Huh? Allow me to explain… More than once, I’ve faced this question, “Colleen, so, what is the difference between information and content?” Only recently, as I prepared for a guest lecture at CDC, did I arrive at a simple but useful answer. It’s the so-what factor.

The So-What Factor

Content answers the question, “So what?” Content explains how a topic or solution or idea relates to you. Information does not. Content advises you on what to do next. Information does not. Content is like a trustworthy consultant. Information is like an encyclopedic professor. Content does the heavy lifting of interpreting information so you can make a decision or take action.

An Example

Did you know you can track every pain you have at any moment of the day in every part of your body? Personal health data tracking makes it so. Here is an example of results you can get from HealtheHuman.


So what? What does this mean for my shoulder? Is this normal in general or for me? Do I get have to take pain meds yet? What will my doctor do with this? I have no idea!

WebMD just released a different take on this concept, the WebMD Pain Coach. “Coach” in the name alone signals that this mobile application will provide more advising, less information dumping. Here’s an example of a similar report in the pain coach.


Besides that, the application ties the tracking to reaching goals. In other words, the app has people track pain not for the sake of tracking it but to monitor progress toward a goal. With a clear context, the app can help users interpret what the pain tracking means.

If you had to bet on which version better helps people manage their pain, which version would you place your money on? If you chose WebMD’s version, its rave reviews suggest you’d win that bet in spades.

So What?

Ah, good question. If you want to make a difference in what people think and do, providing information will never be enough. (And I do not use the term “never” lightly.) Providing lots of information will backfire. You will influence people less, not more. So, why invest time and money in creating lots of information or, even worse, adding features to interact with that information? Invest those resources in transforming that information into meaningful content.

Here’s the wonderful irony if you’re an organization accustomed to pumping out information. You will spend just as much time and effort on content as you did on information (or developing features to interact with information) but end up with less “stuff” online. So, not only will your content resonate better with your users, you will have less to maintain.

Why does content take so much effort compared to information? In many ways, content is more responsibility because you’re not putting information out there for people to interpret. (Or, more likely, for people to ignore because the information is too overwhelming.) You are guiding people in the interpretation. If you steer them wrong, of course, you could lose their trust, make them angry, or even suffer legal consequences. Doing content well means taking the responsibility seriously.

Yes, taking responsibility like that involves some risk. But, governance—a system of content oversight, clear roles, appropriate process, and documentation or guides—makes that risk manageable, if not completely minimized. You can’t ever get the reward of influencing people if you don’t take the risk.

Update – Pew Finds 70% of Americans Self-Track Their Health

But, as Susannah Fox notes, most of those Americans are doing it offline or in a spreadsheet. The potential to do let people self-track through mobile devices is huge, but that potential will never be realized if personal health tracking apps turn out gobbledygook instead of meaningful content.

Originally published on the now-archived Content Science blog in October 2012.

The Author

Colleen Jones is the author of The Content Advantage and founder of Content Science, a growing content intelligence and strategy company based in Atlanta GA. Content Science owns Content Science Review, Content Science Academy, and the content effectiveness software ContentWRX.  She also is the former Head of Content at Mailchimp. Colleen regularly consults with executives and practitioners to improve their strategy and processes for content.

Follow Colleen on Twitter at @leenjones or on LinkedIn.

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