Have you watched Hype House on Netflix?
It’s about the rise and fall of the leading content house - a mansion full of room clouds and multicoloured LED strip lights, where a group of 18 to 22-year-olds come together to cross pollinate audiences, film TikToks, build clout, and otherwise make ridiculous amounts of money from their online presence.
It’s a bubblegum reality TV show that could be read as an exploration of the changing nature of celebrity, a shift in the 'American dream’, or even an investigation of being ‘cancelled’.
And it IS all those things.
But it is also definitely not that deep.
Or that good (says someone who watched the entire series in one afternoon).
At the series' emotional climax the members - who have effectively split over 2 houses - go on a family holiday to the super Insta-worthy Hicksville in Joshua Tree. Thomas, 22, one of the founders, and they guy that handles the business of the Hype House (including paying for that ridiculous mansion) emotionally breaks down due to the pressure of handling the business solo.
He just wanted the members to get together and create some content.
Instead? They just went on holiday. Not one ring light in sight.
And it can seem very trivial and silly. But imagine paying to take an entire creative team away for a weekend and not getting one useful output for your expense.
Even for the relatively new TikTok superstars, "Content", it seems, ain’t what it used to be.
Knowing what I do about my audience, if you're reading or listening to this, you might be a content specialist, UX writer, copywriter, digital marketer, or digital business owner.
You steer the content ship in your business (whatever that means to you) or you help other people do the same.
You're a wide and varied bunch and - because you've allowed me to grace your inbox and ears - I can assume you hold a deep love for (or at least passing interest in) how words evolve, and how they create shared meaning, connection, understanding, and community.
And no word seems to have evolved more - while still grasping for a single shared meaning - than 'content' and the many roles associated with it.
My world of content is miles - and literally half the world away - from the Hype House.
I'm a strategist, content designer, and copywriter who helps businesses solve complex content problems - but have 0 TikTok clout.
We throw around titles like content coordinator, content producer, content specialist, content editor, and content marketer as if there is one single accepted definition of each of those roles. And indeed, one definition of content itself.
I gathered all of those titles from the first page of Aussie job hunting site Seek, search term: content.
I can tell without looking any deeper that what these companies are seeking are a real jumble of skills - graphic designers, journalists, marketers, and social media minds.
And, if the recruiter is State or Federal government, I know that they're looking for someone a bit more like me. Someone who helps an organisation understand how to un-jumble their complex content, and put it on the internet in a strategic and user-driven way.
Then, of course, we have the Hype House kids and others like them. Influencers, YouTubers, TikTokkers, even podcasters, fall under the professional sounding banner of ‘content creator’.
But, aren't' all modern businesses content creators and publishers? In some shape or form, most (I'd argue all) businesses create, organise and publish content. Whether it's a letter box drop, a website, internal memo or training guidebook, every business does something 'content' related.
You'd think we'd all have a shared language or at least understanding of what the content part of a content role means. But, that's the thing with language, it never stands still.
The first thing to say is content has become short hand for "stuff that fills the internet".
The spaces (columns and rows) on web pages are containers. The stuff that fills them is content.
The big challenge is that, in different contexts, the 'stuff' can be 101 different things. And, the intent and process behind the 'stuff' changes wildly depending on where you sit in the range of evolving content fields.
Content marketing is, if you hang out on Instagram enough, what you're likely to hear the most about.
It's using content to raise awareness - and ultimately sell - a product (or reach some other conversion goal). Usually, when people say 'content marketing' they're referring to stuff that happens around a website - blogs, landing pages, emails - and it should be the umbrella to social media marketing as well, although this has become its own unique skillset.
Then we have content strategy as a discipline. This usually comes from a school of though documented by Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach in their book, Content Strategy for the Web.
It's different to the 'content strategy' document that a content marketer might give you (confusing to outsiders? Absolutely) - because the intent is different.
Content strategy guides the creation and governance of content. It defines the systems, processes, and benchmarks that remove some of the tension and decision fatigue you experience creating content. Growing content specialties include things like 'content engineering' and 'content operations', and they rely on a strong strategy to point them in the right direction.
Content design (one of the hats I wear) is a process that empowers you to give your audience the information they need, in a way that they expect (usually on a website). Again, it's a discipline based on a foundational text (the content purists bible) Content Design by Sarah Winters.
It's a process that's rooted in understanding audience needs, and choosing the best format (words, infographics, video to name a few) to share the information that meets those needs. It's a practical and hands-on discipline. Most content designers are also writers, plotting words on a page in a way that's readable and understandable.
If you don't work directly in these fields, or manage a huge database of content, do you need to know all this?
But, a confusion about who does what, can make it much harder for growing businesses to find the best person to help when they get stuck.
I've muddied the waters with all these definitions to show,
- If you're confused and tired when it comes to keeping pace with content needs, you're not alone.
- If you're trying to carve out your place as a service provider and don't understand where you sit, you're not alone.
- If you're trying to engage some help, and feeling confounded with what skills you need, you're not alone.
The big lesson here is to not assume that you have the same definition of content as the next person. Ask questions. Go deeper. And build your own shared understanding of content that suits the work you need to do to meet your audience's needs.