Higher Ed Takeaways From Confab: The Content Strategy Conference 2012

Layered cake.

Another layer of Confab cake.

Last week, Meet Content attended the second annual meeting of Confab: The Content Strategy Conference. It was another three sweet days of killer content and cake. Yep, still plenty of cake (and related puns).

Higher ed had an even larger stake in the conference than it did last year (check out our higher ed Confab 2012 Twitter list). Plus, there were two great higher ed talks which we’ll cover in-depth tomorrow (stay tuned!). Our friends at mStoner also hosted a higher ed lounge for folks to learn, share and network. Indeed, higher ed was well represented.

Several key themes emerged from the sessions that help paint a picture of new lessons learned and content ideas to consider for the coming. Like many of our new and old Confab friends, we’re already planning. Here are some of our favorite takeaways from Confab 2012:

Ideas Are Cloudy, Communication Is Clear

When we want to make our content vivid, we need to make our content visual. – Dan Roam

"What would your words look like if you drew them out?"

Dan Roam, author of Blah Blah Blah: What To Do When Words Don’t Work kicked off the conference with a keynote talking about the power of VIVID (visual verbal interdependent) thinking in support of clear, effective communication. “We are in the business of clarifying ideas,” he said, explaining that often words are not the best content type for the job.

Ideas are messy and complex. Images can simplify complex ideas and bridge culture and language barriers. Roam cited an example from The Boeing Company which uses visual guides to communicate with numerous international companies that build airline parts. "When we want to make our content vivid,” said Roam, “we need to make our content visual."

In his talk "The Myth of the Perfect Methodology," User Experience Strategist Corey Vilhauer talked about the need for content strategists to have a defined methodology — a "formal documentation of a set of processes." More than a list of tasks and deliverables, a methodology describes your process for developing and executing a content strategy, filling in the gaps between tasks. This helps to ensure that processes you put in place are easily repeatable and clear to both the stakeholders who execute them and those whom you’re trying to sell the processes to.

Shelly Bowen revealed "The Magic Layer: The Secret to Every Successful Content Strategy." In order to quantify value, content strategy is often described as a series of deliverables — audits, style guides, editorial calendars, governance plans — but what makes a content strategy actually work are the ideas that bring those things together.

"The Magic Layer happens at the intersection of company and audience needs, where people come together and discover and share innovative solutions," said Bowen. "When the right people come together and when they collaborate in the right way, what happens often can feel like magic."

Anyone who has been part of a successful project knows what Bowen means. The results feel special. But it takes a lot of work to get there. Content strategy is relationship management — building working partnerships and communicating goals and priorities effectively to support collaboration and planning.

In her slides, Shelly identifies hurdles for developing a content strategy and offers practical advice for addressing them and setting priorities. Check it out.

While leading a panel on content curation (with panelists Margot Bloomstein, Aaron Lammer and Mia Quagliarello, Erin Kissane, author of Elements of Content Strategy, asked, "What’s the potential for content curation to not just serve new content, but ‘bring the back-catalog of awesome’ back to the surface?" This is a pertinent question for higher ed which has a seemingly endless amount of institutional and user-generated content.

Before investing in new content, let’s first ask, How can we make better use of the content we already have? As Lammer noted, curating old content can generate just as much new traffic as new content. Also, curation can be cheaper and less time-consuming to create. Double-win.

The Importance of a Content Culture

Accessibility is a solution, not a problem. – Irene Walker

Accessibility is a solution, not a problem. Content strategist Irene Walker challenged Confab attendees to think differently about accessibility. It’s not a just a nice-to-have extra — rather, it has tremendous business value in addition to user value.

Aside from inherently supporting both future friendly, responsive web principles and elegant, standards-based design, accessibility practices can also improve findability and usability, expose your content to new audiences, and reduce legal risk.

Still think accessibility is a "nice-to-have"? In 2004, 2.3 million undergrad and graduate students reported disabilities — more than double the 1.1 million reported in 1996 (Disability Funders Network). Those with disabilities represent the largest minority group in the United States at 20% of the population, according to Walker

Like a ship needs an anchor, communications strategy needs content strategy to ground it, says Diana Railton of DRCC. With all the silos and turf wars that can inhibit an organization from achieving its goals, strategy provides direction and structure.

Railton provided a convenient (and tasty) acronym for thinking about strategy: PASTA — purpose, aims, strategy, tactics, activities. With the composition of a healthy communications team we can place the proper emphasis on integrated communications and fully embrace a meaningful multichannel user experience.

Content strategist Ahava Leibtag compared redesigns to a crash diet. A short-term approach to healthy living will not work in the long run. On the other hand, content governance is a lifestyle choice. We need support systems, documentation (kind of like a food log or meal diary), schedules and accountability to make it work. Right on!

Juli Smith of Fidelity Investments talked about content strategy from an anthropological perspective. This mindset makes it imperative to observe the landscape, embrace your organization’s values, and understand the context in which your organization operates. From change agents to content sympathizers to the various relationships that ensure good work gets done, people are always at the heart of content strategy.

Matt Thompson, editorial product manager for NPR, talked about the importance of quest narratives. Drawing inspiration from Joseph Campbell’s concept of the “monomyth” and invoking everything from Harry Potter to Super Mario Brothers, Thompson reminded us that great journalism begins with a great question. The subsequent quest sprawls out from that initial inquiry, hooking the reader with an engrossing story that keeps you wanting more. Our goal with a quest narrative, said Thompson, should be to sell the mission, not the product. One of the most important tools in doing this is to create an empathetic protagonist. Another key is to establish authority.

An effective quest thrives on two things: transparency (being honest about struggle and setbacks) and participation (e.g., fan-fiction around shows like Game of Thrones). But while quest narratives can be powerful, not everything needs to be a quest (e.g., WebMD). Some of the pitfalls of a quest narrative include excessive self-interest at the expense of user experience and ineffective audience targeting.

Content Authors Are Users Too

Content doesn’t just make people do things, it makes people feel things. – Kate Kiefer Lee

Adjusting voice and tone is not a quick copyedit fix. Voice-and-tone style guidelines need to inform content creation from the beginning, says Kate Kiefer Lee. At MailChimp, Kiefer Lee helped make their voice and tone style guide useful and relevant to encourage adoption within the organization.

Why is a voice-and-tone style guide important? Because, says Kiefer Lee, "[c]ontent doesn’t just make people do things, it makes people feel things.” Ask yourself, "If my brand were a person, what would I be like?"

When crafting tone, it’s important to keep in mind various sensitivities of user experience. When reading your content, is the user feeling confused, stressed, angry or scared? (Think about help text, FAQs, policies, financial aid information, deadlines, and disciplinary procedures.) How do we craft our tone to suit these experiences appropriately?

Cleve Gibbons of Cognifide also discussed problems relating to content authors and how workflow is a huge and overlooked part of the CMS process. Authors, said Gibbons, often don’t see the value of tagging content because it takes time and is boring. We need to do a better job of not only explaining the value of supporting structured content, but to make better CMS workflows and authoring experiences that don’t make people hate using the CMS.

In addition, Gibbons made the important point that a bad authoring experience will lead to an even worse customer experience.

In her accessibility talk, Irene Walker discussed creating and governing accessible content by educating and training content authors. Align accessibility requirements and best practices in your editorial style guides.

Educate content contributors on the importance and value of accessibility. Instead of treating it as a special consideration, integrate accessibility guidelines into all elements of the publishing process — because that’s where it belongs.

Snappy web copywriter and content strategist Sally Bagshaw said goodbye to the WYSIWYG and saying hello to structured content. The theme of supporting content authors came up again — after all, they’re the ones doing the work. We need to explain the value of structured content, ensuring both that author needs are met with proper workflows and governance and that their skills are up to the task.

Marketing specialist Katie Del Angel of ISITE Design, a self-proclaimed newbie to the field, discussed creating “Team Content” within the first 100 days on the job at her agency. In Del Angel’s case, investment and buy-in needed to come before strategy. She brought people together (with pizza, of course), got them involved in her company’s blogging efforts by lowering the barriers to participation, and is now beginning to parlay that investment into support for a content strategy.

Be Structured, Be Agile

The boundaries between fields are dissolving.

Erin Kissane wowed the audience with an overview of content practices drawn from other disciplines. To innovate intelligently, we need to look for inspiration beyond our everyday scope of work. The boundaries between fields are dissolving, which can be scary but it should really be perceived as an opportunity.

Kissane talked about the concept of active reading and how technology is changing what that means — annotating, highlighting, sharing, note-taking, time-shifting. Formats are evolving. What counts as a book, nowadays? Standard units of publishing as we know them are nearing the end of their dominance. Instead, we find ourselves in the business of creating packages of ideas that are then spread across appropriate channels. (Hello, structured content! Hello, modular writing!) We need new tools to support these changes.

It’s important for us to know about new publishing tools because they change our perception of what’s possible, expressed Kissane.

Gibbons talked about how to make content management not suck. A CMS is not just a tool. A CMS comprises content, people, process and technology, but we often perceive (and fund) it only as technology.

"Unstructured content is stupid and old fashioned. It’s costly, complex and does not generate a competitive advantage," said Xerox CEO Ann Mulch.

Daniel Eizans, director of enablement strategy at Team Detroit discussed "Conquering The Context Conundrum" in support of contextually relevant content strategy. Tough stuff. If our users were zombies, things would be much easier. But they’re not. "Humans have brains and brains are tricky."

Content is made relevant by the context in which it’s perceived. So how do we plan for context considering what users aredoing, how they’re feeling, and what they’re learning?

To understand context Eizens recommends spending time with your users. Indeed, this is where quantitative analysis falls terribly short. In order to plan for context we need to interview users. "Inquiry leads to empathy," says Eizens, who offers these guiding principles:

  1. Users must be interviewed in the context the content or system would be used
  2. Users are partners in the design/strategy process
  3. Strategists must interpret behavior, environment and user provided data to inform system design and strategy
  4. Interviews must be focused without need for questionnaires

Still, you may want to plan for zombies too. Just in case.

Sydney Markle of IBM discussed content strategy and distributed systems, as well as how the principles of agile development — iteration, collaboration, autonomy, transparency, measurement, pacing, generalists and simplicity — apply to content strategy. When you approach things from an agile perspective, content, code, IA and design are forced to work together, resulting in a more functional process and product.

Karen McGrane of Bond Art + Science closed out Confab with her call to action on adaptive content. Knitting together many threads of discussion from the preceding sessions, she reinforced the importance of structured content and APIs as the future of effective content publishing.

McGrane walked us through the case study of NPR’s COPE (create once, publish everywhere) approach. It’s more than a philosophy; it’s a workflow that is baked into the fields and metadata of NPR’s CMS, making content available to APIs independent of presentation. Why are news organizations the innovators in adaptive content? “Because they’ve been writing structured content all along," said McGrane.

Our CMS, McGrane continued, was built to publish to the desktop web, and that primary platform is quickly becoming outmoded. In fact, the whole idea of a primary platform is outmoded. (It’s certainly not print.) As Kissane says, the page is dead. Now, the primary platform is content — those packages of ideas that Kissane described.

But, wait. There’s more!

There’s a lot, we know. But it’s hard to hold back when you’re high on cake (we’ve developed a bit of a sweet tooth). That’s why we have more Confab coverage coming this week. The diet will have to wait!

Tomorrow, we’re sharing insights from our chats with Confab speakers Erika Knudson and Rebecca Salerno of Indiana University and Lynne Figg of Normandale Community College as they talk about putting content strategy into action at their institutions.

Plus, later this week, we’ll be posting more speaker interviews, as well as sharing recap posts from our peers.

Were you at Confab or following #confab12 on Twitter? If so, what were your takeaways?

More Confab 2012 coverage

Photo by Jess and Colin / 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.


  1. Katie Del Angel says:

    Thanks for such a well-rounded recap!!

    Here’s my top 23 takeaways in bite-sized form: http://www.isitedesign.com/insight-blog/12_05/confab12-23-takeaways-self-proclaimed-newbie

    Also, an interview I did with Corey Vilhauer on the “Myth of the Perfect Methodology”: http://www.cmsmyth.com/2012/05/the-myth-of-the-perfect-content-strategy-methodology/

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