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Content Strategy Forum 2011 in review

London, 5-7 Sept 2011, CS Forum came to London in its second incarnation. A lot of attendees (I couldn’t count) from 20+ countries descended on the Mermaid Centre (near Blackfriars). Talks, parties and workshops were the disorder of the day.

I am not going to try giving a talk-by-talk breakdown of what happened. With multiple streams, I couldn’t be everywhere at once. For an assortment of slides and published notes, see http://lanyrd.com/2011/csforum/coverage/. Instead, I’ll cover the general themes that came out of my own notes.

Content Strategy is bigger than that

Content Strategy is – in many people’s perception – a new field, especially when referred to within the digital realm. Eric Reiss (@elreiss), however, pointed out that content strategy has been around for just about as long as we have been communicating; the only people who seem to have trouble with implementing the concept are those on the digital bandwagon.

Lisa Welchman (@lwelchman) made the point that content isn’t a something in its own right. Content is everything (as in: everything is content). What you view as content in your particular situation, and the needs surrounding it, depend entirely on how that something-being-seen-as-content is described by those who own or deal with it.

Diana Railton (@dianarailton) demonstrated how content strategy is a pillar supporting communication strategy, which itself supports business strategy. A digital content strategy cannot be divorced from other parts of the communications agenda.

There are two ways one can look at content strategy: as something to aspire to having come up from an implementation perspective (e.g. copywriter), or as the tool to guide implementation of communication strategy (the management view). If you try to define it based on the bottom-up view, you will surely put too tight constraints on, which will only harm the industry in others’ perception.

Keep the strategy, cut the content

Gerry McGovern (@gerrymcgovern)’s opening keynote hit a key point right off the bat: there is too much content. Cut, cut, cut. For good online content, he says to take every sentence, turn back to front, and cut it in half (“Content Strategy” becomes “Strategy”). There’s too much content as it is.

Ove Dalen (@ovedalen) didn’t pull punches on this front: his talk was titled “Cut the crap” (which, unfortunately, I missed because I was following a different stream). Others, also, echoed this theme repeatedly: the goal is not more content, it’s better content.

Content Strategy and the CMS

Another theme that came up repeatedly was the role of the content management system (CMS) in the Content Strategist’s thought process and working environment. As Kate Kenyon (@kate_kenyon) said, it may not be the sexist aspect of content strategy, but if you don’t own your CMS, some bugger from IT will (no offence to my friends in IT). Then who will be in control of your content and its presentation?

If your CMS can’t cope with your content… you’re stuffed.

Kate Kenyon

Karen McGrane (@karenmcgrane) took a swipe at the content management in her keynote: the tools we have available to us today are chosen by the wrong people, at the wrong point in the process. They need to serve the content process – the creation and curation workflows. We need more focus on author experience: all the tools and techniques of classic user experience need to be applied to the content management process.

A talk on the execution side, so popular that people were turned away at the door (at least according to one tweet), was by Cleve Gibbon (@cleveg), who demonstrated the tangible value of content strategy and content architecture coming before CMS selection.

Cory-Ann Joseph (@coryannj) wrapped up the theme with a great story about auditing what was in a CMS… only to have so many spreadsheets and documents that there was no way to understand the output! What tools does the industry need to get meaningful results from such an audit? The answer is a CMS that embeds contextually meaningful reporting out of the box.

It was clear that content strategists cannot avoid the CMS question if they want to deliver meaningful value. Those who understand the message and the process need to own the technical implementation roadmap. How else will we ever have tools that do the jobs we need them to? In one of the workshops, Ida Hakola (@idahakola) and Ilona Hiila of Vapa Media (@vapamedia) gave participants an opportunity to experiment with this model, pitching content-centric solutions that need technical implementation.

You can’t be a Content Strategist without being a Context Strategist

Perhaps the most-tweeted term accompanying the #csforum11 hash tag was “context.” Again and again, speakers rammed home the message: content is great, but getting the right content calls for context. This one quote sums it up best:

Content is king. But context is the kingdom.

Eric Reiss

This may get into areas that many content strategists feel is hard – and Lisa Welchman explained that it is hard, because it is dynamic – but without context, content loses much of its value. This was illustrated effectively with the response rates to a political donation appeal: from a baseline of “donate,” contributions increased by around 20% across three segments of unregistered, registered and previously-donated… but the effect came in each case from completely different optimised copy.

And the new rising stars

A nice touch finished off the first day, when four attendees got the chance to launch their speaking careers – five minutes each. My hat must come off to Shelly Wilson (@hishellywilson) who, as well as being the first lamb to the slaughter, managed to leave us with a mental image of the future of content strategy as unicorns in spandex! (No, I’m not going to explain it: you’ll have to watch the video.)

Finally…

All told, a great event, so thanks must go to Jonathan Kahn (@lucidplot), Randall Snare (@randallsnare) and Destry Wion (@wion), plus all the invisible extras behind the scenes, for making CS Forum 11 such a success.

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