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By Jodi Harris

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What the Hell is Water?

When author David Foster Wallace’s address to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College, he shared this parable:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"

The point of the story, he explained, is that “the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”

In business, content is water 

Just as the two fish in the story are so immersed in water that they struggle to see it, businesses are so immersed in content that they can’t make sense of it. 

Have you ever been asked, “What do you mean by content?” I get that question all the time from business leaders. 

Let’s back up, though, and ask, “What is a business, exactly?”

Peter Drucker defined a business as “a social group that differs from other social groups in only one way: businesses must have customers.”  (This definition comes from his book Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, which is also the most Drucker-y of all Drucker titles.)

Other bits go into making up a business, too: products and services, a marketplace to showcase those products, and the processes and methods by which the group operates.

I suggest that a business comprises one other inextricable thing (and it’s the most important):


Content is every business’s core operating system. It’s the communication between the social group and the customers it creates. 

It’s the body of knowledge that describes the method by which the business operates. It’s the main ingredient of the experiences created to showcase products in the marketplace. And it’s core to helping customers derive the most value from the product or service.

Content is everything. It’s all around us all the time. It is the water of business. 

That might sound a bit esoteric. But stay with me.

I see so many executives struggle to rationalize putting a strategy around content. Managing the entirety of a business’s content can seem unachievable. Unsurprisingly, executives don’t consider it the best use of time.  

Some rationalize their hesitation – they say that trying to affect the “water” all around doesn’t make sense. That’s why one of the first questions I get when talking about content strategy is, “What do you mean by content?” 

But think about the impact of an unconscious approach to content: Content gets created with little purpose and without understanding how it affects the business’s big picture.  

A content strategy’s entire purpose is to improve the quality of all the water.

That’s a big undertaking, but with a few shifts in focus, it’s doable – and it’s worth it. 

In Rose-Colored Glasses this week, I explain the two ways content strategy must change to bring about this quality improvement. Give it a read, then let me know your thoughts in the article's comments section or by email.

In the meantime, remember:

It's your story. Tell it well.

Robert Rose
Chief Strategy Advisor
Content Marketing Institute

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