Confab 2011: Four Truths for Content Strategy

Tosca Fasso   June 2, 2011

From May 9 through May 11, worldwide leaders and luminaries in the content strategy field converged in Minneapolis for Confab 2011—the first content strategy conference in the U.S.

Now that we’ve absorbed the wisdom—and the sugar calories from the much-talked-about cake—we ask: what emerges from Confab 2011 as the challenges we were wrestling with, goals we were aspiring to, and themes that were beginning to emerge as truths? Here are our top four:

1) Content is a Business Asset

Kristina Halvorson of Brain Traffic, the organization that produced Confab, uttered this phrase verbatim in her rousing opening keynote, and it was also the title of Monday’s afternoon keynote by Valeria Maltoni of Conversation Agent. Ms. Maltoni stated that a business of any size can use content to attract, interact with, and influence customers.  Or, more directly, that a website is a “direct-to-consumer warehouse.”

But perhaps the most colorful expression of this idea was Erika Hall’s insistence that we can’t think of content as “pink goo.” Content, she emphasized, is part of a system and requires a continual process—quite a contrast to the too-common approach of wedging content into boxes one time and hoping it behaves itself until the next site redesign.

2) Content Strategy is Change Management

Karen McGrane, Razorfish alum and Managing Partner at Bond Art + Science had the courage and insight to articulate the reality we’ve all been wrestling with: our jobs really do require us to ask others to do their jobs differently. That doesn’t exactly set us up to be the most popular people at the table, so we need to articulate to our clients and coworkers why doing their jobs differently ultimately makes their jobs easier (admittedly after some painful adjustments).

Perhaps a subtler expression of this idea came from Ms. Halvorson, who showed an infographic with content strategy snugly embedded smack in the middle of a rather scary chart. The message of the chart? On a team of information architects, interaction designers, visual designers, copywriters, and programmers, only the content strategist has a direct relationship with every other role. In other words, the buck stops at the content strategist.

3) The Web Needs Human Filters

“No one is surfing the web anymore. The waves are too damn big.” Steve Rosenbaum of magnify.net  and author of Curation Nation , surely intended some humor when he said this in his session, but he balanced it with the serious understanding that online content has become overwhelming. We’re constantly checking email, losing sleep to keep up with the digital deluge. As a result, users have expressed their desire for fewer, more relevant choices—choices a human (likely a content strategist) needs to make.

Randall Snare and Elizabeth McGuane, creators of the content strategy blog, “Mapped,” discussed “context,” the idea that in order for content to be truly useful, humans (i.e., content strategists) need to not just analyze and test, but categorize and position. To properly do this, they implored us to ask such questions as: where are readers consuming our content, what are they looking at, and where are they looking for it? 

Snare and McGuane also asked us to think about content as the story behind the data, and data as what gives perspective to the story. In other words, content professionals have at their disposal multiple types of data (including analytics, user testing, metadata) but data is just one factor. Snare and McGuane warned content strategists that while data informs the process, it should not be confused with the process itself.

4) Everyone is a Publisher

A major theme in Steve Rosenbaum’s session, this idea was pivotal to the Tuesday keynote by Ann Handley. Ms. Handley advised that people and brands should embrace the reality that everyone is a publisher and start thinking about the web as a way to connect.

While it’s fairly easy to blindly embrace this concept and just put yourself out there, the real challenge is to ensure that your content is, as Ms. Handley so beautifully stated, “the soul of who you are.”

In other words, the idea that everyone is a publisher is not just an opportunity—it’s a responsibility as well. Ms. Handley’s book, Content Rules, contains 10 super-smart steps for being a responsible publisher. Although she titled them, “10 ways to make your content rule,” Ms. Handley’s advice could also be labeled, “10 ways to make sure that your content is the soul of who you are.”

As content strategists, isn’t it really our job to ensure that our clients’ online identities reflect their souls—just as interior designers or architects would do for their clients’ living spaces?

Confab 2011 provided not just articulation of this responsibility, but inspiration for doing this critical work. It also connected content strategists with a common vision—and perhaps most importantly, with each other.

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5 Responses

  1. James Fairburn says:

    I really like the conversation here especially the 4th truth that everyone is a publisher. The issue and realization of accountability for what one produces on the web is real and quite serious. The greater the opportunity also means the greater the responsibility. Thank you for bringing this point to light.

  2. patricia says:

    thanks for recapping for those of us who couldn’t attend — especially point #2

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