Where’s the Content?

What's with the first week of June? After being cooped up for months with nowhere to go, four interesting conferences all happened the same week. I wish I didn't have to choose between Book Expo America (Chicago), National Investor Relations Institute (Phoenix), Special Libraries Association (Nashville), and Securities Industry Associations (New York). But choose I must: Short of chartering a Gulfstream G-IV jet or cloning, it would be impossible to do all four shows. After thinking through logistics, I ended up going to the first half of SLA and then executing a strategic getaway to attend the last half of SIA.

While juggling multiple shows in the same week is a pain for attendees, it's an absolute nightmare for companies showing products and services in the exhibit halls. For many, the annual conference circuit offers ideal opportunities for meeting with existing customers and generating leads for new prospects. For major conferences, companies plan their exhibits, product announcements, speeches, and parties many months in advance. But when shows happen simultaneously, chaos is the order of the day in the marketing departments. The exhibits of companies I visited—such as 10K Wizard Technology, Economy.com, OneSource Information Services, and Thomson Financial—were first-class, despite the stress of showing at both SLA and SIA. I know many companies also hit NIRI and/or BEA at the same time too, including Information Today, Inc., EContent's publisher, which bravely exhibited at both BEA and SLA. (Note to conference organizers: I wonder how much revenue your shows lose from exhibitors or attendees who don't have the resources to do more than one conference in a week.)

Based on my unscientific buzz radar while stalking the show floors in Nashville and New York, here's the good news for the information industry: Our business is staging a solid comeback. Compared to the last several years, conversations on the show floors have become much more positive and upbeat. Excitement is back, budgets are up, companies are hiring, and econtent products and services are being purchased at a good clip. Many companies told me of brisk business so far in 2004 with one CEO actually saying he is "swamped." Good for us. Since the dot-com days, it's been dismal for many, and we all welcome this deserved upswing.

But other than improved business, what are companies talking about this year? Based on another decidedly unscientific measure—press releases from exhibiting companies—solutions and anything XML are hot. As pre-registered media for SLA and SIA, I received 47 press releases or media advisories from the two shows. While XML might sound cryptic, it has real meaning in our industry. But what's with solutions? Does using that word get a PR person some kind of special prize? More than half of the releases from SIA and SLA touted econtent solutions of some sort but precisely zero (at least that I received and read) were about actual content.

A number of interesting XML-based tools to deliver content into other applications were demonstrated or announced at the conferences. RIXML.org (Research Information eXchange Markup Language), a consortium of financial firms and information vendors that have joined together to define an open standard for categorizing, tagging, and distributing global investment research, hosted a panel at SIA with speakers from Bloomberg, Reuters, and Thomson Financial appearing on the same stage. EDGAR Online showed how its XBRL (eXtensible Business Reporting Language) prototype transfers data from the income statements, balance sheets, and cash flow statements of more than 12,000 public companies directly into Microsoft Excel 2003. Factiva demonstrated XML feeds that deliver content to portals and other workflow applications including the new Factiva Insight for Reputation powered by IBM WebFountain. LexisNexis announced partnerships to stream access to XML content into several third-party applications, and Dialog demonstrated its new DialogLink 4.0 XML output. I expect the trend towards making information services open and facilitating transfer of well-organized information from one application to another to continue.

But what about content itself? At SLA and SIA, I heard a great deal about technology, applications, and solutions, but I found very few exhibitors talking about the actual information that flows through their products. Unlike BEA, which is crawling with over 1,000 authors and hosts hundreds of book signings, the ability to meet people who actually create content on the exhibit floor is nearly impossible at SLA and SIA. While technology discussions were everywhere, finding someone talking thoughtfully about content was nearly impossible. As technology plays more of a role in integrating content into workflow, content itself has become systematically ignored by marketers promoting their wares. That's a shame really: after all, we're in the content business.