What is digital content?

I worked on a few projects in the past year where the question of “what is content?” came up. To give some more context, we were designing content management systems, and client’s were confused by all the different ways you can create content within the software we were using. To the content editors we were designing the CMS for, a page was not a collection of blocks, views, and nodes, but a series of images, content listings, videos, and calls to action.

Digital content can be simply defined as codified information that is transferred from one entity to another via some digital mechanism, but that has little meaning to content editors. They see content as the components they need to build experiences that engage their site visitors. For your modern-day content editor, that content is the collection of parts that make a whole (videos, embeddable tweets, slideshows, etc.), rather than the whole (a rendered HTML page).

The content model within a CMS should be defined by the components content creators need to build their content – a collection of content elements and components that live independent of each other, but can be grouped in the most effective way to present information to an audience. These components can follow structured content best practices, but should allow a content editor to create content how they want to create content.

As content strategists, we need to be cognisant of the negative effect overly rigid content models have on the CMS’s that we design. Content models that do not conform to our own target users perception of content leads to low adoption rates, misuse of content creation tools, and technical debt gained by content editors finding workarounds to the limitations we build into the system. Structured content is important for portability, but that portability means nothing if your users don’t even want to use the CMS 🙂

I see this componentized approach to content creation as a trend in this sector. The reality is content is getting smaller. This trend is reflective in the componentization of long-form content pieces like NY Times’ Snowfall and Pitchfork’s Glitter in the Dark. These components – banner images, slideshows, videos, etc. – are now pieces of content in and of themselves that people want to engage with and share with their friends.

Content management systems need to be more flexible in how they handle content. Content types should comprise of those smaller components that can be compiled to make up a rendered page delivering a message or series of messages to a targeted audience.