Content: Is it really a business asset?

Sarah O'Keefe / Opinion4 Comments

Assets have long life, and their value depreciates over time. Does content meet that definition?

Some content does not. A tweet is usually short-lived with relevance measured in hours or, at best, days. But other content lives for months or years. An aircraft maintenance manual, for example, or a product description might remain relevant for several years after being created.

You can measure content value in several ways:

  • Format-neutral. Content that is format-neutral and can be moved into multiple deliverables is more of an asset than hand-coded HTML usable only in a desktop browser.
  • Usable. Content that is easy for users to understand is more valuable than content that is hard to understand.

Assets support the overall business operation. They are not consumables. A coffee machine is an asset. Coffee, cream, and sugar are consumables. You buy the coffee machine infrequently, but you use coffee, cream, and sugar to make coffee. An office chair or desk is an asset because it lasts a long time and provides value (because an employee gets to sit in it).

With content, you actually have several types of assets:

  • Information products, such as books, web pages, help systems, and so on. These are the current assets—pieces of content that you use to communicate a particular message or enable use of a product.
  • Publishing infrastructure. A content publishing system lasts for many years. You input information and produce content in various formats, but the system is available over and over again. Your investment in publishing infrastructure yields value over time.

Assets can depreciate to zero value, but normally they do not become liabilities. Content can have a positive value (asset) or a negative value (liability).

For example, if your installation instructions omit a critical step, several problems could result:

  • The user is unable to install the product and thus returns it.
  • The user damages the product because of the missing step.
  • The user is injured or even killed because of the missing step.

In these scenarios, the content is a liability rather than an asset.

Some content just doesn’t contribute to the user experience. It provides information, but not useful information. The formatting is not particularly attractive. Readers ignore or throw away the document. This type of content is sadly common. The level of effort required to create it is significant, but the result is a short-lived consumable.

Part of a content strategy is determining whether and how to invest in content. Do you want to produce the bare minimum required by law?

You may recall that Cuisinart recalled millions of food processor blades in late 2016. I dutifully registered for the recall, stopped making hummus, and waited. And waited. And waited.

I received my new blade in the last few weeks, along with a sheet of paper in the box:

This content is so silly that we actually stopped to make fun of it. Three-quarters of a page on HOW TO OPEN THE BOX? Also, Cuisinart had a golden opportunity to include a recipe, or apologize for delays, or even provide a coupon for something new. Some sort of connection with the customer? They are contacting roughly six million customers. Surely they could think of something to say in addition to “don’t cut your fingers”??

Here is the back of the sheet:

I don’t know what the content development process looked like for this document, but my bet is that the lawyers were in charge.

Content strategy. Give it a whirl.


About the Author

Sarah O'Keefe


Content strategy consultant and founder of Scriptorium Publishing. Bilingual English-German, voracious reader, water sports, knitting, and college basketball (go Blue Devils!). Aversions to raw tomatoes, eggplant, and checked baggage.

4 Comments on “Content: Is it really a business asset?”

  1. From an accounting perspective, an asset is something that lasts more than 12 months, and it has a monetary value. For the content that lasts more than 12 months, can we say it has a monetary value? Intellectual property (like a brand name) and items than be categorised as goodwill can be quantified and put on the balance sheet. Maybe we could value the content by the cost of the labour to produce it.

    I like the idea of content also having the potential of having a negative value – that it costs the company money. However, whom do you own the money to? Is it an expense or a liability?

    1. Good questions all.

      I think that content depreciates over time…eventually, you have to go in and make updates. For a product review, the content is especially valuable when the product is first released and then declines over time. When the new product version is released, it’s time to make updates. But presumably you can use the old review as a starting point, so there’s still some nonzero value there.

      You and I both know that there are writers and then there are writers. There needs to be a quality metric in there. A reviewed, approved, and reusable XML topic is more valuable than a couple of paragraphs thrown into a Word file. But “book value” (haha, sorry) would be a good starting point.

      Maybe we can quantify value based on the purpose of the content? If your installation guide is bad and lots of people return the product, you incur expenses. So maybe you have an initial set-aside amount for potential returns. Good installation guide means that amount is reduced. Bad installation guide means it’s increased?

  2. Hi Vinish, interesting point. So a bad content process is not just a bad investment…it actually produces content with negative value.

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