Levelling up: Improving content strategy skills at Confab

Photo credit Confab
  • By Blaine Kyllo
  • |
  • Apr 30 2019
Categories: |Events

I’ll be honest with you. I’m productive. I can get a lot done in a week.

But I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced three days as fulfilling as last week, when I attended Confab 2019.

My goal in being in Minneapolis at this event was to make myself more valuable to our clients. I was looking to level up my skills and add tools to my kit.

The program put together by Kristina Halvorson and her team at Brain Traffic was promising and did not disappoint.

Determining the value of content

One of the things that we all have a difficult time with is proving the value of good content. I learned from Sarah Richards how important it is to differentiate between the success of content and the value of content.

For example, content success is having lots of customers signing up for your company’s newsletter. Content value is your customer being able to easily find out how to place an order.

And therein lies the truth of Richards’ claim that “traffic is a vanity metric”. With some pages you want a high bounce rate. If a utility company has a page with information about current outages, they want people to land on that page, quickly get the information they need, and leave. A high bounce rate can indicate that a customer has fulfilled a need.

To really determine whether your content is successful and has value, though, you need to understand what your content needs to do. And this comes from business goals that are clear, measurable, and which have been established at the top.

Richards also shared a fascinating formula for calculating the cost of content. It takes into account the entire scope of resources that go into creating content, including the salaries of the writers, all the people involved in reviewing and approving content and anyone else involved in getting content through the process and systems and into a published state. It’s not precise, but it doesn’t need to be. As a ballpark amount it can communicate to stakeholders how much they are spending on content that may not have the impact and effect the business needs.

Becoming a better facilitator

I spend a lot of time running workshops and facilitating meetings and conversations, and there were two sessions at Confab this year that will help me improve.

Dan Brown gave participants in his workshop a list of “moves,” his word for anything a facilitator can do or say to shift what’s happening in a meeting or workshop. Examples include “asking a question differently” and “ask participants to draw a picture”.

He also gave us a chance to think about what kinds of moves come naturally to us and which we might be uncomfortable putting into practice. It’s important, Brown reasons, to have this awareness so you can be prepared to stretch out of our comfort zones.

Tracy Playle is another expert workshop leader, and in her session I was inundated with different tools and techniques that I can start using in the workshops I run. New activities I’m looking forward to using include “draw a superhero” and how to use Lego blocks for workshop partcipants to assign priorities.

Playle also gave me permission to let workshop participants go off on tangents once in a while. If you listen carefully when people travel these “rabbit warrens” there is much to be learned.

Interrogating problems

Dan Brown did double duty at Confab. The day after his workshop he was on the main stage sharing his Information Architecture Lenses.

Brown defines a lens as being “a perspective from which to consider, explore, and interrogate a design decision” and his suite of lenses are 51 questions that he’s organized into eight categories. One category is “how to present” and one of the cards refers to “titles versus labels” and asks: “How does the structure highlight and distinguish what something is and what it’s called?”

While the cards were designed for information architects as a way for them to get perspective on projects, I believe they are useful in any content context as a way to ask questions about what we’re doing and why.

Understanding the squidgy aspects of content

Content is made for humans. (Okay, most content is made for humans. I think I’ve seen some that may have been made for dogs. Or cats.)

But humans are not universally the same. Our brains operate differently, we’ve had varied experiences, and we find different meaning and context in content. It is up to content strategists to help businesses understand and navigate that reality.

In addition to the workshop on content ROI, Sarah Richards also gave an impassioned presentation on accessibility, which she insists is “not dumbing down” but “opening up”. Richards explained that disability is not necessarily a permanent condition. It can be temporary, if I’ve got a broken leg, or situational, if I’ve got an infant in one arm, for example. While we often disable people with the choices we make about content, if we design content that is accessible it is also extraordinarily usable. That makes it more effective.

I gained an appreciation for cognitive bias, the shortcuts our brains take everyday in order to cope with the influx of information. David Thomas not only explained this complicated concept in a way that made it easy to understand, but he also clearly articulated the implications if we do not confront these biases. “We pass on the values of our society in how we structure our content,” Thomas explained. That’s a big responsibility.

Businesses also have a responsibility to be equitable, and Marchaé Grair presented a number of tactics that can be used to create content spaces that are inclusive and safe for marginalized communities. There were two things Grair said that really resonated with me, a cis-gendered, white male.

The first was how important it is to consider the content being created from the perspective of the people who might be seeing it or using it. Tied to this is the notion that co-opting the messages of groups you do not belong to is dehumanizing. If you are creating content for a specific audience, put those people at the centre of the content. And make sure you’ve got representatives from that community participating in the creation of the content.

The second thing Grair said that I found so enlightening was that the right to share an opinion, often mischaracterized as being free speech, does not override another person’s right to spaces that are safe and free of hate and ignorance.

Leaving better than I arrived

I came away from Confab 2019 a more skilled content strategist. I was educated, energized, and affirmed. I’ve got new tools and more expertise to put into use which will help clients.

We’re often explaining that content strategy is not a project, but a practice. Events like Confab help us do that.

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