Confab Higher Ed 2013: Session Recaps, Day 1

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From November 11-12, more than 350 individuals representing more than 170 institutions gathered in Atlanta for the inaugural Confab Higher Ed. Alaina Wiens of the University of Michigan-Flint and Meg Bernier of St. Lawrence University share their recaps from some of the 33 speakers who shared content strategy knowledge at the event.

Keynote: “Content/Communication” with Kristina Halvorson

Much like other big higher ed buzzwords such as “responsive design” and “social media,” the term “content strategy” wasn’t prevalent until within the last decade, Interestingly, what all three of these share in common is the need for a cohesive, well-thought out strategy, yet often content is dropped in at the 11th hour after all the designing is done or after “the right times to post to social media” have been established. This often happens without much data on what our users and audience need and want in terms of content.

If anything, Kristina let everyone know in the room that just by being there, we are doing it right. We’re asking the right questions (“Why are we doing it this way?”) and challenging people to think about content much earlier in our processes and tie it back to our institution’s goals and objectives.

But as we all know, content strategy involves people. Oftentimes when people hear us talking about content governance and workflow, they think we’re saying, “It’s not your content that’s terrible, it’s you.” I think this is because writing is personal. It’s not a math problem, it’s something you’ve created. So when someone else is telling you how to do it differently, it’s hard not to take it personally. For me, the biggest takeaway was about how we need to empower people who are responsible for content.

—Meg Bernier

See tweets from this session on Storify »

Keynote: “The Back of the Napkin: Explaining Complexity with Simple Pictures” with Dan Roam

In his keynote presentation about using pictures to explain complex ideas, Dan Roam shocked the room by announcing that the people in the world of Harry Potter do not exist. In fact, author J. K. Rowling may have been able to so convincingly write them because she started her creative process with drawing a map. Other famous map drawers include J. R. R. Tolkien, Margaret Atwood, and Ronald Reagan.

Dan explained that people are “walking, talking, visual processing machines,” and that “we can solve our problems, clarify our thinking, with pictures.” Six visual processes work together to help us interpret what we see: who/what, how many, where, when, how, and why.

—Alaina Wiens

See tweets from this session on Storify »

“Being Understood: Why Higher Ed Needs Plain Language” with Laura Creekmore

An interesting statistic: 43 percent of the adult U.S. population has a basic or below-basic level of literacy. This means we need to be careful that our attempts to be the expert don’t result in being misunderstood.

In her session, Laura Creekmore outlined the importance of meeting our audiences where they are in order to effectively communicate, and offered some advice for simplification and clarity.

  • Use in-site analytics to learn the language of your audience.
  • Avoid overly complicated terminology.
  • Aim for sentences of 10 to 15 words.
  • Use bullets, active voice, consistent terms, and positive perspective.
  • Put the information your audience is looking for front and center.

“The most important thing to remember is the person on the other side of the computer,” Laura said. Good advice in terms of writing, but applicable to almost every aspect of our work.

—Alaina Wiens

See the presentation slides from this session »

“Make Content More Social” with Ma’ayan Plaut

One of the most memorable parts of Ma’ayan’s session was how she opened it: with a photo of herself, wearing a party hat. She wears them when meeting with people across campus. “People would talk about this hat well after our meetings, which is exactly what we want for our content. You want people talking about your ideas and content for days and weeks after.”

There’s a big distinction between content for social media and social content, and Ma’ayan’s session drove that point home. Publishing content shouldn’t be platform-specific and we should be publishing it on the spaces we own before sharing it elsewhere (“What if Facebook shut down tomorrow? Does the content that lives there live anywhere else?”).

One of the best examples of this? Ma’ayan had to send an email to her classmates about an upcoming reunion at Oberlin. Instead, she turned to BuzzFeed because that’s where she knew her community was and the content would be easily shared.

—Meg Bernier

See tweets from this session on Storify »

“The Squishy Future of Content” with Dave Olsen

At the opening of his presentation, Dave Olsen admitted, “I’m the geek who’s coming here to talk about content and process.” Informed by his knowledge of web programming and his expertise in project management, Dave suggested a new way to frame our web projects to better meet the demands of the evolving web.

He urged us to consider making our processes future-friendly, not future-proof. For example, as we consider responsive web design, we should remember that the content itself has different properties—not every piece of content can flow fluidly from one type of template to another.

Dave also offered a new sort of “spiral” workflow where all the components of a process—content, wireframing, layout, and design—occur concurrently in a circular flow of work and information. He called it “content choreography.” It sounded magical.

Ultimately, future-friendly principles of web design, such as breakpoints and layout for different views, should be based on content, not device. This is why working with actual content and revamping our web design process is so important. “Layout informs content. Content informs layout. Both inform architecture. … Modern web design can’t be done by one person. Find help, be helpful, and reboot.”

—Alaina Wiens

See the presentation slides from this session »

“All Aboard: Meeting Internal Users Where They Are” with Corey Mahoney

Corey Mahoney began her presentation by saying something that everyone in the room could relate to. “I was sure I was doing it wrong, but I also knew the work had to get done. It seemed important.” And so she got to work, and learned a few things along the way about getting people on board.

Finding internal users to help with a web project like a redesign can be challenging. “Web” work is historically associated with IT departments and technical knowledge, and educating users by providing structure and guidance can make all the difference.

Humanizing the process can help people accomplish their goals. As content strategists, we should look for ways to lighten the cognitive load for our users, be helpful to our colleagues, and be inclusive. Corey suggested that in meetings we remind people of what’s already happened, define all of our terms, and explain clearly what will happen next. “Have the conversation you need to have with the people in front of you, in their language. That’s content strategy.”

—Alaina Wiens

See tweets from this session on Storify »

“The Forgotten Channel: How Email Communication Fits Within Content Strategy” with Brendan Mayer

Is email really going away? Brendan says no way—and he brought plenty of data to back him up. Did you know that 87 percent of internet users check their email daily and that email is the number one activity performed on smartphones? Neither did I! So why aren’t we talking about content strategy and email together more often?

Brendan used a case study to illustrate how email has changed over the past decade—an admissions e-newsletter he helped put together for the University of Denver. At first, the content blocks featuring faculty profiles, snippets from students and parents were well-received, but at some point the open and click rates dropped. At the same time, mobile opens were increasing dramatically among all targeted users (6% in 2009 to 39% in 2011!) and the email wasn’t optimized for mobile.

They looked more closely at the data to see what people were clicking on. Content that performed well included dates and deadlines, applications, visit opportunities and video. Content that didn’t do so well included university news, student profiles, alumni spotlights and faculty biographies.

Armed with the data, they retooled the e-newsletter and have had incredible success. Email needs a content strategy, especially in higher education—the education sector has the highest mobile open rate of any industry. We need to focus on our audience’s priorities and cater to their needs instead of our institution’s needs.

—Meg Bernier

See tweets from this session on Storify »

“I Don’t Have Your Ph.D.: Working with Faculty and the Web” with Amanda Costello

Working faculty into web content processes can be challenging. Faculty members are specialists in their fields. We, the staff and content strategists, are admittedly generalists. But bridging the communication gap between these two groups is critical.

Amanda Costello shared four steps to success: 1) Meet everyone; 2) Conduct solo meetings, starting with a faculty member you know you can work with; 3) Listen to what’s being said and what’s not being said; and 4) Recognize that you’re the pro, with tools and data to offer.

Amanda also offered some additional advice that applies with all people, faculty or no. Picking our battles and being respectful go a long way to build and earn trust. Being accessible helps. And we should remember that we’re all working together for the benefit of our users.

—Alaina Wiens

See the presentation slides from this session »

Read recaps of sessions from day two of Confab Higher Ed

Photo by confabevents

About Meg Bernier

Meg Bernier is the assistant director of editorial services and social media at St. Lawrence University, where she spends her days (and nights) figuring out the best way to tell her institution’s story. She is responsible for the university’s presence on social media and is one of the content strategists for all admissions and alumni publications as well as St. Lawrence’s website.

About Alaina Wiens

Alaina Wiens is the web content strategist at the University of Michigan-Flint, where she works to ensure the university’s story is told effectively through the web and social channels. She helps departments across campus think strategically about their online communication, and is project manager for large-scale web projects within University Relations. Alaina is also the “driver” of #strategycar, a weekly Twitter chat designed to encourage strategic discussion and brainstorming for higher education professionals.

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