The Breakdown: Earlier this month, Erin Scime gave a presentation at the 2012 MIMA summit. She discussed how digital marketers and content people of the web world are up against a big problem. Creating, managing and planning for digital content is complicated. The process is almost always touched by more than one person – revealing the political undercurrent of an organization. In the slides above, she discusses how businesses go through turf wars over ownership and feel growing pains when new site designs or platform migration is underway. Then she offers tactics for navigating the dirty politics and explains how you need to set up and maximize your digital content team to get a higher ROI overall.
When the walls collapse, will your content be ready? (photo by chaines106)
The Breakdown: Last week, Erin Scime traveled to Minnesota to attend the 2012 MIMA summit, a conference on interactive marketing and technology. The night before, Erin was part of a 3-person panel on responsive design, hosted by the Minneapolis CS meetup. Here’s what they discussed.
What happens when a presentation layer developer and two content strategists are invited to speak to the Minneapolis Content Strategy meetup group? You get a warm group of people, warmed by the light of the fire on a cool October night at Fallon Worldwide’s fabulous office space, and a great conversation about the future of creating and managing content within the framework of responsive design.
The talk, “Responsive Design, Content, People and Process,” was a panel discussion including myself, content strategist Sara Wachter-Boetcher (whose book “Content Everywhere” will be coming out later in 2012) and developer Sean Tubridy.
If you’re not doing responsive design now, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you will face it in the near future. Sean Tubridy offered a humorous metaphor for how responsive code works. Remember the scene in Star Wars when our heroes are trapped in the trash compactor? Well, responsive code is a bit like this – albeit less destructive. It’s a state where your content must flex and fold as the walls of the page width narrow.
Previewing her MIMA Summit presentation, “Getting Flexible: Working Content into Responsive Design,” Sara Wachter-Boetcher talked about how we need to model our content so it can withstand (or respond to) the range of widths that the content will need to fit within. Using a recipe page as an example in her presentation, Wachter-Boetcher illustrated the importance of breaking down a page to its essential components. In your CMS, you’ll ultimately be creating sub-areas that put structure around the bits of content that make up a page. For the recipe example, Sara talked about treating yield, ingredients and instructions as these separate components.
The great thing about structuring your content like this is that you can then “turn on” or “turn off” elements of a page depending on context and, even better, you create your content once and distribute it to as many devices as you need.
I was the last person on the panel to speak. Using a case study to highlight the people aspects, I focused on how responsive design can impact your team. Previewing my MIMA Summit presentation, “There’s a People Problem Lurking Behind Your Digital Strategy,” and speaking from direct experience constructing Support.ford.com, I talked about how creating responsive & nimble content requires a nimble team.
To be more specific, on the Ford support site, I worked very closely with a presentation layer developer, CMS developer and UX designer to create templates that would be modular and flexible enough to handle the constraints of responsive design. Our process was stripped of typical waterfall signoff. We were co-located and we collaborated on the same deliverables. Ultimately we were able to share working prototypes with real content in them to our client, so they were able to see exactly what the experience would be for desktop, tablet and mobile users. This was an incredible win in increasing transparency and meeting expectations so much sooner.
Another important thing about working as a nimble team was that our roles essentially collapsed into one another. We still had our areas of expertise that we focused on, but were able to cross over into each other’s domains easier in that we had expectations that we were truly a cross-disciplinary team with one UX lead. The brilliant outcome: no feelings were hurt in the process due to confused roles. We truly had one goal we could focus on – and that was getting the best work done as efficiently as possible.
During final Q&A at the meetup, our panel rested on the notion that it’s ok to be cautious about whether or not your next site build should be responsive. Sean Tubridy provided the great insight that you should consider how big your mobile/tablet audience is – rather than jumping to the conclusion that it will be worth the effort. For example, if 90% of your audience is desktop users, it might not be worth the effort to change around your existing processes to code your pages responsively.
Whether or not you go responsive, structuring your content is one thing you should not hold back on. As Sara said, it will allow you to scale your designs in the future. If there is one painful (and expensive!) aspect of content management, it’s restructuring existing content too late in the game.
Follow any of the panelists on Twitter:
Or read more on creating smart, structured content from our own Rachel Lovinger’s Nimble Report.
Andy Baio welcomes the attendees of XOXO Festival (photo by John Biehler)
A week ago I went to a festival/conference in Portland called XOXO. When it was announced, this first-time event was speculatively described up as “an alternative to SXSW” – not as ‘the next SXSW’ mind you, but as another option for those who may feel that SouthBy has become bloated, and has perhaps lost some of its focus.
Attendance was limited to 400 people, and all registrations were handled through a Kickstarter project. Those 400 slots were snapped up in about 50 hours, with another 200+ people pledging a reduced amount for early access to the videos and some swag from the event. (Yes, there will be video! You can still buy early access on the XOXO website.)
In case you’re not familiar with Kickstarter, let me briefly explain how it works, because in many, many ways the XOXO Fest couldn’t have existed without it. Kickstarter is a site where people post details about a project they’d like to do, indicate how much money they need to complete it, and offer rewards for people who back their efforts. Other people, the backers, pledge an amount and select a desired reward for the projects they want to support. If – and only if – the total pledge amount reaches the goal by the stated deadline, everyone’s credit cards are charged and the creator begins their journey towards completing their project.
As Kickstarter has grown and entered broader awareness (and mainstream media) there seems to be some confusion, with a lot of people viewing it primarily as a marketplace for independently made gadgets and video games – a high-tech Etsy, if you will. But it’s more accurate to think of it as supporting an artist or entrepreneur, rather than as buying a product. Amid growing discussions of accountability, the people running the site recently clarified their position in a post called “Kickstarter Is Not a Store.”
So, back to XOXO, which describes itself as “an arts and technology festival celebrating disruptive creativity.” In the opening remarks, Andy Baio (who co-organized the festival, along with Andy McMillan) expressed some regret about using the overused buzzword “disruptive.” He also made it clear that the “hugs and kisses” implication of the conference title was intended. Without irony or snark, the weekend embraced the culture of independent creators in many forms – from high-end food carts outside the venue, to a pop-up arcade of independent video games, a concert by self-made musicians, the incredible speaker lineup, and an attendee list which boasts so many luminaries they could populate the programs of several other conferences. And then there were the parties, a maker market, and so many other interesting artisanal micro-events.
The speakers were a mix of people creating independent art and products – film, music, illustration, web comics, video games, and gadgets – and others who are building the platforms that support these efforts. There’s a good reason that this conference is happening now. In the ‘90s we had a major wave of DIY culture as technology became cheap enough and accessible enough that people could produce music, video, and printed materials at home. Inexpensive means of production gave birth to a deluge of garage bands, independent filmmakers and ‘zine publishers. But they had a limited reach, unless they somehow got a contract with a major company and crossed over into the mainstream.
Now we’re seeing another wave of DIY culture, brought on by several major developments:
- social tools that allow creators to build a direct relationship with a widespread audience
- crowdfunding systems, such as Kickstarter, that allow fans to directly fund projects
- sites and systems that allow creators to self-distribute digital and non-digital products
Many of the speakers could link the success of their projects to Kickstarter. This gave them project budgets that yielded very high quality work, whether they were a single person working alone, or a small team with a shared vision. Having a direct relationship with their audience is a key factor, too, because it establishes both a trust and a demand that makes people willing to give them money. Their fans are saying, “I know what you’re capable of and I want to be a part of making that happen.”
Other speakers talked about the platforms designed to help independent creators sell their products directly to their audience – the aforementioned Etsy (for fine crafts), VHX (for films), The Atavist (for long-form journalism), CASH Music (for music), 20×200 (for affordable art prints), and Simple (an alternative banking platform). It’s important to note that all of these distribution services result in the creators getting the vast majority of the income from the sale of their creations. This is the promise of the long tail – if a major record label is going to pay you next to nothing to release your album, but you can build your audience yourself and sell your music directly to them, then why wouldn’t you do it?
With all the talk recently of content being cheap in the digital realm, the idea of motivated creators being able to make and distribute their own work, and even earn a living doing it, is a disruption we all should welcome.
Want more XOXO? Here are some additional links:
- Anil Dash live-blogged the conference, old school-style
- Two days in the conference room, condensed into a 1-minute timelapse video
- A timeline of XOXO Tweets (from all of the attendees)
And follow @XOXO on Twitter to see more coverage and announcements about the conference. Keep an eye out for the release of the videos!
You had to be there. Ephemeral content takes the stage. (photo by Lisa Park)
The sixth issue of Pop-up Magazine hit the stage at the SF Davies Symphony Hall the week before last, playing to an audience numbering more than 2,700. I was lucky enough to grab a golden ticket for this sold-out, live event that goes unrecorded, showcasing writers, documentary filmmakers, photographers and radio producers — from The New Yorker and Vanity Fair to This American Life and Pixar — in a magazine content format. As soon as tickets went on sale, the online box office promptly crashed due to the avalanche of traffic hitting the site. After dozens of failed attempts to gain access, I finally got through and had my ticket in hand. Success!
Three years ago, Pop-up Magazine got started in the humble 364-seat Brava Theater. It’s since morphed into a grand affair: Folks like me are more than happy to queue up virtually to fork over 20 dollars and change for a chance to be a part of an exclusive club, one that runs for one night only. The founders have clearly struck a chord with those in attendance seeking to hear, see and experience never-before-aired-or-published stories that are here today, gone tomorrow. Attend one of these literary events (I’ve been to two), and you’ll feel a strong sense of community plus a whole lot of buzz, excitement and goodwill — as if we’re the lucky few going on a great ride.
And a great ride it is, providing plenty of chills and thrills as well as a few lasting memories. Pop-up Magazine covers topics ranging from food and foreign affairs to sports, science and work life. Short pieces kick off the event, with longer features taking up the rear. Most of the stories are good. Some are incredibly well-crafted. Meanwhile, the majority of the contributors — from Pixar director Lee Unkrich to NPR journalist Annie Murphy in this latest issue — skillfully combine oral storytelling with video and audio to enhance their already robust and engaging narratives.
It’s clear that the key to Pop-up Magazine’s success is a clever repackaging of an age-old art, oral storytelling. The event’s creators/editors have managed to refresh the theme or concept of oral storytelling by renaming it with what’s hot now: a pop-up. And on top of that, they’ve made sure to curate the heck out of the content — with fresh and compelling narratives that speak to their audience.
These winning formulas certainly resonate with content strategists. After all, part of our mission is to find ways to refresh and update legacy content, concepts and themes to make them relevant and engaging for our audience. It’s vital that we understand who our target audience is in order to give them what they want. And if we can give them what they want — in the form of curated content — our business and the bottom line will benefit.
The proof is in the Pop-up Magazine pudding.
The Breakdown: I recently went to Helsinki to give a keynote speech at the first ever Finnish content strategy event, Sisältöstrategiaseminaari 2012 (in English: “Content Strategy Seminar 2012″). The event was a co-production of Vapa Media and the University of Helsinki. For my talk, I thought it would be good to share some history about how the Content Strategy discipline broke onto the digital scene, how practicioners get into this field, why it’s so important right now, and some interesting trends to watch.
The organizers of the seminar have also published a trend report, Hiljainen signaali, which is currently available only in Finnish but should be available in English soon.
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.”
From May 9 through May 11, worldwide leaders and luminaries in the content strategy field converged in Minneapolis for Confab 2011—the first content strategy conference in the U.S.
Now that we’ve absorbed the wisdom—and the sugar calories from the much-talked-about cake—we ask: what emerges from Confab 2011 as the challenges we were wrestling with, goals we were aspiring to, and themes that were beginning to emerge as truths? Here are our top four:
1) Content is a Business Asset
Kristina Halvorson of Brain Traffic, the organization that produced Confab, uttered this phrase verbatim in her rousing opening keynote, and it was also the title of Monday’s afternoon keynote by Valeria Maltoni of Conversation Agent. Ms. Maltoni stated that a business of any size can use content to attract, interact with, and influence customers. Or, more directly, that a website is a “direct-to-consumer warehouse.”
But perhaps the most colorful expression of this idea was Erika Hall’s insistence that we can’t think of content as “pink goo.” Content, she emphasized, is part of a system and requires a continual process—quite a contrast to the too-common approach of wedging content into boxes one time and hoping it behaves itself until the next site redesign.
2) Content Strategy is Change Management
Karen McGrane, Razorfish alum and Managing Partner at Bond Art + Science had the courage and insight to articulate the reality we’ve all been wrestling with: our jobs really do require us to ask others to do their jobs differently. That doesn’t exactly set us up to be the most popular people at the table, so we need to articulate to our clients and coworkers why doing their jobs differently ultimately makes their jobs easier (admittedly after some painful adjustments).
Perhaps a subtler expression of this idea came from Ms. Halvorson, who showed an infographic with content strategy snugly embedded smack in the middle of a rather scary chart. The message of the chart? On a team of information architects, interaction designers, visual designers, copywriters, and programmers, only the content strategist has a direct relationship with every other role. In other words, the buck stops at the content strategist.
3) The Web Needs Human Filters
“No one is surfing the web anymore. The waves are too damn big.” Steve Rosenbaum of magnify.net and author of Curation Nation , surely intended some humor when he said this in his session, but he balanced it with the serious understanding that online content has become overwhelming. We’re constantly checking email, losing sleep to keep up with the digital deluge. As a result, users have expressed their desire for fewer, more relevant choices—choices a human (likely a content strategist) needs to make.
Randall Snare and Elizabeth McGuane, creators of the content strategy blog, “Mapped,” discussed “context,” the idea that in order for content to be truly useful, humans (i.e., content strategists) need to not just analyze and test, but categorize and position. To properly do this, they implored us to ask such questions as: where are readers consuming our content, what are they looking at, and where are they looking for it?
Snare and McGuane also asked us to think about content as the story behind the data, and data as what gives perspective to the story. In other words, content professionals have at their disposal multiple types of data (including analytics, user testing, metadata) but data is just one factor. Snare and McGuane warned content strategists that while data informs the process, it should not be confused with the process itself.
4) Everyone is a Publisher
A major theme in Steve Rosenbaum’s session, this idea was pivotal to the Tuesday keynote by Ann Handley. Ms. Handley advised that people and brands should embrace the reality that everyone is a publisher and start thinking about the web as a way to connect.
While it’s fairly easy to blindly embrace this concept and just put yourself out there, the real challenge is to ensure that your content is, as Ms. Handley so beautifully stated, “the soul of who you are.”
In other words, the idea that everyone is a publisher is not just an opportunity—it’s a responsibility as well. Ms. Handley’s book, Content Rules, contains 10 super-smart steps for being a responsible publisher. Although she titled them, “10 ways to make your content rule,” Ms. Handley’s advice could also be labeled, “10 ways to make sure that your content is the soul of who you are.”
As content strategists, isn’t it really our job to ensure that our clients’ online identities reflect their souls—just as interior designers or architects would do for their clients’ living spaces?
Confab 2011 provided not just articulation of this responsibility, but inspiration for doing this critical work. It also connected content strategists with a common vision—and perhaps most importantly, with each other.
At the end of the Intelligent Content Conference, in a discussion led by conference organizers, Ann Rockley, Joe Gollner, and Scott Abel, people shared insights and questions about where this discipline will be going next and what they’d like to see discussed at the conference in the future. Hopefully some of these topics will surface in future presentations.
Right after the conference, I wrote a post about some of the content trends that had been most discussed: single-source publishing, content on mobile devices, enhanced publishing, user-aware and location-aware context, and end-to-end content strategy. But some attendees were left wondering how to evaluate when a solution would be appropriate for their clients or projects. So we’d like to see more discussion of techniques for doing upfront analysis (including ROI measurement tools) and more case studies (including metrics for measuring effectiveness).
Alignment of Inputs and Outputs
While tech writers tend to focus on the creation of content, many of the current content strategies (social integration, mobile delivery, semantic relationships) are dependent on the way the content is distributed. While DITA is a standard used to help author structured content, there are other structures that are designed to help content flow smoothly into other platforms and play nicely with other technologies. This is a specific aspect of end-to-end content strategy that not enough people are talking about yet – how do we get the input formats to align with the output formats to support the content through its entire lifecycle.
Just as we’re not going to get very far by overemphasizing one stage of the lifecycle over others, we’re going to be in a much better position to do all the things we want to do with our content if we can map these tools, technologies, and standards together in a meaningful approach with smooth transitions from one stage to the next.
Marriage of disciplines
This is something I had been talking about since the beginning of the conference, and it was the subject of my post at the end of day 1 (“An Appeal for Content Agnosticism”). Too many disciplines are having similar conversations in isolation. People practicing technical communication, web content strategy, instructional design, marketing, user experience, content analytics, social media strategy, search strategy, etc. have a lot to learn from each other. Conferences like this – and other content-focused conferences coming up this year – should help create the bridges that are needed.
So, once again, I suggest that everyone attend a conference or a meetup that’s slightly adjacent to your comfort zone. When ideas start flowing and breaking down the silos, who knows what exciting things might happen. What sort of developments would you like to see in the content disciplines?
- Intelligent Content Conference: Workshops
- ICC Day 1: An Appeal for Content Agnosticism
- ICC Day 2: What We Heard
The second full day of the Intelligent Content Conference was also filled with interesting talks and demonstrations. Patterns started to emerge around the topics that are important today. In this post, I’ll sum up some of the trends that I saw across the three day event.
There’s a growing need to create content once and publish it in a number of different formats, configurations, and platforms. Authoring standards such as DITA are designed to add structure to the elements of content (in DITA’s case, technical documentation) so that they can be segmented and reconfigured and still retain their context in the overall body of content.
The tools that support this kind of publishing include component content management systems – which have been around for a while – and some newer tools that are designed to produce multi-platform content for specific purposes. Several of the conference sponsors are companies that make component content management systems: SDL, Author-it, and Vasont. In the realm of more targeted authoring tools, I had the chance to play around with a platform called LearnCast. It’s designed to allow people to create educational content – including video, audio, and interactive elements – that’s compatible with any mobile platform.
Content will be everywhere
Several of the speakers observed that content is breaking out of its containers (an opinion shared by us here at Scatter/Gather). And of course, people increasingly want to access digital content on their mobile devices: phones, tablets, netbooks, etc. Single-source publishing tools are going to be indispensible in making that possible for organizations with limited resources, but there are also decisions that need to be made.
To really streamline content production, organizations should separate the content from platform-specific layout or functionality. But this could mean missing out on some of the desired features of apps. As a result there’s a growing tension between the benefits of creating device-specific apps and the benefits of creating digital content in platform agnostic standards, such as EPUB. As the platform wars heat up, do you sacrifice features? Or reach? Or will we develop ways to get the best of both worlds?
Let’s hope we develop ways to get the best of both worlds, because paging through a PDF on a tablet is not going to cut it for most people. They want interactivity, social integration, collaboration, and links to other sources of information. They want a good experience. Eric Freese (Aptara) gave an overview of some of the enhanced eBook capabilities of the EPUB 3 specification, the first public draft of which was just recently released for review. Unfortunately, many features that are currently available, even in version 2, aren’t supported by the eReaders on most tablets.
Content needs context in order to be intelligent
Without context, content is just information. It may or may not be useful in a given situation. With context, you can deliver content that’s actually relevant. This means being aware of your users’ needs, which could be broad or very state-specific. Derek Olson (Foraker Labs) gave an inspiring demonstration of the breastcancer.org iPhone app and discussed the kinds of research and design decisions that went into creating an app that delivers highly targeted content to an audience with very specific medical and emotional needs.
Context also means being location aware, especially in the case of mobile content delivery. Localized content applications can be powerfully engaging when done right. This was the topic of a lively presentation and discussion led by Mark Fidelman (Mindtouch). The discussion was focused less on the capabilities and more on the privacy implications of providing a lot of personal information to corporations in exchange for discounts and rewards. People have different comfort levels, but many people in the room (including Mark), felt that we’re already giving away a lot of personal information all the time, we might as well be compensated for it in some way.
I was also pleased to hear several speakers discuss the need to tag content with meaningful metadata in order to make the most of all this contextual awareness. Rich, semantic taxonomies, properly structured and applied to the content, help make sure that information gets served up when and where it’s most useful.
End-to-end content strategy
Though a number of useful tools were demonstrated at the conference, it’s important to keep in mind that buying a tool doesn’t, in itself, solve all of an organization’s content problems. I like the way Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler, expressed it during the wrap-up: “Vendors talk about ‘end-to-end solutions’ but they don’t seem to understand what ‘end’ means.” Generally, they define the “end” as the point when their product is no longer involved in the process.
In fact, several speakers had presented their view of the content lifecycle. Rahel Bailie, for example, identified a four stage process: analyze, collect, manage, publish, and then back to analyze again. Other speakers proposed models with three stages, or even six. But however many stages each person envisioned, they all agreed that it’s a cyclical process. And while certain tools may help with one or more stages in the cycle, no tool covers all of them. For example, a content management system isn’t going to help determine user needs or business priorities. There are tools that can provide data that will support those activities, but they still require human insight and a solid approach to developing a strategy.
In other words, use tools for things that tools are good at, and let people do what people do best. And involve your audience when you can, as well as your employees. Content creation is happening at such a massive scale now, any successful effort will probably require some combination of editorial effort, automation, and user/social contributions.
Next: What’s next?
At the end of the conference, the organizers, Ann Rockley, Joe Gollner, and Scott Abel, led a discussion with all the conference participants on what we had seen and what’s next. In my final post on ICC11, I’ll talk about some of those upcoming trends.
The Breakdown: On Day 1 of the Intelligent Content Conference, Rachel realizes that there’s something major, but essentially imaginary, getting in the way of interdepartmental content conversations.
On the first full day of the Intelligent Content Conference, we were treated with a range of talks about how to create and use intelligent content for different platforms and purposes. As a content strategist who attends a lot of conferences, much of this was very familiar, but with a bit of a twist because many of the people involved come from a technical communications background.
Yesterday, during pre-conference workshops, I found myself wondering why more content strategists weren’t in attendance. I even commented in my wrap-up post that, from the very beginning, the emphasis here has been content strategy. Many of the things being discussed are the same topics that are covered at all of the web content, content strategy, and UX conferences I normally attend.
The fact is that there are several self-identified content strategists here. But as far as I can tell, many of them come from a slightly different realm than the ones I’m used to encountering. Listening to some of the conversations taking place in between sessions, I’ve noticed a recurring focus on “technical documentation” and in the conference itself there’s a lot of emphasis on standards and tools that are specifically designed to support that type of content. It’s the kind of emphasis that brings to mind the aphorism “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
Now, please excuse the Stephen Colbert “I don’t see color” moment we’re about to have here, but it has suddenly dawned on me that I’ve been living in a world of content discrimination and I don’t understand it. For a long time now I’ve been hearing people say things like “We’re talking about WEB content” and my brain responds “Right, we’re talking about content.” But the point has just hit home that we’re not always talking about the same thing – some of us are talking about marketing content, or journalism content, or enterprise content, or technical documentation.
I realize there are differences, sometimes important strategic differences, but there’s also much more crossover than people are generally talking about. There’s a lot that these different factions of content professionals could learn from each other, but instead people are reinventing the wheel in distant silos. Often these silos are imposed by the structures and culture of an organization, but that’s no reason why we can’t foster more cross-pollination when we step out of the office and travel to conferences.
Which brings me back to the ostensible topic of this post: the conference I attended today. There were many great talks covering mobile content apps, social content, taxonomy development and usage, the content lifecycle, digital publishing, collaboration, content curation, and the tools that can make it easier to do all of these things. There was a good dose of discussion of structured content, and many mentions of an authoring standard called DITA which is used to structure technical documentation, but aside from that any of these talks would have been right at home at any of the web design conferences I’ve been to.
Towards the end of the day I had two interesting conversations that helped coalesce my thoughts about the things I’ve learned at the conference so far. One man mentioned to me that although he had seen several case study presentations, he still hadn’t seen evidence that any of this was having a broad impact on an organization. I suggested that it wouldn’t be possible to have a broad impact on an organization while viewing everything through the lens of tech docs. In order to have that kind of impact, an organization needs to develop an integrated content strategy that covers all of the types of content they maintain – tech docs, intellectual capital, marketing communications, editorial assets, etc.
The second conversation was with Mark Lewis, contributing author to DITA 101. We discussed the standard and the type of content it supports. I know that DITA can easily be expressed as XML, but I asked him whether anyone is using it in conjunction with other content standards (such as Dublin Core and RDFa). This led to some speculation about how DITA might become part of a wider solution set. One option would be to expand DITA to cover more content types. But retrofitting like that tends to water down the original intent of a technology. The other option, which I prefer, is to figure out how to make DITA interoperable with the other standards already in use. That way it still plays to its strengths, and becomes an integral part of a solution that can cover the entire range of an organization’s content.
There’s a lot of potential for content professionals from different backgrounds to learn from each other. I encourage everyone to go to a conference that seems slightly adjacent to what you normally do. If you’re a design-oriented content person, go to a CMS or technical communications conference. If you’re a tech writer, go to a UX or web design conference. It’s the best way I know to get new perspectives on the things you think you already know.