Confab 2012: A New Path for Content Strategy

Michael Barnwell   July 18, 2012

Are we there yet? (photo by Tom Wachtel)

The Breakout: 2012 marked the second year of Confab: The Content Strategy Conference. In our ongoing coverage, we’ll share reactions from Razorfish content strategists who made the trip to Confab in May. In this post, Michael Barnwell considers the state of the discipline, and the talks that focused on content strategy’s lofty future.

As a content strategist, how do you see yourself — custodian or curator? A little of both maybe? The evolving concept of content strategy seems to point to a progression from cleaning up the mess of content compounded from months or years of mismanagement to bringing content into a predictable, accessible order to organizing content for a particular, inspiring purpose. While the custodial and taxonomic nature of the discipline is always going to play a key part, the promise of something more elevating is starting to redefine the role. At least this was evident in many of the talks at Confab 2012.

It might be a bit of wishful hearing, but I think anyone at the conference could pick up on the interplay of housekeeping and imagining that is beginning to define what falls to the content strategist to do. It’s true that the emphasis is still on the side of the hard work of rationalizing complex sets of content and making them understandable and accessible for cross-channel audiences. But at the conference there was also a welcome developing story urging content strategists to expand the range of their work and take a more active role in creating new ways of consuming, sharing, and dreaming up ways that content can be transformative. It’s a progression from, “I found what I was looking for” to “Look what I found!”

Starting with Dan Roam’s kick-off, where he spoke about the power of drawings to convey ideas and inspire new thinking, the message was as clear as a stick figure with a smile: the spreadsheet is not your only, or even your best, tool. Kevin Cheng seconded this strategy with a simple call to content strategists to be inventive. How? Begin by uncapping a Sharpie and putting felt tip to paper. And Jared Spool made a strong case for the value of the broad view, for content people to take a part in imagining game-changing experiences rather than just co-conspiring in the messy pile up of independent features.

Could this mean a different future path for content strategy? I hope so. If “metadata is the new art direction,” as others have poignantly and playfully pronounced, what else lies ahead for the content strategists who so artfully structure the content? The content strategist need not be satisfied being the “bringer of order” — lofty as that might be. How about instead imagining what a new order of content could bring?

Confab 2012: A Methodology for the Madness

Tosca Fasso   June 15, 2012

One step at a time. (photo by Dominic’s pics)

The Breakout: 2012 marked the second year of Confab: The Content Strategy Conference. In our ongoing coverage, we’ll share reactions from Razorfish content strategists who made the trip to Confab last month. In this post, Tosca Fasso considers some of the discussion around methodologies, and why, like it or not, we have to define our approach.


“You can’t break the rules if you don’t make the rules.”

– Corey Vilhauer, Confab 2012

We’ve come a long way since Confab 2011. Last year’s conference focused largely on the elemental, attempting to define what content strategy is. Kristina’s Halvorson’s opening keynote covered the rise of content strategy, what we do, and why we do it. Other sessions had a similar thrust, covering why content matters, the difference between copywriting and content strategy, and how to make sense of the new content landscape.

This year, we arrived at Confab with our sleeves rolled up and ready to work. We know what content strategy is (for the most part). We just want to keep getting better at it. At this year’s conference, we learned that one of the roads to excellence is to define our approach. For those of us who think that there is no magic bullet, or that one size doesn’t fit all, this can chafe a bit. But defining an approach doesn’t mean that we shoehorn every project, no matter the size or goal, into a homogenous approach.

One size does not fit all

Corey Vilhauer’s Myth of the Perfect Methodology (Slideshare) and Melissa Rach’s Content and Cash (Slideshare) both advocated for defining an approach to content strategy, but neither advised that it be rigid and inflexible. In fact, Vilhauer emphasized that “Each project is different. Each deliverable is different. Each client is different…There’s an optimal path, but it’s not set in stone.” So, while we don’t need to use the same tools for every project, we need to be keenly aware of the unique value behind each of our tools and techniques so we can properly employ the right ones at the right time.

It’s critical to realize that a methodology is not the list of tasks that we perform for a client but the reason we do them. As Vilhauer described it, “A methodology is not the what but the why.” To help you get at the why, keep in mind that your successes aren’t the only things that should inform your methodology—your failures should too. Understanding what didn’t work on past projects—and why—can be even more valuable than understanding what did work.

Know what you’re selling

Melissa Rach’s session focused primarily on selling content strategy, but defining one’s approach was a strong undercurrent. In order to define the value of a service like content strategy, we need to articulate what it is that our clients are paying for. As Rach says, “To make an investment, organizations expect to know exactly what our product is,” and that product is the direct outcome of your approach.

Steps to success

So how do you define your approach? Here’s Vilhauer’s three-step process, which he referred to as a “methodology for creating a methodology,”

  1. Find a trail guide (like Erin Kissane’s The Elements of Content Strategy)
  2. Create a master list (of all deliverables/services you and your team have offered or would like to offer)
  3. Break and recreate (get out there, do your work, and revisit as you go)

I’d like to amend Vilhauer’s process slightly, taking into account that most of us already have an approach of sorts, however extemporaneous it may be. My revised steps:

  1. Create a master list (of all deliverables/services you and your team have offered or would like to offer)
  2. Verify and refine your list (against trail guide[s] of choice) and identify any gaps
  3. Recreate. Then break and recreate (fix what’s broken, get out there, do your work, and refine as you go)

So few of us in this field are starting from scratch, so I like that these steps acknowledge a content strategist’s existing arsenal and background but encourage recalibrating against the advice of our field’s acknowledged experts.

Defining an approach means having a framework you can draw from for a consistent experience. When you have an established approach, you can respond methodically instead of reacting. You can consult proven processes and maintain a measure of control even when a project seems out of control in other aspects. And when clients ask what it is that you do, you can confidently tell them.

So go forth and, as Vilhauer says, “Define the damn thing.”

Confab 2012: Structuring Content to Adapt to Users’ Needs

Lisa Park   June 8, 2012

Beauty and meaning through structure (photo by lotus8)

The Breakout: Last month saw the return of Confab: The Content Strategy Conference for its second year. Not only was Razorfish a sponsor, four of our content strategists traveled to Minneapolis (from opposite coasts!) to soak it all in. We’ll share a series of posts on the most interesting themes we noticed, starting with Lisa Park’s exploration of some of the discussions around structured content.

If you’re a content strategist working within a content management ecosystem comprising numerous websites, apps, tools, platforms and programs, or simply one who’s about to delve into a database housing thousands of pieces of content, you’ll want to structure your content to be flexible so that it can adapt and extend across various platforms and be easily reused for multiple purposes. This was a recurring topic at this year’s Confab Content Strategy Conference.

Mark Stahura’s Flexible and Smart Documents with Re-Usable Content and Cleve Gibbon’s Defining Content Architecture were two sessions that successfully tackled the subject. Both experts shared their experiences with structuring or setting up content—and its associated processes and properties—to be fluid and flexible. By designing content and content systems to be adaptive and responsive, they were able to effectively repurpose and monetize content into new products and across multiple platforms.

Identify Key Content Types

To start, when you’re working with a ton of content—for example, Mark’s case study involved 15,000-plus assets—you should most definitely take the time to develop a comprehensive understanding of your content so that you can chunk it up appropriately. Be sure to identify and organize the content into key themes or types.

In order to effectively understand and bucket the content, think through and figure out whom this content is for and how your users want to use that content. By knowing who your audience is (from figuring out the demographics and the psychographics to understanding what your users’ pain points are), you’ll be able to appropriately assign the right rules around how to best structure your content.

Get Useful Content to Users with Metadata and Tagging

Once you’ve gone through this exercise, Mark says, “train the content where and when to show up” by employing metadata and tagging. He cautions that there is such a thing as the bottomless pit of “possibly useful metadata” along with “death by over-tagging.” Therefore, it’s crucial that you identify your core audience and the key tasks or goals your users want to accomplish, so that your tagging efforts are spot-on and ultimately deliver truly useful content to your users.

As well, think about what your business goals are. Is there a business opportunity to engage new users? What does your organization need? The answers to these questions also inform and influence the way your content gets structured—just so long as they jibe with the goal of optimizing your users’ experience.

Develop content that’s site- and product-neutral, Mark adds. Tagging and metadata should relate to the content’s structure and the content itself, respectively. This makes content easy to repurpose and/or license across other partner sites and platforms.

It’s Not Just About the Content

Of course, it takes a village to manage content, or more specifically, content, people, process and technology, according to Cleve. He adds that complexities or challenges arise in content management when people match up the wrong tools or methodology applied towards the technology solution.

That said, he urges UX designers, content strategists, engineers and all of the folks involved in driving towards the solution be cognizant of the fact that what you’re building—from the content itself to the APIs and authoring tools—is sustainable and will continue to work well after launch. The idea is to execute against a long-term strategy that can accommodate change, one that flexes and flows as the content management ecosystem expands and contracts.

Structure Content Interfaces and Systems, Too

Cleve is aligned with Mark in that how content is structured and tagged is a key component to combatting the complexities. He adds that where that content is housed, and behind what authoring interfaces, is another vital element that will solve or avoid problems altogether. By developing content models that identify key content types and tasks, establishing editorial workflows that are repeatable and predictable, and building a role-based authoring tool to publish content, you’ll be able to drive towards a solution that makes the most of your content.

In the end, what it’s really about is taking the time to craft and then manage against a strategy that includes structuring content to maximize its use and reuse across web, mobile, print—wherever the business requires the content to live. By doing so, you’ll not only give users the content they’re looking for, but you’ll also add value to your business. A win-win situation if there ever was one.

Razorfish Blogs


  • SXSW Interactive

    March 7 – 11, Austin, TX
    Several of our contributors will be speaking this year. If you’re going, say hi to Rachel, Robert, & Hawk.

  • Confab Minneapolis

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    The original Confab Event. Rachel will be there doing her Content Modelling workshop with Cleve Gibbon. Get details and we’ll see you there!

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  • Confab for Nonprofits

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    Another new Confab Event! Early Bird pricing until March 7:

  • Content Strategy Forum

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    International Content Strategy workshops & conference: Call for speakers now open!

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Scatter/Gather is a blog about the intersection of content strategy, pop culture and human behavior. Contributors are all practicing Content Strategists at the offices of Razorfish, an international digital design agency.

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