Making Change at Confab Higher Ed 2014

Confab cake

If there’s Confab Higher Ed, there’s smart content—and tasty cake.

Last week, a bunch of smart higher education content professionals landed in Atlanta for the second annual Confab Higher Ed cake party. Er, rather, the second annual Confab Higher Ed conference.

More than just a project show-and-tell, the conference presenters used their accomplishments and experiences to touch on some of the pervasive themes that inform all of our work. These include trust, internal communication and collaboration, and how to continue improving and innovating amidst sometimes challenging circumstances.

We will update this post with a link to the complete list of published presentation slides when it is available. In the meantime, here are some of the sessions that resonated with us.

Build Trust and Understanding with Your Audience

Michael Freedman, Director of Editorial and Content at Stanford Graduate School of Business talked about showcasing faculty research in a compelling way. In discussing this, Freedman uncovered a fundamental quality of successful content: good storytelling. As higher education institutions, our mission is to share ideas—to teach. We need to “focus on stories that teach.”

Instead of falling victim to routine content creation that treats content as a task rather than a resource with purpose and value, Freedman challenges us to ask ourselves: “Is this going to help people? Is it going to explain the world better?” Let’s aim for an enthusiastic, “Yes!”

SUNY Oswego’s Tim Nekritz and his student worker Alyssa Levenberg shared their experiences creating and sharing "Alyssa Explains it All”—a video series geared toward prospective students. One of the most important lessons gleaned from their work is the importance of trust. Nekritz trusts Levenberg not just for her communications and technical skill, but in her ability to represent the institution accurately and in its best interests. There will be setbacks and mistakes, but it’s all part of a learning process. Another is the need to keep the big picture in mind. It’s not about pageviews or retweets, but rather how we are advancing the strategic goals of the institution.

This session continued the Confab Higher Ed tradition of featuring student speakers, which is extraordinary given our role as institutions of higher education and the significant role students play in helping us achieve our communications goals. Congrats and great job, Alyssa!

Penn State’s Robin Smail spoke about the importance of usability testing and iterative site evolutions. The greatest strength of her talk was in sharing multiple case studies from various institutions that illustrated how user testing can make or break the success of a website. Smail also emphasized the value of measuring (and reporting) the impact of site changes over time.

In recommending best practices for testing, she advocates bringing in stakeholders as observers, basing personas on observed data, establishing content priorities, and distinguishing yourself from your user. Amen.

Improve Internal Communication

As content professionals, we’ve been there. We do our homework, uncover content problems, find possible solutions. We’re ready to get things moving. We want to develop a content strategy and make positive change, but we’re stuck communicating the value of this effort to leadership who see other priorities more easily than a content audit. Amanda Costello, Lead Content Strategist at University of Minnesota has been there too.

Selling content strategy is a continuous process—we need to be prepared to make the case for quality content. Our ability to communicate value effectively also “lowers the cost of understanding,” whether your cost be time, scope, or money.

Costello aims to break down content strategy for internal stakeholders (“The internet is real and you have a role”) as well as our role ("I make sure the content on our site is useful for the people who need it”). By simplifying the purpose and value of content strategy and relating it to others’ work we can have meaningful conversations that make change happen.

John Eckman, CEO of 10up, talked about how content professionals can communicate and work with engineers and developers more effectively. Why is this so important? Because the advent of mobile, responsive web design, and adaptive content demands it. The various disciplines associated with making websites having folded in upon themselves, and we much change the way we work accordingly.

Some of his tips include establishing shared problems and shared goals, but also thinking of content as data and weaving content strategy throughout the development process. These changes are in the best interests of both content strategists and developers, as they make the development process more efficient.

Dave Olsen of West Virginia University delivered an important presentation that dove deep into the overlap between content, design, and development. Our websites will work best, he argued, if their designs are “stress-tested” with actual content and if the browser replaces Photoshop as the place where design happens.

Olsen explored the idea of patterns (which represent content, presentation, and mark-up) as one way of approaching this issue (and helping break down silos) and asserted the value of implementing content-based breakpoints in responsive designs. He also shared a great tool developed by the folks at Sparkbox, a content priority guide, that serves as a bridge between audit and architecture, and wireframes for specific page types.

Don’t Let “Perfect” Get in the Way of Progress

University of Rochester’s Lori Packer gave hope to those who feel that content strategy is daunting by exploring some “content tactics”—which by her definition are “things you can do at 3 o’clock on a Tuesday to delight a reader or viewer, reinforce an important message, or help another human get something done in this world.”

Packer’s four-step framework includes focusing on the things that matter (like livestreaming the events with the most demand, such as student music ensembles), doing those things really well (like the U of R’s LEGO-themed April Fools homepage), tell everyone about the cool thing you did (like Wayne State University’s Web Communications team blog does, or by winning awards), and measure the results (such as demonstrating the cultural penetration of content by including social stats as well as web analytics). In the words of George Washington, “Remember that it is the actions, and not the commission, that make the officer.”

Shelley Keith from University of Mary Washington defines governance as “making sure the website is working for the institution and effectively stewarding the resource.” Governance also supports both site users and site stewards, because only by attending to both populations can you have a successful website.

Keith’s idea of “non-invasive” governance, the topic of her Confab Higher Ed talk, takes into account what will work given available resources, organizational culture, and the small steps you can take to instill governance into existing processes. This can be justified by considering what opportunities you would have if your site were improved and what a lack of governance currently prohibits you from doing.

Break the Mold and Do Better Work

Doug Gapinski, Strategist at mStoner, talked about some of the most important—and often most neglected—pages on college websites: academic program pages. When prospective students open Google they search for areas of study, not schools schools. When they search for degrees in social work, they find academic program pages, not admissions pages, not college homepages.

Academic program pages are some of the top landing pages on college websites—many times they *are* our homepage. But, as homepages, how well do these landing pages answer users’ top questions, or represent the culture and values of our institution? Do people understand the value of learning at our institution? Do they understand the costs? Do they know what to do next?

Gapinski shares some valuable research and offers practical tips for improving program, major, and degree pages. If you haven’t taken a good look at these pages on your website, now might be a good time.

Content strategist Kerry-Anne Gilowey talked about the content tool everyone loves to complain about: CMS. They story doesn’t start that way, though. At the beginning, we are full of excitement and hope for our new CMS. It’s just after we implement it and people use it that we start to complain. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could select, customize, and implement a CMS that actually met our needs? Quite an idea, eh?

Gilowey shares her process for identifying CMS requirements, including considerations for information architecture, metadata, authoring and review, governance, analytics and reporting, and publishing and distribution. The right CMS cannot be chosen based on features alone. It’s not a question of whether a CMS *can* do something, it’s about HOW it does it.

To select a CMS that works, you need to know how content happens and how authors work at your institution. Selecting a CMS, like all content strategy efforts is an exercise in setting priorities and making compromises. Your CMS will not meet everyone’s needs perfectly, but like your website, with careful planning we can implement a CMS that addresses everyone’s needs and works for the best case scenerio.

Mike Petroff, Digital Content Strategist at Harvard University talked about social strategy. Or, as this higher ed rebel likes to call it: content strategy. He relates the core elements of content strategy [link] to social strategy to develop a plan that is “collaborative, scalable, and goal-oriented.” Bo-ya!

Among many of helpful tips, Petroff urges us all to “Stop. Breathe. Think bigger.” Don’t let yourself get stuck in outdated or ineffective processes or publishing mindsets. Think smart: What is the purpose of this post? What emotions will the reader feel?

Content tools like writing style guides and editorial calendars help us reach our social goals. Content governance ensures we have the roles, workflow, and tools to support and maintain our social strategy. In other words, “You should be able to take a vacation day without the worry that your social accounts will implode.” Now that’s a goal we should all aim for!

Confab Higher Ed Heads to New Orleans

Yep, that’s right! Confab Higher Ed 2015 will be in New Orleans. As you dig into developing your content strategy in 2015, consider submitting a talk proposal (by November 21) and sharing your smarts with us next year. Keep an eye on Confab Events for updates. Now the big question is: beignets, cake, or both?

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About Rick Allen and Georgy Cohen

Rick Allen has worked in higher education for over twelve years, helping to shape web communications and content strategy. As principal of ePublish Media, a web publishing consultancy in Boston, Mass., Rick works with knowledge-centric organizations to create and sustain effective web content.

Georgy Cohen is associate creative director, content strategy, at OHO Interactive, a digital agency based in the Boston area. Previously, she worked in content roles at Tufts University, Suffolk University, and her independent consultancy to higher ed, Crosstown Digital Communications.

What do you think?