Confab London 2013: Life Lessons on Content Strategy

Why am I here? What does it all mean? What’s the point? These are the questions life is made of, whatever shape the object happens to take at the time—a job, a city, a relationship, a Dairy Queen Hungr-Buster at 2am (don’t look at me like that—we’ve all been there). They also happen to be exactly the questions we should be asking of our content.

This parallel struck me during the first day of Confab London, the international manifestation of Brain Traffic’s content strategy conference. And once it did, I couldn’t stop seeing it.

The inimitable Ginny Redish, author of Letting Go of the Words and godmother of good web writing, showed us how she illustrates content to skeptical or curious businesses: by building a stool. (Cue Stool Boom. Now, good luck getting it out of your head.) The first things you need are legs—these critical, foundational supports are information architecture, design, and technology. But what are they doing there? What’s the point of the legs? To support the seat: content, of course.

I love this analogy; it’s simple, accurate, and easy to understand. And it can be reframed to fit into the life/content parallel. Technology is your biological life (heart, lungs, brain). Architecture is your intellectual life (your knowledge, beliefs, and morals). And design is your emotional life (your personality, sense of humor, and feelings). But content is the substance of your life—the actions, decisions, and relationships that are fueled by those three pillars and tell your life story.

I think we can frame not just what content is, but what makes it smart, strategic, and engaging, in the context of life too.

Life Lesson: Take responsibility for your actions

Kristina Halvorson kicked off Confab with a lively Top 10-themed keynote, which included the idea that our success is so often measured by our volume of activity: how much work are we generating at any given moment, and how quickly? But we can’t just keep churning out content and leaving it at that. We have to acknowledge and plan for its lifecycle, from launch to management to maintenance to measurement. Content is a living thing, and we have to treat it as such.

Delivering a rousing mandate for mobile content, Karen McGrane called for a different kind of responsibility. When staggeringly high percentages of low-income and minority Americans (and even higher percentages among citizens of other countries) have no broadband connection at home or at all, smartphones become their primary, and sometimes their only, means of accessing the Internet. To neglect to structure your content for mobile, then, seems tantamount to shutting out a huge segment of the population. Businesses have a responsibility to make their content available and accessible to everyone—and smart, cross-platform content strategy facilitates that.

Life Lesson: Respect other people’s feelings

Ginny Redish put it simply: great writing is about the customer, not about the business. Your business’s website isn’t there to sell your products to customers; it’s there to allow your customers to buy your products. It’s there to help them understand why your products will benefit them. Moreover, the voice of your customer should always be loudest: let your content reflect their questions, feelings, and desired actions, rather than your goals. It will resonate with them much more strongly.

The superb VoiceAndTone.com delves into this page after page, and creator Kate Kiefer Lee spoke about the power of empathy in creating effective content. Content not only makes people do things—it also makes people feel things. When a customer service associate or sales rep helps a customer over the phone or in person, she will almost certainly adapt her tone to the customer’s mood, concerns, and feelings. Why should web content be any less human?

And more specifically, we might consider our user journeys—the paths our users take to, through, and from our content—in the context of their feelings, not just their demographics. Chris Atherton explained how using attitudinal user journeys can help us deal with sensitive topics like mental illness, well, sensitively. If we are aware of our users’ feelings and design our content strategies accordingly, we’ll almost certainly engage them in a much deeper and more enduring way.

Life Lesson: Follow your gut

There’s such a thing as “data hypnosis,” Erin Kissane explained in a talk about the continued relevance of editorial strategy. We should be asking questions first, then looking at data, rather than letting existing data dictate our content strategies from the get-go. While it is indeed a must-have tool in the content strategist’s kit, data can’t—and shouldn’t—replace sound editorial judgment about what works (or doesn’t) and why.

Neither can the power of a galvanizing mission be underestimated, per Matt Thompson’s exploration of the “quest” as a means of engagement. When it comes to inspiring passion and action, there’s nothing more powerful than elevating a driving purpose, rather than a product. Bring into focus a mission your customers can rally around, and you’ll unlock a sense of investment in and loyalty to your brand. You’ll inspire a genuine gut feeling that no amount of marketing speak can touch.

And there’s no better example of following your gut than that of Sarah Richards and the gov.uk team, who trimmed 75k pages across two sites to 3k pages of effective, focused content by relentlessly gut-checking the usefulness, relevance, and appeal of every single piece. (Oh, and they’ve saved the government £50-70 million as a result.)

Life lesson: Be a good listener

How to better understand your customers’ needs and preferences? Talk to them, said Kerry-Anne Giloway, and listen not just to the answers to your questions, but to their questions, their uncertainties, and even their word choices. They can reveal who influences your customers, what role your business plays in their lives, and what drives their preferences, all of which are far more useful than a stack of straightforward Q&As or online survey results. They reveal the human motivations behind your customers’ actions—even the ones they themselves aren’t aware of.

But being a good listener isn’t just about listening to people—it’s also about listening to digital experiences themselves. Margot Bloomstein advocated for slowing down when appropriate: when customers might be better served and more satisfied by knowing more and understanding finer facets of a product or action. Sometimes, it’s about listening to the brand itself. Some brands lend themselves to a greater sense of space, pause, and reflection. By stopping to listen, you can create a content strategy that honors brand values and customer needs, even if it means simply slowing things down.

Life lesson: Believe in yourself

“Be FLAWSOME!” Ann Handley urged us to accept and celebrate our flaws. Owning up to our mistakes makes our content more authentic and our brands more accessible and relatable to our customers.

“We are the right people to figure out the costs and returns of content.” Melissa Rach’s talk on cash (and Johnny Cash) defused anxieties about dealing with matters of business and money head-on.

“Strategy lives in delivery, not meetings.” Leisa Reichelt encouraged us to replace formal documentation and compulsive meeting-scheduling with a brave new mindset of proactive prototyping to see our content strategies come to life.

“Have COURAGE.” Gerhard Arnhofer unpacked an acronym anchored by a simple message about tackling the fear that comes along with institutionalizing content strategy.

Much of the time, content strategy is about taking a deep breath, diving in, and making scary decisions. It’s about insisting on the importance of something that not everyone understands; we’re no strangers to tough crowds. And it’s about doing the arduous, unavoidable, pain-in-the-ass stuff that others would rather ignore.

We can’t waste time hemming and hawing over whether it really is that important, or worrying that people won’t believe us, or trying to stay behind the scenes. There’s too much disorganized, ill-formed, and just bad content out there.

It’s up to us to make it mean something.



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