The 10th annual Buying and Selling eContent conference took place under sunny skies in Scottsdale, AZ, this week. The event brings together buyers and sellers of business information that drives decision-making within enterprises and supports research within institutions. There’s no doubt that the economic climate is putting pressure on the industry. But although budget cuts are certainly shaping 2009 packaging tactics, the industry faces far bigger challenges that will still exist when the economic pendulum swings back the other way. We spent much of the conference wondering when – and if – participants will make the commitment to innovation, roll up their sleeves, and begin the difficult work of transforming their businesses.

Anthea Stratigos, co-founder and CEO of Outsell, gave a stirring yet practical opening keynote. She used Outsell’s highly-regarded and well-researched annual outlook to explain why the industry isn’t simply experiencing a blip. She strongly reinforced the fact that things will be different on the other side. This isn’t news to industry watchers and participants. The need for fundamental change in the way the information industry works has long been acknowledged. We experienced the same buyer/seller tension at the NFAIS conference in February, where the “them versus us” attitude was right out there in the conference theme: “Barbarians at the Gate? The Global Impact of Digital Natives and Emerging Technologies on the Future of Information Services.” Gilbane’s own study on Digital Magazine and Newspaper Editions: Growth, Trends and Best Practices (May 2008) looks at some of the important issues in those markets. The current worldwide economic situation simply brings the need for revamping the industry into even clearer focus. Sellers want the buyers to acknowledge the value of the content they provide and be fairly compensated for it. Buyers want the sellers to provide that value – and more – for a lot less money. And everyone wrings his or her hands over new entrants into the workforce who expect to have access to quality content for little or no money, with tools that are easy to use and freely available.

At the same time, there exists a wealth of technologies that can be brought to bear to address these problems and enable industry transformation. The BSeC program provided good exposure to some of these, including dynamic publishing capabilities, structured content creation, software-as-a-service platforms that enable low-cost experimentation, social computing tools, and cloud computing services. Although there was lots of twittering going on (see #bsec09), the gulf between the buyers and sellers in the audience and the technologies and services being discussed on the speaker platform felt quite wide at times. As analysts trying to fulfill our market education mission, we found ourselves wondering how to narrow that gap.

One answer lies in the willingness to experiment and then report on successes and failures. Marty Kahn from ProQuest described insights emerging from Project Information Literacy, the goals of which are to “understand how early adults conceptualize and operationalize research activities for course work and ‘everyday use’ and especially how they resolve issues of credibility, authority, relevance, and currency in the digital age.” Kahn showed the current working version of  Summons, a Google-style interface for library data. It’s meant to aid students who perceive a higher value of information offered by a library, but are stymied as to how to get at those resources with quick, easy discovery. See a video on YouTube. John Girard from Clickability highlighted successful experiements by some of the company’s customers in paid-content markets, enabled by Clickability’s SaaS WCM solution.

Another answer lies in leveraging experience in other domains. While experiments get started and begin to show early results, the information industry can look outside itself to other content practice areas and seek experience from which it can learn. One such domain is technical documentation. One of the break-out topics for informal discussion was flexible content and how it can play a role in the transformation of the industry. It seemed like an early learning conversation for a number of the participants. The technologies and practices for creating, managing and publishing flexible content have been delivering value to technical documentation organizations throughout the world for some time. The information industry can leverage this deep expertise. 

The tools to innovate are readily available. The know-how exists in other industries and content-centric business practices. The necessity to transform the industry is apparent. We’ll be watching to see who steps up to embrace the change and experiment with the business models that can drive a transformed industry.