Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Buying and Selling eContent 2008: Soaring Highs, Crashing Lows

The Marriott Camelback Inn in Scottsdale, Arizona has been the site of the Buying and Selling eContent conference for nine years, now, usually a most beautiful spot that lets your cares melt away so that you can focus on good people, good food, a bit of sun and great presentations. But Camelback was not its usual self this year, stuck in the middle of a major construction project that had the revitalized conference halls in good shape but much of the rest of the facility in turmoil. Rumor had it that Bill Marriott himself showed up over the weekend and flipped his lid when he found out how messed up and behind schedule the project hd become.

This turmoil seemed to reflect the unsettled nature of this year's Buying and Selling eContent conference, an event that brought together some very good speakers overall but which had some crashing lows to go along with its resounding highs. Attendance was off from last year's healthy showing but still had a good collection of both content vendors, technologists and institutional content buyers. Some of the presentations were downright brilliant and spot on: Y.S. Chi, Vice-Chair of Elsevier, gave a fantastic assessment of the content industry, underscoring his belief that the content industry was going to have to move towards providing experiences and not just content.

I had to smile at Y.S.' use of experience as a focus for content's value, having made experiences part of our definition of content five years ago: "Information and experiences created by individuals, institutions and technology to benefit audiences in venues that they value." I posted it on Wikipedia not long thereafter and there it remains in somewhat modified form (my thanks to Wikipedians who helped me to refine it). Y.S. demonstrated briefly what appeared to be a bog-standard MediaWiki platform that Elsevier is using to enable qualified medical practitioners to develop a medical knowledge base - an important step forward for Elsevier to compete with other scientific publishers experimenting with social media and one which I am sure will not be their last foray into social media as they begin to focus on building knowledge community experiences from the expertise available in their client base.

But this was counterbalanced by Andrew Keene, the self-professed "Anti-Christ of Silicon Valley" whose keynote rant on the "Cult of the Amateur" repeated his performance of vivisecting social media at the SIIA Information Industry Summit earlier this year. On Content Nation I go into this presentation in more detail, but the nut of his argument - or shtick, as the case may be - is that people creating social media are a bunch of monkeys typing on PCs who should step aside to let the established media be the professionals in charge of content creation and curation. I imagine that the doctors contributing to Elsevier's wiki project would take exception to that label - as would many professionals of significant insight who contribute to social media publications globally.

The thing of it is, though, is that there were more than a few people at the conference who were glad to side with Keene's point of view. Certainly there is a need for professional content creators and curators but overall we should be glad that so much additional value is being created through social media. If there was anything that I found to be particularly disappointing and disturbing at the conference it was the number of people who were not only invested in traditional content buying and selling models but who were on some levels downright hostile to emerging and highly valuable concepts such as social media. I was very pleased with the presenters in my own panel who tried to explain how Jigsaw, ECNext's Manta and the Near-Time social media platform were creating mission-critical business information, but for some reason their leading-edge efforts seemed to be greeted with some skepticism.

The low point for this "rear guard" action, though, was the Special Libraries Association-sponsored panel, in which Janice Lachance, CEO of the SLA , led a well-presented but utterly stale list of complaints about content vendors that could have been written from ten-year-old slide decks. I know Janice, and she's a wonderful person who has great insights, as do the people who presented: I expected far better. I think, though, that it's really not a matter of personalities or presentations but more a core factor with which SLA members need to wrestle.

Having come through many years of upheaval, in which more than a few SLA members have seen their careers shuffled from one part of their organizations to another, it seems that too often SLA members have been disconnected from much of the "experience"-oriented generation of content in their organizations that drives much of the value of content for their patrons. If they allow themselves to focus too much on licensing agreements their careers are going to be tied ever more more closely to their vendors, whose main revenues continue to come through licensing content. As long as there's content to license then they have a job, might be one argument, which tends to chain their organizations to ever-weakening vendor business models.

I don't think that this unfortunate symbiosis really has to be the full truth of the matter, and I know that for many progressive SLA members it is far from the truth. Certainly Bill Noorlander's panel on win/win relationships helped to show some shadowy outlines of more progressive thinking. But the vendor "dance" on licensing has been stalemated for far too long, a stalemate that's been dragging down both the vendors themselves as they drown in complex licensing deals that slow down and reduce sales and service, but as well their clients as they try to justify pricing schemes that seem to have little bearing on the ROI required by the line managers who need to justify content acquisition costs in their budgets.

Put simply, it's time to get the lawyers and the fiefdom-builders out of the way and to come up with a new and more highly automated regimen for content licensing that will meet the increasingly "just-in-time"demands of institutional content buyers. The manufacturing industry came up with computer protocols that helped to automate materials acquisition from suppliers nearly two decades ago: why has it taken the publishing industry so long to invest in similar techniques for enterprises? Perhaps increased competition from new sources of valuable content will stimulate their thinking. In the meantime I think that it falls upon the SLA to become far more visionary and to start participating in the development of standards for automated licensing already being developed commercially to help their institutions to use premium content far more cost-effectively as they adapt to the ROI requirements of institutions trying to survive in a real-time economy.

Stephen E. Arnold gave a well-polished and insightful presentation on the state of the search industry's place in the content game as old models for charging for content come up against the ability of search engines such as Google creating ever more sophisticated ways to aggregate and organize content. As Steve pointed out the enterprise search engine market is booming but failing to pull together all of the content resources that their clients need to create the most valuable and comprehensive content collections that their clients need. At one surveyed institution two thirds of users were dissatisfied with their search engines. Steve sees federated content services as one key solution to this problem, but in the broader picture with a new global audience for content growing up around devices such as mobile phones and an ever-wider array of publishing services from technology providers it's not clear that solving the role of search engines in their marketing is going to be that much of a solution for any content provider. There are far too many things in motion to which publishers simply haven't reacted.

I don't mean to short-change the other good panels that the conference had, which all provided some great examples of how best practices are being applied today for content, but I was not taking my usual by-the-blow notes in the middle of launching Content Nation, so some of my recollections are now sketchy. Suffice it to say that most presenters provided some good examples of how content value is being created more from value-add services such as better content organization. Collexis, for example, demonstrated powerful new ways in which content categorization can be used to discover people's expertise in highly specific areas that help to accelerate research in medical and research fields. I think that Collexis CMO Darrell Gunter's best example of this capability's power was when one scientist discovered something that he never knew - the fellow in the office next to him was working in the same area in a key line of research!

Mike Orren, President of Pegasus News, uses user-contributed content and networking to enable marketers to target offers that have a more than 60 percent response rate and zero opt-outs in some instances, driven by very careful matching of opportunities to audiences based on content analysis. And Cengage Gale demoed an online book club that helps people to drive book downloads and sales based on building communities of book enthusiasts.

But whatever the particular focus of the conference's presentations, the same theme seemed to pop up again and again: the increasing polarization of publishing inside and outside the enterprise based on the rise of social media. There are some publishers such as Karen Christensen's Berkshire Publishing Group that try to balance both very traditional forms of publishing while exploring the development innovative social media outlets. But for many publishers the need to balance traditional revenue streams while investing in social media technologies, which push their business model ever further away from their core expertise, is proving to be quite challenging.

Social media's rise seems to be just as challenging to content experts in enterprises, who see the rise of social media content uncurated by information professionals as a challenge that stretches their expertise that much further from being interfaces to licensed content providers. Jeff Cutler, now an independent consultant, pointed out in comments how the rapid rise of Answers.com's WikiAnswers online Q&A community is one example of how social media is creating powerful "social knowledge," aggregations of expertise that are increasingly competitive with traditional sources and likely to eclipse them in time. Steve Arnold pointed out how Google's Knol project, meant to assemble reference articles on key topics, is as much about creating definitive topic mapping from social media to empower its search engine as it s about attracting people to social media itself. Any way you look at it, the elephant in the room was Content Nation - the ability of millions of people to influence others through highly scalable online publishing.

Social media is more than just a generational divide: it's a cultural divide as well. While I might be a bit greyer than the average Twitterer, somehow I was one of those willing to cross the divide and to agree that social media has become the emerging center of publishing, much as the Web itself became that center several years ago prior to many publishers being willing to accept that fact. But unlike their initial transition to the Web, social media challenges both publishers and institutions to come up not only with new skills but entirely new inventories: you can adapt news, book, magazine and even audio and video content to the Web but there's nothing in most publishers' quivers that can be repackaged into social media.

Social media certainly helps to enhance the value of many publications and in many instances can create premium content to drive very valuable new content products and services. But in most instances what we're seeing is the rise of a new parallel content industry whose rise in a medium now familiar in some ways to most publishers has caught them yet again by surprise. The divides created by social media are far more profound in many ways than the divides created by the Web. Most people of an employable age have an email account, perhaps even a few. But there are few in senior positions in the publishing industry today who have a Facebook account or even seem to want to have one - while younger people may not even see an email account until they get their first job.

One familiar and vocal person at the conference tried to downplay social media as "nothing new." And she was right, of course: social media has been with us for thousands of years. But the scale of social media's influence creates a social divide that seems to be leaving many publishing experts flat-footed in their responses to the marketplace. That's a problem that future iterations of this conference will have to address more fundamentally. The events industry, the social knowledge industry, the technology industry and the media industry are merging in ways that are helping to create a new real-time knowledge economy that cannot be responded to easily by many.

I am hoping that the next iteration of this conference will bring back both some more healthy crowds and more of a focus on the value propositions that people are seeking in the content marketplace. From buyers, I hope to hear more about how they are creating value from content in their enterprises and what they need to do to achieve ROI from internal and external content. From sellers, I hope to hear more about how they are leaving old licensing models behind to find new ways to respond to the real-time needs of their marketplaces. And from the Information Today, Inc. staff I hope that we get a return to a commitment to the thoughtful assembly of topics and presentations that drive people to more provocative thinking about the future of the content industry. Let's hope that both Bill Marriott and conference attendees will return to Camelback next year to find both a familiar place and a place transformed by a new outlook on its mission.
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