Confab Higher Ed 2016 Key Takeaways

This year, the cake-obsessed, content-centric conference known as Confab Higher Ed came to Philadelphia. At eCity, we knew we couldn’t miss the opportunity to attend this incredible two-day event, especially with it being held on our home turf. We had high expectations for Confab Higher Ed, and now that we’ve had the chance to reflect on the experience, it’s clear that the conference surpassed our expectations.

Our team arrived back in the office with a number of lessons from Confab Higher Ed. Here, we’ve tried our best to distill them into a single blog post. Even if you weren’t able to attend Confab Higher Ed this year, the takeaways below can help you improve your content strategy, writing, and design.

Everyone has Imposter Syndrome – Embrace it

When a CEO and conference keynote confesses to having imposter syndrome, it can be easy to roll your eyes and question the sincerity of such a comment. But there was something entirely genuine about the way that Tracy Playle talked about imposter syndrome, and something powerful about seeing so many hands in the audience also raise their hands and confess to not feeling like they measure up to their peers. This group admission would have meant nothing, however, had it not been for Tracy’s follow-up, which was to embrace imposter syndrome, rather than ignore it. Doing so can push us to try harder, seek more inspiration, and rediscover who we are as content strategists. As someone who raised his hand, this message of embracing the struggle really hit home. This was a fantastic way to start the conference.

It’s Not About “See Yourself Here.” It’s about “Let’s Get You Here.”

I felt like Margot Bloomstein was speaking directly to my soul during her talk on how other industries talk about higher education. Margot touched on a number of key points, but the main takeaway was that higher ed institutions spend a considerable amount of time focusing on aspirational content that paints a picture of what a student could accomplish if they enroll at a particular college or university. That content often comes at the expense of educational material that addresses the hurdles and questions that prospective students encounter when deciding where to enroll and what they can afford. Aspirational content wins awards and praise, but educational content wins the trust of your prospective students and their parents. And at the end of the day, trust is what matters. Focus on help, rather than hype, and reap the rewards.

Email Marketing is Still Underrated

I write about the virtues about email marketing a lot on this blog (see examples here, here, and here), but that’s for good reason. We live in a fragmented media landscape and deal with constant interruption, but email marketing remains a personal, intimate communication platform when used correctly. As Georgy Cohen from OHO Interactive pointed out, email is going through quite the renaissance, with publishers discovering new ways to deliver personalized, relevant information right to subscribers’ inboxes.

There was a lot to love about this session, but for schools looking to take their email marketing to the next level, I thought the idea of publishing content exclusively to select audiences through email before it goes live on your website was brilliant, as was bringing a sense of delight to automated system messages.

The Tools. All the Tools

Prior to Confab Higher Ed, I was told that one of the aspects that separated this conference from others was the emphasis on tangible and actionable lessons that could be implemented by conference goers immediately.

That turned out to be true, thanks in part to several presenters who not only covered larger content strategy concepts, but called out specific tools that made their jobs easier and projects efficient. Three of my favorites included Treejack for information architecture testing, HotJar for usability testing using heatmaps, and the Hemingway App for more readable written content, but there were countless other tools discussed that left me feeling not only inspired, but confident in my ability to implement what I learned.

Getting a Head Start on Content In Your Web Redesign Project

After attending Bon Champion’s session on preparing content for your next website project, it’s obviously why the New York Times recently scooped him up. Bon lamented that on most website projects, content creation and improvement isn’t discussed until the later stage of development. Doing so, unfortunately, often leads to unfinished content and rushed content changes, or worse, an empty promise to ourselves that we’ll revisit the content at a later date.

Instead, Bon suggested that content strategy and creation be among the first things considered in a website project. To do so, Bon recommended the standard who, what, when, where, and why framework, asking key questions like:

  • Why are we improving our content?
  • Who are we as an institution, and what makes us unique?
  • Who is our content team?
  • What form will our content take?
  • Where will our content be published?
  • How will we tackle our content?

By approaching content early in the process, according to Bon, organizations can ensure that their content gets the attention that it deserves, and avoid the scenario where outdated and uninteresting content simply gets a new look and feel.

You Don’t Earn Points for Cute. You Earn Points for Clear.

I’m a big fan of simple writing, so Laura Creekmore’s session on the needless complexity of writing in academic environments was right up my alley. Laura’s message was…well, clear. Writing in higher education tends to be overly complex. But that shouldn’t be the case. That’s especially true when it comes to financial aid information, university policies, or benefits; information that matters quite a bit to prospective students, their parents, and a university’s internal community of faculty and staff.

Laura’s remedy to this problem was twofold: first, discover the content that our audience craves, and two, when writing content that addresses those needs, write for the audience, not ourselves.

How can we as writers know what our audience craves? Aside from the obvious – but still underutilized – tactic of talking to our audience, Laura mentioned in-site search analytics as a content goldmine. For many website visitors, and especially younger web visitors, a site search is likely a more efficient way to find what they’re looking for than navigating site menus and pages. And we can use those search analytics to prioritize our writing efforts on the topics and questions that matter most to our audience.

When approaching that content, a key first step is outlining the message. With every blog post, web page, or email, it’s important to come up with the main points we want to convey to our audience before we begin writing. Doing so forces us to better organize our thoughts around particular themes and audience goals.

When it comes to the writing process, Laura implored us to use plain language that our audience understands. We need to put ourselves in our audience’s shoes and make a conscious effort to use words that they knows, rather than industry jargon and insider knowledge that we’re familiar with.

Personalization Means Creating Space for Students to Participate

As a first time Confab attendee, Tracy Playle’s keynote on The Art of the Content Strategist was an exciting and inspiring way to kick off the conference. There was much to be gleaned from her talk, which reflected on her many years of experience as a content strategist; but what I walked away thinking about most was the aspect of personalization. What does personalization look like in relation to higher ed web design? For me, I thought it was about using the information we know about students to enhance their experience. Tracy pointed out that personalization is about creating spaces and silences for people to interject their own imagination.

Referencing Alice in Wonderland, Tracy talked about the power of imagination in storytelling. The author provides the content, but the reader ultimately applies their own context to the story. Instead of thinking of whitespace as an important design element because of its aesthetic appeal, we should be thinking of it as leaving space for people to use their own imagination. Especially in higher ed, we need to leave room for our audience to insert themselves into the narrative. We provide the “once upon a time,” and they fill in the rest of their story.

Prioritizing Web Projects Is a Key Skill in Higher Ed

A common pain point I noticed continually being brought up and addressed throughout the conference was the lack of resources in higher ed. There is a lot of work to be done, and not enough people to do it. As content creators, how do we learn how to prioritize our work and say no to certain projects?

During her talk on Higher Ed Governance for the Real World, Rachel DeLauder brought up seven questions we should ask when prioritizing web projects in higher ed:

  • Does is support org. goals?
  • What’s the ROI?
  • Is it urgent?
  • Are resources available?
  • Is it a mandate/compliance issue?
  • When was it requested?
  • Is it the person’s “turn” who requested it?

By asking these questions, we can better justify which projects get done when. Instead of taking on every project that comes across our desks, it’s okay to be choosy about what will have the biggest impact. Setting these standards will increase the quality of the content produced and ensure that everyone involved is aware of what can realistically be accomplished within a certain timeline.

Findability Is Good Customer Service

Heading into Rick Allen’s talk on Writing Content for Findability, I expected to learn more about SEO strategies I could incorporate into my writing. However, I was pleasantly surprised when he began discussing findability as a form of good customer service. Helping users find what they need on the web is about more than just keywords and meta descriptions. It’s about optimizing your site for the way people consume content in real life.

In order for audiences to act on a site, they must first understand what it is they’re looking at. We can help users find their way by communicating the relevance and purpose of the content at a glance. Accurate headers, bullet points, and descriptive images help people browsing a site quickly find that they’re looking for. Once they find the information they’re seeking, it’s our job to provide clear next steps for them to follow in the form of relevant links or calls to action. As higher ed content strategists, we must take on the role of concierge, asking ourselves how we can best assist our audience in finding what they need.

Combating Content Hoarding Leads to Better Conversion Rates

There’s definitely no shortage of content in higher ed. With so many departments, schools, and organizations on campus, the sheer volume of content available can turn University websites into a cluttered mess if we’re not careful. In their talk on digital hoarding, Christy Deines and Kate Wehner discussed strategies for purging sites of all unnecessary content to help improve conversion rates.

The first step towards creating a leaner and more efficient website is to conduct a thorough content audit. Is there content that’s redundant, outdated, or trivial? Get rid of it. Next, we must determine the best platform to deliver content. Some content may be better suited for social media than a blog post. Some content may not be appropriate for an external-facing website at all. Christy and Kate suggested using Dropbox or network drives for information that’s only used internally. Course information is better suited for a learned management system such as Canvas or Blackboard.

I especially appreciated the point Christy and Kate made about admitting we’re not experts in everything. Not only does it increase credibility to link to sites that are subject matter experts on the issue at hand, but it helps reduce the chances of inaccuracies or duplicate content by linking to the original source. Christy and Kate rounded out their talk by mentioning every recovering content hoarder’s secret weapon: a content management system. A good CMS is a must-have, as it helps with archiving and managing assets and can even notify you when content is stale or orphaned.

Our first Confab Higher Ed was a whirlwind experience filled with food, fun, and new friends. We especially enjoyed meeting and learning from people who share our passion for higher ed and content strategy. We met so many great people over the course of just two days, and would love to keep the conversation going on Twitter. Follow us for updates on all the latest in higher education and digital marketing news.

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