A Confab Recap

Kristina Halvorson issued a strong call-to-action during her opening keynote at this year’s Confab Minneapolis event, saying: “Part of my job as a content strategist is to get people on board with content strategy. You are a salesperson.” Through the next two days of Confab, speakers provided tools to make this challenging dream a reality.

A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of interviewing two Confab speakers, Jonathon Khan and Melanie Moran, in preparation for my attendance of Confab Minneapolis. While writing the introduction for that interview, I spent some time reflecting on why Confab is such a meaningful conference to me:

[Speakers at Confab] talk about writing from the perspective of thinkers – journalists, creatives, researchers, and readers – instead of merely dwelling on its marketing value. It’s a whole new world, connecting writing to design, turning copy into content.

Kristina’s call-to-action during this year’s event – “You are a salesperson” – especially rang true. As an independent content strategist, I work with three types of clients:

  1. Clients who know what I do and value it
  2. Clients with a rough idea and interest in what I do, and
  3. Clients who simply don’t “get” content strategy.

By far, the third category is the most difficult: in addition to doing my job as a strategist, I have to teach these clients about governance, content creation, content curation, and content modeling. I also have to continually prove my own value. It’s the single most frustrating aspect of my work.

Communication techniques

Fortunately, this year’s speakers also taught me how to value both my clients who understand my work, and the clients who need me to be their guide. It’s advice I’m excited to put into practice.

Show them you care

Some clients love content strategy, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s on board. The easiest way to get people invested in content strategy is to listen, not speak. Listening shows clients that we want to understand the problem at hand. Stakeholders may not care about content strategy, but they do care about finding a solution to their problem. Once they hear their solution lies in a content audit, authoring guidelines, a governance plan, etc, they’ll jump on board. We might call it content strategy; they just call it “what works.”

Ask the right questions

During her keynote, Kristina focused on the top 10 issues that content strategists face. Many clients want future-friendly, multi-channel, single-source, magical-unicorn-meat content. It’s depressing to be the bearer of bad news, telling clients they need to trudge through the boring world of organizing content before they get to the fun “future” stuff. The solution is to remind clients that we’ll get to the future-friendly, multi-channel, single-source, magical-unicorn-meat content by starting with simple questions, such as: why do we need it; what already exists; and where is it?

Find your voice

The first step in building a content strategy isn’t necessarily a big, expensive, full-site, multi-channel redesign. Tiffani Jones Brown explained the value of starting small in her talk, Voice Lessons: Finding Your Company’s Personality. Voice is a combination of personality, energy, and the experiences clients have with your company – all the words that represent a brand. Before touching a page on the website, it helps to reassure clients that we’re not starting from scratch; we’re making a record of, and using, their own, personalized language.

Be Honest

One of the most valuable talks I heard at Confab this year was Ahava Leibtag’s talk, Winning the Work: Making the Case for Content Strategy. Ahava drilled down to the heart of a common content strategy concern: what if I’m not right for the job? Her advice? Be honest. In a worst case scenario, you are freeing up your time for projects to which you’re better suited. And in a best case scenario, the client decides to work with you, and has reasonable expectations! In addition, every prospective client appreciates working with someone who recognizes their own strengths and weaknesses.

Put the “Strategy” in content strategy

Many clients fear the unknown of “content strategy,” and they want to see either a process, or a list of deliverables, neither of which come naturally to a flexible content strategy. In Responsive Web Projects: How to Plan a Successful Discovery Process Steve Fisher and Alaine Mackenzie offered some suggestions for helping to create a process that clients can understand… even if the process doesn’t exactly match the sample one that ships with Microsoft Project.

Stay out of the silo

Silos are for farming, not content strategy,” Steve Fisher told us. It’s easier said than done. Even as a proponent of knocking down silos between development, content strategy, and design, content strategists occasionally advocate for silos when working with management! A “heads down” approach and preference to work with clients who already “get” content strategy builds a wall between the strategist and the client; part of breaking silo walls down is teaching clients what they don’t understand.

Get started

Every conference leaves my head awhirl with new plans to change the way I work with my own clients. Starting now, I’m getting out of my private “content-knowledgeable” silo and advocating for content strategy. Feel free to follow my lead with these first steps:

  1. Provide some therapy for new clients. Ask them what keeps them awake at night, and how they feel about their content.
  2. Offer content strategy as the solution, not the issue. For clients who haven’t worked with a content strategist before, this will help frame the process.
  3. Talk about the process. The process is flexible and ever changing, but it does exist.
  4. Stay honest, stay optimistic. It’s easy to get jaded when “selling” your skills, particularly if you feel like you’re doing false advertising. Instead, engage in honest discussions with new clients; that’s enough to sell the value of content strategy!

About the Author

Marli Mesibov

Marli is a content strategist with a love of education and games. Her work spans game design, web applications, and mobile. Marli can also be found on Twitter, where she shares thoughts on UX Design, literature, and Muppets.

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Comments

  1. Wonderful post! Specially for me! But I know how valuable is for people who attended! I hope one day I could go to Confab!

  2. Great recap Marli! I’m super bummed I missed Confab this year, maybe I’ll make it next year. Thanks again for putting this together, I got a little snapshot from your post!

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