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: “Five Ways Digital Strategy Can Drive Excellence in Collaborative Content” with Perry Hewitt
“Good content has to be relatable and relevant to the world that it lives in,” says Perry Hewitt, chief digital officer at Harvard University. More and more today, it can be difficult to determine who owns what piece of digital content, but we can create great things together where those blurred lines exist.
In her presentation, Perry shared tips for assembling the right team of content strategists to get this job done—people who love what they do, who bring different perspectives, and are committed to communicating. These digital consumers have mastered identity, consumption, curation, and creation.
We shouldn’t dictate to our audience, but rather collaborate with them to meet their needs. We should be obsessed with Day Two, thinking about how to ensure the sustainability of our efforts. We should also consistently measure with clear intentions of how the results will be applied. Not the least important bit of advice: “Have some fun!”
Keynote: The Mobile Content Mandate in Higher Ed with Karen McGrane
This was my first time listening to Karen McGrane speak. From start to finish: Mind. Blown.
Her talk was about disruptive innovation and technologies, but for me it was so much more. This was the first time I’ve ever thought beyond making sure our websites and content were mobile-friendly because people had smartphones and because responsive design is a thing. This was the first time I realized it goes so much deeper than that.
I’m going to list the statistics that blew me away the most:
- 91% of American adults own a mobile phone.
- 56% of American adults are now smartphone owners – 79% of Americans 18-24, 81% aged 25-34, and 69% aged 35-44 own a smartphone.
- Millions of Americans do not have personal computers. 20% have no internet access. 35% have no internet at home.
- 43% of black Americans only/mostly use Internet on phone. 60% of Hispanic Americans. 50% of young adults.
- Mobile phones are not seen as a luxury, they are a staple of life.
- The mobile-only user – 34% in America – will only ever see your website on their phone.
This is no longer about having a mobile website. This is about accessibility and making sure everyone has access to our information. I think many people in the room already knew these things but I had never thought about it this way and it has dramatically changed the way I plan to approach projects and content moving forward. A revolutionary way to end Confab Higher Ed!
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“Your Content Doesn’t Have to be Boring” with Stephanie Hay
How often have you read something and not understood what the company or organization was really trying to say? We do this every day on our own websites, and Stephanie Hay’s session was the kick-in-the-pants to make us all think about how many times we’re “crafting sentences” instead of actually communicating. We need to choose real-person words that are easy to understand. “Stop writing fluff. Don’t say nothing and take up space doing it,” she said.
Usability is not about us. It’s about how easy the content is to find and how easy it is to understand. Findability is felt by users. How do we feel when we can’t find something on our own websites (and we’re supposed to know them best!)? One of my biggest takeaways was when Stephanie touched on our site’s searches. Those logs are filled with trigger words and clues into what our audience wants and needs from us.
It’s not always easy to remember that the user is coming to our site for answers and in the context of their own lives. (Do you have my degree? How do I apply?) Building user experiences around the most sought-after content will create a better experience for the user and more conversions on our end.
“Students, Services, Silos & Sanity: A Content Transformation Story” with Lisa Maria Martin
Lisa Maria Martin chronicled the creation of a “one-stop shop” for student services on the web, which required the integration of previously siloed content and staff. Like many other speakers throughout the conference, Lisa emphasized the importance of working with people—those content contributors who know the audience, know the content, and are crucial to long-term success.
Lisa suggested talking to people on the front lines of the student services departments to find out what audience/customer needs are. Beyond that, though, we must also convince these people to join our web efforts.
“When we think about our content contributors as well as our content consumers, we build a better experience,” said Lisa. How do we do this? By listening, being empathetic, getting people together, being informative, gathering and sharing data, and embracing small victories.
“Transmedia Storytelling in Higher Education” with Felicia Pride
Transmedia storytelling is telling parts of the same story on different platforms and using the platforms that are best suited for message. Felicia reminded us that storytelling is happening in real-time, right now, and that our audience is often creating and publishing content more quickly than we are.
She had attendees think about the kinds of content they create. Is our audience part of the story and do they help us shape it? How can they become co-creators in our narrative? Felicia reiterated that if you can’t tell a good story, nothing else matters.
Ultimately, our stories are about people and about audiences. We need to develop stories and projects that are customized for our stakeholders. “Myths are public dreams. Dreams are private myths,” wrote mythology expert Joseph Campbell. Felicia concluded her talk, “Ultimately we want to connect our myths with their private dreams.”
“CMS Myths in Higher Education” with John Eckman
Content management, regardless of the system or platform used to wrangle it, is far too complicated for there to be a silver-bullet solution. In his presentation about content management system (CMS) myths in higher ed, John Eckman explained that the biggest contributor to disappointment with a CMS solution is an expectation gap.
John emphasized the need to manage expectations. A CMS demo is carefully controlled and may not be a complete picture of the future experience. It’s easy to get so excited about the tools that we forget the tools are meant to accomplish something. Student workers are great, so we should help them build their skills and learn from them, but realize they come and go.
There is no one true platform. We shouldn’t aim to be site factories. Also, above all: Systems don’t manage content, people do.
See the presentation slides from this session »
“Know Thyself: Your School’s Message-Driven Content Strategy” with Margot Bloomstein
To help us craft our communication goals so that we can be more strategic with our content, Margot Bloomstein urged her audience to consider message architecture—“a hierarchy of communication goals that reflect a common vocabulary.” We must define the things that differentiate us from our competitors.
How do we develop these terms? By engaging in a conversation, encouraging debate, finding the disagreements, preventing “seagulling,” forcing prioritization, and encouraging ownership and investment. We can then promote new content types based on the results.
Message architecture can also serve as a starting point for evaluation. Once we define our content standards, we can determine whether content is appropriate, relevant, current, and reflective of our communication goals. Armed with our message architecture, we can begin to conduct more thorough content audits.
In cases where we need to audit with constraints, Margot suggested choosing strategic samples and limiting the depth of the audit. From there, we can apply our rubric, prescribe new content, promote a new editorial calendar, and consider CMS modifications if they’re needed.
See the presentation slides from this session »
“Managing Student-Generated Content” with Ashley Budd, Cornell University, and Erin Supinka and Tanner Newcomb, Rochester Institute of Technology
What’s better than going to a higher ed conference and being able to listen to students talk about their experiences with content strategy? Ashley, Erin and Tanner enlightened us with the lessons they’ve learned in managing student-generated content.
Ashley was ahead of the curve when working for RIT, creating a blog program in 2007, a Facebook and Twitter presence in 2008, private Facebook groups in 2009, and in 2010 RIT Students , a project in which Ashley recruited students to join a social media team within the admissions office and drive content creation themselves.
Team captains Erin and Tanner lead the two parts of the team: content and innovation. Most of the students operate under the ‘content’ category—writing blogs, taking pictures, and shooting video that captures the essence of the RIT experience.
The best part? RIT has embraced the importance of RIT Students and its role in recruiting, so much of their social content is front-and-center on the admissions website. Biggest takeaway? Find students who love your institution to work for you. You can teach them the social media side later.
“Small is Big: Changing Your Institution, Little by Little” with Sara Wachter-Boettcher
The refrain of higher education, as described by Sara Wachter-Boettcher, includes stakeholders, committees, control, denial, politics, and homepage features. However, despite these challenges, the consensus of the audience for this session was that we love what we do, where we do it, and the people we serve.
Our charge as content strategists is to look at our projects as inroads to broader organizational goals. We must bring clarity to projects. We must normalize the work we do and make it accessible to everyone we work with. Sara encouraged us all to empower others to lead and help them make connections to help them further their work with the web.
“We’re not masterminding a plan and delivering it,” she said, “but starting smaller and working through together.” We can’t classify ourselves as the “web team” and others as “not the web team.” After all, content strategy work is specialized, but not special. We all have to do our part to bring others along.
“Armies of One: Navigating the Ups and Downs of One-Person Offices,” with Ron Bronson
If you’re an Army of One, chances are you don’t have a ton of time to read a whole blog post. So allow me to catalog all of Ron’s awesome one-liners that will inspire you just as his session did.
On the conversations you should have with your supervisor: “I don’t need you to do my job, but I will need you to go to war for me sometimes.”
On making time to develop a strategy: “Close your door. Book a conference room so no one can find you.”
On being responsible for not one, but many jobs and getting them all done: “Sure, you can wear more than one hat, but you can’t wear more than one hat at a time.”
On being you: “Be your own biggest advocate. And that can be hard for people who don’t want to brag. But you do need to educate.”
On the work you do and the legacy you leave: “A successful strategy outlives you. It continues after you leave. It’s sustainable.”
On working with people: “Sometimes the best thing you can do is let other people feel important.”
On gaining support for ideas and projects: “Pick your battles and find your allies, both at your institution and across higher ed.”
View the presentation slides from this session »