A conceptual artist may win critical acclaim by presenting as art an empty frame, but most of us would struggle to find meaning in that blank rectangle. We tend to respond to paintings, not their gilt borders. And while a few may fetishize the perfectly crafted goblet, many more might savor the wine it contains.

In the physical world this primacy of content over carrier is generally self evident. Container Store addicts excepted, we’re more likely to prize what’s in the box than the box itself. But in the digital space, despite (or perhaps because of) frequent claims that “content is king” and the rise of military grade content marketing weapons, this hierarchy is often flipped.

Online, technology and design can mingle to produce experiences that serve up something that smells like substance, but once consumed, reveals itself to be calorie-free. We’ve all slogged through the “recipe wizard” that suggests spaghetti and meatballs, again; or watched a slick product pitch and then clicked “learn more” to find we know less.

“Content”—a word used now so carelessly that it’s almost interchangeable with, oh, you know, “stuff”—can seem a bland commodity stockpiled to juice SEO or tarted up to push clicks on social media. But thoughtfully deployed content that works hard for your business can’t be bought by the yard. This content is substance: ideas, meaning, information, emotion, intention–targeted, packaged and delivered through words, images, video, and other instruments. Designing a digital experience to deliver this kind of content requires strategic thinking, planning, and craft.

Too often, websites and digital applications are envisioned as high-performance vehicles, designed without a full reckoning of the cargo they’ll carry, or their driver’s ultimate destination. The site’s body and frame are shaped with care: engine tuned and chrome as polished as any cherished motorcycle. Meanwhile, placeholder site copy– "click here,” “browse categories,” becomes permanent, and a generic “blog” gets bolted on like a sidecar to carry content marketing efforts and give the CEO a place to publish her latest pronouncements.

As “good design” further democratizes to include platforms like Squarespace, which promises anyone who wants to build a website that they too can “make it beautiful,” content can feel even more like filler–images and text that fit into slick templates. Thousands of eye-pleasing sites, full of glib words and good lighting, signifying nothing.

To stand out in this world of uniformly well balanced pages, even gooder design is not enough. The beautiful templates must frame substantial content, placed with purpose and held accountable for its existence. If a word or image is not helping users take productive action for your organization, why is it there?

At Cake & Arrow, we see content and design as having a symbiotic relationship. Though we appreciate and leverage design and UI patterns that make our work easier, we strive to never undermine the message through a misapplication of the medium. Our content strategists collaborate closely with UX and visual designers throughout the creative process to ensure that our shared output efficiently and effectively delivers the right information and messages at the right stage of the user’s experience.

Four ways to start differentiating with content today

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1. Be explicit about your content’s “special purpose”

Before you invest time and resources into creating content for your digital experience, take a step back to define the role content plays in your organization’s success. Intuitively, we understand that different business models require different kinds of content, but it’s worth talking through exactly what you most need content to do for you.

For example, content can:

  • Support users through a discrete service experience
  • Educate users about an issue in order to persuade them to take action
  • Build brand awareness
  • Teach users how to complete a task
  • Help users select and purchase a product
  • Engage subscribers and/or an audience for advertisers

Being clear about the most important jobs you need your content to do will help you prioritize the stuff that works hardest.

2. Start with the content, design the container to fit

Whether you’re building a new digital experience or re-thinking an existing one, don’t start designing until you’ve got a good idea of the specific information and messages you’ll need to deliver at each stop on your users’ journeys. What do they need to see and read in order to take the next step? What will help them appreciate your brand values, make purchase decisions, and make them feel cared for?

Compare these content needs to the content resources you have available. Conduct a content audit, if you haven’t already. Note any gaps and opportunities for adjustment, let go of dead wood (no, you don’t need to keep that conference recap story from 2008). Consider your user’s content consumption preferences–would your whitepapers be better received as video content?

Once you have a good idea of the messages and information your users need, and the formats they respond to, then (and only then) is it time to design the experience to deliver that content.

3. Avoid the “bolted on” blog

You've organized all your product pages, found homes for the homely terms and conditions, and walled off a “resource center” for all those white papers. What's left? “The blog” of course! A place to post “whatever;” a way to let people know “what's happening” at your organization; a place to experiment and let everyone’s voice be heard. You’ll have a bunch of categories and everyone can contribute—let’s just add “blog” to the main nav and see what happens…

Stop. If your organization is contemplating a move like this, think again. A blog is not a genre of content, it is a content publishing platform. Your site visitors won't automatically know why they should click on “blog,” or how to contextualize the content they find there.

Bolted on blogs are separate from your site experience and difficult to integrate into user flows. The content may be amazing, but unless it's surfaced in the context of supporting a user goal, it's not working hard enough for your business.

Instead, if you're tempted to add a catch-all blog to your site (or to maintain a vestigial one through a redesign) first unpack the types of content you plan to publish there. Sort the posts into functional categories: company announcements, PR, opinions, product reviews, thought leadership, etc. Now consider how your site visitors will use these different kinds of information and determine where best to surface them in your user experience.

4. Remember it’s not all content marketing

It’s easy to think editorial and entertainment when we think about “content.” We all read news articles and feature stories, watch viral videos and binge on our favorite shows, and rely on research papers and other insights into our industries . Content marketing–online material distributed to attract and capture a targeted audience–is designed to scratch those same itches in the service of a brand.

But although content marketing may well play a large role in your overall content strategy, awesome infographics and blog posts by “influencers” are not the only way content can help you stand out.

Don't forget:

  • Site copy–Smartly worded calls to action, navigation nomenclature that invites interaction rather than labels lists, FAQs that really answer frequently asked questions. All the words on your pages can make an impact.
  • Product details–Just the facts, or something more? Can you tell a story about this product that makes it relevant in customer’s lives?
  • “About us”–Don’t leave this important content for last. Often, brands assume that their differentiating value proposition is implicit in their digital experience, a reinforcement of that with an explicit statement of who you are and why you’re here may find an broader audience than you expect.

As holistic customer experience designers, we at Cake & Arrow know the value of an artfully packaged digital product. Beautiful branding and visual design, user interfaces that effortlessly delight, and typography that embodies the spirit of the text all play essential roles, but without substantive content to deliver, the box is empty.