A Tale of Two Cities (and Conferences)


It is the best of times, it is the worst of times*. Or at least that’s the impression about the state of the content development industry that came across during two different publishing conferences I have attended in the last few weeks. Hosted in two cities that couldn’t have been more diverse, Palm Springs, CA and Austin, TX, the conferences were opposite reflections of their locations.

Palm Springs CA can perhaps be summed up by the fact that the city’s greatest attraction appears to be an aging vaudeville theater that boasts that it is home to the World’s oldest chorus line! This, the city not the theater chorus line, was the venue for the 2012 Intelligent Content Conference (ICC12), a vibrant well programmed exchange of ideas that drew attendees from various aspects of the enterprise content development world, especially from service information, business process, and marketing; along with new technology practitioners, leading consultants, and content strategists. This group understood that the real value of the new publishing model was in the content itself (hence the title of the conference.)

The underlying feeling coming away from this conference was that the attendees thought that this was indeed the “best of times” to be in content development. The biggest revolution in content development and delivery since the invention of the printing press is opening up an incalculable number of opportunities to redefine both the business model, and the way we tell our stories and interact with those who consume them.

Austin, TX on the opening day of the annual SXSW Interactive conference gives off that same vibe of excitement and opportunity as leading thinkers, futurists, innovators, and entrepreneurs descend on the Texas capital to discuss the future of the web. Part of this year’s opening day events included a one-day mini-conference based on O’Reilly’s Tools of Change (TOC) annual publishing industry get together in New York. As expected the majority of attendees where from the worlds of traditional book and magazine publishing. The contrast between this crowd and the attendees at Intelligent Content, and the larger SXSW crowd, couldn’t have been more marked. The underlying vibe that I picked up at the TOC day was one of confusion, and even panic.

The first speaker, mobile designer Josh Clark, provided one of the best summaries on how to approach the new publishing paradigm when he said that “Your product is called content, everything else is a container.” He also went on to say that “Mobile isn’t about Apps. An App isn’t a strategy.” Yet nearly every other speaker, and question from the audience, ignored this great advice. The focus of most conversations was firmly on the delivery process and medium, not about the thing actually being delivered, the content. And during the sessions I was at I never heard a single word about how to add value to the content by making it intelligent

My feeling was that most of the TOC audience this is “the worst of times,” as things are changing too fast to understand, and the traditional business model no longer works.

And that’s where I believe the disconnect between these two groups originates – with the business model.

In the corporate world the development of content is a key part of any business process (In fact in THE CONTENT POOL book I put forward that it is THE key component), and that while it may not always be recognized as such, it is generally developed irrespective of the delivery platform. Yes particular platforms may be specified, but they are more a matter of convenience and familiarity than an integral part of the company’s overall business model. The value to the organization is implicitly in the content, not the delivery model.

In traditional publishing, no matter what lip service is paid to content, it is the delivery mechanism that provides the value. The business model of traditional publishing is built around the infrastructure and process to move pieces of paper from the printer, to the warehouse, to the retail outlet, and eventually into your hands as a consumer. It is only you, as a consumer, who then derives any value from what was on that paper – the content.

While the corporate world sees new delivery models as an opportunity to provide more and more intelligent content, traditional publishing sees it as a disruptive event to a centuries old infrastructure.

The best of times; the worst of times.

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* With apologies to Charles Dickens for the paraphrasing. – “A Tale of Two Cities” was originally published concurrently in two separate formats – In the weekly magazine All Year Round without illustrations , and in collected monthly installments with illustrations by regular Dickens artist Halbot Browne (from which the illustration at the top of this post is taken.) Dickens was a master of realizing the value of his content over format often publishing new works in various formats and platforms to reach the widest possible audience, before eventually publishing the full work as a novel.

If he were around today, I’m sure he would be one of the pioneers of digital publishing.

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