Letting go of formats

Personal and professional projects are to blame for my latest spate of silence. I’m hopefully back in the saddle as of today.

As part of my unhealthy obsession with purpose-driven web sites and context, I’ve been trying to adopt a new mental model. I’ve been purposefully trying to put off thinking about content in terms of formats and containers for as long as possible during the creative process.

It hasn’t been easy, because the reflex is so ingrained. “I’ll write a blog post.” “Can you draft an article?” “How many pages are there on the site?” “This page needs some infographics.” “Let’s do a video.” These are all formats and containers.

By defaulting to formats too early in the creative process I think we straightjacket content. I also think that we underestimate and pigeonhole the audience, assuming that certain kinds of audiences want/will only accept certain content in certain formats.

So I’ve been forcing myself to think of content in terms of purpose. And in doing so I’ve come up with some broad categories.

Content as a persuasion
Seeks to influence opinion or perception. Most often found in, but no limited to, marketing and PR. Arguably it is the meta-purpose of all content.

Content as entertainment
Content designed to amuse. Can be seen as a subset of the former. Designed to elicit a chuckle or a tear with the hope that it will make the audience feel emotionally engaged with the product/brand.

Content as a service
Helps you to accomplish tasks. This is where content has the most utility. Sadly, it’s a kind of content often ignored by brands (but this might be changing).

Content as education
This is content that teaches, informs, clarifies. You come away from it smarter than when you arrived. Can be seen as a subset of service.

Content as conversation
Like primate grooming, this value of this kind of content resides less in the content itself and more in the interactions that it facilitates. Think Facebook.

Content as a product
This is content you buy. Ebooks, songs, movies, apps. The purpose of the content may be one of the above, but access to purpose requires a transaction of some kind.

Content as interface
This is content that helps you make the most out of using other kinds of content. Can also be thought of as a subset of service.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and if you can think of any other categories I’d love to hear from you.

Has it worked? Well it’s early days yet, but by forcing myself to steer clear of formats in the first stages of content strategy, it seems easier to zero in on business objectives on one hand and user requirements on the other. Your mileage may vary.

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