Context and content are very close bedfellows but there are some differences in what you can do with them and how malleable they are.Let’s start by taking a look at context – I’ll tell you why it’s the king. Then we’ll have a look at content – how and why it can (and should) be shaped and controlled.
Context is a multi-faceted thing and there’s not much you can do to change it. But it often changes the way your content behaves or functions.
Think of context as the things – in the broadest sense – that make content necessary in the first place. It has an influence over what the content is and how it’ll be experienced.
There’ll always be an editorial agenda for any content. Creators and editors will have a viewpoint that flavours the content – sometimes this is overt, other times more subtle. The views and opinions expressed will be for a reason – that might be to sell more papers, educate people or convince a readership to do something. The state-controlled Socialist newspapers of the USSR and East Germany are rather extreme examples of pushing an editorial agenda.There may also be a myriad of other external contributing factors which can, and often will, influence the broad editorial context. Examples include war, weather, pandemics and new technology.
Each publishing platform will have limiting factors enforced upon it.Character counts, non-functional requirements (for example: Is the site built to include Internet Explorer 8 users?) and formatting will place boundaries on your content.There can also be limits imposed by users and the functionality they might expect. Think of a website where you can look up your nearest shop – with a desktop version users will expect a limiting factor of having to enter a postcode to get results. But a mobile experience should draw upon the in-built location services of smartphones.
Juxtaposition nightmares – like the one below – show that context can often completely change one, or more, pieces of content when they’re seen in relation to each other.
This is what could happen if you don’t pay attention to contexts’ importance.You have to know where the content will appear – a homepage/column/blog/gossip column, as that’ll have a bearing on what people will be expecting to find. Also, what will your visitors and readers will be expecting to do once they reach that content.
Your content will inherit certain characteristics depending on how it’s being consumed. This may be more obvious with responsive design but don’t ignore how a design change might alter someone’s perception.
Worth noting are the different skills needed to publish live content on radio or video, as opposed to recorded. A ‘publish once’ nature (with no ability to edit) implies a different set of content rules.
The governance and workflow necessary to get your content published should be considered as part of your content strategy. It can play a significant role in setting the context.
When creating content for a regulated industry – such as financial services – there’ll be a number of compliance provisions that need to be adhered to. Those will form part of the publishing context which could alter the way content is perceived. Asterisks all over a page with lots of space given to footnotes will make users wary.
The time when your content is likely to be looked at will have a significant bearing on how it’s received and what format is the most feasible.
Snatching a couple of minutes on the train to work is going to change a user’s ability to fully concentrate on the content. Plus, a patchy signal might mean that video content is too frustrating to watch. On the other hand users may want to relieve the boredom of a long journey with something entertaining, educational or insightful.And while it might be great to think that your users will be reading white papers on their iPads while relaxing in the evenings, that doesn’t really happen.
If you’re not paying attention, your content’s meaning can be completely changed by context. Yesterday morning Facebook displayed a lovely message: “It’s the first day of summer!” with an image of people fanning themselves while sitting under a sunshade on a beach. Thanks Facebook, that’s a lovely, sunshine way to start my day. What Facebook couldn’t have known is that the summer solstice in Southern England was marred by heavy rain and cold wind. Context, like my Facebook friends, seems to like a bit of schadenfreude.
The long and short of it is – you (as an organisation and as a content person) have little sway over context. What you can do is try to understand it really well and (unlike the weather in Britain) reliably second-guess it.
Context has a position of privilege. But it can’t provide what a user, or an organisation, might need – that’s where content comes in.When you’re getting content together, you’ll be researching various topics in order to get the right messages to the right people at the right time. Those messages can be found by examining user needs. The more often you find those messages, the more important they become.
If you have access to them start with your analytics. The figures in here might not give you any concrete answers but should point you towards some fundamental topics to cover in your messages.
The best way of getting a better idea of how your site is being used is through user testing. There’s no real substitute for user testing but – as is often the case – you might find there’s neither the time, skills or the budget to carry this out. If that’s the case, you might be able to answer some of the questions with an audit and some assumptive personas to guide you.
It’s a great idea to keep your content’s seat hotly contested – particularly for key positions.Here are some ways that you can challenge/sense check the content.
A common mistake is to let your content sit around gathering dust. It’s very likely that an evergreen piece of content or author is the most popular thing – but you’ve ignored or written it off many times.
Context is vital to understanding what your content is currently doing and what it should be doing. But it’s not as cut and dry as asking direct questions. There are many nuances and dark corners to shine a light on before you can apply the right content.
Take your time to examine and understand what the context is by digging into analytics, carrying out user testing and looking at the bigger picture.Once you’ve created your content, make sure you keep an eye on how it’s being used and refine it as needed based on your learning.
Also, look at what your best performing content is doing. What can you determine from it? What can you apply to other areas to make sure everything you’re creating fits the context better?
Most of all don’t be afraid to test, measure and learn.
Chris is Content Director at Lark – a content specialist agency. At Lark, they know what makes a great story. From planning content to crafting word perfect copy, they help businesses and charities do brilliant things on the web.
He also works as part of Harrison Lark – a ‘words first’ branding agency.
Chris first started working in the online world in 2002. Long before the term ‘content’ was made popular he was producing customer-focused copy for websites such as Selfridges.com, Bighospitality.co.uk, MORE TH>N, and TUI Travel.
When he's not working, Chris is often riding one of his bicycles, spending time with his family and cats or watching a band play in one of the superb music venues in Brighton.