“It’s so important to us [at Confab] that people who are approaching content from one perspective have an opportunity to hear other perspectives and learn new things and get outside their comfort zone.” Kristina Halvorson, founder of Brain Traffic, is here with us this week to talk about what those different perspectives are, and the singular purpose that content strategists and UX professionals share.
At Confab Central, content’s more than just the icing on the cake. For three days in May, Minneapolis, MN becomes a mecca for content creators, curators, managers, owners, and (of course) strategists, as the team at Brain Traffic hosts a conference filled with everyone from leaders in the field to first-time speakers. Their objective is simple, yet amazingly difficult: to bring together the many people who work with content and help them help each other.
- Thank you so much for speaking with us today Kristina! To get started, tell us a little about your own background, and how you came to content strategy.
- I first encountered content strategy as a copywriter for the UX community. Content strategy is so important in the UX process, but it also impacts many other areas. In fact, everyone wants to “own” the content!
Content touches marketing and design, tech and PR. There are so many inputs to content and the way it’s created, stored, managed, and distributed, that the pipe dream is that everyone has a hand in content creation and strategy.
More and more I don’t think that’s going to work, but I’m not sure what will. Some people are setting up centers for “content excellence,” which focuses on content as its own separate entity, but those centers aren’t empowered to do anything except share best practices. The process is still evolving, and the evolution of a content process that everyone touches was really the vision for Confab. We’ve got UX, marketing, tech, corporate communications, intranet teams, support content people, and legal. They all agree that their content is a mess! So at Confab we want to get them all in one room to start talking about it and dig through the pain points to understand the actual root causes of their problems.
I don’t know what the answer is, or how to solve those problems. It’s different from company to company, based on the company’s culture, organizational structure, industry, and where the leadership’s head is. That’s part of why I love content strategy and part of why I lose sleep at night: there isn’t just one answer.
- Our work would be so much easier if there were!
- I know! That’s part of what drove me initially. People are just so unhappy when it comes to trying to get the right content live on their websites. We started Confab to get everyone into one room and say “let’s try to find some shared common ground to ease this process and help take care of each other and not fight all the time.”
- It’s an important goal. This year will be the fifth year of Confab Central. Over the past five years, how has that goal evolved?
- It’s so important to us that people who are approaching content from one perspective have an opportunity to hear other perspectives and learn new things and get outside their comfort zone. What we have seen evolve is that while people come to Confab from all across the organization—which is awesome—it is mostly people looking at content through a few specific lenses:
- The UX and editorial lens: how can we design this content for the user and shape the conversation?
- The marketing and strategy lens: how do we use content in the sales cycle and customer retention?
- The CMS and engineering lens: how do we build this content so that it can be efficiently used and managed?
- The workflow and governance lens: how are we wrangling, measuring, and sharing content as a strategic asset within the organization, while keeping it up to a high standard?
For Confab Intensive, the workshop series we’re giving in Portland, we have loosely divided sessions into those four tracks. For Confab Central we haven’t separated talks into tracks, but we try to provide something for each of those lenses by asking the Confab community what they would like to learn.
Every year we send out a survey to our mailing list, and we get hundreds and hundreds of responses. We learn what their biggest challenges are and what opportunities they see, what trends are forming and what areas people are struggling with, and we select topics from there. In other words, the Confab community collaboratively designs and builds Confab Central.
The umbrella theme is always the same: let’s come together, across all of our different disciplines, and wrangle with these awesome, complex, exciting topics.
We share war stories and successes and challenges. We recognize that no one has to be out there fighting the content fight alone. And that’s the classic challenge that every content strategist and everyone working in UX comes back to: we fight for appropriate, user-centered content.
- It is, it’s true across so many companies; we forget to work together, or we forget to focus together on what the user needs. With that challenge in mind, what talks are you particularly excited about this year at Confab?
- Every year I think “this is the best program we have ever had.” My number one problem with this year’s program is that I feel guilty, because I have no idea how people are going to choose! All of our speakers are so strong. We have new voices who are stepping up and being brave, talking about their experiences and their ideas and their challenges. Some of the people speaking at Confab this year have never presented before!
I’m also so excited about Anne Lamott’s opening keynote, obviously. The workshop that Melissa Breker and Kathy Wagner are doing on workflow and governance is groundbreaking in terms of its clarity and coherence and effectiveness. Ahava Leibtag’s talk, “Use the Secrets of Content Strategy to Turbocharge Your Content Marketing” is amazing. Rebekah Cancino is one of the smartest and most engaging voices out there, and her topic, collaboration between content and design is huge. Michael Metts is going to give a great talk on building trust during transactions. Margo Stern, who is a CS lead for shopping on Google, her talk on designing content for products is going to be outstanding. Sally Bagshaw is going to talk about customer service content, which is so important and so often overlooked. Gerry McGovern’s closing keynote is the crowning glory for all UX and content-focused work, and I could keep going!
- That sounds amazing! Amidst all of these talks, do you see a particular theme emerging as the next big thing in content strategy?
- My dream is that it will be “support content,” which Sally Bagshaw is talking about. That is a gigantic untapped area of opportunity for organizations. You hear so much more about people’s bad experiences with customer support or tech manuals or help content than you ever hear about great content experiences. The opportunity for user satisfaction, customer retention, and creating a superior user experience lives in that realm of help and support content.
Content strategy is also starting to get elevated to the director and executive level, so content strategists on UX teams have a tremendous opportunity to up their game as well, both in consulting firms and within organizations to promote more efficient and user-focused content practices.
- What advice do you have for content strategists who are still working to sell content strategy to the executive level and bring content to that elevated place?
- We need to follow the lead of UX professionals. The parallels between where UX was five years ago and where content strategy is now are overwhelming. There are so many articles we read about UX where you could just replace “UX” with “content strategy” and it would tackle exactly the challenges and opportunities we face today.
We need to do guerilla usability testing, and pull together user feedback, and identify qualitative information wherever we can.We need to trick managers into sitting down and testing out the search functionality on their websites, or read aloud copy on the page that has no purpose or structure. We need to show them the problems. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. UX has already done what we are trying to do, and I think we forget that.
The number one question I’m asked by my clients is “how do I convince my boss that this is important?” I joke that fear and shame are the two best ways to sell, so you can show your boss that searching for a key term brings up nothing relevant, or how outdated or redundant certain pages are, and that will convince them of the content strategy need. But really, we are bound by the constraints of our leadership. Leisa Reichelt just put together a fantastic list of guiding principles reminding us “don’t give up.” Keep questioning, keep asking, remember there is a place for your principles and your values, and you should continue to live them and advocate for them and try different avenues to communicate them. But Cleve Gibbon taught me this: if an organization isn’t ready to listen, then nothing you say or do will get through to them. They have to be ready.
- We can all work together to help prepare them for the day they are ready, and Confab is definitely helping us to get do that. Confab is synonymous with quality content strategy discussions, but it’s equally well known for its cake. Before we finish this interview, I have to ask: what’s your favorite kind of cake?
- Lemon cake. That’s my number one favorite kind of cake. My second favorite kind would be chocolate cake with really good chocolate frosting and vanilla ice cream.
Actually, do you know where the Confab cake theme came from? For the very first Confab, we marketed on Twitter, and the first time I announced it I tweeted “retweet and I’ll give you cake.” Hundreds of people retweeted it! So I said “come to Confab, and get your cake,” and now we serve all sorts of cake. We actually plan all the different sorts of cake we’ll have: coffee cake, cupcakes, birthday cake, cake pops… so everyone can come to Confab and have their cake.
There you have it! Thank you so much Kristina, for speaking with us today. Readers who don’t yet have their Confab Central tickets can find them on the Confab website. Confab Central will be held in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 20-21.
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