Real-life content strategy: conference recap from CSA12

Real-life content strategy: conference recap from CSA12

There’s a tremendous amount of good content work going on in the world, by smart and dedicated strategists who face uphill battles every single day to fight for better content that earns better business results. But we’re only just scratching the surface, and the amount of work yet to be done is daunting.

That’s what I gleaned from my time at Content Strategy Applied 2012, held at eBay’s Richmond-upon-Thames campus near London.

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This intimate and more pragmatic counterpart to some of the larger content strategy conferences that have sprung up in the past few years is co-sponsored by eBay and U.K. consultancy Red Lorry Yellow Lorry. CSA is known for offering an in-depth look at the discipline, bringing together working content strategists to share “in the trenches” case studies about their work.

I’ve been eager to attend a CSA since 2010, but it hasn’t been in the conference budget until this yearThis year, the conference followed four tracks: technical content, social media and mobile, localiz(s)ation, and a “content strategy 101” track.

I tended to stick to the technical content track, with a few social media sessions. What I enjoyed was a realistic discussion about these projects, with all the messiness and a good show of the hard work that went into pushing things forward against all odds. Rahel Baile (who described herself as a “Pollyanna” during a discussion at dinner the first night of the conference) was especially forthright with some of the details of how she plowed ahead to achieve a vision in spite of organizational barriers … and how, even for one of the world’s most prominent content strategists, “making it work” in a less-than-ideal situation is often a realistic part of the job.

Most of the topics and themes were not at all new ones, but a few of them rose to the surface more frequently and prominently than they did perhaps during conference season a year ago. Among the ones that stood out the most:

We’re lacking in metrics and measurement — and without them, we can’t make the impact we need to make.
We’re still not as strong as we should about quantifying what’s working currently, what should replace it, and what the value that comes out of that improved content really is — and it’s time we start changing that. In nearly all of the sessions there was some discussion about communication among business stakeholders — and how we as content strategists need to figure out ways to adapt this conversation depending on who the audience is. There were several examples of how speakers used measurement and quantifiable results to demonstrate the need for change in an organization.

We have to “future-proof” our content.
The rapid adoption of new devices and platforms is transforming the way we must think about content. There were some variations on this: some advocate a mobile-first approach, layering on additional content for non-mobile channels. Others question whether content really does need to be different depending on platform/channel; a debate ensued during one of the panels about whether a “responsive” approach to content was appropriate. Speakers concurred that mobile can no longer be relegated to being a separate consideration — it must be part of the discussion on day one. They also agreed that with mobile comes the need to concentrate less exclusively on the written word and more strongly on multimedia storytelling.

Content strategists are the new customer advocates.
Content strategists as the user or customer advocate was also a persistent theme: case studies showed how, even when new processes or changes put into place may have at first caused internal tension or resistance, ultimately the customer outcomes were overwhelmingly positive. Amy Laskin (formerly of Ogilvy, who just started a position at Bed, Bath & Beyond) said this best: “Social media strategy is: ‘What is the brand going to put out?’ Content strategy is: ‘How do we achieve those goals while serving the user needs?’”

There’s too much emphasis on “cleaning up” and not enough on doing it right the first time.
I loved this quote from Diana Railton during one of the panels: “Economically you can’t recreate everything every single time. If we start thinking about it right from the start, you’ll have fewer cases of getting 21,000-page websites down to 200 pages.” As we consider where we can add value, we must try inserting ourselves earlier and earlier so we can help to build processes and infrastructure that support quality.

Will we be recognized?
There was also the inevitable discussion of: is content strategy a real thing? What do we call it? How do we talk about it to people? This conversation will no doubt be at the heart of every one of these conferences for some time as the field emerges and evolves. During the Q&A panel on day two, an audience member asked about the recent Gerry McGovern article that set out to debunk content strategy as a legitimate field. “This is a generational problem — you’re not going to solve it on your project,” said Karen McGrane, answering a question about how to get businesspeople to recognize the legitimacy of and need for content strategy.

This conference, and other opportunities to show case studies, helps to slowly teach us how to prove our value to organizations, including those that may not inherently understand why content is important. More and more case studies help to solidify the need for, and the document the results of, the work content strategists are doing — and the very big problems they’re solving in organizations worldwide.

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