By Sue Stoney*

Do you handle content? The first time I heard that question, I was at an ad:tech conference in San Francisco sometime around 2010, maybe 2011. I thought, “Well, yeah, sure…I’m on my company’s web team, and I handle the content for that.” But my understanding of content was very narrow.

What I Thought Content Was

The only “real” content I thought I managed was information individual traders could use irrespective of whether they bought my company’s products or services. I was writing and/or editing free newsletters and articles the visitors to our marketing websites could have – either outright free (for nothing, no strings attached) or in exchange for their contact information, so my company could market to them.

I saw a clear demarcation between those articles and newsletters and the information these traders would need to figure out which of our products and services would fill their trading needs (“marketing”). I saw a further distinction between our marketing information meant to entice prospective purchasers and the information that would help them use our products and services once they purchased (from a functionality perspective and in light of the discipline of trading their asset class their way). I was wrong on both counts.

How I Came to Understand Content in a New Light

Enter Scott Abel (aka The Content Wrangler). I attended his January 16, 2013 in-person presentation – “How to Avoid the Content Strategy Trap” sponsored by the Society for Technical Communication at San Francisco State. As he talked, I wrote…feverishly. My notes are full of phrases like…

  • Structure formalizes a content model
  • Structure enhances content usability by providing visual cues, leading to increased user confidence
  • Consistently structured, human and machine-readable content is easier to find for everybody –the content manager, user, searcher
  • Structure is the foundation for auto-delivery of content through syndication, providing the predictability required to plan for and re-purpose content
  • The right content has semantic value…is a marriage of style and content “chunks”

Suddenly, I stopped writing. Scott was talking about…oh, my, could it be? Yes. He was describing STOP, a method of proposal development I learned at the beginning of my writing / editing career in the 1980s under the tutelage of Jim Tracey – the man who invented this method in the 1960s at Hughes Aircraft in Fullerton, California – and my new boss at the time, Walt Starkey, who worked with Jim to perfect this method, collaborate with the engineers at Hughes to write more organized proposals (with a high win ratio as a result) and spread the word to the wider proposal-writing world.

I didn’t have to scribble any more notes during Scott’s presentation because all the words (the semantics) came flooding back to me from my days writing proposals at Hughes and putting those words into action:

  • Content modules with identifiable components
  • Proposal topics defined by thesis statements
  • Graphics and tables that backed up the claim of the thesis
  • Outlines and storyboards that tracked the topics even before writing began and supported collaboration by many proposal team members all along the way through to proposal delivery

I was finding the Velcro in my experience on which to stick what Scott was saying so that it made sense to me. For the first time in my professional life, I understood – not only that, yes, I do handle content – but that I had been handling content throughout my career as a writer / editor – and before that as a teacher. What’s more, I had lots to learn about how the key to managing content more effectively lay in something called “intelligent content.”

After the presentation, when I asked Scott how he came to know about the STOP proposal development process, he offered me the opportunity to learn about intelligent content by sending me a free ticket to the conference. And that’s how I came to be a participant in Intelligent Content Conference 2013, held February 7 to 8, 2013 at San Francisco’s Mission Bay Conference Center.

How My Conference Participation Blew My Mind and How It Just Might Blow Yours

When I caught sight of Scott coming out of the main auditorium on the second day of the conference, I told him my head was about to explode. He said, “Mine, too.” I replied that it wasn’t just that…

The event was the best organized conference I had ever attended

A matter of learning new things within a context to which I could relateAn opportunity to meet other people across all types of organizations (government, academia, medical facilities, big business, little business) at different points along the continuous progress learning curve that is the creation and management of intelligent content

Two days packed with keynotes, presentations, mini-workshops given by people who not only knew what intelligent content is but how to relay what they understood about it so that it translated into intelligent content about intelligent content – for me

The conference was all those things and one more…an avenue for seeing that everyone handles content all the time. During those two days, I was surrounded by and involved with people participating in conversations grappling with questions, most of which seemed to start with:

How does my academic community transmit textbook information to college instructors and students?

How can my company find relevant content being worked (and re-worked) in separate departmental silos and make it find-able and fit for use (and re-use), so we don’t re-invent the wheel

How will search engines (and the people who use them) find my products and services?

And the biggest question of all, one I thought was an “either-or”:

  • Do I provide content or products and services?

At the end of the second day of the conference, the answer to that last one, it seemed to me, was “both” – not “either-or” but “and.”

I plan to attend Intelligent Content Conference 2014. Not because Scott paid me to write this article (he didn’t). But because I know I’m still in that learning curve mentioned earlier about how understanding intelligent content can make me a better writer / editor / teacher. Because it’s in my best interest.

If you come, too, perhaps we’ll meet and talk about, well, content intelligently developed and delivered and how that makes for a better world – yours, mine and ours.

*Sue Stoney is self-employed as a writer | editor | business writing coach. Find her on LinkedIn.