Paris, je t’aime

Paris, je t’aime

I not-so-recently returned from the 2010 Content Strategy Forum, the first-ever conference solely dedicated to interactive content strategy, held in Paris, France, April 15-16.

As soon as I saw the notice about Content Strategy Forum last fall I knew I wanted to find a way to attend. I’d recently made the decision to focus the direction of my business on content strategy, making it the basis for all the Web projects I do with my clients, and had planned for 2010 to be the year of immersing myself in the principles and the practice of the discipline. The chance to get in on the ground floor of this conference, network with the growing community, learn best practices, and get inspiration and insights I could take back and apply to my client projects was too good to pass up. Plus, you know, I could write the whole thing off.

I’d also never been to Paris before, and once I decided to attend the conference my husband and I saw it as a chance for our first trip away together since our daughter was born – April in Paris and a little us time. But the day after we arrived, the Iceland volcano blew its top, resulting in an ash cloud that grounded flights for many days and threatened to keep us embedded in Paris and eating crepes (and away from our 3-year-old daughter) for many weeks to come. What ensued was a madcap “Escape from Alcatraz” scenario that involved long lines, poorly spoken French and Spanish, European road food, unspeakably gorgeous countryside, and our eventual departure from Madrid back to the States.

So because of our tardiness and the insanity involved with getting back, I’ve barely had a chance to think much about my experience with the conference until a couple of weeks ago, when I finally revisited my notes in order to prepare for a short recap of the event for the May San Francisco Content Strategy Meetup. I wanted to share a few of the highlights of my two days there.

A conference just for us

I typically attend conferences either to gather news and trends about the industries I’m working in or reporting on (which means I have ended up at plenty of events surrounded by jewelers, hospital administrators and pharmacists). Or, I go to conferences to glean some insight into skills I want to learn or the overall trends of my business, which means I’ve found myself surrounded by interaction designers or Web programmers. I’ve always feel like an impostor at conferences.

I was nearly done with the first day of the conference when the lightning bolt hit me. This was the first conference I’ve ever been to where everybody in the room was just like me. We were doing an exercise that involved wireframing, but in addition to thinking about the user interface design we had to collaborate on where the messaging went on the page. What did we want to communicate to the customer? What did she want to know first, based on her persona and her goals? I looked up to see my small group thinking hard about copy and the order of messaging, and it dawned on me: “This has never happened to me before!”

Spending two days with people all over the world (170 attendees from 18 different countries) who focus every day on Web content was exhilarating to say the least, and worth the trip in itself. I felt much like I suspect the people who attended the very first An Event Apart must have felt — that I was witnessing the seeding of something that would be very important for the future of our industry.

My takeaways

Led by some of the biggest names in the content strategy world, the workshops and sessions covered a lot of territory. Here are a few of the biggest takeaways for me from my two days in Paris.

There’s a strategy to doing the content analysis

 I attended a hands-on workshop about performing the content analysis Thursday morning, led by Rachel Lovinger of Razorfish and Karen McGrane of Bond Art + Science. It was my first session of the conference, and we worked together in small groups to organize and begin a site inventory in about 10 or 15 minutes.

This exercise brought to light two things: first, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and second, cross-cultural differences can influence that. (As an example, my own little team was comprised of two folks from eBay Europe and a French content strategist; as the lone American, I found that my approach of jumping in with both feet and figuring out organization and categories as I went along was counter to my German teammate’s more careful and structured approach.)

Rachel and Karen provided a list of variables to consider as you plan your content analysis:

  1. How deep do you need to go?
  2. How do you ensure you see examples of all the different content types?
  3. What are the common pathways that users are likely to take?
  4. Can you find content that has been lost or hidden?

Be in the room from the get-go

The second workshop, “Evolution of Content,” studied how the folks at IQ Content in Ireland are using the agile software development approach to perform user experience projects for clients — which essentially means that rather than working in silos all their team members, including the content strategist, IA, interaction designer and visual designer, work collaboratively.

Presenters Elizabeth McGuane and Randall Snare talked about the vital importance of having the content strategist or analyst in the room from day one — present at the kickoff meeting with the client and participating actively in the discussion about the site strategy. “How well I’m able to tell the story is dependent on my client engagement and ability to explain reasons for decisions to clients,” Randall said. If she isn’t presented from the first moment as a core member of the team, clients are less inclined to engage with her and listen to her recommendations.

Content evaluation is essential and ongoing

The “Evaluating Content” session by Clare O’Brien at CDA was one of the sessions I was most looking forward to. I’d been reading about CDA’s process for testing and evaluating the effectiveness of content (they call it CUT, or content usefulness toolkit) in the online communities and am fascinated by the process of using metrics to determine content’s direction.

Clare started out by declaring: “Our data burden is stalling our learning process.” In new media, we’ve invented metrics that are supposed to tell us how we’re doing, but that they don’t really tell us what the problem is or how to solve it. People believe that it’s still OK to put any old content into a Web site, and aren’t making the connection between poor content and poor results, she said.

Thirty-nine percent of today’s marketers who are spending a lot of money online are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the conversion rates they are achieving — in the world of conventional media, heads would be rolling from better results than that. A Forrester study recently concluded: “Marketers inevitably discover that the marketing metrics in place today fail to tell the full story about their customers.”

Clare recommended treating content evaluation as a continual process:

  • Start by setting benchmarks at the very beginning of a project and asking clients what they expect from their online property.
  • Establish an analytics program that tests how people’s behavior with the site actually.
  • Use a variety of techniques to perform ongoing content evaluation – click tracking, heat tracking, surveys and multivariate testing included.
  • Advocate for testing real copy instead of lorem ipsum in usability testing. This is huge — especially since clients and UX people often worry users will “get hung up on the words.” But as Clare said: “Maybe they should be!”

Editorial strategy: solving the Day 2 problem

Jeff McIntyre, one of my favorite content strategy voices online, addressed what happens after a content strategy is in place and the site launches. “The Web design industry in North America is largely designed around selling patches of blue sky,” he said — meaning that agencies often promise a utopia without acknowledging the work it will take to maintain the squeaky clean, shiny streets.

We have to treat “post-launch” as a phase, Jeff said — and that’s where editorial strategy comes in. While many companies balk at thinking of their Web site as a magazine or at thinking about themselves as being in the publishing business, Jeff argued that they very much  are — and that they need to start thinking that way, putting an editorial calendar and process into place to keep the site fresh and accurate.

Thinking from the outside in

Joyce Hostyn of Open Text talked in “Holistic Customer Experiences” about how so many of our user and customer experience problems start — because a company thinks about process and systems first before they figure out the experience they want a customer to have. She compared customer experience to the layers of an onion — experience is the outer ring, then interactions, then touchpoints and processes, then systems at the inner core.

“Misery moments happen when you take the perspective from the inside out. Magic moments happen when you start with the overall experience you want to deliver and drive inward,” Joyce said.

She compared this to the way Disney creates a magical experience in everything they do, because they started with an emotional theme that they then base all decisions on to create magic in every last detail. Closer to home, she talks about mapping out the experience of a software upgrade for a user — planning from the experience level helps to bridge any silos and create a seamless upgrade process for the end user.

A few of Joyce’s other observations:

  • Companies have a hard time seeing content as part of a customer experience. They see usability and design as important, but don’t consider content.
  • Starting with an experience and a theme helps us write user experiences with real heart — something largely missing from Web content today.
  • A product or service is a means to an end. The value lies in the story, and that’s what we’re here to create.
  • You have to consider the backstory as well. A lot of that is happening outside the company-owned interaction points — such as in conversations happening in other places that drive perceptions about a company.
  • We have to think about memories as well as experiences. Not only do we care about what messages we are delivering, but also how people remember the messages, because that is arguably just as or more important.

There’s work to be done!

The afternoon keynote was my first time hearing Kristina Halvorson, content strategy’s superstar, speak, and it was a moving and entertaining experience — very easy to see why she has had success winning hearts and minds with her message about the importance of content strategy. Kristina admitted that, as much as she speaks to large crowds each month, she was nervous speaking to a room of content strategists. It was a momumental occasion, and time for a major call to action.

In her speech “Banging the Big Drums,” Kristina gave everyone in the room their marching orders. The next year is our opportunity to not only talk about content strategy, spread the word, educate our clients, make our case … it’s our chance to build case studies. Let’s do things the right way and then document the results. Show the world the value of content strategy. We’re struggling to insert ourselves into our rightful place in the process, and to get clients to understand the value of investing in content. We have to prove that it’s worth it.

What’s next?

We are on the map. Now we take over the world.

Once we all escaped from Europe (and the Europeans were finally able to find seats on a train back home), conference attendees already started talking about 2011 — the location and the theme and substance. Most likely 2010 was the beginning of a whole docket of content strategy conferences that will spring up on the calendar, and so it remains to be seen where we’ll be off to next year. The 2010 conference seemed to be about establishing the legitimacy of the practice — we’re here, what we’re saying makes sense, we’re shaping the future of this together. Hopefully next year we’ll make enough progress that the programs will start delving into the particulars, the best practices, the professional nuances of content strategy.

Download the 2010 Content Strategy Forum presentations on SlideShare.

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