Randall Snare & Elizabeth McGuane, muses of content. (photo by Rachel Lovinger)
Two weeks ago, the third annual Content Strategy Forum was held in Cape Town, South Africa. For the first time, this international conference ventured outside Europe, giving it a truly global feel. While the attendees were primarily local, the speakers hailed from five continents – North America, South America, Europe, Oceania, and of course the home continent, Africa.
Before I begin my recap, full disclosure: I was a speaker at the conference – co-leading a workshop and giving a talk on the single track day – and I’m also friends with the organizers. I don’t consider this a conflict of interest – it’s a very congenial community and a lot of the people in it are friends. However, both of these factors do make me pre-disposed to really enjoying the conference. But judging from the reactions of the other attendees I spoke with, I’m not the only one who loved it.
The conference was held at Spier Wine Estate, just outside Cape Town. Its slightly remote location encouraged attendees to stay “on campus” during breaks, giving attendees and speakers additional chances to mingle and talk. Conference registration included several meals, well-timed coffee breaks, and evening parties. The place was beautiful, the food was delicious, the weather was idyllic, and the conversations flowed like the readily available wine.
The conference consisted of one day of workshops, one single track day, and one multi-track day. On the workshop day, Cleve Gibbon and I brought an intimate group through a series of Content Modelling exercises in our workshop “Content modelling for better managed content”. Twitter’s Cennydd Bowles led a workshop about “Content in a Responsive World.” Margot Bloomstein shared “The secrets of brand-driven content strategy.” And Luke Wroblewski shed light on “Multi-device web design.”
Conference day 1
The single track day was very well orchestrated. Experts from a variety of backgrounds wove common themes throughout the day, each talk building on the previous topics. It started with Kristina Halvorson who, despite having accidentally left her laptop at airport security, gave a rousing keynote about the evolution of this discipline. Next up was me, and I spoke about the current wave of interest in structured content, and how we can learn from past approaches to find solutions to present content problems and challenges (like Responsive Web Design). Then Bruce Lawson talked about HTML5 and how it can be used to enable more flexible, localized, meaningful content. He won me over as soon as he mentioned “interoperability.”
After an outdoor lunch, things got moving again with lightning talks by Rick Yagodich, Rebekah Cancino, Alex Maughan, and Meghan Seawell. Then Luke Wroblewski stirred things up with his afternoon keynote on “Content for the Write/Read Web.” Focusing on the need to optimize the experience for the content contributing members of the audience, Luke brought a new perspective to some familiar content strategy themes and concerns. Then Jonathan Colman talked about how the principles of SEO can work in concert with content strategy. The day was capped off by Relly Annett-Baker, sharing her wisdom about working with interdisciplinary teams to make good content.
Conference day 2
Day Two of the conference presented three tracks of talks, and I found myself facing tough choices in pretty much every slot. Nonetheless, I was drawn to certain repeating themes. In the early morning sessions I went to talks by Corey Vilhauer and Kate Kiefer Lee in which they each focused on the human side of content. Then I heard about CS inside big brands, from Lucie Hyde of eBay and Diane Murphy of Facebook. In the last set of talks I chose, Richard Ingram and John Alderman each spoke about how to make sense of the large amounts of data and content that people generate and consume these days.
And then, I kid you not, during the last tea break of the day, they brought in a cheetah and he just sat down on a table in the middle of the main hall. His name is Joseph, and he’s part of an outreach program that… well the details almost completely escape me because I was standing several feet from a real, live cheetah! As we stood around stunned, taking pictures, the organizers brought the speakers up to the table one by one, where were given instruction on how to safely pet the cheetah. I can honestly say that nothing like that has happened at any conference I’ve been to before.
Then, even though that was a really tough act to follow, Elizabeth McGuane and Randall Snare closed out the conference, not with the usual wrapup panel, but by acting out the history of storytelling, content, content strategy, and the Content Strategy Forum. They ended by inviting attendees to come up on stage and share their impressions of the conference.
I’m really glad to have participated in this year’s CS Forum, and not just because it was held at one of the most amazing conference settings I’ve ever been to. Having attended many similar conferences, you might think I’d heard it all already, but the mix of new blood and familiar faces always stirs up new discussion. I find I learn things about my own views when pressed to express them to new listeners. And, after all, the digital and content professionals of South Africa are wrestling with many of the same content problems as the rest of us. That’s both reassuring and fortunate – we have many things to share and many things to learn.
Just a few short years ago we were asking ourselves “how do we make this community grow?” Since then it’s grown bigger and more quickly than any of us could have imagined. There have certainly been growing pains along the way, but it’s become a pretty unique and impressive discipline. Several attendees remarked to me how accessible and humble all the speakers were. That’s something I pretty much take for granted at this point, but it occurred to me that this isn’t always the case in the web industry. One of the event organizers who’s mainly been involved with more tech oriented disciplines told me how unusual it is for speakers to acknowledge and even recommend other experts to read and follow. But many of us happily and heartily tip the hat to our knowledgeable colleagues, and include “read more” lists at the end of our presentations.
If you were at CS Forum this year, we’d love to hear your thoughts about the event. And if you weren’t, then dust off your passport and get ready for next year. The 2013 location hasn’t been announced yet, but the conference will likely be getting back to its European roots. I look forward to seeing you there!
Many of the conference presentations have been uploaded to the web. Get the slides and additional coverage on Lanyrd’s CS Forum 2012 page.