Confab 2016: Living, Learning, and Geeking Out Over Content Strategy

Last week, we sent a representative from our content team to Confab 2016. A place for like-minded word geeks, organizational fanatics, and great communicators to get together to talk about the practice of content strategy, trends, tips, and tricks. This is what she learned.

For my entire career I’ve been organizing information, understanding audiences, defining communication goals, telling brand stories. But, only in recent years have I found a label that encompassed all these individual pieces: content strategy. This struggle to define what it is I do has given me a unique appreciation for the opportunity to join others who have had similar aha moments. An opportunity to work together as we shape and define what is simultaneously, both the youngest and oldest of practices. Here are a few things I learned in the process.

It’s Still Being Defined

The most posited question at the conference was “What is Content Strategy?” Even after six years as a conference dedicated to discussing the nuances and driving the practice of content strategy, Confab is still trying to define the term itself. That’s because it’s growing, evolving, and pivoting to accommodate the technologies and trends it was designed to support. The Minneapolis maven of content strategy, Kristina Halvorson defined it as such:

Content strategy guides the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.

Still, despite this concise explanation and her role in putting a framework around the world of content strategy, even Kristina admits that the definition isn’t set in stone. Ultimately it’s about delivering on business goals not just through the what of content, but through the how, when, for whom, with what, where, when how often, what next. And that looks different for every organization, situation, and project.

It’s Flexible and Adapts to Individual Needs

In his talk, Corey Vilhauer, explained that every organization needs to write their own book when it comes to content strategy. It is not a dogma, and all those questions we strive to answer as content strategists: Who is it for? What do they want? How do we get there? Actually need to be answered on an organizational level before we can answer them for our audiences.

With this in mind, we can surmise that content strategy isn’t a prescriptive process, but more a list of menu items that can be reconfigured and applied to help different organizations reach their individual goals. This means regardless of the ideals we have in our heads about how content strategy should work, we have to understand the purpose of what we’re doing for a specific project. We have to make decisions around what will really move the needle and proceed with goals, not strict processes, in mind.

You Have to Make Mistakes

One of the beautiful things about working within a practice that is essentially in its infancy is mistakes are not only okay, they are necessary. They are how we learn to do what we do, better. Even seemingly minor errors provide room for some large learnings. James Callan took us through his time as the first content strategist for Sur La Table and how they learned that something as minor as a single word can impact an entire user experience.

When he joined the team, it had been long understood that the tool used to flip a pancake can be referred to as a spatula, flipper, or turner depending on the shopper. Offline this had little impact on the shopping experience, but take those little discrepancies to online search and suddenly you have lost users and frustrated customers. Upon reaching this realization, the team updated the tags and terminology on the site to better accommodate the disparate vocabulary of their shoppers. In the end, one minor mistake was turned into an opportunity to better serve their audience.

Content is a Competition

Tracy Playle had one of the most insightful takeaways from the entire conference. She suggested that our content (not product) now determines how we stack up against the competition. Of course, we’ve always known our content has to be engaging to capture our audiences. But, at the crux of it, most brands still believe they are competing with rivals in their industries solely on the basis of price, product, and service.

The reality is that the competition has changed. And brands with the most compelling narratives will win. This has been one of the biggest shifts in the content strategy sphere. For the longest time practitioners believed more was better as we worked to feed the SEO beast and rise to the top of consideration. But, now, with the size of the digital universe doubling every two years, more is just more noise. Better is what’s going to get noticed.

As is often the case when spending time immersed with some of the most brilliant practitioners in any given field, the opportunity for education at Confab was ostensibly endless, but I think what it all comes down to is the idea that we can’t stop learning. This applies to not only the practice of content strategy, but the deliverables themselves. We have to be able to accept content as a living thing that needs to adapt as we understand more about how it works to help brands achieve their goals.