I am fortunate to have just returned from the 2012 edition of Confab– The Content Strategy Conference. At times it was hard to choose between the sessions, but luckily there were plenty of tweets (#confab12) coming out of all the sessions to get good nuggets from them all.
The main theme in the new and fast-growing field of content strategy is to start small, prove success, and grow from there. This applies whether you are an agency trying to sell content strategy as a service or in-house trying to get buy-in for content strategy. Two other themes were strong throughout: governance and structured content.
Start Small, Claim Success
Shelly Bowen talked about the "Magic Layer" – when company needs and audience needs come together in the form of clear communication, discovery, and shared goals. When this happens, you get more connections, more opportunities, meaningful experiences, and partnerships.
Colleen Jones continued this theme with discussion of the science of content strategy. She sent a message to the rest of the world: You are throwing away money if you are spending more on design and development than on content. The digital universe thrives on content. The options to communicate are greater than ever before. Therefore, you have to find a way to break through with content that sells, describes, is findable, and educates. Bottom line is that our ability to deliver the right content to the right people at the right time is greater now than ever before.
One problem many of us face is selling content strategy as a service. Melissa Rach of Brain Traffic (with the help of Johnny Cash) helped us understand that content strategy is in essence decision making and discussion making is hard, scary, and not cheap. People go for what is familiar and safe. So we content strategy advocates need to use numbers to reduce the uncertainty. This means we need to sell and scope in ways that business people understand. The basic formula for putting dollar amounts on a service like content strategy is
Value = Benefits – Cost
It wouldn't be a complete conference about content strategy without bringing context into the picture. Danial Eizans used neuroscience to help us understand what is going on in people's brains when they use the Internet. Context leads to engagement. It can be self-directed, situational or preferential. And when users achieve success, they are satisfied. When that satisfaction is aligned with business objectives, everyone wins.
We can't continue to think about "web pages" but about content that is delivered to multiple types of devices and through various channels in different circumstances. Usually this need is realized when an organization has to go digital or try to meet a mobile need.
Mark Stahura of Augsburg Fortress Publishers presented a case study of how his company literally turned a stack of paper books and documents into a one-stop, digital location for resources for the Lutheran Church. The solution was to break down the information into useable pieces. This was achieved with a combination of basic structure through workflow and applying metadata to content. Using metadata and tagging, you can "train" your content to be valuable to the end user.
Karen McGrane finished the conference with an inspiring talk about adaptive content. We can use mobile as a wedge. It is waking people up to see that content has multiple sizes and meaningful metadata and needs to be written for reuse. When this comes together, structure is expressed through styling. Because of this, content people need to work more closely with designers to make things happen. We need to think about how we are in the content publishing business, one in which we can account for all devices, even those not invented yet.
Governance, Governance, Governance
Content strategy does no good if you don't keep it up. Ann Rockley summed it up best when she said that companies are happy to pay for a new website over and over, but they are not willing to pay a little extra to do it right the first time. Why? Because doing it right is hard. Governance defines who does what, when, why, and how. It needs ongoing resources and attention. She used the garden analogy to help others understand content and governance. If you plant a garden in the spring, it looks really nice for a little while. But if you don't water it or weed it, soon it is overgrown and ugly. Same thing happens on a website.
Perhaps one of the best presentations was on specific governance of Voice and Tone by Kate Kiefer Lee at MailChimp. Content doesn't just make people do things, it makes them feel things. So finding your voice is critical. But also mind your tone. Think of dogs and babies – they don't understand what you say, but they understand your tone and react accordingly. And always be honest. If you voice or tone are false, users will see through it.
Erin Kissane forced us to think beyond today. Her message: Be a raccoon. Steal whatever you can. Charles Eames was right when he said, "Innovate as a last resort." There are always new problems, but there are not always new solutions. There are other fields of study we can borrow/steal from, there are new uses for old tools.
My favorite was the call to arms for all content people to LEARN CODE. Yes, we need to take a step back into the stone age of web development when everyone had to know some code to create a web page. We're coming back around to that (see structured content, minus the WYSIWYG), so break out that old tool and sharpen it up!