Higher Ed Takeaways From Confab 2011: The Content Strategy Conference

Content and cake at Confab

Content and cake at Confab

Last week Meet Content attended Confab: The Content Strategy Conference. We joined web content professionals from around the world to talk content and eat cake. (Seriously, our host Brain Traffic was not kidding when they said the days of content and cake were coming — the subsequent sugar highs were not just metaphorical.)

To our delight, higher ed was well represented (check out our higher ed Confab Twitter list). In fact, organizers had to double the number of higher ed lunch tables on day two. Higher ed is embracing content strategy. It was exciting to see colleagues taking a leading role in defining the discipline.

Joe Pulizzi, co-author of Get Content, Get Customers, called the event a tipping point for content strategy. This is particularly true for higher ed. As Diana Lowry from the University of British Columbia said, “There are a lot of us in higher ed that are really interested in focusing on content — yay, finally.” Here’s what she and other higher ed attendees took away from Confab:

Now, let’s share some of our favorite takeaways from the cake party — er, conference:

Say No to Silos — The Web Is Multidisciplinary

We are all creative problem solvers. Relly Annett-Baker
  • Content, design and development all need a seat at the table early on. People need to break their entrenched work habits and treat the web as a collaborative process. "We are all creative problem solvers," said Relly Annett-Baker of Supernice Studios. Relationships are half of the content strategy equation.
  • We need to break down the barriers between departments. Narrowly focused content goals can’t solve institution wide content problems.
  • "Content strategy is change management," said Karen McGrane of Bond Art + Science. We highlighted this idea from McGrane in a recent On Topic link-blog post, discussing the role of web professionals as change management specialists. A lot of what web professionals do is help people adapt to electronic publishing and better use the web more effectively. It’s important to recognize and embrace this responsibility to make content work in higher ed.
  • The content strategy conundrum: "…your content person is down there and your content problem is up there," said McGrane. This is a huge issue for higher ed. How do content professionals solve content problems from the ground up?
  • The content strategist, said Max Greenhut and Prateek Sarkar of Disney, is like a wookiee — a "gentle co-pilot" who thinks at both the overarching narrative level and the more granular content element level, ensuring shared progress toward the goals at hand through design, development and launch.

Make Your Context Flexible

Adaptability is the key to a sustainable content strategy. Melissa Rach
  • Melissa Rach of Brain Traffic described adaptability as the key to a sustainable content strategy. We need to plan for content to take new forms and to be delivered in new ways while maintaining relevance and meaning.
  • Erin Kissane, author of The Elements of Content Strategy, said, "Give your content legs." Safeguard against isolated content that can’t be shared or consumed by broader audiences. But choose your content delivery methods carefully: "Bad delivery choices kill great content," said Kissane.
  • Technology won’t save your content. Kissane also talked about how we can’t stay ahead by focusing on the latest technology. Rather, we need a content plan that accommodates new technology.
  • Rachel Lovinger outlined some of the technical components that go into making your content "nimble," or able to 1) travel freely, 2) retain context and meaning and 3) create new products. "Nimble content" could serve as a good topic of lunch conversation with your resident web developer.

Think Through Your Content Creation

If you don’t know why or what you need to communicate, how will you know if you succeed? Margot Bloomstein
  • Margot Bloomstein reminded us that before we fill in a single cell of a content audit or draft our first blog post, we need to define our message architecture — a "concrete, shared terminology" defining the qualities we seek to convey. "If you don’t know why or what you need to communicate," she asked, "how will you know if you succeed?"
  • Ann Handley, co-author of Content Rules, reminded us to "embrace that you’re a publisher." Content, she said, provides an opportunity to connect with customers in a significant way. In providing several examples of this, she noted two from higher ed: the content created by Boston University’s dean of students Kenn Elmore and Brock University’s "If You Can Walk and Talk" video.
  • Angela Colter outlined three helpful (and low-cost) methods of evaluating the effectiveness of your content: readability formulas, usability testing and a cloze test. (She also wrote about these techniques in a recent article for A List Apart.)

Put the User First

Think first, write second. Ginny Redish
  • In her opening keynote, Kristina Halvorson said that part of the urgency for content strategy comes from the need for multiplatform content distribution amid increased demand by users for content when, how and where they want it. "We’re screwed," said Halvorson. "Our content’s not ready for that."
  • In her presentation on creating vibrant, compelling copy, Ginny Redish reminded us that content is a conversation mediated by technology and initiated by the user. The users’ needs and goals should shape our copy, so "think first, write second."
  • In likening the design process to storytelling, Kim Goodwin called the resolution of the user’s story a "silo buster." "You’re talking about someone’s complete interaction with your brand from start to finish," said Goodwin. "That will span multiple devices." The best way to ensure a satisfying resolution? Design from the user’s point of view, not the org chart’s.

A Change Is A-Comin’

While Confab brought together hundreds of talented people doing great work in their fields, the event was not a congratulatory celebration for a job well done; rather, it was more like a project kick-off meeting. The project? Making content strategy a must-have for the web, not a nice-to-have.

In higher ed, where organizational culture can be even harder to budge, making content work is no small task. But judging from the large number of energetic, committed and talented higher ed content folks we met at Confab, we can tell change is a-comin’.

Were you at Confab or did you follow #confab on Twitter? If so, what were your takeaways? What else do we need to think about?

Photo by briancain / Flickr Creative Commons

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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.

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