By Marcia Riefer Johnston published April 6, 2017

The Challenges Facing Tomorrow’s Marketer: 3 Biggest Themes From Intelligent Content Conference

challenges-tomorrows-marketer-biggest-trends-iccWhat a brain-tingling few days of sessions and hallway chats we had at last week’s Intelligent Content Conference, my sixth ICC in a row. More than 400 content professionals from 20 countries gathered for three days of nonstop conversation about the future that’s upon us.

If I touched on every theme that emerged from this year’s ICC, you’d never make it to the end of this post. For now, I’ll zoom out to identify three main challenges that emerged – things that you, tomorrow’s marketer, need to do to take your career and this profession to the next level:

  • Step up your partnerships with geeky colleagues.
  • Create possibilities with content technology.
  • Make content that makes a difference.

Want to take on these challenges? Here’s a peek into what it takes.

As always, thank you to all attendees and sponsors for joining us, and thanks to my colleagues on the CMI editorial team – my extra eyes and ears – for their input on this article.

Step up your partnerships with geeky colleagues

A lot goes into creating content that combines the wonders of technology with human capability in a way that powerfully supports an organization’s goals – in short, intelligent content. While we marketers must help lead the way, we can’t do it alone. We need to prepare ourselves to work with at least three types of colleagues who don’t exist yet in many companies: content strategists, content engineers, and data scientists.

Create content that combines technology’s wonders with human capability, says @MarciaRJohnston. #intelcontent Click To Tweet

Here’s a quick take on each role:

  • Content strategist – a person who advises organizations on all aspects of treating content as an asset, including “planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content,” according to Kristina Halvorson’s well-known definition
  • Content engineer – a person who sets up an organization’s content-delivery systems
  • Data scientist – a “business analyst on steroids” who “wrangles data sources into something that can be used for business intelligence,” as ICC speaker and content strategist Buddy Scalera puts it

‪‪Create possibilities with content technology

While the future of content technology is sometimes described as a clash of people vs. machines, with artificial intelligence poised to eliminate our jobs, ICC speakers emphasized the opportunity to build a future of people plus machines. Several speakers, in fact, drove home the point that we’re the ones – marketers and business strategists, not the IT folks – who need to lead the way in our organizations.

Yes, I’m talking to you. You who don’t feel ready to lead the way. This challenge is not about being ready. It’s about jumping in before you feel ready, taking on questions, creating things, and learning as you go.

It’s about creating the future.

Ready or not, we are all competing in an algorithm economy – or “algo economy,” as ICC speaker Chuck Parker referred to it. The algo economy includes fascinating, inspiring things happening with intelligent content in forward-thinking companies where marketers, content strategists, content engineers, and data scientists work together to produce results.

Here’s a sampling of what we heard at the conference:

  • IBM’s Pavan Arora updated us on how the artificial-intelligence agent Watson is revolutionizing the analysis and delivery of content in more and more industries.
  • The Washington Post’s Sam Han shared insights into how the newspaper is automating aspects of news reporting to create accurate, compelling, and timely content at a volume that would be impossible with a human-only staff. (Read more about this below.)
  • LinkedIn’s Katrina Neal urged us to explore our content-related data, to base our decisions on evidence, and to become our own “head of experimentation.”

Explore your content-related data to base your decisions on evidence, says @katrina_neal. #intelcontent Click To Tweet

  • Wil Reynolds of Seer urged marketers to take advantage of Google’s big-data-driven autocomplete dropdowns to quickly discover the most common questions related to the topics your organization is – or should be – addressing.
  • Paul Roetzer, the creator of the Marketing Artificial Intelligence Institute (who had everybody tweeting “AI is the engine, content is the fuel”), helped us appreciate that machines can discover big stories hidden in data.

Artificial Intelligence is the engine, content is the fuel, says @paulroetzer. #intelcontent Click To Tweet

  • IBM’s Andrea Ames reminded us that content automation is in its early stages and that now is a good time for marketers to “get in.”
  • Joe Pairman, Val Swisher, Noz Urbina, James Mathewson, Cathy McKnight, and others created a chorus of “No more content blobs!” The need for structured content strategically tagged with appropriate metadata came through in talk after talk.
  • Ryan Bell gave example after example of virtual reality as a tool for creating powerful story experiences. “Make your mark. We’re entering a renaissance of storytelling. VR needs you.”

Here’s one example from the many we heard about. The Washington Post has been creating some mind-blowing possibilities for the use of technology in scaling up its news reporting without sacrificing excellence. Its teams have developed an “intelligent, automated storytelling agent,” which they affectionately refer to as Heliograf, a name that combines “heliograph” (a message-sending device) and “graf” (“paragraph” in journalism lingo).

The @washingtonpost is creating mind-blowing possibilities for use of tech in reporting, says @MarciaRJohnston. Click To Tweet

Editors in the Post’s newsroom have worked closely with data scientist Sam Han to test and monitor the newspaper’s automated content processes and outputs. Staff journalists take pains to make sure that machine-generated content meets editorial standards for accuracy and readability.Heliograf-example-machine-generated-content

As the Post has experimented with algorithms that enable timely, personalized news updates at an unprecedented scale, many behind-the-scenes lessons have been learned. Trust in automated content has been hard won among the journalists. Sam and his team started small and worked up to computer-aided coverage of such massive events as the Olympics and the United States presidential election.

You may be thinking, “That’s all well and good for The Washington Post. We don’t have a Sam Han at my company.” Right. Most of us don’t. Here’s the thing. Many of your colleagues don’t know that people like Sam exist.

So what can you do? Raise awareness within your company of the potential that others don’t see yet. Share what you’re learning. Think creatively. Consider the kind of possibilities that your company could create by experimenting with content technology in your own powerful ways.

Step up the difference your content makes

In addition to getting tight with our geeky counterparts and getting creative about future uses of content technology, a third challenge came up often and with passion: Marketers must focus not on output but on outcomes.

Content must have an impact – for our businesses and for the world – or it’s not worth bothering with. And automation, done well, multiplies the difference our content makes.

Content must have an impact, or it’s not worth bothering with, says @MarciaRJohnston. #intelcontent Click To Tweet

Here are a few examples of ICC speakers who touched on this theme:

  • Chuck Parker urged content professionals to “have a big reason for doing what you’re doing” and “make a big, big, big difference.”
  • Andrea Fryrear walked attendees though how to use Agile methodology, which helps marketers prioritize the stories that have the most impact.
  • Buddy Scalera talked about choosing content metrics that assess changes in audience behavior – real behavior, not clicks.

Choose content metrics that assess changes in audience behavior — not clicks, says @BuddyScalera. #intelcontent Click To Tweet

  • Carlos Abler described a mobile app – Aponjon (“the dear one”) – that millions of Bangladeshi mothers are using that is helping reduce maternal and infant morbidity.
  • Katrina Neal mentioned the coupling of content and philanthropy, citing, for example,
  • Robert Rose, Theresa Regli, Ryan Bell, Chuck Parker, and others reminded us that however much value machines may add to our content, our audiences still need all the human wisdom, emotion, and empathy we can muster.

How can content make a difference for businesses?

What are some ways that content can make a difference for your business? This slide from Carlos Abler’s talk shows many types of value content can add:


Click to enlarge

How can content make a difference for the world?

As for ways that our technology-amplified content can make a difference in the world, a number of ICC speakers gave examples. Some came from Ryan Bell’s talk. Ryan showed us how virtual-reality technology puts people in others’ shoes, creating a potential for much greater impact than other modes of storytelling. This slide shows members of the United Nations wearing VR headsets, vicariously experiencing what life is like for kids in Syria.


As much as automation and data are transforming our work as content professionals, we can’t let tools and numbers distract us from what makes our content worth scaling up in the first place. In what may have been the most retweeted quotation of the conference, Robert Rose made the point this way: “Don’t get so wrapped up in the data that you forget the story.”

Don't get so wrapped up in the data that you forget the story, says @Robert_Rose. #intelcontent Click To Tweet

So when people ask what you do, don’t say, “I make content.” As ICC made clear over and over, what you make – what we all need to make in bigger and bigger ways with the help of technology – is a difference.

What can marketers do right now?

If you feel daunted by all this talk of intelligent content, you’re not alone. It’s a lot to take in. And this article merely scratches the surface.

You might wonder where to start. How can we non-experts get ready to put machines to work for our organizations so that our content can make a difference?

In wrapping up his talk, Paul Roetzer suggested the following three types of action:

  • Evaluate repetitive, manual marketing tasks that could be intelligently automated.
  • Assess opportunities to get more out of your data. For example, consider how data might enable your organization to discover insights, predict outcomes, devise strategies, personalize content, and tell stories at scale.
  • Consider the artificial-intelligent capabilities of your marketing technology, and explore the potential of emerging AI solutions.

Ready? Of course not. Still, get set. Go!


A note left behind on a table after Chuck Parker’s talk sums up ICC as well as anything could: “If you’re going to be replaced by a bot, at least be aware of it. Make yourself irreplaceable. Stay current. Be a visionary.”

Tomorrow’s trends-in-the-making are calling you to action. How are your teams preparing to take advantage of the algo economy? How are you thinking about innovating with content technology in your industry? What “big, big, big” differences are you committed to making with your content? Please tell us in a comment. Help us all create the future together.

See you at ICC next year!

Have you noticed that our Thursday posts focus on topics related to content strategy and intelligent content? Those are the topics dearest to my heart, the ones I focus on here at CMI. To get our latest updates specifically on these topics, subscribe to our weekly Content Strategy for Marketers e-newsletter. I especially appreciate CMI Chief Content Adviser Robert Rose’s stories and insights in this newsletter every Saturday. From what other subscribers tell me, I bet that you will, too. 

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Marcia Riefer Johnston

Marcia Riefer Johnston is the author of Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them) and You Can Say That Again: 750 Redundant Phrases to Think Twice About. As a member of the CMI team, she serves as Managing Editor of Content Strategy. She has run a technical-writing business for … a long time. She taught technical writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University and studied literature and creative writing in the Syracuse University Masters program under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @MarciaRJohnston. For more, see Writing.Rocks.

Other posts by Marcia Riefer Johnston

  • Noz Urbina

    I just wanted to chime in to say that this was, in my opinion, the best ICC ever! Thanks for the great summary post. It was a tall order fitting 3 amazing days into one article.

    • Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Noz, Thanks for your note. It was a tall order summarizing this conference. It helps to have such an observant editorial team. Thank you for your part in making this year’s ICC so rewarding.

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