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Keys to the Intelligent Content Kingdom: 5 Conference Takeaways


“Managing content is hard. We tried it at Google & decided to focus on easier stuff, like self-driving cars.”

This tweet from Rebecca Lieb, attributed to an “ex-Googler,” was shared by Cleve Gibbon during his keynote talk the first day of this year’s Intelligent Content Conference (ICC) last week. The laughter in the room confirmed that many content pros identify with this summary of the complexity (and frustration) of trying to manage content.


This slide in Cleve Gibbon’s ICC keynote presentation set off laughter throughout the audience.

Every person I talked with at this year’s event is struggling to keep pace with the amount of content being created at work. Many sessions and hallway conversations touched on this challenge.

Good news – and many ideas – came from this year’s event. Of course, we’ll be talking about intelligent content and the complexities of managing all of this in the weeks and months to come on the Intelligent Content blog. For weekly updates, subscribe to our newsletter.

For conference highlights, read on.

The keys to the kingdom

Before I share my top five key takeaways from the Intelligent Content Conference, I would like to acknowledge the literal keys that I was privileged to take away: a set of giant wooden keys that Ann Rockley presented to me onstage as we kicked off Day One.


Ann Rockley presenting me with the keys to the Intelligent Content kingdom on the ICC stage as we kicked off Day One.

Ann had labeled each key with a large laminated card. (All those years in technical documentation were not wasted on Ann.) She read the labels out loud for the audience: “structurally rich,” “semantically categorized,” “automatically adaptable.” We all recognized these as elements of her well-known definition of intelligent content. What a memorable way to mark the passing of the conference’s ownership from the Rockley Group to the Content Marketing Institute.

Ann keys

The keys to the Intelligent Content kingdom include these three elements of intelligent content as defined by Ann Rockley: “structurally rich,” “semantically categorized,” “automatically adaptable.” For the complete definition, including three elements not identified here, see What Is Intelligent Content?

In fact, I had many key takeaways during the conference – too many to count. Here are my top five:

  • Treat content as a product, not a project.
  • Work backward from the experience you want customers to have.
  • Structure content – and teams – for intelligent outcomes.
  • Instigate change or follow fast (yes, you!).
  • Think big; start small.

Let me tell you some of the things I heard that relate to each of these.

Treat content as a product, not a project

Product, project: Does it matter which way we think of our content?  It sure does.

Several presenters, including Cleve Gibbon, stressed that content is a product that needs to be managed throughout its life cycle. It should not be a project that is completed and considered done.

Another speaker who touched on this was Mark Fries, Principal Strategic Marketing Manager at BMC Software. “You’re not launching a website,” he said. “You’re launching a hypothesis. You’re never done testing assumptions about what users need.”

In ongoing work with ISITE Design based in Portland, Oregon, Mark and his team are focusing on the most important sections of the site from a revenue point of view and optimizing them based on the ways users are interacting with the content. BMC Software has already seen a 67% increase in marketing-sourced pipeline for, and that has paid for the project many times over.

Similarly, Ardath Albee talked about how companies need to stop thinking about content as a campaign with a beginning and an end – and start telling stories that create a progression throughout the buying cycle. She said,

“The reason I talk about the continuum approach is that this is an ongoing conversation, an ongoing story-building exercise to help educate people about everything they need to know to make that decision to buy, hopefully from you. It’s about getting your expertise in the room, not about three touches and a sales call.

“A one-off piece of content is not helping companies … Good topics have longevity, and people don’t master them overnight. If you really develop your content well and you’re telling the story that people need to know, then it’s valid for a long time until that story changes.”

Work backward from the experience you want customers to have

Another key theme that surfaced in many of the sessions relates to customer experience. Scott Abel shared this stat: Three-quarters of brands think they care for customers, but only 36 percent of customers actually feel cared for.

Robert Rose added this: Only 23% of customers feel that they have a relationship with a brand (and that’s from any brand). “Are you wondering if your customers are in that 23%?” Robert asked. “They’re not.”

Are you providing the kind of experience that makes your customer want to be a part of your brand? And do you do this at every touchpoint: at the right place and right time and on the right device?

Cleve Gibbon stressed that we need to start with the experiences we want our customers to have and work backward from that. Content (and technology) decisions flow from that.

Here are some points from other ICC speakers who reinforced this theme of the importance of customers’ experience of content.

  • Over-optimization leads to sameness (Todd Wheatland). When business content is too much of the same thing, it’s easy to ignore. The brain responds to and remembers change. (Carmen Simon)
  • Build a few remarkable experiences. You’ll never scale to be in every channel. Don’t let the term omnichannel fool you – you don’t have to be everywhere. In fact, you can’t be everywhere. You do have to be where your customers are. (Robert Rose)
  • Creating more content doesn’t mean we can get content down more channels; you actually get less, because you can’t manage it. (Cleve Gibbon)
  • What’s the 10% of your content you want people to remember? Focus on that 10%, and make sure that it’s a memorable experience. (Carmen Simon)

Structure content – and teams – for intelligent outcomes

If there was one word that rang through the Hyatt at the conference, it would be structure.

On the one hand, content needs to be structured. This is a foundational element of the  intelligent content definition. In essence, content chunks cannot be tied to any format. As Rahel Bailie mentioned in one of her sessions, only when you have structured, unformatted content can you begin to prepare your content for the future.

In fact, the term future-proofing came up several times in the context of structure.

Cleve Gibbon – citing a Joe Gollner blog post published a few days earlier – pointed out that in order to lead to intelligent outcomes, structured content needs to have three qualities:

  • It must be raw. It has to be independent of formatting so that it can be used in any number of types of output.
  • It must be self-describing. It needs metadata labels so that computers know what to do with it to serve the business objectives.
  • It must be modular. Each component of the overall structure stands alone so that it can be mixed and matched in various ways.

raw-self describing-modular

This slide from Cleve’s ICC keynote talk identifies three qualities that structured content must have to qualify as potentially intelligent. It must be raw, self-describing, and modular.

Just as content needs to be structured strategically, so, too, do content teams. This question came up a number of times: How are you going to organize people to get all of the work done, especially with challenges and responsibilities that cross departments?

Instigate change or follow fast (yes, you!)

If you work for a mid-size or large organization, you have no doubt been frustrated with how tough it can be to make progress. Is too much of your time spent justifying what you need to do instead of doing it?

Instigating change is a challenge, but we must take it on.

Noz Urbina reinforced this point: “If content is not properly positioned in the organization then you can’t solve the people, process, and technology problems.”

As I mentioned in my closing remarks, I see a palpable shift: We can make change happen now more than ever because there is so much disruption. This is a new opportunity in the last six to 12 months for many. Now is the ideal time to do something new – or, as Robert Rose mentioned, to quickly follow someone who is doing something new. Revolutions happen when one person leads and when the first person stands up and follows and encourages others to do the same. Robert shared a three-minute video that demonstrated the importance of both change instigators and “first followers.”

Our organizations depend on us to be change leaders – and first followers.

Ahava Leibtag pointed out that the way you successfully instigate change is to tie it to business outcomes. “Executives care about one thing: Are the numbers at the bottom of the spreadsheet round and green? Start with the money. Find something that is hurting the bottom line. Fix that.”

Think big; start small

Many speakers agreed – we need to think big and start small. Examples:

  • In the health care roundtable, Ann Rockley said, “Start at a single point. Find the biggest pain point, and address that first.”
  • Cleve Gibbon reminded us that we need to get in there and get our hands dirty.
  • Rahel Anne Bailie suggested that we think about the ideal scenario and plan for it in a scaled-back way.
  • Mark Fries and Guy Bourgault talked about focusing on those sections of a website where conversion happens and optimizing them first. This is how they were able to have the biggest impact.

Robert Rose and Carla Johnson’s new book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing – which rolled off the presses just in time for conference-goers to pick up a copy at the book table – puts it this way:

“If we aren’t willing to start someplace and begin to experiment, we risk being left behind. New ideas, new platforms, and new media all matter. It’s not about grabbing the ship with both hands and trying as hard as we can to turn it. It’s about placing little bets and learning. It’s about trying little experiments and seeing what happens.” (p. 297)



Obviously at any conference, the takeaways can’t be summed up in a list of five or even five hundred. Did you attend the Intelligent Content Conference? If so, what were your key takeaways? If not, plan to join us at ICC next year!

A thanks to our editorial “ears on the ground”: Marcia Riefer Johnston, Karen Ronning-Hall, Carmen Hill, and Michele Linn. 

Title image courtesy of Joseph Kalinowski, Content Marketing Institute