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I think I finally understand what Woodstock must have been like. Being at ConFab 2011, The Content Strategy Conference, hosted by BrainTraffic, is like a big warm content strategy hug. No matter how unstructured the state of corporate content is, it’s nice to know that there’s a safe place to share ideas, gain support from the content community and have the freedom to investigate new strategies, ideas and approaches.

From keynote to sessions, the aim of ConFab hasn’t been to tell us what we’re doing wrong, but instead to tell us how awesome it is that we’re working to make it better. That isn’t to say we’re being petted and pleased into complacency. Rather, we’re being encouraged and empowered to keep on keeping on and learning how to prepare our organizations for the challenges ahead.

Why Content Strategy? Why Now?

While content strategy isn’t new, it certainly has gained momentum over the past few years. So why is content strategy so relevant and popular now more than ever? As Kristina Halvorson, CEO of BrainTraffic, author and Content Strategy Queen Bee puts it, it’s because our content is so “messed up.” For too long we’ve been working in silos and now thanks to the accessibility of mobile web, users demand access to content across multiple platforms when they want it and how they want it. As a result, our strategies need to catch up or risk falling behind further.

Armed with intellectual action verbs (articulate, investigate, integrate, appreciate, ideate) and empowered not jump to conclusions or solutions, but to embrace different content perspectives, ideas and disciplines, we set out to learn about the content ecosystem within our organizations and professional lives.

Navigating the Content Ecosystem

As it turns out the content ecosystem is a lot like the Amazon rainforest. Most of it needs to be preserved so as not to harm what works. But for what doesn’t work, you don’t need to tear it down. Instead, you need advocate for change by offering options for soliciting ideas and solutions. 

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You can start by understanding the different roles that enable a successful content strategy. According to the “Z” process for content creation, there are 5 different roles: creator, advancer, flexor, refiner and executor. All are vital to the process and knowing which one you are can help you understand how your ecosystem works.

How to Hack (and Innovate) Your Content Strategy

But what if your ecosystem thrives within a hacking culture, like Facebook? Sarah Cancilla, Facebook’s first official content strategist, guided us through the process of promoting awareness about content strategy in an environment that supports risk taking and encourages failure, as long as it inspires and accelerates innovation.

Instead of bemoaning your developer's lack of writing skills, instead, in the spirit of ConFab, use it as an opportunity to learn a new language. Working to define their role (probably an executor) can help you understand their motives and their motivation. At Facebook, Sarah employed the Potato-based method of communicating.

  • Raw Potato: dry, technical
  • Baked Potato: clear & concise
  • French Fries: clear, concise, informal
  • Chilli-Cheese Fries: clear, concise, irreverent

By playing the "if you were a potato, what kind would you be" game you can identify the type of language needed to get your point across effectively. Lest you think that this wasn't successful, Sarah assures that across Facebook you can now hear "that's a chilli-cheese fry idea!"

Typically, content strategists will spend their time honing their content until it's just right. But Sarah encourages us to take a cue from developers and learn how to advance our content not when it's ready, but before it's ready. Put it out there and refine it along the way -- let it evolve by allowing users to engage with it. You may not get it right the first time, but you won't be innovating it if you hold back.

The Wisdom of the Little Blue Book

Nothing excites content strategists more than a little blue book. Of course, I'm talking about The Elements of Content Strategy, a simple, yet satisfying book authored by Erin Kissane. In a packed break out, Erin walked us through the evolution of the web, social networks and online engagement, and explained what it means for managing the new content landscape.

Is the web dead? Are apps living up to the hype? Does everyone still need a blog? Is the iPad killing and saving magazines? These questions may not seem terribly relevant to content strategy, but they are.

Erin says reactive and fragmented decisions are not helping, but it’s our problem to solve. As technology continues to emerge in a more accessible and affordable environment, it’s not just us asking these types of questions. Suddenly, our c-suite is asking about XML, Twitter and HTML5. Now it’s even harder to streamline the way companies adapt and innovate. Forget web standards -- no one really cares -- they just want to keep up with their competitors

Instead of feeling overwhelmed, in true ConFab style, Erin encourages us to find the opportunity out of chaos. It’s an opportunity for us to create a new framework for our content strategy.  

The Web, Print, Digital Media is not dead, it’s just another life form

By maximizing your options, you can shape your content in ways that are intrinsically alive. Create content that offers valuable opportunities for engagement and give your content valuable qualities:

  • Accessible
  • Searchable
  • Findable
  • Shareable
  • Selectable
  • self-aware
  • portable
  • usable in many ways

When we start to think about content strategy in the realm of engagement, the opportunities for integration and collaboration open up. ConFab 2011 dares us to be less cynical, skeptical and overall grumpy about the state of content strategy. There aren’t challenges, only opportunities to innovate. The more we work to promote and reinforce what works, while advocating to change for what doesn’t, the better we are positioned to influence, rather than manipulate.