The Touchy-Feely Side of Content Strategy: #ConfabFeelings

confab 2013

The end of Confab brings an interesting mix of emotions – somewhere between how you’d feel after completing a marathon or leaving summer camp: exhilarating, enlightening, inspiring, and exhausting all at once. It’s exactly this unique kind of high that keeps the repeat Confab-ers coming back year after year, and the newbies itching to experience the unparalleled Content Strategy Conference for themselves.

After three intensive days of learning, networking, and eating (lots and lots of eating…) at Confab 2013 in Minnesota, it’s easy to head back to the Real World and succumb to playing catch up and addressing day to day minutia. And yet, the empowering feeling of returning from Confab lingers and (hopefully) inspires us to make meaningful change within our work, our teams, and our organizations.

If this sounds a little emotional for a conference, that’s because it was. If you don’t believe me, just take a quick peek at the #ConfabFeelings backchannel. If one thing became apparent this week, it’s that content strategy is emotional business, and delightful content requires empathy.

Whether you attended Confab or not, there are almost certainly a few levels of #ConfabFeelings you must consider as a content strategist – below are a few of the overarching ones discussed at the event.

Ego & Prejudice

One of the core beliefs we are constantly emphasizing on the CMS Myth is that technology is nothing without the people behind it. Corey Vilhauer’s session, “Empathy: Content Strategy’s Hidden Deliverable”, drove home the notion that we need to shift our thinking from Content Strategy to People Strategy for our strategy to stick. As Corey explained, writing can be very personal and involves ego, and we must consider the needs, goals, and biases of the people creating our content, on top of the business and audience goals. He shared 5 considerations to make this happen:

  1. Ask questions – even the tough ones. Get to know and understand the goals of stakeholders, contributor needs and skills, aspirations of the business and opportunities to connect with the audience further.
  2. Be clear and concise – speak their language. Beyond the content we produce, we also need to think about making our processes understandable and relatable to the people that will follow them so they feel truly empowered to succeed.
  3. Be deliberate. The inclination may be to FIX ALL OF THE THINGS – but pace yourself. Consider the relevance and necessity of your organization’s processes and methodologies before asking your team to follow, and look out for “vestigial legs”. Stop holding onto outdated or redundant methodologies and instead focus on providing the right tools for exactly what you need content creators to do.
  4. Be sneaky – reframe the conversation. Kristina Halvorson and Jonathan Kahn emphasized this point in their talks as well – as content strategists, we are also salespeople. You have to be ready to direct the conversation to speak to the personal goals and needs of the people you’re selling to – your team. Speak to the resistors, play to the team’s strengths, and adapt roles to work with your people.
  5. Enable process and growth. In addition to salespeople, we are teachers – we have to empower our teams to sustain the strategy we put in place.


Confusion & Helplessness

We spend a lot of time developing our personas and creating journey maps to guide our content structure and strategy, but often we forget that the systems we create for are a major factor. Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s talk, “Write Like a Human, Think Like a Robot”, reminded us that the systems we use aren’t perfect, and the ‘bots need our help deciphering and filtering content. In a handy “Robot Logic Style Guide”, Sara noted a few considerations for showing a bit of robot empathy.

Structure: The structure should match the mental model of your users, and make sense to them inherently.

Metadata: Metadata is not just useful extra info for the ‘bots, it’s relevant for users, too. Consider the descriptive, structural, administrative, or helpful instances where metadata might come up – but be careful not to overdo it!

Rules: Prioritize and structure content to develop “If this, then that” guidelines for your system, enabling flexible decisions across screens and channels. Every time you break your content into smaller pieces, you create a new opportunity for new rules – and new decisions for how that content should be used.

Transportation: Take your content and turn it into a product. Learn and leverage APIs to help your content “chunks” move and shape what you need your content to achieve (i.e. Yelp’s unique combination of user-generated, Google map, and proprietary content).

Context: Remember that data isn’t useful without context. It takes UI design, labeling, and explaining to bring meaning and new possibilities to the content you’re creating.

Patience & Enjoymentchevy line

“How can this be faster?” is often our default goal to make experiences better, but Margot Bloomstein’s session “Content Strategy for Slow Experiences” urged us to pump the brakes for a minute to reconsider the usefulness of a less urgent pace.

As Margot explained, frustration typically drives the perception of slowness, but creating purposeful slowness in experience can actually be enjoyable, if designed the right way (look at Disney World, with constant opportunities to learn and engage at every turn of the queue).

From Disney World to the digital world, creating a pleasant pace can help drive discovery, engagement and learning. Just as IKEA approximates the in-store experience of exploration on their website or REI encourages product comparison to enable smart customer choices, using content to set the pace in customer experience can be delightful and helpful.


While balancing the needs of content creators, audience, and systems can make the job of a content strategist feel more like a juggler (in addition to salesperson and teacher), the core foundation of content should focus on the user. As Jared Spool put it, “Content is whatever the user needs or wants right now – whatever that may be”, and content is at the center of great experiences.

While great design always looks simple (and should be invisible, as Jared noted), the work required to create great content experiences forces focus on interaction design, visual design, information architecture, and content strategy. The balance of all pieces should help tie customer experiences to business goals, such as the Zappos return policy, which delights customers and stakeholders alike.

We need to change our mantra from “creating useful content” to “creating delightful content”. Not only does bad content hurt the business, but it hurts users. Delightful content creates real value.

About the Author
Katie Del Angel

Formerly the Marketing Manager at Connective DX, Katie was responsible for content marketing and community building for the agency.

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