A new content framework: How 3 kinds of content drive your strategy

Bekah Otto
San Francisco Digital & Data Services
4 min readAug 9, 2021

First off, what’s content? This little word works hard.

I’m going to borrow Melaine Seibert’s definition. Content is the stuff people come to you for. This can mean:

  • Your account balance in your banking app
  • A press release
  • Words in a navigation menu
  • That movie on Netflix
  • Every error message you’ve ever gotten

So what is content strategy? Content strategy delivers the right content at the right time for your user to accomplish their goal.

Content does not mean words. It doesn’t even mean pages. How can we build from this lofty goal into real websites and experiences that people use every day?

Jessica Terashima bucketed content strategy into 3 categories: product and user experience, marketing, and data focus.

I built on that to develop a new content framework.

3 kinds of content: Function not form

In this framework, there are 3 kinds of content:

  • Content you consume
  • Content you use
  • Content for machines
Light blue triangle with labeled corners. Top corner says Content you consume, lower left corner says content you use, and lower right corner says content for machines.

Content you consume is at the top on purpose. It is what people usually mean when they say content: articles, press releases, information.

But the other 2 kinds of content are just as important for making a website easy to use.

The kind of content is based on its function not its form.

An error message and a tweet may be the same length. But our brains process the way these words function in different ways. When we read an error message, we are trying to accomplish a task. When we read a tweet, we are trying to decode or read the information.

Put it to work

In government service redesigns, we are often moving content from consumption to use.

No one wants to read about a government process (aside from policy folks getting graduate degrees). Who wants to read about any kind of process? Most of the time, people want to accomplish a goal.

As part of service redesigns, we take a page, like this one about Birth and Death Certificates, and turn it into new pages and tools that address the user needs.

2 screenshots. Left one shows page with lots of hard-to-read text. Right one shows cleaner information.

(How do we do this? We’ll write a future blog post about that!)

If we think of content as performing 1 of 3 functions, we can map it into the user journey and see what kinds of content we need where.

When do we need to explain something? When do we need a form or a text message? When do we need metadata so the pages appear in the right part of the site?

Measure your success

We can then measure the content effectively.

Light blue triangle with labeled corners. Top corner says Content you consume, scroll depth, time on site, repeat visits. Lower left corner says content you use, conversion rate, completion rate, and lifetime value. Lower right corner says content for machines, bugs, click-through-rate from Google SERPs.

Your analytics should always address the specific outcomes you are trying to drive, but here are some that correlate best to the different kinds of content.

Hire for the right skills

We can write job descriptions and content career paths based on it.

I think of content strategy as the center of this triangle. (Maybe that’s because I’m a strategist.)

The content strategist sees how these pieces of the puzzle work together. They can put those pieces together in a way that adds the most value to achieve the user’s goal. This may be the easiest to complete form or the clearest article.

Corners of this triangle reach out and intersect with other parts of the team. Content design goes deeper into UX design. Content you consume complements traditional marketing and PR, while content for machines goes deeper into web developer land.

Light blue triangle with labeled corners. Top corner says Content you consume, Communications, editorial. Lower left corner says content you use, content design. Lower right corner says content for machines, content engineering.

What about content marketing?

This framework most neatly maps on to product content or content-driven sites like government websites. However, content marketers, I think this also applies to your work. Instead of driving a user need, you find where the user need intersects with the business need. The kinds of content remain the same.

Content you use may be checklists or quizzes that generate email sign-ups or other conversions. Content you consume are guides or articles to generate brand awareness. Content for machines are the all-powerful SEO or automated email triggers.

We should talk about this over wine some time and see how it squares.

This has been a helpful framework for me, and I’d love to know what you think about it, too. Please comment below with your suggestions.



Bekah Otto
San Francisco Digital & Data Services

Content strategist with San Francisco Digital Services. Formerly @babylist @dictionarycom @atlasobscura and @mcsweeneys (She, her.)