Why Confab ’11 was a groundbreaking conference

It’s two weeks since the end of Confab: the Content Strategy Conference, hosted in Minneapolis by the delightful Brain Traffic, but I’m still reeling. It was that good. If you haven’t read some of the 5 billion live-blog posts, recaps, and session notes, you’ll want to do that now. And if you didn’t hear that we toured Fire Station 11 during a tornado warning on Tuesday evening, well, I have evidence.

So what’s the big deal, you ask? Surely the cake-related sugar high has worn off?

First, there’s something magical about seeing so many twitter avatars transformed into real live human beings, all at once. Sure, CS Forum 10 in Paris had some of that, but this was more than twice the size. Second, Confab was the best organized conference I’ve ever attended, thanks to the amazing work of Erik Westra, Clinton Forry, Lauren Cramer, Sean Tubridy, and Kristina Halvorson—who forced the others to take the stage for applause during her keynote. The millions of humorous, practical, cake-and-bourbon-related, or just plain thoughtful touches made us feel welcome and cared for in way I’ve never experienced before. But wait, there’s more.

From push-back to collaborative problem-solving

What actually blew me away was the attendees. Hundreds of people from a huge range of backgrounds—writing, editing, web development, design, technology, marketing, sales—all there either to find out what the content strategy conversation is about, or to learn from others about how to start making change in their organizations. If you’ve read the write-ups, you’ll see a “this isn’t rocket-science” theme: the speakers weren’t revealing new and revolutionary techniques, magic technologies, or simple 7-step programs to content nirvana. As James Callan put it:

Here’s something that surprised me: I was inspired by all of the presenters, but I was not awed by them. (Not all of them all the time, anyway.) I came away from several sessions realizing that I know stuff like that, and I could probably work on doing a better job of sharing that knowledge. (Could? Should.)

This is the first content strategy conference I’ve attended where the attendees didn’t push back against the speakers—they didn’t need to be convinced that our organizations’ content problems are strategic, or that the only way to fix them is to become agents of change. Instead of saying, “no, this couldn’t work for me”, or “I need a rock-solid case study to guarantee my business case”, people were digging into the messy reality of ways they could advocate for content strategy, collaborate with their colleagues, and start to turn the oil tanker around.

My other favorite write-up was Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s “On Confab, Conflict, and Collaboration”:

…But elbows are a short-term game plan. Once you’ve established a bit of voice, it’s time for ears to take over – time to start listening to and collaborating with those people we fought so hard to let us in in the first place.

Once we’ve convinced our stakeholders that a lack of content strategy is a problem, that content is a critical business asset, that we can’t go on like this without taking crazy risks—they’ll ask us what to do about it. And suddenly we’re in the change management business. In their presentations, both Ian Alexander and Karen McGrane called out change management as the real meat of content strategy.

It’s difficult, messy work, and it goes against both our society’s cultural norms and our personal habits as nerds—but ain’t nobody going to make those changes if we don’t. Confab showed me that we have a community of people who are spending their time sharing and learning from each other about how to change their organizations so that they can start to get hold of the overwhelming problems associated with content strategy, web strategy, and web governance.

That’s amazing. What I learned at Confab is that all of us can and should do more to broaden the conversation, involve more people, start to get this change train moving. Brain Traffic and others have led the way: now it’s your turn. Start a meetup, host a work lunch, write a blog post, submit a talk to a conference.

Wrapping up Confab in London

If you can get to London on Tuesday 7 June, a few of us are putting on a special event to do just that, and I’d love it if you could join us. It’s called “Wrapping up Confab, unwrapping CS Forum”:

In a series of lightning-style talks of 5 minutes each (with plenty of pauses for drinks), eight speakers (including two international guests) will fill you in on what they learned at Confab, the groundbreaking U.S. content strategy conference, earlier this month—followed by a sneak peek of what’s to come this September at CS Forum 11 in London.

Hosted in the stunning Mermaid Centre, join us to learn, talk, socialise, discuss, network, pow-wow, postulate and surmise. And did we mention it’s free?

Tickets are free but limited, so get yours while they’re still available.

Come to Content Strategy Forum London

And consider coming to Content Strategy Forum London, 5–7 September. We’re featuring 39 speakers from 11 countries including Norway,
Australia, Finland, South Africa, Ireland and the UK, and our headliners are the incomparable Gerry McGovern and Karen McGrane. Attendees have registered from across Europe, and as far away as the USA, Canada, South Africa, and Australia.

Early bird pricing ends on 3 June, which is just over a week away, so register now to get the best rates. See you there!