Personal Reactions to Confab: Relief, Challenges, and a Content Strategy Manifesto for .Edu
Passionate. Engaged. Daring. Friendly. Supportive. Funny. Motivated. Optimistic. Oh, and cake-loving.
That’s a very short (and highly curated) list of adjectives that describes the folks who attended Confab last week. Some could legitimately claim to be content strategists, and a few could boast that they were doing content strategy before the term was invented. Others were seeking to learn what content strategy is all about … and how it could be applied in their organizations.
As for me, I left the conference relieved. Relieved because I believe that mStoner stumbled into “content strategy” some time ago and has been practicing the discipline for awhile. But I also feel challenged because I recognize how much those of us in .edu have to do to get institutions and their leaders to care about content and content strategy.
Don’t know about Confab? Here’s the short version: it was the creation of Kristina Halvorson (@halvorson), the author of a key work, Content Strategy for the Web. There were a lot of speakers with amazing insights to share. If you want to learn about some of them, here are links to 50+ conference resources:blog posts about the conference, slides, and other goodies, courtesy of Firehead. I’d also recommend the post by Meet Content, “Higher Ed Takeaways from Confab 2011: The Content Strategy Conference.”
Attendees ranged from the head of Hilton Hotels’ content strategy team to Facebook’s content strategy lead,who did a fascinating presentation about content strategy at Facebook. About four dozen people from higher ed attended.
I remember reading about Confab and thinking, “Sounds interesting: I should learn more about this.”
As a concept, “Content strategy” made intuitive sense to me. Kristina’s book is one of the few I’ve read lately that I wish I had written. And as a business owner who is (really) passionate about doing the absolute best work that we can for our clients, I was curious to know what mStoner could learn at Confab about content strategy and how it could benefit our clients.
When we launched mStoner in 2001, we didn’t want to focus just on the way our sites looked. We wanted to focus on content and how it was organized and sustained. And that approach became one of our strong differentiators (and it still is). But, I wondered, would I learn at Confab that our approach to content strategy sucked?
Imagine my relief when I discovered that mStoner has done pretty well. Because we recognized how desperately our clients needed tools, processes, and tactics to make sense out of and manage their content, our team incorporated elements of content strategy into our client engagements from the very first:
- We baked into our process an exploration of what content our clients produced—and how they used it and sustained it on their websites.
- We advocated hiring and supporting staff who could develop effective content.
- We focused on process.
- We encouraged clients to curate content on their websites.
- We became experts in the tools needed to manage and deploy content.
- We train our clients on how to do all these things with the tools we installed.
- And, since 2009, we’ve incorporated content from the social web on our sites.
This process didn’t result from following a playbook (we didn’t have one!). And we didn’t call it “content strategy.” As a small team, we had to be pragmatic generalists rather than focused practitioners of a single element of content strategy.We’re in a good place as a company: we’re refining our practice of content strategy—primarily by focusing on methodology and process—not starting from scratch.
Challenges for .Edu
But we’re not only practitioners, we’re educators and thought leaders. In that capacity, there’s a lot more that we can do to help .edu understand the importance and value of content strategy.
During her keynote at Confab, Ann Handley (@MarketingProfs and coauthor of the must-read Content Rules), urged us all to “embrace the fact that you—the brand—are a publisher.” And, in fact, “today, all brands are publishers” was simply accepted as truth at Confab.
The right content helps to deliver value, create trust, and build relationships with people who can be motivated to take actions—apply, join, friend, comment, give—that benefit themselves and the organization.
Our clients—schools, colleges, and universities—don’t recognize this fundamental truth. Plenty of content is being created on any campus, but few institutions think strategically about managing and deploying it, much less measuring its value. They must begin to think and act as if content matters. Because it does.
Without the realization that content is a strategic asset, staff members end up in the position of Michael Fienen, who presented about implementing a stealth content strategy. At Pittsburg State University, Michael works largely by himself to guide development of the university’s website, using persuasion and kindness (and coffee!) to help his colleagues improve their areas of the site. He has a tiny budget and limited resources. And the sad fact is that Michael isn’t alone: many institutions have someone in exactly the same position, if a lot less talented.
One clear message from Confab was that many organizations don’t understand content strategy, so we who work in education are not alone. But few industries are under as much pressure these days as are colleges and universities. I can’t foresee many colleges adding chief content officers to their leadership teams anytime soon.
So here’s the challenge for us and for everyone who works in .edu and understands the value of content: how can we help to build a persuasive case for the strategic importance of content in education marketing?
As consultants, we can play an important role in educating our clients about these and related issues. But how can we do more? Since its founding, mStoner has worked hard not just to serve our clients well but also to identify, pioneer, and share best practices.
There was a palpable sense at Confab that we were all part of a somewhat historic moment. Content strategy is poised to take off as a discipline. And a discipline needs tools: methodology, models, case studies, approaches, best practices … all to be shared, debated, iterated, debated, refined. Rinse and repeat.
So we are mStoner are going to be much more active about advocating the value of content strategy. And we intend to do what we can to contribute to formalizing the emerging discipline called “content strategy” and communicating to education how essential is. We hope you’ll join us.