First, some background.
ICC has always been a fun and informative event, specifically addressing topics around how to get the right information to the right audience in the right format in the most efficient way possible. This typically means looking at the big picture first to determine what information you have (and what you need, and what you have that you don’t need) and who owns that information and who needs to get that information and where and when that information needs to be delivered. The big-picture stuff has come to be known as content strategy (shameless plug here for a book – see The Language of Content Strategy, edited by Scott Abel and Rahel Bailie with contributions by me and 51 co-authors).
The next step is figuring out the “how”. We still need to create the content (write descriptions, create graphics, produce videos, or whatever format makes sense). But if we’re smart about it, we can share that content, decreasing effort, maximizing re-use, and ensuring consistency across departments. Shouldn’t the tech writers and trainers and support staff and marketing people all be telling the same story anyway? If everyone agrees to share and store whatever they create in a central place, and, just as importantly, agrees to a common tagging system that allows everyone else to easily find each piece of information, then it becomes really easy to build whatever output is needed at any time. The Intelligent Content Conference, founded by Ann Rockley, has been a fabulous resource for learning the specifics of how to do all this (see any of the talks on the ICC channel on SlideShare). The best and brightest technical writers and content strategists gathered each year to share techniques and case studies and learn from each other. As a tech writer, I found this all to be super cool stuff! YES, let’s talk about DITA and XML and taxonomies! YES, it’s great to hear about people who’ve saved huge piles of money and improved content quality; it’s FUN to learn how they delivered the exact right content, at the right time, in the right format.
But to be honest, that’s not what usually happens in my world. When I’ve been able to implement strategic improvements, the documentation does improve and efficiency does go up and the customer does get a better product. But I still run into lots of opposition and ultimately don’t get the full benefits of proposed changes. I can do tons of preliminary research, figure out user’s real needs, identify gaps, and help clients create single-source, reusable content. We can see improvements in quality and reductions in cost within the documenation department when creating large sets of user manuals across multiple product lines, and when multiple tech writers are working with the same data sets. However, projects implemented in the docs aren’t always accepted in the training, or support, or marketing groups, who are still duplicating all that effort in creating their own content pieces. Sometimes it’s a misplaced concern about short-term spending without looking at long-term benefits, sometimes it’s about reluctance to change tools to something that enables the kind of sharing I want, sometimes it’s about protecting their jobs, and sometimes it’s simply lack of understanding about what I’m trying to do. For the most part, the techcomm/documentation people are on board, but that’s where the sharing stops.
Meanwhile, Joe Pulizzi (an incredibly dynamic person) founded what has become the Content Marketing Institute to help marketing departments see the benefits of generating high-quality content and using it throughout the customer experience cycle. CMI has a feature-rich web site, runs a very successful event called Content Marketing World that draws over 2,600 attendees every year, and publishes a magazine called Chief Content Officer. Joe is super passionate about helping companies do a better job of marketing their products by improving their content and delivering it in focused ways.
Intelligent Content 2015
Last summer, the Intelligent Content Conference became part of the Content Marketing Institute’s lineup of events.
HOW, I wondered, will this ownership change the Intelligent Content Conference? Will it still be relevant to the work I do? Will there be a new emphasis on marketing where I really don’t have that much to contribute? Turns out the answer was “yes, and yes”.
The ICC program included many of the same people who’ve been working in intelligent content and presenting at this event for years. There were also lots of people I hadn’t seen before, people who were talking about campaigns and brand relevance and storytelling. The programming was actually a nice mix with enough of the technical stuff that I know I enjoy and a lot of new “marketing side” perspectives. I really hadn’t understood what they meant by “content marketing” but now I do.
Though I saw and got to spend time with several
old long-time friends (which was great), the biggest difference in the event compared to prior years was in the background and experience of attendees. This event traditionally draws about 400 people, with maybe 40 or 50 speakers. At the opening session, when Joe asked who was a first time attendee at an ICC, about 80% of the people raised their hands. This made me wonder – why did so many of last year’s 400 choose not to attend this year? And where did all these “newbies” come from? Throughout the next couple of days, I got a chance to talk with a lot of them, and discovered that most were primarily marketers of one kind or another. This totally makes sense, given the huge success of CMI and the Content Marketing World conference. Though some were interested in learning about “that techie stuff”, their focus was much more on promoting their companies with content than on how to create content; more on the customer lifecycle than on a content lifecycle; more about CRM, not CMS. They certainly liked the idea of content reuse, but hadn’t really heard most of the terminology before and didn’t seem to see how any of it would apply to them. And yes, I know – not all attendees felt that way, but enough for me to notice the trend. I think this was borne out by the attendance in each room, as well, though obviously I couldn’t be in all the rooms myself. The more technical topics I saw were sparsely attended; the “softer” ones were packed.
Some hard questions
One thing that’s clear, from this conference and from my experience in the working world – we can only get full benefit of (as Ann Rockley describes it) “structurally-rich, semantically categorized content that is discoverable, reusable, reconfigurable, and adaptable” if we get ALL the departments of an enterprise on board. But is this conference the place to do it? This new ICC has a really good shot at encouraging more marketing people to work with the groups who have already moved to more strategic forms of content creation. This will eventually be a good thing for all of us. But by redirecting the conference to cater to the needs of this new marketing-focused audience, those who are just learning about semantic content and tagging and taxonomies, we may have lost the hands-on, practical, and yes, more technical content that enabled others to leave ICC with action items in hand.
Time will tell, I suppose. And there are certainly lots of other conferences that may yet step in to fill the more tactical role of talking about content strategy (does that even make sense? It does in my head) that was once filled by ICC. I understand that there’s going to be a content strategy track at the next Content Marketing World – I wonder how that will be received by what I guess will be a primarily marketing based audience? and what’s the distinction between content strategy at CMWorld and content marketing at ICC? Heck, ICC may even eventually expand their attendance to include a wider range of novice through expert attendees and offer something for everyone.
Where does this leave me? Maybe ICC is no longer the event for me, and I will get more relevant input from other tech comm events like the STC Summit, LavaCon, and the new-ish Information Development World. Or maybe I need to look beyond my comfort zone. I’ve long said that we (in STC, in techcomm in general) spend way to much time talking to ourselves and would be better off promoting our efforts to other groups. Maybe what needs to change is my self-image as a consultant/individual contributor/technical writer. Maybe I can contribute more to the field by helping bring about the convergence of the content marketers (and people in training departments and support groups) with the creators of intelligent content.
But for now, I’m going to rest up. March was, as expected, a very busy month.