Confab Intensive: Content Strategy Tools

CONTENT Tools & techniques to keep content strategy more strategic

Content is at the center of a lot of conversations these days, in businesses of all shapes and sizes. The thing is, this conversation often ends with a mandate to create more content. Prevailing winds say as long as you’re putting content out there, people will find it, and money will pour in.

If only it were that simple.

The trick is, you need to know if it’s working. And to know if it’s working, you have to measure against a goal. You need to know why you’re creating all that content. And who it’s for. And what you expect of it. You need a strategy that connects your brand story to customer experience. But where to start?

The folks at Confab Events realized that although there are many conferences about content strategy out there (and they’ve been hosting one of the most successful for a while), content strategists need more than speaker presentations; they’re looking for hands-on, tactical learning. The first Confab Intensive, recently held in Portland, Oregon, featured a series of three-hour workshops focused on key concepts and methodologies that content strategists need to master. This arms content strategists, or whoever is responsible for all that content, with the tools to push for the user, to ask why, and to keep it strategic. Here are some highlights.

Discovery tools and techniques

I think we all feel a certain amount of anxiety at the start of a project. There are so many unknowns, so many questions. And yet, all too often the scope has already been defined (without us). Kerry-Anne Gilowey, an independent content strategy consultant from Cape Town, South Africa, offered a few of the most useful tools and techniques for getting the most out of your discovery phase:

  • Take notes! Memories fail and patterns can be missed if details aren’t captured.
  • Talk to people one-on-one. People feel more free in private.
  • Listen during workshop activities. Most of the value in workshops is listening to the conversations your stakeholders are having amongst themselves. Keep your ears open.

I also liked the anecdotal tip of sorting your findings on paper or stickies. Card sort, make groupings, find themes and patterns. My thought process is much better through analog tools (for example, organizing taxonomies with stickies arranged in folders), but I'd never thought of doing this with discovery notes.

But whether analog or digital, Kerry-Anne emphasizes that all tools are just that. Tools. Not a set direction. We must not workshop for the sake of a workshop. Every situation is different. Tailor activities and artifacts to get the most valuable assets based on goals.

Cross-channel content planning

When working with clients there is always a chance of missing something because you don't know what you don't know. If you don't hear about campaign X, how can you account for it when creating a comprehensive plan or calendar? So it's up to us to ask the right questions.

Erin Scime’s workshop on cross-channel content planning provided a framework for mapping out a comprehensive content ecosystem. She offered hands-on experience in getting your arms around marketing activities across paid, earned and owned channels, including the role of each, where it drives users, and the call to action. This gives each touchpoint a reason for being and a way of measuring to ensure it is performing against business goals.

The Core Model

The Core Model has received wide acclaim ever since Norwegian content strategists Audun Rundberg and Ida Aalen described the approach in their A List Apart article. This article has gotten a lot of attention, even though the ideas are based on Are Halland’s presentation at IA Summit 2007. The ideas in the Core Model are not unique—but Audun and Ida accompany them with a framework that is simple to follow.

In the workshop we got to follow that framework. After reviewing a case study, we broke into pairs and identified the proper business goals, user tasks, incoming paths, core content, and exit paths.

This exercise accomplishes two major things necessary for a successful content strategy.

  • First, it gets colleagues who may not work together often talking about business goals and the user. Coming from different jobs they likely have different ideas of what is important and who the customer is. By working together they gain insight they may not have had alone.
  • Second, it puts content first. Not a word is written nor a graphic designed before knowing what that content does to meet a business goal and user need. This helps keep just enough content to be useful and usable.

Content modeling for personalization

It seems everyone today wants to personalize. But often people forget how much planning that takes—and how much content they may be signing up to create. Content models help make explicit many of the implicit requirements that can come from the “must personalize!” mandate.

Cleve Gibbon and Kate Kenyon of UK-based Cognifide took us through the paces, level setting what a content model is and how to identify the component parts, as well as what personalization is and when it should be used.

Great experiences require content to flow like water, Cleve says, from screen size to location to history. And all the tools used to transform and transport content, to deliver that great experience, should stay smooth and behind the scenes. That means content must be raw (independent of formatting), self-describing (include metadata), and modular (structured as components for reuse). You might think of each piece of content like a stick of unsalted butter that can be used in many different recipes. The content model then communicates these attributes to designers and architects through the content model.

A presentation slide depicting the importance of content models
If you don't have the model to outline each piece of content and how it relates to other pieces of the ecosystem, you can't personalize.

Building a performance-driven model

If anyone was fuzzy on what the “strategy” in content strategy really meant, Paula Land and Kevin P. Nichols cleared it up in this session, with its focus on identifying goals and their corresponding metrics. This is where governance meets measurement, where content is regularly evaluated against business goals to ensure business performance.

Instead of subjective assessments of whether content is gooduseful, and usable, we can identify truly effective content and then replicate what works. Kevin P. Nichols takes this idea a step further, saying we must ensure that analytics encompasses qualitative as well as quantitative metrics.

Of course, good analysis also requires user input. Leverage personas and customer journeys to map your audiences, paths and channels, and conduct regular reviews to keep your customer journeys relevant. Tools like Paula’s content inventory tool can make it easier to collect, analyze and govern data to keep content fresh and aligned with audiences and business goals.

Confab Intensive not only provided practical content strategy tools and techniques to take back to work, but also new ways of collaborating with people from vastly different organizations and learning better ways to articulate the value of a solid content strategy.

Top photo by Sean Tubridy/Confab Events

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