Defining content sales, part 1: The container is not the content

What is “content’ and what does it mean when we talk about selling content on the Web?

A while back, I expressed my unhappiness with the Online Publishers’ Association and Jupiter’s definition of content. They included a lot of stuff their sizing of the content market that didn’t seem like content to me. But I didn’t propose my own definition of content sales. I know from experience that creating these definitions and taxonomies is really hard. And it makes my head hurt.

I have been thinking about defining the content market. I’d like to share my ideas with you and get your feedback.

I went back and read some of the responses to the reports. Vin Crosbie was critical of the OPA about six months before I caught on.

“Digital intellectual property”? I can understand’s content being defined that way. But a personal ad labeled “Sexy Guy Seeks Comfy Girl” on A post of “Uma’s Unmentionables” on The Well Dressed SIM? Gift certificates on

Do I detect OPA inflating the definition of paid online content? Why not add online revenue from Ticketmaster and other traditional services?

Did American consumers spend $675 million for online content last year? Depends how you define content. Most people wouldn’t define it the way OPA does. But OPA’s definition sure makes for a spectacle of a press release.

He followed up with a fanciful (and clever) definition and a suggestion that the real problem with the content business is that it’s not satisfying its audience:

In several European languages, the word “content” has two meanings: subject matter and satisfied. I know one director of content development who jokes his real job is to make his company’s developers happy.

Why not combine the meanings? Subject matter that satisfies. People will pay for satisfaction but won’t hand over a dime (or centime) for content that doesn’t make them content.

After I beat up the OPA and Jupiter definitions, Rick Bruner at MarketingFix took a swipe at defining content and said I was defining it too narrowly:

Since I invoke the name Interwoven, which is a leading “content management system,” I went to their site and found this definition for “content”:

Narrowly defined, Web content is HTML. Broadly defined, it includes rich media, documents, application code, and XML. Whether your initiative is an intranet, Internet or portal, Interwoven manages all Web content from creation to delivery.

The broad definition is a lot closer to what to what Jupiter, the OPA and I would seem to have in mind compared to Barry’s narrower one.

So, like most IT vendors, Interwoven defines content as “bits”. That definition is broad enough to be meaningless, and it’s a lot like “digital intellectual property”. Even their “narrow” definition isn’t very useful. But I don’t necessarily disagree with it.

Literally, “content” is something that is contained. Back in the 90’s we started using the word “content” to refer to information that was to be repurposed from physical media to the Internet. It’s the stuff the media were intended to convey. A book is the container, but the words, pictures, and ideas that it contains are the content. If you buy a book, you’re buying the physical thing and not its content. Ditto for CD’s, or even MP3 files. The file is not the content. The music is the content.

In other words, the medium isn’t the message. At least not literally.

I’d have to agree that “content” is the bits (but not the file), the intellectual property (but not the media). It turns out that my problem isn’t so much with the definition of “content”, but with the definition of “content sales”

More on that later.

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