Content Strategy Applied: conference review

Last week I attended the Content Strategy Applied conference, generously hosted by eBay in London. Here’s my review of four sessions:

  • Nikki Tiedtke’s eBay case study stole the show. She talked us through a year-long process of Europe-wide networking, persuasion, and stakeholder engagement that resulted in the first ever holistic approach to content within eBay Europe. The specific case study concerned content about policy changes directed at eBay’s most valuable customers: 500,000 business sellers, served by 12 websites in 7 languages. The project resulted in concrete improvements to metrics like comprehension and retention of key messages by users, as measured by user surveys as well as customer support metrics and web analytics. “It was obvious that the teams were struggling,” but it took a linchpin like Tiedtke to convince the organization to change working practices to meet the realities of modern communications. Her story shows that content strategy is half collaboration, advocacy, and organizational change–the deliverables and techniques are useless without them.
  • Rahel Bailie argued that content strategy is misunderstood, under-utilized, and difficult to pin down because you only notice it when it’s broken. Her selection of stories about both failure and success demonstrated how broad this field is–from support and training materials to product marketing and emails.
  • Rob Hinchcliffe discussed the role of content strategy in the age of social media. It’s obvious that broadcasting brand messages on twitter won’t work, but how do you find a community that’s interested in your organization, and what content do they actually want? His case study described how Lego created a “hook” by finding its higher purpose: “Lego as a creative medium”. Sounds obvious, but it wasn’t–the company had always ignored its crazy enthusiast audience, and actually engaging in this way took a lot of work. Most interesting to me was an attendee comment that this strategy wouldn’t work for clients like insurance companies, because insurance is only mentioned in social media in a negative light. But which other industry can sell you peace of mind? It seems to me that the insurance company that manages to find their higher purpose–as Hinchcliffe puts it–will sell more policies than everyone else combined.
  • Kristina Halvorson brushed off her hyperbolic conference billing as a content strategy “pioneer” and “guru”: “I’m not a pioneer, I’m a storyteller.” This is worth repeating. Content strategy has been around as long as the web has. The people talking about it now aren’t trying to claim some kind of technical or theoretical superiority over other practitioners, and neither are they selling some novelty-infused snake oil. Yes, it’s been around since forever, but we’ve only started talking about it recently. Halvorson offered her full arsenal of stories–from the movie WALL-E to a decrepit house to an ecosystem–and described persuasive techniques that practitioners can use to effectively communicate value, and ultimately introduce change. Which is the difficult part. She argued that despite the consistent clamor for case studies, it’s impossible to actually demonstrate strategic thinking. You can show the deliverables, you can show the results, but you can’t actually demonstrate the process. (Halvorson also offered a glimpse of Brain Traffic’s “substance, structure, workflow, governance” framework for content strategy consulting–developed by Melissa Rach and others–which is fantastic.)

Thanks to the organizers for a great conference. There’ll be more content strategy action here in September, when the Content Strategy Forum comes to London after last year’s Paris debut. The open call for speakers launches next month, along with early bird registration and some exciting announcements. Follow on twitter or register for email updates to be notified when the website launches. See you there?