Power to the People at Confab Higher Ed

What happens when you bring more than 350 higher ed content professionals together? Amazing things — lots of knowledge sharing, a renewed sense of purpose, and a Bill Murray sighting.

Confab Higher Ed, held November 11-12 in Atlanta, Georgia, has come to pass. But those who attended the inaugural event are still chewing on all the food for thought shared by speakers and attendees alike.

Check out our recaps of sessions from day one and day two of the conference, courtesy of Meg Bernier and Alaina Wiens, and find Storify recaps, presentation slides, and more in our full recap package.

While the conference spanned a host of topics, ranging from email to video to analytics, we found a few common themes running through the sessions. And they all tie back to one thing — not pages, not pixels — people.

Content Is About People

“People make content. And people have feelings,” says Lisa Maria Martin. As content professionals, we need to be kind and empathetic to get things done.

If you were following Confab Higher Ed (#confabEDU) on Twitter, you may have seen a few mentions of #confabfeelings. First popularized at Confab Minneapolis this past June, the hashtag can be traced back to Corey Vilhauer’s talk on how empathy is content strategy’s hidden deliverable. That theme pervaded many of the sessions in Atlanta, as well.

In her session, Martin noted that empathy is an attitude, not a tactic. Empathy on its own does not launch websites. Feelings don’t ship deliverables. But empathy can be facilitate an effective process. It can shape productive listening and collaboration — as Kristina Halvorson indicated in her keynote, people can take content critiques personally, so it’s important to frame those conversations positively.

The idea of empathy also drives the concept of making content more social, as Ma’ayan Plaut discussed. By making content that people will find shareable, we are tapping into the power of empathy as an engine for our communications strategy. Make things that matter to people, and the rest will take care of itself. And when Karen McGrane talked about the mobile mandate for higher ed, it’s not just about responsive design and tablets – it’s about having empathy for those who need education the most, and ensuring they have access to it.

Higher ed is built around the idea of caring — the structures of any institution are designed to support the student experience and to build strong relationships that will carry on when those students become alumni. So it should be no surprise that our work on the web similarly rests on an emotional foundation.

Your Web Team Is Bigger Than You Think

Sara Wachter-Boettcher talked about how even though content may be our job, we don’t actually own it. The web touches everything and everybody. Thus, everyone at our institution is a communicator and publisher, even if they don’t know it. It’s our job to unleash their inner content strategist, clarify and demystify our work, and give them a sense of ownership in our web presence.

But by the same token, we web professionals are also admissions counselors, fundraisers, professors, maintenance workers, and RAs. And in doing our work, and in exercising empathy, we unleash these inner identities to enable us to best work with colleagues across our institution, to serve the needs of both our audience and the school.

We can’t do this alone. We can’t singlehandedly mastermind solutions to everyone’s content problems. Those problems will only be solved by working together. Each problem solved is a small victory, and those small victories gradually add up to a smarter, better web experience. Change doesn’t come in crashing waves; it comes in persistent, shore-lapping ripples that over time reveal the depth of their impact.

Create A Content Culture

Perry Hewitt, Chief Digital Officer at Harvard University, talked about the people needed to create and sustain a content strategy. It’s hard to build a web team without a shared understanding of content strategy. It’s even harder to sustain a content strategy without a cultural support for governance.

In Martin’s talk about building a one-stop student services shop, she concluded with a poignant observation: “Content reflects the people and processes that make it.” Simply stated, you get out as much as you put in. If we work to create a culture that supports the value of content, we stand more poised for success.

This means getting everyone on the same page about content strategy. And, often, the best way to do that is not talk about “content strategy,” as Mike Powers said in his talk on analytics and user testing. Instead, talk goals. Talk problem-solving. As Corey Mahoney, Web Strategist at the University of California, said: meet internal users where they are. What are they trying to accomplish? Content contributors are users too. We need to address their needs to help them do great work.

We also need to avoid complacency. As Dave Olsen indicated in his talk, new processes and workflows are needed to keep up with advances in the way we communicate on the web. This is the approach Brendan Mayer took when he worked with the University of Denver to revamp an email newsletter to be more mobile-friendly and audience-centric.

To build a content culture that supports our content strategy, Wachter-Boettcher says we need to “normalize” our work. Content strategy needs to be easy for people to understand — meaningful and relevant for everyone working on the web. As we’ve said on Meet Content, building a content culture means we all need to be teachers and students.

Let’s Do It Again

If you missed a piece of the Confab cake (“Message from the Dean” was our favorite), never fear — Confab Higher Ed will be back in Atlanta next year. We’re already excited! But in the meantime, we’ve got a lot of work to do. Let’s get to it.

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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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