Confab 2015: Mind-blowing content & the theory of everything

Content Confab 2015: Mind-blowing content & the theory of everything

Everyone should have their mind blown at least once a day.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysicist and director Hayden Planetarium

Content strategy may not be rocket science, but that doesn’t mean it’s not complicated. Confab Central, covering everything from the complexity of the cosmos and the abyss of self-doubt to digital hoarders and drug-addicted cows, brought it all down to Earth.

Like the “star-stuff” that is part of everything in the universe, including you and me, content touches everything. It has the power to inspire or irritate, help or hurt, shock or awe, connect or divide. And your content strategy can mean the difference between creating an experience that’s out of this world—or that never takes off.

Content strategy is mission critical

In his opening keynote, Facebook Content Strategist Jonathan Colman said, “As content strategists, we solve problems for real people with defined needs who live and work in the here and now. But how does our work change when we’re planning content for projects that last for not one year or even 10 years, but for 10,000 years or more?”

Jonathan Colman delivers opening keynote at Confab 2015.
Facebook Content Strategist Jonathan Colman delivers an opening keynote with almost cosmic alignment to Confab’s Mission Critical conference theme. (Photo: confabevents)

Melting glaciers. Infectious diseases. Human wars. These are what are known as wicked problems—situations with “so much complexity, uncertainty, and interdependencies that they can’t be solved.” (And you thought your job was hard.) For example, how do you inform future civilizations about the danger of radioactive waste long after the generations that created it are gone? In this case, your “help” content could literally mean life or death. But you don’t even know what language your audience will speak or what symbols will mean anything to them.

Or imagine curating the content for an interstellar time capsule intended to communicate a story of our life on Earth to extraterrestrials. That’s the content strategy conundrum that Carl Sagan and his colleagues faced when creating the “Golden Records” for the Voyager I and II space missions in 1977. It will be 40,000 years before they make a close approach to any other planetary system. (Talk about future-proofing your content!)

“Whether we write copy, develop systems and interfaces, research people and their problems, structure content and data, design experiences and flows, or tell stories and earn attention… we have something in common with each other,” Jonathan said. “We stand united in dispelling ambiguity. We create meaning and make the complex clear.”

Intrigued? Jonathan's full transcript, slides and video are posted here.

We are not the center of the universe

Now, go back in time a couple of thousand years, to Aristotle and his Earth-centric view of the universe. In his closing keynote, Gerry McGovern said this is the way most organizations see themselves and approach their content. But we live in a customer-centric world today, and that means focusing on what customers need to know and do on your website, not your own self-interests. It also means having less content, but managing it better.

Gerry McGovern speaks about customer-focused content in Confab closing keynote.
“The old world is obsessed with production and generating things. It’s the cult of volume. It’s projects and content and apps. We need a new set of metrics that’s focused on outcomes, not inputs.”
— Gerry McGovern, Founder and CEO, Customer Carewords
(Photo: confabevents)

Comparing websites to baskets of rotten fruit that have been ignored for too long, Gerry said, “If content smelled, we’d all be wearing gas masks to work. Well, content may not smell but it sure can stink.” And it damages your organization’s ability to do business and succeed.

Throwing out your rotten content isn’t just a matter of good housekeeping:

—    When Columbia College in Chicago reduced the number of pages on their site from 36,000 to 944 (97%), they nearly doubled the number of student inquiries—the key success metric for their website.

—    Similarly, the Norwegian Cancer Society reduced their web pages from 5,000 to 1,000 (80%) and saw a 70% increase in one-time donations, an 88% increase in monthly donors registered, and a 164% increase in members registered.

Your digital closet is a black hole

Echoing the theme of less is more, Matthew Grocki of Grass Fed Content said the problem of too much content isn’t just about improving the customer experience. Digital clutter is also creating havoc for the internal users who have to manage it.

To bring order to this chaos, Matthew said you need to think about the digital habits of the people managing the content and find a way to work with—or around—them. You also have to focus on your process, not just your tools. And finally, we have to stop creating so much new content.

“I don’t want to hear about the content you’ve added. I want to know what you’ve retired,” Matthew said. “And you don’t have to wait for an audit.”

Matthew Grocki says we need to reduce digital clutter.
“We’re too fixated on the false importance of net-new content. It’s like a new car whose value immediately drops. We’re managing a depreciating asset because we haven’t structured it or tagged it to make it reusable or findable.”
—Matthew Grocki, Grass Fed Content

Getting to the right stuff

So, where do we begin?

Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, claimed to not have a clue what content strategists do but thought it might be similar to “information wranglers, dealing with crazy, drug-addicted cows.” When you feel immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead, you have to rein in self-doubt and just “be where your butt is.”

Author Anne Lamott tells Confab audience that writing is about discipline.
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor. Strive for 10% better. 10% is a miracle. Try. Fail. Try again. Fail better.”
— Anne Lamott, author, Bird by Bird

As Jonathan Colman said, “The drive to somehow become perfect and to create perfect things distracts us from what we’re supposed to be doing: making things better right now.” In other words, we get there by taking one small step, if not for mankind, then for our content, our clients, and ourselves.

Interested in venturing deeper?

Videos of select talks are posted on the Confab Central livestream site. Or register for Confab Intensive at the end of August in Portland, Ore., where Connective DX Co-founder Jeff Cram is leading a workshop on CMS selection: Getting beyond the bells and whistles to what really matters. 

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