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Content Isn’t King, Content Is a Product

by Scott Hutcheson
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Content needs to be packaged and designed in the same compelling ways that products are in order for users to respond to its directives.

The content as king metaphor has been with us in the Web world for decades, at least since Bill Gates mentioned it in his landmark content article from 1996. Old guard media leader Sumner Redstone may have even coined the phrase prior to Gates’ article.

No matter who said it first, the metaphor’s always been problematic. After all, no one has to obey your content or even pay attention to it. If content is king, then it’s like the king on a chessboard: important but ultimately not very powerful. If we want to keep content from becoming merely another design element, we need a new philosophy. With that in mind, here are guidelines for putting content in its rightful place.

Content is a Product—Treat it Like One

How many times have you had to rely on your proposed UX to lead the content producers in their creation process rather than the other way around? Helping them think of content as a product with purpose and function could make your job a bit easier. Treating content as a product means following a process much like that of developing a physical product. It has to be purposefully designed, packaged, and tested.

Content Products must be Designed

It’s easy to think of UX work as designing a product. But, treating content as a product that needs to be designed might seem like a bit of a stretch. Successful physical products like coffee makers, smartphones, and shoes have the right combination of utility and aesthetics and don’t happen by accident. Andrew Green, CEO of Twelve South, which makes accessories designed exclusively for Apple, can spend months, if not years, developing and refining a product before producing and launching it. Green says, “The more thinking you do on the front end the better your product is going to be.” This front loading idea of planning out content shifts drafting content to something more like a design process than a literary one.

Design Starts with Purpose

Much like the functional aspects of a web experience, a content product works best when it is designed to accomplish a defined task. It’s too easy to just go with “inform.” Whether it’s the headline on a homepage or instructions on a form, all written content (and visual content, for that matter) should be treated as though it has a functional purpose. After all, every UX professional knows that websites always work better when designed as tools rather than digital brochures.

Calls-to-action are an easy place to start. The ubiquitous “click here” is really just a cop out. A well designed link or button looks like it should be clicked. This type of content should be designed to tell the users what happens next. Calls-to-action like “submit” and “continue” are headed on the right track. Though words like “subscribe” instead of “submit” and “ go to step 4” rather than “continue” fit the purpose of a process much better.

If content is king, then it’s like the king on a chessboard: important but not very powerful

Of course, content design doesn’t have to be for only buttons and links. Even long copywriting will benefit from being designed rather than merely written. Challenge your content producers with questions like: “What does this content need to achieve?” or “What actions should the user be motived to do when reading this copy?” This can be the first step in getting them out of the “well, my paragraphs are well structured” mindset.

Content Products must be Packaged

Even truly well designed content will miss the mark if it’s not packaged properly. A product’s packaging can make a big difference in its success. Tropicana learned the hard way how a package redesign could hurt them, whereas Unilever saw terrific success with a packaging redesign for their Suave line of haircare products. In both cases the content of the products didn’t change, only the packaging.

Both content producers and UX designers should keep packaging of content top of mind. Consider the success of ambitious content products such as The New York Times’ “Snow Fall”or even Netflix’s House of Cards. In both cases packaging makes a big difference. The UX design of “Snow Fall” packages a large amount of content that might not be consumed with less purposeful UX packaging. And House of Cards is released for online streaming only as full seasons of episodes perfectly crafted for binge watching. While the content is high quality, it’s the packaging that defines the experience.

Unfortunately, most online content packaging is still essentially an iteration of old print techniques. We still haven’t even caught up to Bill Gates’ 1996 predictions for newspapers:

“A major reason paying for content doesn’t work very well yet is that it’s not practical to charge small amounts. The cost and hassle of electronic transactions makes it impractical to charge less than a fairly high subscription rate. But within a year the mechanisms will be in place that allow content providers to charge just a cent or a few cents for information … You’ll just click on what you want, knowing you’ll be charged a nickel on an aggregated basis.”

We’re still waiting for that prediction to come true. The old subscription model is still the trend.

You may be working with high quality content, but if it’s packaged poorly that quality won’t be realized. As Green states, “The packaging for our products shows the value of our products.” In fact, he notes, “…our packaging is a product on its own.”

Love it or hate it, BuzzFeed provides a great example of content packaging. Sam Theilman, staff writer for AdWeek says of BuzzFeed, “People don’t care if you’re creating something for a brand or a new movie, if it makes them laugh they’re ok with it … the question is simply how to provide a rewarding experience.” You don’t have to mimic BuzzFeed’s listicle method or worry that a change in packaging is too risky, but you do need to package content in ways that users are willing to consume and in ways that show the value of the product.

We all know that blog titles like “10 Ways to Write Articles that List 10 Things” get good attention. But, we can do better that that. If the function of content is to instruct then packaging it within a quiz may work even better. (And it turns out, users love quizzes). The users get to functionally engage with the content and might even remember it more successfully. This requires a different type of content and UX planning than ye ole’ blog post—isn’t that a good thing?

With purposeful packaging strategies, white papers can become content marketing experiences, website photo galleries can become social media subject matter, and that “About Us” page can be transformed into a documentary style video. All this packaging definitely takes more work, but it can make content into something that gets things used proactively rather than something that merely fills whitespace on a website. Great packaging can even help sell below average content. Just think of how many times folks pick up a bottle of wine because of the label alone.

Content Products must be Measured

The concept of supply and demand is often lost to those of us who work online. Content can be replicated indefinitely so supply doesn’t seem a like problem. The work hours and expertise needed to create content, however, are definitely costly. Treating content like a product means ensuring the hard work of designing content pays off.

Use analytics applications to measure what content is being consumed and how well. This will help you determine if it’s worth investing more time and money into it. The Brookings Institute decided to try their hand at creating long form content, much like the New York Times “Snow Fall” multimedia essay. Even though it wasn’t as advanced as that presentation they discovered their users were spending as much as 325% longer consuming that content than their other published content. Because of this measurement they decided to put more effort into creating long form essays since the analytics proved users did, in fact, value it.

There are plenty of methods available to measure content consumption that go way past website visits. Time spent on a page can help, but behavioral testing like mouse movement and scroll reach heatmaps go even further. Better yet, make the content the focus of some A/B or live user testing; it’s not just for ecommerce forms.

The King is Dead, Long Live the King

So, let’s agree that it’s time to hang up the “content is king” mantra. It’s just a soundbite and it isn’t really getting the job done. As a UX pro you’re used to designing things like websites and mobile apps as products. What are those products without well designed, strategically packaged content that’s refined through testing? After all, it’s the content the user really needs in order to have an experience.


Photo of royal bulldog courtesy Shutterstock

post authorScott Hutcheson

Scott Hutcheson,

Scott Hutcheson started working with website user experiences in 1998, before he really knew what they were. He continues to work on figuring out exactly what they are to this day. He’s written content and created user experiences for hundreds of websites including those for universities, major online auction websites, tourism destinations, ecommerce and music services. Scott sometimes dreams about information architecture and really enjoys talking about different taxonomy models. You should probably avoid him at parties. He’s currently the Director of Content Strategy for Paramore | The Digital Agency in Nashville.

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