominantly use Content Designer—even though, from all I’ve heard, the actual roles and responsibilities at each of these companies are pretty similar.”

If you’re still confused, Yael Ben-David’s excellent UX writers, content strategists, and content designers — oh my! Medium article, sums up content designers nicely:

“Content designers do everything UX writers do, and some of what content strategists do, but they are … more focused on the structure of the copy – how it appears on the page and how the content of different pages within the product relate to each other”

She clearly differentiates what each role does, and what you need to know to execute the role, as does Erica Jorgensen, in her article on 11 Key Content Design Considerations.

So what is content design?

Similarly to the question, “What is content?” there’s no agreed-upon definition for content design. It's different things to different practitioners, in different situations and industries.

However, Sarah Richards defined the practice of content design in her seminal work, “Content Design”:

“Then, instead of saying ‘How shall I write this?’, you say, ‘What content will best meet this need?’ The answer might be words, but it might also be other things: pictures, diagrams, charts, links, calendars, a series of questions and answers, videos […], and many more besides. When your job is to decide which of those, or which combination of several of them, meets the user’s need – that’s content design.”

With that in mind, a zen-like koan comes to mind: “What comes first, content or design?” 

That riddle may never be satisfactorily solved, but a step towards it involves two related disciplines – design thinking and human-centred design – that were defined in the early 2000s.

Where does design thinking come in?

Unfortunately, many brands still use high-push methods in their content creation. In these instances, design work takes place during the final phase of the process ,and it’s created using a tactical approach – with no prior involvement in conception, innovation, or the decision-making steps.

Conversely, by employing design thinking and human-centred design philosophies early-on, it empowers designers to tailor creations based on peoples’ needs rather than merely enhancing how something looks (be it content or a product). 

It's a backwards-forwards approach where you take a deep dive into people's lives, before applying design principles. This more strategic, purposeful approach to the design process, has led to design thinking being increasingly incorporated in the design of content.

Now although design thinking has a history that spans several decades, it was Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO, who coined the term in 2008. In a Harvard Business Review article, he defined design thinking as:

“a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology and the requirements for business success.” 

Using design thinking for content creation

Design thinking involves several stages that are a fit for any innovative development process – including the creation of content for marketing, products, and software. At its core, design thinking requires you to understand people’s problems and pain points so you’re creating solutions that help them (sounds eerily familiar to the approach taken by the OGs of content marketing, doesn’t it?).

This human-centered design process – “how you think” and “what you do with it” – can be broken down into three stages:

Stage 1: Inspiration 

During the Inspiration Stage, you take steps towards knowing your customer and understanding their needs. You’ll empathize with them, you’ll define their problem and you’ll ascertain your own insights. This step is important, and success lies in tying your solutions back to the people you’re serving.

Stage 2: Ideation 

The Ideation Stage is where you brainstorm to generate content ideas based on everything you’ve learned. The possibilities that come up may seem or be endless, and nothing is farfetched. In the end though, narrow down your ideas and fine-tune them in preparation for publishing.

Stage 3: Implementation

When you move to the Implementation Stage, it’s essential to track and measure your efforts to determine if your content is effective at meeting the content marketing goals,  and satisfying your ‘right people’. Based on the results of your analyses, you loop back through the previous stages and reiterate until you get it right or as you evolve your content with changing markets.

There’s proven benefits to taking a design thinking mindset during the creative and development process. Human-centered approaches inject more value to content and give brands a competitive edge. That's highly desirable, especially when there's now so much content marketing, that content is now marketing.

“Content is the present – and future – of marketing.”

~ Content Marketing Institute

So are we content saturated?

Over the decades since its 1990s rebirth, content marketing has become the marketing lever of choice. But we’re now drowning. And have been, incrementally, for the last 10-20+ years. Volume has gone up, but demand remains static – because there’s only so much anyone can consume, process and share. 

As that saturation increases, the big returns, results and recognition go to a proportionally smaller number of content pieces. So, what’s the answer?

In Scaling Content: The Next Wave for Content Strategy, Forbes magazine touts the solution as:

“The next wave is building agile content systems—being able to produce a large volume of content fairly quickly and deploying the right type of content at the right time to the right person.”

Respected content marketing authority, Robert Rose, said in an early 2021 article:

“In 2021, it’s not enough for content marketers to understand how to create blogs, infographics, or other creative media assets. They also need to understand how content operations work at scale. That means understanding technology, governance, and content structure so that it can be reused, repackaged, and leveraged across silos.”

The answer is likely a combination of the two, but it’s also something simpler. Publish less. Publish well. Publish best. 

That frees up resources, time and talent to focus on optimizing evergreen content – through the iterative application of content design principles, design thinking, and human-centred design. By using tools specifically designed to build engagement and interaction, you’re building a deep portfolio of content that doesn't lose its value over time and gives your readers remarkable experiences that they’ll remember. And hopefully act upon.

“... quality cannot be sacrificed. To break through the clutter, content must be epic..”

~ Joe Pulizzi, Author and Founder Content Marketing Institute

Content marketingDesign
byDi Mace

Messaging strategist and copywriter whose passion lies in working with brands like Tiny, that have deep-seated values and embrace the power of their story. She gets a kick out of solving problems, loves learning new things and making stuff, every day. When she’s not thinking through clever copy lines or clarifying value propositions, she’s knitting amazing socks for everyone she knows.

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