Higher Ed Takeaways From Confab Minneapolis 2013

Kristina Halvorson at Confab Minneapolis 2013.

Kristina Halvorson wrapping up Day 1 at Confab Minneapolis 2013.

Last week, I attended Confab Minneapolis 2013. And it rocked. I was joined by an international community of content professionals to challenge our thinking and help advance the evolving discipline of content strategy. We also enjoyed a lot of cake.

As in past years, the higher ed community was well represented. If you missed the event, don’t fret. Confab Higher Ed has yet to come (more on that later).

Like many Confab-ers, I left Minneapolis feeling extremely inspired — along with a renewed sense of urgency for making meaningful change in higher ed.

Here are some of the themes that emerged.

Your Voice, Your Values

Last year at Confab, Kate Kiefer Lee from MailChimp said, “Content doesn’t just make people do things, it makes people feel things.” It’s these feelings that enable us to build meaningful relationships with our users — students, faculty, staff, alumni. Our community.

In her Confab Minneapolis 2013 talk, “Voice Lessons: Finding Your Company’s Personality,” Tiffani Jones Brown shared how Pinterest builds these emotional user connections with its voice. Brown described “voice” as your brand, your personality, your "vibe.” In other words, your communication style.

Of course, the big challenge says Brown is that “we don’t exactly own our voice…Getting your voice right takes a village.” Your institution’s voice is not defined by the PR and communications teams; it’s defined by your community at every touch point — through admissions policies, course descriptions, campus tours, career services, and so on. We have to own our voice and plan for using it effectively.

Owning your voice and using it effectively means understanding your institution’s values: Who are you? Who do you want to be? Being able to answer these fundamental questions will enable you to communicate with a voice that represents you.

Since your voice is defined in part by your community, Brown recommends looking within your institution: “You can’t overdub a voice on your organization.” How does your community talk about you? What is the “vibe” that defines you? Learn it and own it.

Less “Me,” More “You”

As a nice follow-up to Brown’s talk, Stephanie Hay talked about building trust with our users. We need to be careful with the words we use to communicate. The words we use need to be honest, up front and genuine. Anything short of that causes users to doubt our intentions.

"Stop using marketing words,” says Hay. “If you’d sound like a tool saying it to your mom, you probably sound like a tool.”

In order build trust, we need to build relationships with our users and give them a reason to care about who we are and what we do. We need to flip our messaging from “Me” to “You.” Want users to care about you? Use clear language and be up front about your value. “Users trust what they know,” says Hay.

At the end of the session, an attendee asked, “What if my newsletter really is award-winning?” In other words, what if “marketing words” are honest? Hay says you can still use these words, but first ask yourself, “What do my users care about?” If your users care that you have an award-winning newsletter — if that is relevant, useful information for your audience — then it’s appropriate.

Building trust with our users is hard. We need to be thoughtful about the words we use, making sure they communicate clearly and reflect the voice of our institution.

Invest in Relationships

A theme from this year’s conference, which may already be evident, is that as content professionals, we’re in the business of building relationships — with our audiences as well as our peers. Amanda Costello from the University of Minnesota talked about creating content with internal stakeholders — experts and specialists.

We need to put the same work into building relationships with internal content stakeholders as we do with our external audiences. This means listening to their needs and helping them to do good work on the web.

Costello says meet with people on their turf. Go to their office. Go to their meetings. Learn about what they do and how you can help each other.

Perhaps the most important skill for content professionals is listening. Costello talked about being an expert listener. Build working relationships. Build trust.

By listening, you not only build working relationships with subject matter experts, you also learn. Costello made a great point: Subject matter experts know your audience because they know your content. Learn from them.

Be Interesting

Melissa Rach, co-author of “Content Strategy for the Web, Second Edition,” explored the importance and value of interesting content — why you need it to capture people’s attention and get them engaged. Here are two of her ideas about making content interesting that really stuck out for me:

Get yourself interested

Most content professionals create content on numerous subjects — many of which may not be interesting to write about. Maybe you’re writing about a new faculty initiative or admissions FAQs or academic advising policies. Whatever the topic, take the time to learn about the subject.

The more you learn about a topic, the more interested you and your users will be in the content you create.

Find information gaps

There is a lot of opportunity on the web to create content that fills information gaps and encourages curiosity. Users often come to our website looking for specific information, which (hopefully) we plan for and provide. But what about information they didn’t know to look for? What about the information they discover and are curious about? Are we planning for that as well? Are we creating content that encourages people to learn more than expected?

In higher ed, our websites can be incredible resources for learning and discovery. Rather than just creating content to describe an academic program, get people excited about the subject — provide learning resources or examples of in-class learning and discovery. Give people a reason to care about you and learn more about the value you offer them.

When to Slow Down

Conventional wisdom says to get our web users from point A to point C as quickly as possible. We’re taught that people come to our website to perform tasks, not to “experience” our website. Margot Bloomstein swung the pendulum the other way to challenge this conventional wisdom, asking: Are users frustrated because the experience is slow, or does it feel slow because of a bad experience? Done well, a slow web experience can offer value.

The right content slows down users, focuses their attention, and helps them act deliberately. It respects them and the topic equally.

Bloomstein says users can appreciate slow experiences when they’re:

  • Engaged
  • Anticipating
  • Creating memories

In higher ed, this might mean a lengthy slideshow of commencement or an interactive training guide or an alumni video. I think it’s worth exploring this concept more. If we have clear content goals, we must consider the user experience and how it contributes to these goals. Indeed, fast is not always better.

Content Problem or Culture Problem?

On Meet Content, we talk a lot about content strategy as change management. In higher ed, content strategy tackles outdated thinking about how we plan for and create web content. Jonathan Kahn discussed this issue, saying digital governance fails because we’re afraid of cultural change. He says that while content strategy can help make change, it may not be enough if our institution’s culture is not ready for it.

“The work we’re trying to do with content strategy is incompatible with the structure of our organization,” says Kahn. Looking at organizations that have succeeded in shifting their culture to support meaningful change, such as GOV.UK, Kahn recognizes new or lesser-known practices that that have been successful in supporting change: service design, agile development, cross-functional teams and the Lean Startup.

This is a heavy topic worth exploring more. Does our higher ed culture prevent us from making meaningful change? Can higher ed succeed without reinventing itself?

Embrace Constraints

During the closing keynote at Confab, Paul Ford said, “You can’t have creativity without constraints.” Once said, this seemed obvious to me, yet it’s something I often don’t appreciate.

You can’t have art without resistance in the materials. Constraints give creative thinkers something to work against.

We’ve got a lot of constraints in higher ed, including limited resources, expertise and time. Yet we’re still able to accomplish a lot. I think our ability to succeed given our limitations is that we acknowledge and embrace our constraints. They challenge us to think differently and to problem solve.

It’s this creative, thoughtful process that allows you to develop a content strategy that works for your institution — creating content guides, tools and processes that set you up for success.

So, what constraints do you embrace?

Get Ready for Confab Higher Ed

After spending a week at Confab Minneapolis, I’m even more excited for Confab Higher Ed this November. Working with Confab Events, we are planning for awesome. Imagine all the passionate sharing and learning about content strategy at Confab, all focused on higher education! Gives me goose bumps just thinking about it.

Last week in Minneapolis I met up with some Confab Higher Ed speakers who shared a bit about their upcoming presentation topics. Grab your coffee and check it out:

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About Rick Allen

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

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