Huh? Allow me to explain… More than once, I’ve faced this question, “Colleen, so, what is the difference between information and content?” It wasn’t until I found myself deep in preparation for a guest presentation at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  that I arrived 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.

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 has made that so for years. Here is an example of results you could get from HealtheHuman, one of the health tracking pioneers.

information-example-pain

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

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

content-example-pain

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

If you had to bet on which version better helped people manage their pain, which version would you place your money on? If you chose WebMD’s version, its rave reviews expressed online for years suggest you’d win that bet in spades. The app is no longer available, likely do to changes in ownership at WebMD, but the lesson lives on.

Today, we have even more examples of giving personal health data context thanks to FitBit and Sharecare (founded by the original founder of WebMD, no less).

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 don’t 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 than information 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 and content operations (clear roles, appropriate process, correct technology stack, documentation…you get the idea)—makes that risk manageable, if not completely minimized. You can’t ever get the reward of influencing people if you don’t take the responsibility.

The Author

Colleen Jones is the author of The Content Advantage and founder of Content Science, a content intelligence and strategy firm that has advised or trained hundreds of the world’s leading organizations since 2010. She also is the former head of content at MailChimp, the marketing platform recognized by Inc. as 2017 Company of the Year. A passionate entrepreneur, Colleen has led Content Science to develop the  content intelligence software ContentWRX, publish the online magazine Content Science Review, and offer online certifications through Content Science Academy.

Colleen has earned recognition as an instructor on LinkedIn Learning, one of the Top 50 Most Influential Women in Content Marketing by a TopRank study, a Content Change Agent by Society of Technical Communication’s Intercom Magazine, and one of the Top 50 Most Influential Content Strategists by multiple organizations.

Follow Colleen on Twitter at @leenjones or on LinkedIn.

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