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Pet peeve: Misuse of the term “relevance”

March 14, 2010

Jeramiah Owyang recently wrote a controversial article on how to make corporate Web sites relevant by using social media. I say it was controversial because it was the subject of a very good blog post by Kristina Halvorson, in which the Queen of Content Strategy lays out the dirty little secret of social media. To wit, social media makes content strategy much more difficult and, if it’s not done carefully, can actually make corporate content efforts less effective. I urge you to read it.

This is not a critique of either piece, or about the controversy of whether or how to integrate social media content efforts into your content strategy. We assume that having an effective social media content strategy is table stakes for corporate content strategists. That’s why we devoted a whole chapter and part of another in our book to how to create and manage effective social media content. No, this is a piece about a pet peeve of mine: The misuse of the word relevance.

I know what you’re thinking, this guy needs to get a life. (Well I have a life, and it’s called the coffee shop.) But, I get the point. Isn’t the study of relevance a bit esoteric for content strategists? The answer is a resounding NO! The central objective of content strategy is relevance, or, more precisely, presenting highly relevant messages to the target audience. So the misuse of the term relevance affects the whole field. If we don’t know what we’re talking about when we speak of relevance, we’ll never meet the central objective of content strategy.

It’s Owyang’s use of relevance that raises my ire. The article starts with the following line:

Finally, your corporate website can be relevant again

OK, this line actually sparks several peeves for an editor/content strategist such as myself. First, the copy writing seems right out of a catalog: “Finally, you can have dry feet on the golf course again.” It sounds as though all you have to do is order something from and you too can have relevance again. If it were that easy, we would never have irrelevant experiences on the Web.

Second, its Web sites not websites. The Web is a proper noun (an abbreviation for World Wide Web). Sites on the Web are Web sites. If you don’t agree, see AP or Wired or any style guide you prefer. They all agree on this point.

But those are nits. The real problem is a lack of understanding of what relevance is. Relevance is not a quality of how information is delivered, or the medium in which the message is delivered. Some media might make relevance easier for certain audiences. But just because the message is contained in a tweet outside of the walls of a corporate Web site does not make the tweet any more relevant to the target audience than if the message were in a heading of a press release. Messages are more or less relevant to the audience, media are not. In this, I agree with Halvorson (ignoring he use of websites or her use of relevancy [shudder]):

The relevancy of our corporate websites is not dependent whatsoever on which social media widgets have been deployed throughout the site. Its relevancy is driven by our site content, no matter who is creating it.

Content can be highly relevant to an audience whether it’s buried in a PDF or dynamically generated based on some user profile. Regardless of the medium, it’s the content that’s more or less relevant.

This is roughly how we define relevance in our book:

A piece of content is relevant to an audience to the degree that it makes a relatively large change in the mind of the audience and the audience can process it with relatively small effort.

Relevance is a matter of degree, not a matter of absolutes (as though corporate marketing content is not relevant to the audience at all but user generated content is). And whatever the medium, content can make a relatively large change in the mind of the audience.

Social media can contribute to improving relevance (if you do it right) by reducing the effort it takes the audience to process the content. The Web is fundamentally a social medium because it depends on socially defined information retrieval applications such as search, social tagging, bookmarking, sharing, etc. If you use the best keywords, tags, and other socially defined semantic entities, you can make your content more relevant by helping your audience find content that will tend to make a rather large change in their thinking.

When people speak of relevance, they often think it’s just a matter of interest. People think this because people often find content that interests them relevant to them. We certainly don’t deny this. But if relevance were just about interest, the same content presented over and over again would be equally relevant just because it interests us. For example, I’m extremely interested in the Minnesota Twins signing Joe Mauer to a contract extension. Every day, the news sites say the same thing: No news on a Mauer contract extension. As long as that is the heading, I ignore the story underneath it. I’m extremely interested in the topic, but it makes no new contribution to my knowledge of Mauer’s contract situation. So it is not especially relevant to me.

Still, interest affects relevance in that it helps us order our thinking. What interests us is expressed on the Web as a set of socially defined semantic entities. For example, what we type into search engines is defined by our interests. Content that tends to align with our interests tends to be more relevant to us because our interests help us find the content more easily. If you know your target audience’s interests, you can help them find relevant content by tagging it with relevant tags. But when they find it, if it doesn’t influence them or inspire them to do something, it isn’t especially relevant to them.

And that’s what I object to the most when I think of the way people use the term relevance. You can and should develop all kinds of social applications to help your users find content that interests them. But if you want to create relevant content, what they find must be compelling. Highly relevant content inspires an aha! moment in the audience. No amount of  social media magic can help you generate that. That requires a good story, compelling images and great writing.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. March 14, 2010 9:01 am

    Good post.

    I still remember when relevance was defined as “the right information, in the right place, at the right time.” Social Media definitely has its place in this triumvirate, in that it helps content to be in the right place by getting it to where the user is. But in and of itself, Social Media contains precious little (and I use this term loosely) information. Timing is a little bit too complicated to go into here on a Sunday night, but the “blink and you’ll miss it” pace of most Social Media platforms makes it a difficult beast to control anyway.

    On a tangentially-related note: my pet peeve is the use of the word “literally” in the Smarter Planet campaign, as in “changing the way the world literally works” – the Earth does not work “literally” in any sense of the word. I was somewhat heartened to see in the latest Annual Report that the word was replaced by “actually”.

    Oh, and by the way Mr Pedantic, a typo in your post: “If you know your target audience[‘]s interests…”🙂

    • March 14, 2010 7:48 pm

      Thanks Caesar.

      I’m with you on the “literally” thing. As though we’ve been changing how the world figuratively works for a long time and now we are doing something fundamentally different, we’re changing how it literally works. I’ll bring that up with the SP content team.

      Everybody needs an editor. The beauty of blogs is I can change fix typos after publication, which is what I will do now. Thanks for the catch.

      Cheers Mate!

  2. Dan Haley permalink
    May 5, 2010 9:48 pm

    Hi James,
    It’s nice to see a philosophic blog post about web content, and our discussions relating to it. Thanks. I’m with you.

    If I understand correctly, you define “relevance” as a sort of epiphanic moment for users, when they find a compelling/inspiring piece of content–hopefully by design, but by accident is a fine runner-up.

    Halvorson, esp., and Owyang to an extent, though, are using “relevance” in a more mundane, quotidian sense: a piece of content is relevant to users if it is useful, usable and perhaps actionable to them.

    Is that a correct analysis? If so, we obviously need content that’s relevant in both senses of the word: content that inspires and “changes minds,” as well as content that satisfies the basic need to execute a task or find information.


    • May 6, 2010 2:21 am

      Hi Dan,

      I would like to discuss this further with you, to better understand what you mean. But yes, lots of folks equate relevance with usefulness, as though if a user achieved his or her goal, the content was relevant. This is an oversimplification. For starters, relevance is not some yes/no absolutist concept. It’s best measured on a continuum from irrelevant to strongly relevant. But it’s difficult to do the discussion in the book justice in the comments of a blog. Feel free to e-mail me at to continue the discussion.

      Kind regards,


  3. July 22, 2011 11:26 pm

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    latex utrpeni

  4. November 11, 2014 7:52 am

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  5. March 18, 2010 5:00 pm

    I guess it registers self-reference as a pingback.


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