7 Things I learned at Confab.

The space-themed stage at Confab!
The space-themed stage at Confab!

Two weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to spend a few days at Confab – a content strategy conference in Minneapolis. I’m incredibly grateful to my employer for this opportunity and for supporting me as I made the trek to the Midwest to partake in this fantastic event.

What I wanted from Confab was to learn about some of the challenges facing our industry today, and the solutions people like me are developing in spite of those challenges. But perhaps more importantly, I was looking to quench my thirst for inspiration – for a new way to see, experience, and navigate through the everyday problems my clients face.

I wanted to take a step back and see my everyday work in a bigger picture. And that is exactly what I did. Below are my top 7 takeaways.

7. Content strategy – or really, communications strategy – is incredibly complex.

This isn’t news to anyone. But what was new to me was the context Jonathon Colman (content strategist at Facebook) brought to the very practice of content strategy.

In his incredible keynote discussion on Wicked Ambiguity, Jonathon made fascinating comparisons between the wicked problems of the world, and how at their crux, many are rooted in communication issues – the very issues that plague our work, clients, and internal teams today.

My absolute favourite example comes from Jonathon’s discussion of nuclear waste, and the challenge of how content strategists will communicate with future generations about the dangers it poses as a radioactive substance being stored in bunkers beneath the ground, conceivably for hundreds of thousands of years.

“So how do we keep people safe from nuclear waste over these vast periods of time? … Our usual approach of using systems, structures, languages, colors, and symbols just won’t be relevant to future generations living thousands of years from now.”

This is mind boggling – not to mention a perfect example of the complexities we as communicators face every day. Okay – probably not to the same extent – but similarly, just like there probably isn’t a “right” answer to this communication issue, there aren’t many cut and dry, right and wrong answers to the problems we set out to solve for our clients each day.

But we don’t give up. We can’t – we’re paid to think about these things, after all. So instead, we embrace the ambiguity and we keep trying, keep testing, keep failing, keep tweaking and ultimately, keep doing better.

(Listen to Jonathon’s full talk for more detail on the nuclear waste example, as well as many others. Very fascinating stuff).

6. We shouldn’t differentiate between on & offline worlds.

Doing this is hurting our customers’ success. We shouldn’t be framing customers within the constraints of the device they’re using, or the location of their last session.

Instead, we need to think about developing strategies for the omni-channel.

Omni-channel content strategy is all about creating a seamless content (brand) experience that offers personalization no matter where the customer is or what they’re trying to do, on or off the web.

Gone are the days of a mappable customer journey. Today, a customer’s path to purchase isn’t linear, and certainly isn’t restricted to one or two channels. From social, to mobile, to apps and even in-person interaction, your customer needs a unique, seamless experience across all fronts.

This was the basis of Noz Urbina’s talk at Confab. And it’s an excellent point that was hammered home by a relentless focus on the blurred lines between the physical and digital worlds. Today, there are very few differences between the two, so we have to be able to provide whatever the user needs, no matter what device they’re using or which store they’re physically in.

Consider the Microsoft Holo Lens. Watch this video and tell me digital and physical worlds haven’t already collided. (Yikes!)

Interactions with your brand can’t start or stop on your website. And if we want to create an unforgettable brand experience, content can’t be limited to just the digital sphere, but rather, integrated into the daily lives of our customers.

Read Noz’s take on adaptive content for omni-channel.

5. We have to be concise.

Writing concisely means you’re only including enough information to meet your business goals and user needs, and nothing more.

As Marcia Riefer Johnston discussed in her session at Confab, being able to do this achieves many tangible goals, including delivering content that is easier to understand, easier to engage with, and sometimes, content that actually saves your business money.

Consider translation costs, for example. Marcia brilliantly pointed out that, generally speaking, cutting only one word from each sentence you write in a publication, release, or ad that needs to be translated, could literally save you hundreds or thousands of dollars. This screen grab of her presentation says it all:

How much can a word cost?

And if this isn’t directly applicable to you or your work, think about how else it may apply. I think about SEO copy (title tags and meta descriptions), or AdWords – in both instances where character counts are limited, the more concise your writing, the better.

4. Our silos are holding us back.

Our internal separations are irrelevant to our customers.

It doesn’t matter if something occurs in the search department, the social department, marketing, and so on. The experience we provide must be one, seamless brand experience.

So why do we operate in silos? According to Rebekah Cancino (Sitewire), content strategists are uniquely positioned to foster collaboration in the workplace. After all, content is at the heart of everything we design, test, and build. We’re often the people liaising between design, development, and SEO. We need to learn to use these relationships for the betterment of the whole team.

We’ve all heard the cliches about the whole of something being greater than the sum of its parts. But isn’t it true? How many times have you thought to yourself, “That problem could have been avoided had I been involved sooner”?

If you’ve ever thought that, I challenge you to consider how you’ll go about inserting yourself into a process or project sooner. Rebekah said something that really resonated with me, and is a great example of a tangible step we can all take toward improving our work:

“Start meeting to do the work together, not to talk about the work.”

3. Humour – when used correctly – is a powerful tool in advertising.

I don’t often take a humorous approach to content (probably because I assume it wouldn’t fly with our clients or maybe even our clients’ customers), but Tracy Playle’s talk was a great reminder that humour can be very effective – when used correctly.

Consider this example Tracy shared, where a college took a humorous approach to getting in front of their audience on this microsite, whythefuckshouldichooseoberlin.com.

This content strategist knew their audience, and knew that simply adding the F word a few times would (A) make this ‘funny’, and (B) make this message more engaging to a 17/18 year-old.

Is it funny? I think so. Is it appropriate? Probably not.

But ultimately, was it effective? You bet. This site has received a ton of media interest, backlinks, social sharing and user submitted content – all integral parts to the success of a campaign.

Check out Tracy’s talk for specifics on the science and formulas behind what makes people laugh, as well as examples of campaigns that have succeeded, and a few that have flopped. (Her talk is the 3rd video down on the page).

2. The most powerful tools available to us are often overlooked.

If content strategy was the overarching theme of Confab, a second theme came through loud and clear, and that is that we have to have empathy for the customer.

Never has it been more important to know, exactly, who your customer is, what they enjoy, what they value, and what they think, but also to anticipate and accommodate all of these elements in your content.

With an incredible number of products and competition out there, truly understanding who our customer is and what they need is the only thing that will set us apart going forward.

There’s so much content out there, so many ads, blog posts, tweets, and so on that are essentially ads for companies and brands. And this is the main reason content gets ignored.  As Gerry McGovern firmly pointed out, we have left the age of the organization. We’re now in the age of the customer, and we have to design systems that work for them.

The web is 100% about self-service, and nothing else. If we aren’t helping a customer achieve something – whether it’s to make a purchase, get an answer to a question, compare features and benefits – then we’re failing.

To do this, we have to have great insight into who our customers are. Wondering where to start? Here are a few ideas:

  • Conduct customer surveys
  • Talk to front desk staff to learn about the most common questions & issues
  • Take calls at the 1-800 number and ask customers what you can do to help them
  • Watch customers interact with your product or systems

1. We’re not alone.

The challenges facing the content strategy, marketing, and communications industries today aren’t unique. They’re so common that a whole conference was created (and routinely sells out!) to bring people together to discuss and learn from each other.

The more people I met at Confab, the more I realized that we really aren’t alone. The clients and the projects may be unique (keyword: may), but the challenges we face aren’t. We’re all learning to evolve as our industry, the channels, and ways of life progress – making communities like the one I joined at Confab so utterly necessary.


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