Crosstown Digital Communications

Confab Reflections

On May 15-16, I had the pleasure of attending the finest content strategy conference in these here United States, Confab. Over on Meet Content, Rick and I posted a ton of coverage from the conference, including:

That’s a lot! But I had a few additional ruminations that didn’t quite fit in that coverage. I shared a version of these thoughts at last week’s Content Strategy New England meetup, which featured other great recaps from Confab. (P.S. If you’re interested in content strategy, July is your month! Brain Traffic, the fab organizers of Confab, are declaring July to be Content Strategy Meetup Month. Find your meetup and go meet other folks who love to think about content. You don’t have to be a content strategist, per se — you just need to want to talk about content with fun, smart people.)

Anyhow, some of my spare thoughts on Confab:

Face the Future

One of my favorite quotes from last year’s Confab came from Erin Kissane, who observed, “It’s a weird time for publishing.” iPads, Kindles, time-shifted reading, you name it — there was a lot more to think about. But if was weird then, it’s downright bizarro now. Responsive web design has become a (nerdy) household word, we’re still figuring out mobile, our CMSes still often fail us and folks are buzzing about the value of a little thing called structured content.

Well, if last year’s Confab was an acknowledgment that the times they are a-changin’, this year we began to figure out what to do about it. From Cleve Gibbon’s discussion of CMSes and content architecture and valued tool to Karen McGrane’s clarion call of a closing keynote to embrace adaptive content, the whole conference was peppered with valuable, practical strategies and tactics for facing the future of publishing head on. It was just what we needed.

Journalism is Vindicated

I am a huge advocate of bringing lessons from online journalism to higher ed web publishing, so I was hearted to hear Kissane and McGrane relate to the field in their talks. In Kissane, which explored a wide range of ideas and inspirations from fields beyond content strategy, she talked about the promise of big data and how journalists are leading the way in using it to craft narratives.

Then McGrane shared a great nugget with the crowd as to why journalism is also ahead of the game when it comes to structured content — they’ve been publishing structured content for years. Hed, dek, lede, captions, cutlines, nut grafs—that’s structure, and that’s an inherent part of newsroom workflow.

Culture Club

When you think about it, the way you approach content reflects an institutional value. Multiple sessions at Confab addressed this. Fidelity’s Juli Smith talked about content strategy from an anthropological perspective — the need to observe the landscape, embrace the organizational values and understand the context in which the organization operates. She likened content strategy to terroir, the characteristics that geography, geology or climate lend to produce such as wine, coffee or tea.

From change agents to content sympathizers to the various relationships that ensure good work gets done, Smith reminded us that people are always at the heart of it. The other core component is process—even in content strategy, there are symbols and ceremony that are important.

Gerhard Arnhofer from Merck shared a case study of his company’s project to create Univadis, a portal for health professionals, out of a tangle of 20 CMSes, 250 content streams and no shared taxonomy. Such an effort, said Arnhofer, requires COURAGE—choosing partners carefully, outsourcing sensibly, understanding your environment, reusing what’s worth keeping, automating what you can, galvanizing your team, and evaluating your efforts.

For Arnhofer, building a culture around content meant ensuring only people who believed in content strategy were part of the team. In addition, he emphasized the value of alliances, information sharing and leveraging institutional knowledge for future efficiency.

There’s no single methodology for creating a content-centric culture, but it’s a huge priority. Content is a cultural value, and from authors to strategists to top level stakeholders, you need a shared vision in order to excel.

Preach It

While Confab is a somewhat elevated discussion of the ins and outs of content strategy, digital publishing and related concerns, the conference made me realize how fundamental those concerns are, and that I need to keep talking and learning about it. Why? Because it affects everybody. Content is a ubiquitous thing that people rely on heavily and invest in substantially.

The future of publishing a big deal. It matters a lot. Luckily, there’s a healthy community of people both in and out of higher ed who are constantly talking and presenting about this stuff. But we need to bust out beyond the echo chamber of fellow content nerds and preach the good word to the uninitiated. We need to advocate and evangelize. As I’ve charged audiences in the past, go tell it on the mountain! The future is depending on you.

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