Content Strategy Forum 2011, London

Michael Barnwell   September 28, 2011

Keeping an eye on content across the pond.  (image via Maurice)

Content Strategy has gone global. Forget what you’ve heard about CS being an insular, monkish profession. In this second-annual forum, content strategy moved from Paris to London, and, as we found out at the conference, will be landing in Cape Town, South Africa for its next stop. Three cheers to the three organizers of the conference for advancing the practice and maintaining the momentum.

CS forums tend to be states of the state, a reflective look at the condition of the discipline and, as is customary, a reading of the entrails for an incarnation of the future. This forum was no different. There were attendees and speakers from 20 countries and 5 continents (although most of the speakers came from the USA and the UK), addressing a range of topics (although not as wide as could have been hoped for). Rather than give an encapsulation of the talks here, I will direct people to Martin Belam’s nice summary of the conference.

Recurrent and familiar themes about the nature, problems, and purpose of content strategy surfaced at the conference, which prompts me to do some list-making. But not to making a list of the themes. I think these themes are increasingly becoming well worn, and maybe it’s time to instead set them aside and agree that there are a set of commonly accepted mandates for content strategy. We don’t need more convincing about them, we need more beautiful examples of them in practice.

So here’s what I might call a social contract of sorts for content strategists, a set of things we can all pretty much agree on. I don’t imagine there will be much controversy. These are some of the principles that I heard underpinning many if not all of the talks.

Let’s agree that

  • Content should be flexible, nimble, portable, reusable, untethered (choose your version of “free”).
  • Content should be separated from presentation
  • Content should be created once and published everywhere (“COPE”)
  • Metadata is sublime, hot, necessary
  • CMS are our friends
  • Content Strategists are, in fact, respected and appreciated
  • Labels matter—we get around and by with words, especially nice sounding, intuitive and informative words
  • Content Strategy is interdisciplinary with porous boundaries
  • Content Strategy is not emerging; it has emerged

With 39 speakers there were bound to be some memorable quotes. These should keep the CS fires burning for some time:

  • The web is built around people. (Is it any wonder that social media arose?)
  • Never ignore the CMS.
  • The web is becoming apps.
  • Metadata is the new art direction.
  • Mobile enforces an austerity of purpose.

For all the worldly camaraderie that the gathering conferred upon us all, there was also a noticeable world-weariness. Why all the heavy hearts and anguish? At times, I felt as if I were in an episode of the TV series “Game of Thrones,” a sage of warring Middle Earth tribes.  Sure, some friction exists among disciplines and clients can be wary and retrograde, but it’s a rhetorical extravagance to say that the disciplines are at cross-purposes, or even hostile toward each other, or that clients are still, in 2011, utterly clueless. I’ve seen little evidence in recent memory in interdisciplinary working conditions and client relations to warrant a posture of irritation and deflation about being underdogs and about others not understanding or appreciating us.  Let’s declare the war significantly subsided (or even over) and forge ahead.

Speaking about what lies ahead, I also registered at the forum a heaviness about what we will be asked to face in the years to come. More than a few times, I heard sentiments to the effect that …  “We’re in a stage, a transition. The future is messy, weird. Who knows what devices will exist. It’s hard to predict. It’s getting even harder to predict.” My thinking is, “Isn’t it always hard to predict?” If it were easy to predict, it would be an inevitability that would require no prediction. I say we just move forward and trust our instincts to respond insightfully. Leave some room for invention on our side of the technological divide.

Finally, here’s my hope for the next forum.

We need more inspiration, fewer tactics. We learn tactics on the job in unique contexts. Tactics aren’t readily reusable and aren’t necessarily advisable for application from one project to the next. Let’s include tactics—they have their place at a conference—but spend more time on getting worked up about where content can go. (Who isn’t inspired by thinking of metadata as the new art direction?) Isn’t it time to throw off the heavy lading of both the underappreciated magi and content savior and get inspired? In a casual conversation with a small group of fellow attendees on the streets of London following the second day of the conference, one conference-goer made a brilliant proposal for the next forum’s keynote speaker in Cape Town. “Hey, let’s get Keith Richards.”


4 Responses

  1. ioana says:

    I thought the Content Strategy Forum was created as an European event, so even though I didn’t have the possibility to attend it this year I could prepare for 2012. Then I’ve heard about the horrible choice of holding it in Cape Town, far away not only from Europe, but from almost every other place a participant could come from. I find there just isn’t much in Europe for people interested in content strategy, except what is included in UX conferences. If there are dedicated events, they’re rather well hidden.

  2. David says:

    It’s interesting how fluent content strategists now are in tech-speak. Sure, they may not know how to code in C#, but there’s considerable expertise in XML, metadata and other niches.

    This tells me the “war between disciplines” is probably over, even if content strategists still tease techies at these conferences. It’s ended in mutual respect.

    And this is important. A lot of content strategists come from liberal arts fields where writing was the thing, and the only thing. But the market now demands a broader set of skills, and the forum was good evidence that they’ve adapted.

    As for your comment about more inspiration and less tactics, I generally agree. It’s curious, because the written blogs on content strategy are full of ideas and imaginative connections – just the sort of thing that would hold the attention well if translated to a live presentation.

  3. seamus walsh says:

    Michael, well done, thank you. I have been on the sidelines of CS for 3 years. Listening, learning and building things that fixed common problems I faced when I worked in the corporate world. I wound up in CS circles because they were the group that raised the issues I faced and brought them to the top.

    I think in these early days there is bound to be friction as processes become standardized, subject matter experts get asked why, fiefdoms fall and other rise.

    As the old saying goes, “you can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”

    That said, I am encouraged that your not saying that CS is not about technology, but includes metadata, CMS and Apps.

    Like it or not, technology is and always was the enabler, be it a pencil, printing press, or an Ipad.

    Thank you again for your insights.


  4. ioana, if you’re interested in attending a content strategy conference next year you can always make your way to CS Applied 2012:

    Why not join the Google content strategy group and stay informed? They’re a really helpful bunch.

    Following the #contentstrategy hashtag on Twitter also throws up some good information about events and meetups.

    Confab, another content strategy conference, is held in the US.

    Regardless of where a conference is held it will require a number of attendees to travel – in some cases, very far.

    For example, I’ll be coming from Cape Town to London for CS Applied, next year.

    Besides, there’s nothing horrible about Cape Town. Our weather is great, the people are awesome and the country’s beautiful :)

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