Content Marketing Creative + Design

Form vs. Function: Choosing the Right Content Format

By Emily Grossman


Remember when infographics “died”? Well, their souls are still floating around – we still use them ­– but they just aren’t the catch-all solution for “cool” content anymore. Content formats are continuously evolving, and with the plethora of options at our disposal – e-books, videos, interactive experiences – it’s more important than ever to be smart about where and how your brand’s message comes across. Your concept, copy, and visual elements might be perfectly thought out. But if you miss the mark on format, all of that effort and strategy could be wasted.

In other words, your content’s form must match its function.

Balancing Format, Function, and Brand

The tone and personality of your brand should translate to the content you put out, but it shouldn’t necessarily dictate its format. For example, if you are a cutting-edge B2B tech company, you might think that all of your content needs to be interactive and digital. Because isn’t that what people would expect from you? Doesn’t that show your superiority over a competitor who’s publishing the same old blogs and white papers? Well yes, in theory. But in reality, it depends much more on who will be consuming those materials.

If we consider that B2B tech company’s target audience, we might find that they are exclusively consuming content on mobile. Or perhaps they prefer to print out their content to use as supporting materials at events. With the former case, you can optimize experience’s design for mobile. But in the latter scenario, highly-interactive digital content simply won’t work. And eventually, that audience won’t be looking to that company as their expert resource anymore.

Keep in mind that when you’re using a more conservative format, like print, other content elements can showcase your brand’s personality and position in the market. If the visual and written tone of your content aligns with your brand values, it’ll ensure that they come across no matter the format.

The Essentials: Formatting Considerations

1. Prioritize your audience’s experience

Above all else, when deciding on content format, consider your audience first. Who are you targeting? What can you learn about how they are consuming your brand materials? Leverage the knowledge of those who have their ears to the ground on how content is being used, like your sales or business development teams. Move past assumptions by asking questions that may seem obvious to you, like, “do you read email on your phone and if so, what time of day?” Maybe ask a more provocative question like, “what’s the last piece of content you consumed that compelled you to immediately share it with someone else?”

Putting your audience first can be a challenge when internal stakeholders have a specific vision for the content. Or if their preferences for formatting, design, or even copy go against your understanding of the audience or don’t align with the brand. If you’re working with internal stakeholders who have these nuanced personal preferences, get ahead of it by making them feel understood. Then, help guide them in seeing and aligning with your vision – or really, the audience’s preference and brand’s integrity. When you have a strong understanding of your audience and brand, this will be a much easier case to make.

2. Balance ideal and necessity

As you’re planning out or reviewing pieces of content, seek a balance in design ideals and format necessities. With designed assets, you’re likely juggling a lot of considerations, only one of which is the format and how that content will be consumed. So, while you don’t have to sacrifice everything from a design standpoint, try to remain flexible and open to change throughout the development process. If you’re working with a good design or agency partner, they’ll set expectations on where there’s room to play and where limitations might exist.

3. Test ideas and measure your results

If you’re still in a phase of understanding your audience, don’t be afraid to test a few different formatting solutions to see what performs best. Everyone has an opinion, from the designer working on your project to the stakeholder who needs to sign off before anything can go live. And while it’s important to work with designs or agency partners whose expertise and recommendations you trust, testing is beneficial for everyone involved. It enables you to back up your formatting recommendations with data and apply what you’ve learned moving forward. Add that new insight to your arsenal of audience understanding for the next time you’re determining a piece of content’s format and design.

An Exception to the Rules

If you’re positioned as a leader in your industry, you may have the authority to drive a new standard for how content is consumed. Regardless of market norms, there’s an opportunity to become a change agent that creates a new need, desire, or ability to consume content that an audience hadn’t previously considered. If you have the guts to go this route, ensure you and your marketing partners have a strong strategy in place. Don’t throw something new at the wall just to see if it sticks.

Format Responsibly

In memoriam, the start of the infographic brought with it the realization that content wasn’t limited to words on a page or a “pretty” graphic. It brought to life a wealth of options that liven up how people can consume content. And with these options come difficult decisions. So next time you’re planning a campaign or rolling out new brand materials, don’t discount the importance of format. It has the power to enhance the materials you’re creating – or land them in a content graveyard (better known as the trashcan).