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Demystifying Content Strategy: Key Takeaways From Intelligent Content Conference 2016


With all the complex content problems marketers face, our way forward sometimes seems mysterious. Content strategy holds promise for demystifying the things that we can’t always picture; it helps us understand how those things will get us there. That’s why this year’s Intelligent Content Conference – the only conference that focuses on content strategy for marketers – embraced the theme Bringing Meaning to the Mystery.


Famous fictional detectives were the stars of the Intelligent Content Conference 2016 – Bringing Meaning to the Mystery – posters.

Of course, meaning isn’t an easy thing to bring. As presenter Wendy Stengel put it in her talk’s title, “constructing meaning is bloody work.” To bring meaning that means something, you need to have a lot of conversations, maybe even some arguments. Whether you’re nailing down the meaning of a word, a content plan, or an enterprise, discussions get political. People get emotional.

And that’s good. Because if we don’t care about bringing meaning to our work and helping our colleagues and customers make sense of that work, we may find ourselves out of a job. As Robert Rose, our chief strategy officer, noted in his keynote address, we can’t afford to get so busy creating content that we fail to look up. We have to pick up our heads, look ahead, and clarify the meaning of what we’re doing so that we can create a path worth following.

We have to keep sharpening our ability to think strategically about content.

In support of this concept, a number of subthemes emerged from this year’s ICC talks. This article gives you a sense of some of them as presented by our editorial team, with a special thanks to Marcia Riefer Johnston.

Before I go into detail, I want to thank all of the attendees and sponsors of the conference, held last week in Las Vegas, for making the week such a success. OK, now on to our subthemes.

logoAcrolinxBlack_new_March2016THANKS TO ONE OF OUR SPONSORS:

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Technology in itself solves nothing

Technology – that mysterious bundle of things that puts the “intelligent” in intelligent content – deserves credit for many seemingly magical things we do with content. It helps us deliver the right content to the right people at the right time. It helps us make our business processes more efficient. It helps us do many powerful things with content: aggregate it, syndicate it, mash it up, reuse it automatically, deliver it across channels.

If not for the technology-driven Internet, Andy Weir told us in his closing keynote talk, his self-published story The Martian (whose rise in Amazon’s best-seller rankings captured the attention of Random House, whose book sales captured the attention of 20th Century Fox, whose movie rights caught the attention of actor Matt Damon and director Ridley Scott, whose movie captured the attention of the Golden Globes and Academy Awards) would not have captured anything beyond his circle of friends.

But technology alone brings no meaning to the mystery.

Any technology decisions we make as content professionals must be based on sound strategy. “Technology is not an answer. It’s just a conduit,” Kate Kenyon said in her presentation. “A big content management system requires talent. How much tech do you need?”

In a day-long, content-modeling workshop led by Cleve Gibbon and Kate, technology’s role didn’t even come up. It’s not that technology is unimportant. It’s that, as they pointed out, “The content model comes first.”

Similarly, when Andrea Ames spoke on measuring the effectiveness of content, she said bluntly, “We’re not talking about technology in this session.” She wasn’t saying that technology doesn’t matter. She was saying that making good business decisions – the strategic part of the effort – has nothing to do with technology or tools.

Takeaway: When you make content decisions, lead with strategy. Let technology follow.

When you make #content decisions, lead with strategy. Let technology follow says @joepulizzi #intelcontent Share on X

Treating content as a business asset isn’t easy

To think like a content strategist is to think like a business strategist. This observation by attendee Michael Andrews, moderator of the Google Plus Content Strategy community, came up in various forms throughout the conference.

For example, in his keynote talk, Robert had a lot to say about the importance of treating content as a business asset – emphasis on “business.”

During his session, Matthew Grocki reinforced this point using terms any accountant would love: “Without content strategy, content is a depreciating asset.”

Without #contentstrategy, content is a depreciating asset says @mgrocki via @cmicontent #intelcontent Share on X

What does it mean for marketers to make the most of content as an asset? Kate put it this way: “To design content as an asset, design it for a particular business outcome and decide how to assess its performance.”

The concept is simple. Unfortunately, as most marketers know, assessing content performance in a way that makes sense is tricky. Metrics that are easy to come by (“likes,” shares, etc.) often tell us nothing of value. The only measurements worth pursuing are those that help answer questions of value to the business.

“Start with the end in mind.” Andrea said. “What answers are you looking for? Look for numbers that can get you there.”

After you have the numbers, the question becomes, what will you do with them? If you’ve ever seen a content team collect mountains of data and then do nothing useful with it, you’ll nod your head at what Andrea said next: “If you’re going to measure content performance, use the information to improve something.”

Takeaway: For each piece of content, have a business goal, a measurement plan – and a commitment to using the measurements – to help the business improve.

Personalizing content can earn you friends – or enemies

If you aren’t personalizing your marketing content (beyond “Dear Sam”), you’ve probably wondered whether you should. The answer is: It depends. Personalization – delivering different content to different audiences – is not for everyone. Personalization is complex and expensive. Before you go to all the trouble, make sure that you have a business case.

As Cleve and Kate put it in their workshop, “If you’re going to personalize, have a good reason, a clear goal, and a manageable plan.”

If you’re going to personalize, have a good reason, a clear goal, and a manageable plan. Share on X

Personalization can backfire. In her keynote talk, Karen McGrane warned of the dangers of making assumptions about people based on information you can glean from their devices, like time of day or location. For example, she was traveling when the Google home page asked if she wanted the page displayed in Hebrew. “Google, you’ve known me for all these years,” she told the ICC audience. “Besides my location, what makes you think I suddenly want to read Hebrew?”

Personalization also can backfire when people perceive it as disturbing. You recently bought a gift for your uncle – a pipe, say – and find ads for pipes on your Facebook page invasive. To avoid creeping people out, make sure that any personalizing you do is aimed at helping or delighting people.

For example, in my welcome address, I mentioned the personalized videos that Nike created for runners based on their data. Nike used wearables data to send over 100,000 custom videos directly to their best customers.

One attendee who works for a cruise line said she was taking home new skills that would help her company personalize its website content for people planning cruises for families, singles, or couples.

I have to believe that that kind of personalization, based on personas, would help and maybe even delight customers.

Personalization is sometimes defined as targeting content not to personas (as in the cruise-line example) but to individuals. In her talk, Ardath Albee pointed out that this type of personalization is beyond the reach of 99% of organizations. She suggested that for most, especially those of us in B2B organizations, targeting content to personas is a more feasible way to increase our ability to get the right content to the right people at the right time.

Takeaway:  If you can personalize your content in a way that people will appreciate, and if you can justify the expense, plan it and give it a try. Otherwise, save yourself the headache.

Content modeling is a cheap, helpful tool

Several presenters talked about content models, which are simply drawings of the relationships between a set of content types. In Cleve and Kate’s content-modeling workshop, attendees reviewed a variety of approaches, including the box-and-line example shown here.


Click to enlarge
This content model shows the relationships among content types that a company like Netflix would have.

The topic of content modeling – a practice to which Andrea referred in her keynote talk as a “secret sauce” – is too big to cover in detail in this post. Here are the main things to know:

  • Content models are simple. You could draw them on napkins.
  • They can take whatever form the team finds helpful.
  • They help people across departments see how the organization’s most important content types fit together.
  • They help people make – and then communicate – strategic decisions about content.

Content modeling isn’t a phase. It’s an ongoing part of the care and feeding of an organization’s content. If you do it, make a sustaining plan.

You don’t have to model your content – unless you’re personalizing or single sourcing. Still, even if you do it only for yourself, sketching out your content models may help you better understand what’s going on, see things you could be doing in a smarter way, and share your ideas with colleagues.

Takeaway: People who get paid to think strategically about content can’t say enough about the benefits of sketching content models. If you haven’t tried it, grab the nearest napkin.

Effective content helps customers through their journeys

“Before you make content models, you have to understand your key personas and their journeys.” This observation from presenter Noz Urbina reflects another ICC subtheme: The importance of providing content that supports key points in customer journeys.

As Andrea put it in one of her session slides, “Effective content moves customers successfully through their journey.”

Effective #content moves customers successfully through their journey, says @aames via @cmicontent Share on X

Presenter Tim Walters suggested that we identify “hot spots” or “moments of truth” within customer journeys. He quoted Lavrans Løvlie, “It’s crucial to identify and select the hot spots that really affect customers’ experience, both positively and negatively.”

We content professionals can’t (and shouldn’t try to) provide content for every conceivable point – every moment – of every possible customer journey. But we do have a mandate to figure out which key customer journeys – and which key moments within those journeys – require the help that content can give.

Takeaway: Your customers have an infinite number of journeys (things they want to do) involving your brand. Figure out which of those journeys – and which moments within those journeys – you could support with content in a way that significantly helps your business. Does that content already exist? If not, make it.

Restructuring your content? You may need to restructure processes and departments, too

Well-structured content requires well-structured organizations. Kate put it this way: “Old production processes won’t deliver the benefits of new structured content. You need a plan to change your planning.”

Old production processes won’t deliver the benefits of new structured #content, says @kate_kenyon Share on X

For example, silo team structures can work against cross-functional content goals. Not all bosses take kindly to sharing “their” content creators with other departments. As Andrea Fryrear noted in conversation, some strategies require that content creators be organized by product team instead of by department or by channel.

Kate pointed out that content marketing teams are typically organized by channel, which can limit their ability to plan for cross-channel efficiencies.

Agile marketing is one approach that addresses the need for flexible organizational structures – an approach that Andrea Fryrear and Jeff Julian discussed in depth. Andrea has written about this topic for CMI several times. A good place to start is with this recent post that answers some common questions.

Another topic related to organizational structures is digital governance, which Lisa Welchman and Kristina Podnar discussed in their workshop. As Lisa explained, digital governance is a “framework for establishing accountability, roles, and decision-making authority for online publishing and development.” In short, companies need to identify who is responsible for doing what so that content teams can focus on the work at hand instead of getting stuck with process issues and figuring out (over and over) who needs to do what.

Often, Lisa explained, all it takes is one look at a website to reveal what state of chaos someone’s team or organization is in. Organizations that provide a defined, logical content experience, typically have well-structured teams that work together well.

Takeaway: To take your customer experience to the next level, look not just to the structure of your content but to the structures and processes of your organization.

Customer experience rules

While many marketing events focus on customer’s needs, the vernacular has been shifting. Instead of simply thinking about our customers, the conversations revolve specifically around experience. And while it may seem like a subtle difference, looking at everything we do under the lens of experience helps make what we do customer-focused, as Robert reminded us in his keynote talk.

Customer research continues to be imperative. Ardath’s session on creating customer personas gave attendees a straightforward, digestible approach to this perennial topic. (Stay tuned – or subscribe to our Content Strategy for Marketers newsletter – since we plan to cover this topic in more depth.)

Another session that reinforced this point – everything needs to help create better experiences – was Wendy’s talk on taxonomy. Even something as seemingly simple as carefully choosing the words we use for metadata tags can go a long way toward helping customers find and understand the content they’re looking for.

Takeaway: If you are struggling to put your customers at the center of all you do, reframe your thinking to focus on experiences.

You are the future of business

I’ll close with the theme that Robert shared to kick off the conference:

The future of content is your ability to change the business … You are the future of business.

The future of #content is your ability to change the business. You are the future of business via @robert_rose Share on X

Those of you who educate yourselves and evolve will be the leaders of tomorrow’s businesses.

Takeaway: Look beyond your skills and expertise to consider the larger business impacts of content so that you can help drive your organization – and your own career – forward.


Did you attend ICC? We would love to learn what your biggest aha (mystery-solved) moments were.

Do these topics interest you? Subscribe to our Content Strategy for Marketers newsletter for weekly write-ups on ICC presentations and more. You can also purchase the Post-Show Video pass and catch them by signing up. Access is good for one full year and contains video, audio, and slide capture for the Main Conference sessions.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute