This is the year of Content. For sure. It’s used so much and by so many people, it must be, right? But I hate the word. I really do. Because it has been boxed into a kind of limitation that is dangerous.

As a wordsmith, I hate that Content is used primarily as a web/digital/mobile “strategy.” But Content as an industry, the way it defines itself, well, that’s the picture of growth.

I attended two content conferences this year and both were some of the best conferences I’ve ever attended. Here’s the thing about content strategists: they sweat the details. And so they put on great conferences.

The indefatigable Joe Pulizzi of Junta42 was behind this year’s Content Marketing World, held last week in Cleveland. I came away with some great insight into, well, content marketing, and where it sits in the world, and also with some insight that Joe might not appreciate.

Well, actually, he would. I know he would, and I think content marketers overall should, lest they push themselves into a corner and leave the real world forever. Some takeaways:

Content is fascinating

I learned a new word at Content Marketing World. Fascinate. I knew it before, of course, but Sally Hogshead spoke of the key to getting content read: Fascinate your audience.

This was the first presentation and it speaks to the high quality of the conference overall that the presentations didn’t let up. Sally spoke of the “emotional triggers” that lead to increased audience engagement and “commodity value” – meaning this works for a presentation, a tube of toothpaste or your words.

In a world where our attention span is down to nine seconds, the key to attention is through fascination. And you can be fascinating with content, something that can shortcut the decision making process. I would argue that storytellers (of all sorts) and advertisers have kind of known this for years. But I’ll get to that in a second.

Content has hit the real time

The real difference, to me, at least, between “old” and “new” media isn’t delivery or metrics. The real difference is what David Meerman Scott called “real time content marketing.” Meaning the 24/7 of the internet is what has changed everything.

He’s right. He showed examples of marketers creating content within hours of events to make themselves a part of the overall story, or, as David cleverly calls it, “the second paragraph.”

That is, what does the news story say in the second paragraph after it’s laid out the facts in the first? This was smart, smart stuff, but David has literally written the book on marketing for the digital age. I expected nothing less.

Friend the Muppets

Andrew Davis from Tipping Point Labs talked about “harnessing the power of participation creation,” which seems like a lot of words for what it is: borrowing an audience to build your own.

He recalled how Tony Bennett’s career was floundering until his son (doubling as his manager) had the great crooner singing with everyone from K.D Lang to the Muppets.

He leveraged those audiences to create a second act for his career. Brands leverage others’ stories as well to combine two disparate audiences into one new one. Simon Kelly of Story Worldwide said much the same thing when he said, “The goal of content marketing is to create customers that create customers.”

It’s the story, stupid.

Story, story, story. As a writer I know this but it’s great to hear it told to hundreds of people at a time. And there were hundreds of people at this conference. Over 600, actually.

Sally Hogshead looked at story from an emotional point of view. Director and podcaster Kevin Smith then spoke twice – once at a club and the next day at the conference itself – where his storytelling abilities (which are tremendous) were living examples of what he was trying to say.

Smith’s career as a podcaster, on top of his career as a filmmaker, is a direct result of an audience connecting to a story well told. Social media strategist and author Jay Baer noted that podcasts are the most underutilized medium in the world and Kevin Smith’s success in this field should be an example to everyone.

Be honest

Beyond authentic and genuine, the real buzzword of the conference was “honesty.” I heard “honesty” and “trust” (again, Sally Hogshead has trust as one of her seven emotional triggers) over and over.

Marcus Sheridan, the CEO of River Pools and Spas said, “Tell the truth. Your customers can handle the truth.” Kevin Smith said much the same thing. Truthtelling is becoming an interesting part of storytelling on the internet because the sheer amount of information means honesty cuts through the noise.

Because our bullshit detectors are off the charts. Really.

Content marketing world universe

It wasn’t until the closing hours of Content Marketing World when I heard someone say something about non-digital media. Michael Pranikoff of PR Newswire said, “traditional media is not dead, it’s just changing.”

And a little later Ann Handley and CC Chapman, co-authors of Content Rules, noted that “content” isn’t an “instead of” it’s an “added to.” Meaning it doesn’t live in a bubble but in a real world where TV is still king, people read magazines and books (whatever the format), they listen to the radio and even, yes, read newspapers.

Taking all of that in, we start to appreciate the “content is everything” mantra. But that’s not what this conference, or Confab, was about. It was about the internet and digital marketing. It was not about multiplatform marketing. It wasn’t about multiplatform anything.

It was about a silo and this silo is becoming dangerously out of touch with the real world. My good friend (and truly one of the smartest guys out there) Mitch Joel has also fallen into this trap by saying “content is fleeting.”

Someone on Twitter noted this meme and said “Try telling that to Homer” and he wasn’t talking about the yellow guy from Springfield. The “content” crowd is painting itself into a corner.

This has lead to a kind of groupthink that is dangerous. It’s an ironic thing for this crowd – a crowd that has been on the “outside” of traditional marketing and content so long that there seems to be a kind of bunker mentality seeping into the discourse.

The other thing: Content people think they’ve invented everything. So suddenly the idea of the “influencer” has become a “super fan” and “editing” has become “curation” and “writing” has become…“content.”

Here’s the thing: the content people haven’t invented anything. They’re just using a new medium – a transformative medium, yes, even a revolutionary one – to reach an audience. But we’re still just playing with words. And words have been around a long time.

Sometimes it feels as if the content crowd isn’t playing in the wider world – and that’s wrong because the work they do is too important for that kind separation.

I’ll say this: The panda risks extinction because it can only eat one kind of wood. My good friends in the content industry, smart people all (with gusts up to brilliant), might face the same risk if they don’t come out of their digital forest every once in a while. Just to see the forest for the trees.