Regardless of your role in an organization, you are going to encounter the word “content” at some point. This seemingly elusive concept is the key to achieving a successful digital experience. Good content surprises, delights, and helps users, and the best examples keep users coming back for more. You’re reading this blog post because you know this part of marketing is important, but what is “content,” exactly?

While the question seems simple, the answer is complicated. Clients, information architects, designers, developers, and strategists like myself refer to the term on a daily basis, but if you asked any of us to define it, you might get one of the following answers:

  1. Text
  2. Images
  3. Metadata
  4. Everything
  5. Silence

Most of these answers are right, depending on who is providing the answer. For example, a copywriter might say “text,” a designer might say “images,” and a developer might say “metadata.”

The fourth answer, “Everything,” seems vague, but it is closest to the truth. Merriam-Webster has multiple definitions of “content,” including “the principal substance (as written matter, illustrations, or music) offered by a World Wide Web site.” The definition itself is always changing depending on the form taken by the project., The definition also relies on context, which includes a site’s purpose, a user’s needs, business goals, design, or research. 

The only wrong answer to “What is content?” is “silence.” If you are working on a project and your team can’t explain the content in clear and concrete terms, you aren’t going to have much of a website (or marketing strategy, frankly). At the beginning of every new project, you need to define your content strategy so you can prevent problems later.

To get started, think about your content the same way a journalist might approach a story. Ask the questions who, what, when, where, why, and how. Who is creating it? What is the relation to the site’s goals? When must it be delivered? Where should it live on the site? Why are we creating it in the first place? How are we going to display it? How many pieces are we dealing with?

A content strategist or content manager is the right person to ask these who-what-when-where-why-how questions, and he or she might need to interview multiple people, ranging from clients to department leads. Sometimes, however, a project won’t have a strategist. Therefore, the responsibility falls on everyone. While a strategist can gather information and get the ball rolling, all team members should feel free to raise flags whenever a gap in content emerges or a proposed type doesn’t meet business, technical, or user goals.

Since the definition of content is always changing, there are no “dumb questions.” The earlier you can ask questions, and the tougher your questions can be, the closer your project will be to success. Once you have answers to these questions, the story of your website will start to unfold, and your users are more likely to turn the page.