What are we talking about when we talk about content?

Even though I still consider myself primarily a writer and editor, over the last few years my role in various projects has also been described as “content strategist,” “content manager,” or “content marketing manager.” What always surprises me is how differently people interpret those titles—even when they’ve bestowed them upon me.

I’ve been working across the organization at my current job to learn more about how we’re using content and forming content strategies in our different divisions and among different teams. What was really surprising to me was that there was no consistent vocabulary to discuss our various projects. People, even people in marketing or communications roles, often mean different things when they say “content” or “content strategy.”

So I scoured the internet and came up with this list of definitions to help us all speak the same language when we talk about content. (I tweaked all the wording of the definitions a little to suit my own needs, so consider then paraphrases. I cite my primary sources for the definitions in italics after each one. This was one exercise where I thought it was valuable to have the backing of industry expertise, rather than just my opinion about what words mean.)

  • Content strategy
    The plan for the creation, delivery and governance of useful, usable content.
    Kristina Halvorsen
  • Content management
    The processes and tools/technologies used to collect, create, manage and deliver content.
    Halvorsen, Wikipedia, Slice of Pie
  • Content marketing
    A marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience with the objective of driving profitable customer action.
    Content Marketing Institute
  • Thought leadership
    The ideas, research and content that showcase and validate an individual or organization’s expertise, foresight and unique perspective.
    Thought Leadership Strategy
  • Sales enablement
    The messages, information and tools that help customer-facing personnel advance the sales process.
    American Marketing Association
  • Product literature
    Content that assists with the selection, purchase and use of specific products.
    AMA, Marketing Wiki
  • Media
    The format of production (PDF, video, blog, etc.)
    Northwestern University Content Strategy MOOC
  • Platform
    The destination/method of delivery (paper, browser, mobile, etc.)
    Northwestern University Content Strategy MOOC
  • Content
    Specific, purposeful pieces (a paper, a microsite, a video, etc.)
    Northwestern University Content Strategy MOOC
  • Copy
    The actual words/text on the page or website
    Northwestern University Content Strategy MOOC

Have you encountered words or terms that are being used differently in your organization? How do you get people speaking the same language? Do any of these definitions seem debatable to you?

Quick Grammar Lesson Two: Less vs. Fewer

Strictly speaking, this isn’t a grammar lesson; it’s a vocabulary lesson. But I’m including it anyway because it was requested.

Less and fewer are commonly confused, and there are plenty of instances where the error has been institutionalized to the point that it’s believed to be correct (For example: “15 items or less” at the grocery store). Keeping these two adjectives straight is really pretty easy, if you just remember two simple rules:

1. Less is for mass or abstract objects (time, money, food), while fewer refers to specific, countable objects (hours, dollars, apples).

2. Less is used with singular words or plurals that don’t end with “s,” while fewer is used with plurals that end with “s.”

What does this mean? Here are some examples:

I plan to watch less TV by saving fewer shows to my DVR.

There are fewer products being manufactured in the Rust Belt, so there is less employment available.

I want to eat less, so I need to bake fewer cakes.

Got it? The “s” is really the easiest way to remember: Words that end in “s” are described with “fewer.” Of course, like any grammatical (or vocabulary) rule, there are always exceptions. And there are also cases where common usage trumps “correct” usage—”10 items or less” might be incorrect, but don’t be surprised if you’re told to get a life when you inform your local grocery store.

Quick Grammar Lesson One: Em-dashes, En-dashes and Hyphens

One of the most common errors I see when copyediting is confusion of em-dashes, en-dashes and hyphens. I don’t think these dashes are commonly taught in school—I know I learned the difference between them my first year in publishing. So here’s a quick lesson:

Em-dashes are the triple length dashes that separate ideas in a sentence.
Example: My dog—who loves to run—is chasing her tail.
Often em-dashes are used in place of parentheses.

En-dashes are (usually) double length dashes that are used to show ranges.
Example: The shrubs may grow 36–42 in. high.
En-dashes are usually used between numbers, like dates or measurements. In some fonts, en-dashes and hyphens are indistinguishable.

Hyphens are a single dash used within words (such as en-dash and em-dash), to join words (such as compound adjectives) or to break words at the end of a line.
Example: She wore an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow polka-dot bikini.

Like most grammar rules, these aren’t set in stone. Publications have their own styles. Many people use space–en-dash–space instead of an em-dash for example. Or they use a hyphen instead of a an en-dash. Or, when there is a hyphenated phrase containing a hyphenated word, the hyphens between words become en-dashes (as in the sentence before last).

To make it easy, here are three basics to remember:
1. Always use a single short dash (hyphen) to join words or break a line.
2. Always use a longer dash (en-dash or em-dash) to separate thoughts in a sentence.
3. Be consistent.

I suspect one reason people often use the wrong dash is that they don’t know how to insert the correct one. Hyphens are standard on any keyboard, including most smartphone keyboards. If you are using Microsoft Word, you can find both en- and em-dashes on the Symbol list on the Insert menu. On a Mac, the shortcut for en-dash is option+- and for em-dash is option+shift+-. If you can’t figure out how to make a real en-dash or em-dash, you can substitute a hyphen for an en-dash and two hyphens (–) for an em-dash.

Truth be told, these are old printer conventions, and as digital publishing evolves, things are going to change. As with most grammar quibbles, the important thing is to be consistent.