Confab Central 2015: Less Content, Better Managed and other takeaways

Confab Central 2015 is a wrap! I was very pleased to be able to attend this absolutely fantastic conference for the third year running.

I can’t say enough good things about Confab. The organizers are fantastic, attending to every little detail and making sure attendees’ needs are met; the speakers are smart, generous with their knowledge, and entertaining (yes, entertaining – did you know that the brain holds more new knowledge if you clean it out periodically with a good laugh? SCIENTIFIC FACT*) and the attendees are friendly, interesting, and all-around great folks to spend some time with.

I met and hung out with people who came from the east coast, the west coast, and everywhere in between as well as more far-flung places like Belgium, Switzerland, and Facebookistan. (Seriously, I met a bunch of Facebook employees this time around and you know what? Facebook hires some smart, cool people!) One of the really useful things about this conference for me is getting out of the “higher ed bubble” a little bit. I love working in higher ed, but we have a lot to learn from our colleagues out there in the world of brands and industry. I suspect they learn something from us, as well.

Confab program, name badge, and other swag
umm, that name badge says “speaker” … yikes!

This year was a little different for me as it was my first time attending with the word “SPEAKER” on my badge. Presenting a session at Confab was a pretty great experience; the audience is SO ENGAGED, which makes it delightful to share thoughts and ideas with them. (If you’re interested, I’ve included readings & resources – including a link to my slides – in my follow-up blog post.)  I learned a lot from preparing the talk as well as from delivering it, which makes it a success in my book. Since my name and bio were in the conference program, I was tracked down by a handful of IU alumni who were excited to meet a fellow Hoosier content strategist; that was also a delight!

So, some specific takeaways from this year’s Confab:

  1. Over and over, multiple speakers stressed the importance of editing, weeding, reducing, decluttering your web content. At the macro level, in his workshop on “Top Tasks and Self-Service: Creating better customer experiences online,” Gerry McGovern gave some startling examples of websites that reduced their content and saw increased usage and/or higher user success rates (defined as “the users were easily able to complete the tasks that were important to them”). For example, Columbia College launched a new site in 2014 which had 944 pages compared to 36,000 on their old site – a 97% reduction!!! – and they saw a resulting 82% increase in inquiries per month (a highly favorable outcome given that a major goal of their site is to attract prospective students). In his workshop, McGovern outlined a methodology for identifying your users’ “top tasks” and designing so that these tasks can be accomplished more quickly and easily. His closing keynote was a condensed version of the “top tasks” argument, minus the detailed methodology for getting it done; it was very pointed, very funny, and well worth viewing. (Note, the first few minutes of the talk are omitted – most of the best stuff is here though. Also, if the video doesn’t display in your browser, see kb.iu.edu/d/bdny for help.)Other talks with a similar focus included Matthew Grocki’s “Reducing Digital Clutter: How to clean up the back of your house” and Marcia Riefer Johnston’s “Write Tight(er): Get to the point and save millions,” which used the example of web content that requires translation – at a measurable cost per word – to make a case for the importance of editing out every unnecessary word. From top tasks to tiny words, other sessions also touched on this theme and certainly left me with the sense that this is a universal struggle for web content wranglers. Less content, better managed, using better metrics! That’s an excellent goal.
  2. And speaking of metrics, the importance of data in making decisions and taking action was also a theme. Content strategy as a discipline draws heavily from user experience (UX) in its emphasis on testing and design iteration, but many content strategists come from marketing or journalism backgrounds and haven’t necessarily studied UX in any formal way, so learning about how to make good data-driven decisions is new for some of us and important for all of us. Again, Gerry McGovern’s workshop included a lot of this including some specific methodologies for gathering and understanding user data. Deborah Carver and Kate Pennell gave a great presentation, “Humans make search happen: Behavioral data to debunk SEO’s sullied reputation,” which not only talked about how to look at search data to understand users’ behavior but also managed to make it lively and entertaining. Kim Marques shared her ideas for “Delivering Your Content Strategy: Effective Documentation and Deliverables” to help us get that data across to the people who need to see them. And the need for numbers came up in a bunch of other sessions as well. In short, we may think we know what our users want, but unless we see what they are actually doing – in other words, gather data on their behavior, know how to understand it, and do something about it – we’re just whistling in the dark.
  3. And finally, collaboration – working together to identify and solve problems – was a huge, important theme this year. From Jonathon Colman’s stunning opening keynote, which posited that we must solve our big problems together or not at all (seriously, take the time to watch this talk, or at least read the transcript – it was the highlight of the conference for me) to Rebekah Cancino’s great talk on “Next-level collaboration: The future of content and design” to, if I may be so bold, my own talk which offered up good old-fashioned reference interview techniques as a way to collaborate with clients and stakeholders via structured communication – over and over it became clear that we are all in this together and need to figure out how to work together. Our workflows and processes are by necessity (to quote Rebekah Cancino) “overlapping, iterative, messy.” This means we need new ways of working together to get things done. As content strategists, as people who make the web happen, we are engaged in nothing short of changing how people are able to communicate with one another. That’s pretty mind-blowing. Yes, we’re all working in our own domains – brands, non-profits, higher ed, what have you – and we’re all working on our own projects, but unless we break through those silos and work together, we are all struggling alone.

Big stuff, huh? Yeah. But cake helps. And good humor. And the willingness to share knowledge. All of which are available in surplus at Confab Central. Not to mention that the main stage had an actual space rocket and a backdrop of twinkling stars. (For a conference attended primarily by word-nerds, the visual design throughout Confab is – yes, I’m going to go there – out of this world!) Oh, and did I mention that Anne Lamott gave Friday morning’s keynote? She claims not to know what content strategists do, but she said “it sounds like what you people do sort of resembles wrestling drug-addicted cows” and proceeded to talk to us as writers, so I think she pretty much got it.

I closed out my conference by joining up with an international gang of wild and crazy content strategists who set forth to have dinner at Sea Salt, a great seafood shack overlooking Minnehaha Falls – definitely a true Minnesota experience. We made all the nerd jokes and laughed A LOT. Learning, laughter, and great food – what more could you possibly ask of a conference? YAY CONFAB.

group of people standing in front of a waterfall
happy content strategists

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*note: scientific fact not guaranteed factual

See also my posts about previous Confabs.

Author- Anne Haines

Web Content Specialist in the Discovery & User Experience Department, IU Libraries. I've spoken at events including edUi, Confab Central, Confab Higher Ed, IOLUG, ILF, the IU Libraries' Digital Library Brown Bag series, and the Libraries' In-House Institute. You can find me hanging out at the intersection of content strategy and librarianship, singing a doo-wop song under the streetlight. Follow me on Twitter: @annehaines