Make Change: Host Your Own Content Strategy Conference

York University campus aerial view

Make your campus a conference venue

The following guest post was written by Laura D’Amelio, senior content developer for the Division of Students at York University, in Toronto, Canada

Do you ever listen in to someone else’s conversation at lunch or while in line to grab a coffee on campus? Maybe you’ve heard the phrases “do more with less” and “wear multiple hats” often, like I do.

My job hasn’t been so different – although originally hired as a writer, my content team and I now create publications from writing to design, produce videos and arrange photo shoots, manage social media and more.

With budget cuts that many of us are familiar with, we’ve had to weigh the benefits of print pieces, manage a growing number of websites with less staff and, generally be more creative with our projects and time. Implementing content strategy, that is having less content and more strategy, has meant we’ve been able to stretch our talents further, including sharing and comparing our strategies with others on campus as we continue to refine our processes.

Better Living Through Content Strategy

Faced with these challenges, we’ve found content strategy to be a helpful framework for doing more with less. The processes, audits, and guidance on governance that comprise content strategy have yielded solutions for reaching more prospective students but printing fewer viewbooks, or providing more online resources or services with fewer staff.

Constantly searching for “best practices” for content strategy, particularly as it pertains to our University environment, got me to thinking: why not hold a content strategy conference here at our University? I pitched the idea to my director and vice-provost, who were both supportive and acknowledged the importance of this topic in helping meet our staff and student needs.

This past August, we held our event, inviting colleagues from student service and academic offices. For our small start, the turn-out and reception was great, as were the many ideas shared and techniques learned. We will most likely be expanding the event next year.

Go Your Own Way

Here’s why you should consider holding your own internal content strategy conference:

Your experts are in-house

At York, it’s our going theory that many of us are already using elements of content strategy in our jobs, though we may not call it “content strategy.” We’ve heard stories from colleagues about managing web redesigns or adding new social media channels to meet our audience needs. We’ve performed audits, analysis, ROI calculations, rewrites, process redesigns and more.

By putting these tactics and pieces together, and gradually building them into our day-to-day processes, our content strategy can become complete without having to wait for a web overhaul or a major budget crisis to reconsider our content processes. We just need to share what we are doing now. So we invited communicators from across campus to share their stories.

Our sessions included:

  • “An Army of Students: Leveraging Student Talents to Create Stellar Content and Showcase Campus Community” – outlining how to hire, train, organize and manage the content of a team of student bloggers.
  • “How Content Strategy Supports Issues Management” – explaining how to manage content and messages that need to get out to a variety of audiences in short timeframes such as application extensions or weather emergencies.
  • “Content Strategy + Storytelling = Happily Ever After” – our keynote speaker, Ryan Bigge (a content strategist and an alum!) outlined why compelling stories make the best content.

Conversations during question periods and in-between sessions focused on topics such as integrating social media into content plans, how to stop doing something just because we’ve always done it, and navigating web governance processes.

The topics were strikingly pertinent to our everyday challenges. Instead of applying general suggestions from an external conference to our work, we were finding solutions from within.

Get the conversation started

We’ll admit that the first email invite to our conference had raised few eyebrows. “What is content strategy?” was one of the more frequent questions. With a little explanation and links to a few resources, our colleagues immediately identified with the need to get in on the conversation.

Further, as more staff at the University have also been charged with maintaining their own websites through CMS tools, there has been a need to share the processes and opportunities that content strategy offers, both for the efficiency of the staff member and to help students find services and resources faster and more easily.

The University provides technical training on CMS tools, but what about content production, management and strategy? The gap was quickly identified by many of our attendees, so much so that the second most frequent question was, “can I bring a colleague with me?”

Make knowledge accessible to all staff

My colleagues and I have a running list of “dream conferences” to attend each year but, alas, time and budgets mean we can only attend a few. On-campus conferences mean more people can attend, and everyone from the director to the intern can be exposed to the ideas behind content strategy. Colleagues that have already travelled to external conferences can bring back their presentations to share or notes from presentations they were able to view.

With a small amount of funding (less than $1,000 in Canadian currency), we were able to run a day-long event offering coffee and treats, a keynote speaker, and a raffle of resource books at no cost to the attendees. If they don’t mind bringing their own coffee, simply booking a room at your university could mean a low-cost event, using 10 hours or less of staff time to organize.

Serve your internal community more effectively

One of the most significant gains of this conference was the ability to put a “finger on the pulse” of content strategy at our University. In addition to gauging from questions and conversations how content strategy techniques have been adopted across campus, a follow-up survey let us ask participants about their plans and experiences.

Survey respondents were also able to guide the tone for our next conference. Suggestions included the need to extend invitations to even more communicators on campus. There was also a desire for more workshop-type sessions, to continue to fill the gap in training.

Overall, our colleagues were pleased to find such shared expertise at our own institution. 77% were moderately or extremely satisfied with the conference, noting that the sharing of templates, training documents and training methodologies were the most useful. All participants answered that they were likely to attend again next year, with close to 60% noting “extremely likely.” With this year’s statistics to measure against, we have a baseline by which we can measure the success of next year’s event.

What’s Stopping You?

While it can be hard to carve out time in our already packed schedules, being able to start a conversation about content strategy at your own institution is invaluable. Plus, the beauty of hosting your own event is that you already have most if not all of the resources you need at your fingertips—a couple of classrooms with projector hookups, some nearby eateries to break for lunch, and a group of colleagues interested in doing more with less.

It all starts with an invitation for people to share their stories. Next step? Get ready to learn.

Photo by cityoftoronto / Flickr Creative Commons

About Laura D’Amelio

Laura D’Amelio is the Senior Content Developer for the Division of Students at York University, in Toronto, Canada. She is responsible for content strategy, developing plans that bridge social media, print, web, and mobile communications to create a comprehensive and consistent brand message and user experience.

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  1. Andrea Michelbach says:

    Great post, Laura! I’m part of a website redesign team for a university museum and love this idea of a mini-conference as a way to get our institution thinking more strategically about content. We’re already planning meetings with individual divisions, but do you think something like this — a conversation about content strategy — would be more effective before or after those meetings? Before, I would see it serving as a way to get people thinking along more strategic lines and to start the conversation. Might be too soon, though… After, I could see it as a great framework for staff training, but perhaps the ideas it could generate would be a bit late. What are your thoughts?

    • Hi Andrea,

      My initial thought is that a conference may be the way to start get the “juices flowing.” In my experience, meeting with particular areas that have no idea what content strategy is just yet, or specific parts of it, they draw a bit of a blank on what and how to discuss it at a meeting and may view it as extra work being tacked on. When invited to a conference, and generally professional development that such an invitation gives is welcome, they can come, sit back, take it and and take the time to apply it to their own work. I found many more people wanted to start the conversation with me after the conference than before. Hope that helps.


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