Context as Strategy: Under the Influences

American Telephone and Telegraph Company. Image from Page 572 of “The Bell System Technical Journal” (1922). Photograph, 1922. Flickr / Internet Archive.’s nearly impossible to provide a precise, technical definition for context. We understand it through its use rather than by identification.1 Judge Potter Stewart famously said the same about porn.2

For the purpose of content strategy, I define context as the collection of influences affecting the creation and cognitive processing of content. This oversimplified definition doesn’t serve the concept justice, but it’s a serviceable start for practitioners. As an added bonus, you don’t have to wade through nausea-inducing philosophical hair splitting. Everybody wins.3

Context is woefully under-appreciated in professional communication. When discussed, it is usually framed around the consumer of content. However, like language itself, context is interactive. You have contexts to consider, requiring potentially more attention than your audiences’. When you create content for your users, you are doing more than just writing copy or going through the motions of information architecture (IA) exercises. Context is a culmination of influences, making impressions as unique as fingerprints and complex as DNA. Those of us who create content cannot strip ourselves completely free from influences. You are representing your organization, but you’re also projecting culture, values, perspective, and a plethora of other factors into your work.

Have you ever been on a reading kick of something a little older and removed from every day language  like Jane Austin, Charles Dickens, or even Dashiell Hammett and something you’re writing accidentally takes on their tone? Try binging on Steven King and not dropping the f-bomb while hammering out some document you could write in your sleep. Many novelists claim they have to sequester themselves while working on a first draft to prevent themselves from accidental shifts in tone, plot, and possible plagiarism. It’s a problem with the creative process in general.

A merged image of Sam Smith and Top Petty to illustrate their songs are similar.Sam Smith’s song “Stay With Me” sounds an awful lot like Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” Smith’s camp says they had never heard the song before.4 While that makes me sad for the future, I believe them. I have teenagers and, in spite of my best efforts of cramming years of only the best rock into their skulls, they wouldn’t have made the connection either.

You can argue coincidence, Smith ripped off Petty, or they share the same simple musical fundamentals.5 Smith might have heard “I Won’t Back Down” on an elevator or in a restaurant, maybe even years ago when his parents played it. The root cause is inconsequential to the listeners. Once they make that connection, they can’t un-hear it.

Now that Smith must write out a hefty check to Petty and Jeff Lynne, he is probably going to be hyper aware of sound-alikes  as well as the cramp in his hand from so many zeros. He’ll probably never let this happen again simply because of this experience–his newly acquired creative context.

The only way listeners will make their connection between the two songs is familiarity with both, news articles, social media, noticing Petty and Lynne as credited writers, or anything that makes them aware of the connection–their potential, but not eventual, context.

All of this is to illustrate in a simple way that context has a life of its own. To implement a content strategy without considering both the creation and consumption sides of context will cause problems. You have to rely on the information you can collect about your audiences as well as becoming aware of your own influences. Just the exercise of documenting contexts in your content plan will go a long way to using context as a strategy.

This is a first in a series of articles about context as strategy. There’s more to come because I won’t back down.


  1. Duranti, Alessandro., and Charles Goodwin. Rethinking Context: Language as an Interactive Phenomenon. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  2. LII / Legal Informaiton Institute. “Jacobellis v. Ohio.” Law Database. Cornell University Law School, June 22, 1964. Link.
  3. This article contains material from my forthcoming book, Future-Proofing Content: How Context Can Prevent a Complex Digital Dark Age tentatively scheduled for May 2016
  4. Kreps, Daniel. “Sam Smith on Tom Petty Settlement: Similarities But Complete Coincidence.” News. Rolling Stone, January 26, 2015. Link
  5. Ragusea, Adam. “The Real Reason People Keep Plagiarizing Tom Petty.” Slate, January 27, 2015. Link.