A Taste of Confab 2013

Confab 2013 is only a couple of weeks away. Editor and resident content strategist Marli Mesibov discusses the narratives guiding some of this year's talks and the content strategy discussion at large.

“Content is king.” It’s been the prevailing trend the past few years, but at Confab – a conference of Content Strategists – attendees seek more than just trends; they seek stories. UX Booth editor and resident content strategist Marli Mesibov reached out to some of the strategists speaking at this year’s Minneapolis-based event to learn more about what’s driving their current narratives.

When I first walked into Confab in 2012, I felt as though I had finally found home. During their workshops and talks, speakers discussed the “hows” and “whys” of writing, rather than merely the benefits of having content. They talked about writing from the perspective of thinkers – journalists, creatives, researchers, and readers – instead of merely dwelling on its marketing value. It was a whole new world, connecting writing to design, turning copy into content.

It’s no wonder, then, that I’ve been looking forward to Confab 2013 since the day I left the event. And now that it’s only two weeks away, I can barely contain my excitement! In the weeks leading up to the event, I’ve begun conversations with this year’s speakers in order to learn more about areas of content strategy we don’t often hear about. Jonathan Kahn and Melanie Moran share their stories.

Digital Governance Fails Because We’re Afraid of Cultural Change

Let’s begin with Jonathan Kahn. He’s a busy man. Jonathan organizes events (Dare Conference, Confab London, London Content Strategy Meetup), presents worldwide (Webdagene Oslo, CS Forum Paris/Cape Town, IxDA Dublin), and writes extensively (A List Apart, Contents, lucid plot) about the revolutionary changes facing organizations, and why it’s so hard to overcome them.

With a background in web development, he’s also worked as an information architect, user experience consultant, and content strategy advocate. Jonathan is the Principal of Together London. He shared the story leading to his presentation, Digital Governance Fails Because We’re Afraid of Cultural Change.


For most of my career I told myself I was a firefighter, rushing in at the last minute to fix screwed up web projects. Recently, though, I discovered why I told myself that story: I was avoiding the scary part of my work, the difficult questions.

Today, things are different. My interactions with the content strategy community have helped me craft a new story, and it goes something like this:

  1. The internet puts new demands on our content. Customers expect useful, usable content across channels and devices, all the time.
  2. Organizations (usually) aren’t setup to deal with this reality. People avoid talking about content because it’s messy, political, and hard to do well.
  3. So our content is a mess, and nobody takes responsibility for fixing it. This creates problems for both the business and the customer. It also drives us crazy.
  4. Content is important, damnit! It’s a business asset. Content strategy provides a way for us to fix these problems, helping us spread the word about the value of content throughout the organization and around the world.

The content strategy story is all about asking hard questions: What content do we have? Is it any good? Why do we need it? What’s our messaging architecture, our voice, our tone? Which other departments do we need to work with? How can we create a sustainable plan for commissioning, editing, publishing, and maintaining content over time?

This story is a framework for making content strategists vulnerable. Brave. Able to put more of ourselves into our work. At the same time, there are ways in which this story can be limiting. To understand why, it’s important to discuss a challenge that almost all content strategists face: governance.

Governance

Governance includes the standards, policies, and procedures made to allow an organization to care for its digital operations over time. In theory, a governance plan ensures our content strategies stick, but it rarely works. Writers don’t follow our voice guidelines, marketers ignore our message architectures, and developers create apps without considering the complexities of content.

We’re doing good work, but it isn’t sticking, which feels like a terrible waste of time. Why won’t people follow our guidelines? Recall the first point I made in the content strategy story above: “the internet puts new demands on our content.” While that’s true, we’re scared to ask the obvious follow-on questions:

  • Why does the internet put new demands on our content?
  • Why is the business environment changing so quickly?
  • What does that mean for our business models? our siloed organizational structures? our “waterfall” development process? the software we buy? the agencies we hire?

These questions terrify us because we’re afraid to face the truth: content strategy is just one piece of the challenge of digital transformation. Our governance attempts fail because we’re working backwards: governance can only sustain culture, it can’t create it.

So what does governance look like when backed by the notion of digital transformation? To make our organizations sustainable, we need to change culture in a way that’s broader than content strategy, incorporating practices we know little about: service design, agile development, and cross-functional teams. Once we understand this, we can start changing our organizations’ culture, today.


Readers can learn more about how to affect a cultural change within their organization by attending Jonathan’s talk. It’s happening at 2:50pm on day two of Confab Minneapolis.

Content Strategy in Higher Education: Uniting Print and Web

Next we hear from Melanie Moran. Melanie is the Director of Integrated Communications at Vanderbilt University. Her presentation this year, “Content Strategy in Higher Education: Uniting Print and Web,” highlights her team’s year-long, ongoing journey towards cohesive, cross-platform storytelling.

She’s looking forward to learning from content experts from many different sectors and bringing home a passel of great ideas. In the meantime, she shared the thought-process leading to her presentation.


I’ll always remember when the light bulb went on for me – when I learned the importance of content strategy. I was sitting in a meeting of campus communicators at Vanderbilt University. I had just returned from conducting an hour-long interview with a faculty member, a professor whose research explored neuroscience and education. I needed his thoughts to inform a story I was writing for the web.

Just then, across the room, a colleague from another office reported that she, too, was writing a profile of a faculty member – for one of our print magazines. And wouldn’t you know it, it was the same guy. She had conducted the same research and was writing the same article.

This is crazy, I thought. Why was web not involved in planning for digital content to support print stories? From that moment forward, my colleagues and I began seeking ways to shake content out of its container – be that container print, web, video or even a press release. It eventually paid off in more innovative storytelling, expanded social media impact and a more strategic use of print.

How did we do this? Here are some of the key elements that informed our content strategy:

  • Story first

    Forget the deadlines; forget the Facebook and Twitter beasts that need to be fed. Forget about that for just a minute and ask, why is this a great story? You can have the most interactive website or jaw-dropping magazine around and no one will read it if the stories are lame. Story first, always.

  • Exploit the platforms

    Now that you’ve got your story, think about the many ways to tell it across different platforms. What is told with a photo or graphic on Facebook can then push to a feature on your website; can be explored in detail in your print publication; can be told via a video on YouTube. You get the idea. This will likely mean writing different headlines, using different images and even showcasing different parts of the story for different media – but that’s okay. Let go of the need to show everyone everything on every platform and disaggregate the story for maximum portability.

  • Strategy, not reflex

    We all know the perils of the “we’ve always done it this way” mindset. And I know it’s 2013 and many of us have already mourned and moved on from print, but for many people it remains a relevant, effective way to reach their audience.

    Vanderbilt’s alumni magazine, for example, lives in the homes and offices of alumni around the country and world. Its physical presence connects them directly with Vanderbilt through dynamic storytelling and gorgeous photography and illustrations. We support this connection heavily with digital, of course, but print remains an important and compelling component of our strategy.

  • Analytics, analytics, analytics.

    It was beautiful, it was epic. You laughed, you cried. …but did anyone read it? How was the social media engagement? Did it drive traffic back to your website? Picked up by media? Put yourself on a pretty strict plan of analytics tracking and use it to refine your content strategy. Then share what you find with decision makers, as data drives most organizations. Being able to provide it in relation to communications will elevate others’ understanding your work and the impact it has on your brand’s strength and reputation.


Readers interested in learning about cross-channel storytelling should join Melanie Moran at Confab Minneapolis. Her session begins at 9:40am on day two of the event.

See you there?

So, there you have it. Confab Minneapolis begins on Monday, June 3 and – in addition to Jonathan and Melanie’s – the workshops and talks range from content measurement and modeling to creating content in a zombie apocalypse.

As always, Confab features a mix of well known and up-and-coming content strategists. I’m particularly looking forward to Catherine Toole’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s “Write Like a Human, Think Like a Robot.”

Who are you looking forward to seeing?

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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