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Our Power to Shape a Field: Notes from Confab Central 2017

Content Strategy

This year marks an exciting time for content strategists. Not only is the field of Content Strategy coalescing around a brilliant, engaged community of Learning Workers. It’s also emerging full-force at the height of digital transformation.

The energy was striking at this year’s Confab Central in Minneapolis, where hundreds of people gathered to obsess collectively over how you see your digital world. Everyone at this conference shared a strong sense of budding responsibility: that content strategists play a key part in determining the new digital realities in which we interact and connect.

Businesses are coming to realize content as a major business asset. Content can also be the greatest impediment to success if it lacks the right talent and resources to optimize maintenance, design, and above all, strategy.

Workshop with Kristina Halvorson

On the first day, I attended a workshop led by Kristina Halvorson, who spent much of the time drilling into us the importance of strategy behind Content Strategy. Strategy is what differentiates us from content marketing or communications. Strategy is what will align your content with business goals. And strategy requires both foresight and analysis, both birds-eye and detailed views of the ecosystem (the people, the capabilities, the needs of a business). The key to Content Strategy success isn’t through sifting written material in some kind of isolated vacuum. The key comes from productive engagement with and deep knowledge about the right stakeholders. Content Strategy is an important space for the Learning Worker within your organization because of the systemic knowledge the role requires.

Above all, the content strategist can synthesize for digital ecosystems the internal language that circulates in and defines a business. Internal language is the stuff of your content: it defines your vision, goals, culture, and yes, strategy. Content strategists can convey consistently the desired tone and voice of a business. Through an analysis of that language, we can determine your organization’s strength and gaps, as well as identify its differentiating characteristic.

Halvorson’s workshop introduced one theme that resonated throughout the conference. Many speakers acknowledged productively that the definition of Content Strategy is under debate. That the field is still coalescing offers a promising opportunity for businesses. A field evolves through energetic conversation, revision, and refining. The speakers and the engaged audience were determining the field in the moment of each presentation, based on individual experience, successes, failures, and experiments.

Themes from the Field

The first keynote by Anne Handley characterized another major theme of the conference: the importance of empathy, user research, and social media data. Her talk agrees with others that would follow: that predetermined user personas, ready-made stories, and trendy but rushed innovation potentially impede your strategy. Remedy that by talking to people often. That way, you can reevaluate the story you want to tell and the language you want to use to tell it.

Other themes dominated the breakout sessions on the second and third day. Among them was structure. Structural analysis of organizations lead to better structured content, to smoother communication and collaboration across (sometimes necessary) silos, and to a view of content relationships, not just categories. Most importantly, fixed structure isn’t something to impose on content: structure is specific to every organization and it must remain flexible and organic.

The theme of centralization ran through the sessions in different ways. Many speakers elaborated on how strong Content Strategy centralizes and aligns content creation and maintenance throughout the organization. Centralization of Content Strategy efforts helps minimize content ROT and the hoarding that produces it. Centralization also makes the content principles and guidelines work hard, not workers. That way, working environments can retain flexibility.

The last theme of Confab Central was how Content Strategy revolves around human connection. In a memorable keynote address, LeVar Burton’s personal journey toward literacy advocacy reminded us of the stakes behind Content Strategy. His hugely successful 2015 Reading Rainbow kick starter and reboot redefines literacy as digital literacy and critical thinking. He emphasized how stories move relationships, and that the digital realm brings to bear new modes of storytelling.

Burton’s insights about the digital revolution in education has deep implications for Learning Workers. Device agnostic, advanced systems of learning will be learner-driven – a promising path for the adaptable employee experience. In a world of digital transformation, content matters deeply to how we will relate to one another and share knowledge. Content tells a story. And the story in which you invite user participation determines how business gets done. Businesses are in the face of an opportunity to help crystallize a field, and they have access to the talent it takes to shape it.

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