Three years ago, a bunch of content people got together in Paris and caused a massive eruption. Actually, that was a volcano up in Iceland … but the first Content Strategy Forum in 2010 was the beginning of a productive and vibrant conversation about content strategy. Back then, Kristina Halvorson of Brain Traffic told the group of content strategists to go forth and spread the word: educate clients, make the case for the content strategist to be in the room, show the world the value of content strategy.
This year, CS Forum came to Helsinki, Finland, with the energetic team at Vapa Media as hosts. The big themes at the conference this year demonstrated how far we’ve come. Content is more in the spotlight than ever, with the enormous focus on inbound and content marketing. So the conversation was more centered on tactical implementation of content — and also on quality, as more companies try to morph themselves into publishers. And as content strategists become a more recognized player and enter onto the scene earlier than ever, themes focused more on process and the need for ever more collaboration.
Here’s a wrap-up of some of the week’s themes and talks.
Content adds value …
“Content as Business Value” was the name of one of the three conference tracks, and using content to directly drive sales, develop thought leadership and enrich customers’ experience were all themes woven throughout the presentations.
Nokia, the Finnish mobile phone company, manages 74 websites in 44 different languages, and 70% of its users access its content from mobile devices. “We don’t just create content because customers want it. Every piece of content has to have business value,” said Tuomas Manninen, Nokia’s head of online experience. He showed how Nokia attempts to quantify content’s value by assessing how much “wow” it creates and how much information it delivers, then assigns high priority to content that creates a lot of noise at first remains informative over time.
In another session, Pontus Staunstrup, senior communication strategist with JG Communication in Stockholm, showed how important content marketing is for helping customers make purchase decisions — which 70% of the time happen before a company even becomes aware of the prospect. Content must be easy to search for and easy to find, Pontus said, and must integrate target audiences’ needs with the brand’s goals and messages. He talked about how to measure the impact of content at each step of the purchase process by determining how well content can move prospects between each step of the purchase process: “Can we get them from the blog post to the website, from the website to the demo, etc.?”
Kati Keronen and Katri Tanni, content strategists for the Finnish agency Differo, talked about how they develop a “content apex,” which considers the business strategy, core competencies of the business, informational needs of the buyer personas, and most effective sales arguments. Kati and Katri encourage their clients to take a long-term view of content production, with the understanding that engagement happens over time. “The content marketing programs we’ve seen fail are the ones that try to generate leads too early in the customer experience with the web content,” they said.
… and reflects values
There was a lot of talk about core values at CS Forum, especially from Facebook’s Jonathon Colman. “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it,” he said. “Without core values, there is no content strategy.” Core values affect everything a company does, even the mundane, everyday decisions its people make. And in some companies, there’s a conflict between what people believe the organization is and what it really is. The enduring values of a company are its guiding light, and integral to how it communicates and lives its brand. A company’s commitment to clarity, transparency or authenticity stems from its values —trying to convey those characteristics without its values at the center will come across as hollow.
Similarly, Aja Guildhammer from the Nordics region of AirBNB, described how the company uses content to bridge the online experience of finding a place to stay with the offline experience of travel and lodging in new cities — creating hundreds of thousands of new stories a week from these experiences. “Every company should believe in something,” Aja said, and AirBNB’s resolve that people can discover new experiences by staying with strangers comes through in all of its communications about the process, the trustworthiness of the AirBNB experience, and the excitement that its customers feel.
Common beliefs are conveyed through high-quality, engaging content over time, Kati and Katri from Differo explained. People should read a company’s content and come to the realization, “I have the same vision as this company has.” But again, that realization “comes in the middle” of the process — in other words, it happens through ongoing engagement over time.
Focus on quality — and try things
As more content makes its way into the world because of the pressure for companies to market with content, there needs to be a renewed focus on quality, many of the speakers said.
“With content marketing, we’re putting unnecessary demand on companies to create stuff they don’t have the resources or skills to create, without understanding why they’re doing it,” Kristina Halvorson said during the week’s final panel discussion.
GE digital marketing manager Katrina Craigwell inspired the crowd with gorgeous, moving videos and examples of content her team creates for GE’s marketing. As a company focused on innovation, GE believes its marketing needs to be just as innovative as its products, and it provides leeway to try new things. “Experimentation should be part of the budget,” Katrina said. “And the focus should be on quality.”
The conference began and ended with in-depth discussions about collaboration and the need to break down silos — not just within the organization, but even among project teams. “We have to work together collaboratively,” Kristina said. “Do not make process your god. Do not sacrifice quality in your work, or ignore botched work, because you have a process somebody has signed off on.” The group of speakers on the final panel discussed the need for collaboration all along the way, rather than simply making content strategy and UX “handoffs.”
“We’re only used to meeting each other at terminal points,” said panelist Jeff Eaton of Lullabot, discussing the tendency for strategists, content teams, design teams and developers to operate in their own paths. Agreeing with him, fellow panelist Margot Bloomstein of Appropriate declared (perhaps my favorite quote of the entire conference): “We shouldn’t be ‘delivering’ anything to anyone!” The process should be collaborative throughout.
Get out of the blob mentality
Everybody was talking about structured content this year. Jeff Eaton compared content to tangrams: different shapes that can be assembled in different ways to make different pictures. Some challenges include deciding the level of effort to put in to modeling content based on its value and longevity, how to deal with “oddball” content, and how to preserve the narrative flow with structured content. He encouraged content strategists to think in terms of priority, emphasis and relationships rather than purely about how content should be designed on a page.
The framework keeps evolving
In her keynote this year, Kristina Halvorson said: “The vision of the Content Strategy Forum is to get us all together and begin to work out a framework to solve some of these content problems.” The closing session came with an announcement of the formation of a group to keep the Content Strategy Forum alive and located in Europe. It will be exciting to see how this framework evolves over the next few years as more people and companies embrace the importance of content — and we as a community work to solve some of these big, complex problems. In the meantime, a big kiitos to Helsinki for playing host to this year’s great discussion.