Tag Archives: confab higher ed

6 Qs with Kristina Halvorson, author of ‘Content Strategy for the Web’

Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web, published in 2009, is simply one of the most important, influential and inspiring books for anybody writing for the web or running a social media account. I’ve loaned out my highlighted copy so many times I need to put a tracking device on it (though many people decided to get their own copy anyway) and it’s the kind of reference that merits rereading from time to time to get back to foundations. Halvorson’s impact extends beyond the book as the firm she founded and leads, Brain Traffic, organizes a wonderful series of Confab conferences, with the next being Confab Higher Ed in New Orleans this November (where I’m speaking).

I recently had the opportunity to ask Halvorson six questions, where she discusses why she wrote the book, offers advice for those implementing content strategy and gives a marvelous turnaround example worth seeing.

TN: You’ve probably heard this question before so I apologize, but for the sake of those reading the blog: What’s your working definition of content strategy?

kristina

Image courtesy of contentstrategy.com

Kristina Halvorson: For seven years, I’ve been saying, “Content strategy guides the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.” That definition still holds, I think, but Brain Traffic’s “quad” (which includes substance, structure, workflow, and governance) provides a larger, more flexible framework for talking about content strategy.

To be honest, this question actually makes me want to go hide under my bed. There are so many smart, experienced people who answer it in several different ways. For what it’s worth, I still use my short and sweet definition simply because it helps people find a way into the conversation. It’s not overwhelmingly technical or … big.

TN: I think many of us consider your book and tips crucial to content strategy, but clearly it took a while for anybody to articulate it. What drew you to the concept of content strategy and led you to writing the book?

KH: In 2007, Brain Traffic was a healthy little web copywriting agency. I’d been writing for the web for 10 years by that point, and I was getting sick of getting called in at the 11th hour to fill in the lorem ipsum in the wireframes. We never seemed to have the time, budget, or information required to do content right. I decided to start approaching projects more as a consultant than a project manager. In fact, I started using the title “interactive content strategist” … and here I thought I’d made it up! At some point, I figured out content strategy was A THING that existed long before I started using the title. Unfortunately, I could only find a few people out there talking about the topic (Rachel Lovinger, Colleen Jones, and Jeff MacIntyre, for example). So, I felt like there was a real opportunity to get a larger conversation going. That’s why I wrote the book.

TN: Introducing content strategies into organizations is important, but are there any mistakes people should avoid when beginning the process?

KH: Yes, two in particular.

First, you are going to have one hell of a time helping people understand the difference between content strategy and content marketing. “Content marketing strategy” starts with the assumption that content marketing is the right thing to do—that sort of is the antithesis of good content strategy. It’s important to help people understand that, look, content isn’t something we just decide to crank out on an assembly line; it needs strategic consideration that has to start with business outcomes, user needs, and a diagnosis of our current-state content challenges and opportunities. Only then can we make an informed decision about where we are going to focus our content efforts. So don’t make the mistake of starting out with any assumptions about what needs to happen with your content—in marketing, websites, support, corporate communications, social media channels. You simply don’t know until you have a clear understanding of where you are now, and where you need to be.

Second, don’t go in there acting like you know what’s best for everyone. No one cares if content strategy is “the right thing to do.” Most of the time, they care about their own job performance and whatever audience they’re trying to serve. Listen, listen, listen, listen. Tailor your content strategy “sales pitch” to whatever pain people are suffering, or whatever hot topic they’re all fired up about. It’s not about your ideas. It’s about creating and sustaining excellent content that satisfies business and customer needs. That’s it.

TN: Non-writers in general receive often the idea of content strategy well, but after a while they may stray from the path. What tips do you have to keep the content strategy fire burning across the organization?

KH: Again: keep people focused on how content strategy activities—whether in UX, the CMS, or the enterprise as a whole—are solving pain points and opening up new opportunities. It’s crucial that you advertise your activities and successes—even small ones—every step of your content strategy journey. The best success stories I know are the ones where people made time to “roadshow” what they were doing in content strategy and how it was making a difference.

TN: Do you have a favorite turnaround/success story (or stories) on an institution(s) whose content went from a mess to one of the best?

KH: The gov.uk website is every content strategist’s dream success story. They took very complex content nobody could find or understand, and made it clear, accessible, and useful for an entire country. They got an entire GOVERNMENT on board to make government content—which is notoriously structured based on internal org structures—to be based entirely on user needs.

TN: Does the success of Content Strategy for the Web and of related things like the Confab conferences surprise you at all?

KH: Honestly? No. This conversation was way, way overdue. We all needed something to rally around—a simple, straightforward story for why content is hard and what we can do about it. I am proud to have helped tell that story early on, along with of a lot of people who openly shared their ideas and experiences. (This continues to be something so fantastic about the content strategy community!)

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Confab Higher Ed and the rise of student storytelling

2014-11-14 13.22.02 The recent Confab Higher Ed, the largest gathering on web content strategy in North America, provided an abundance of awesome people and information, but perhaps most notable is how it placed an unprecedented spotlight on the use of student storytelling in social media.

In addition to our SUNY Oswego session co-presented with our star student blogger Alyssa Levenberg, “Student Stories and Content Strategy: ‘Alyssa Explains It All’ to Prospective Students,” Meg Bernier of St. Lawrence University discussed “User-Generated Content: Empowering Students to Tell Stories” on the excellent student-run @herewegosaints Instagram account and Oberlin College’s Ma’ayan Plaut and Ben Jones showcasedstudent storytelling in “A Tale of Two Projects: Relationship-Building Through Legacy Content.”

It’s a long way from around a decade ago when I first started researching student blogging because of the success my social media mentor Rachel Reuben was having with it at New Paltz. The idea met with plenty of skepticism, doubt and even discouragement. Asking other colleges who had student bloggers led to one of my enduring principles of empowerment: We don’t approve blog posts, we approve bloggers.

It took years, but when we cleared the last technical hurdle when our then-new web developer Richard Buck set us up on WordPress, we finally debuted the blogs — to amazing traffic and feedback — in fall 2008. I was proud of all the initial bloggers, with the journal of Erin Scala, a legally blind student with a keen sense of humor, downright inspirational. Not everything went perfectly, but it represented a work in progress that surmounted the skepticism and drew many positive reviews from our most important audience — incoming students. Screen shot 2014-11-14 at 8.39.23 AM Students kept the project moving forward but we hit a new level after an unassuming tweet from Twitter user @lysslyss15 to the @sunyoswego account in fall 2012, saying she made videos and asking if we needed help. Alyssa didn’t even really expect us to respond, but when I looked up her videos, I immediately realized she had the “it” factor that would resonate with students. We met and our discussion turned into “Alyssa Explains It All,” a series of talking-to-the-camera video blogs offering advice to incoming or new students.

The inaugural installment on time management debuted in September 2012, and Alyssa later became an intern and full-scale ambassador whose responsibilities included making videos answering questions received from incoming students via social media.

In the years since, this project has been mentioned regularly at national and international conferences, but this was the first time Alyssa presented at a conference of this magnitude. Alyssa was a rockstar at Confab Higher Ed, her videos very well received and people stopping her to ask questions throughout the conference. You can watch the video of our presentation or see the slides below.

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Meg’s great presentation on the student-run Instagram account at St. Lawrence also included a very nice detail: Her initial proposal to do it was rejected. She kept believing, went back and analyzed what students were already posting and presented it again to finally earn approval. The result has been not only fabulous content but an inspiration to other colleges taking the lead, including the #lakertakeover we do from time to time on the @sunyoswego Instagram account.
Ben and Ma’ayan have built the Oberlin Stories Project — a sort of student blogging on steroids resulting in hundreds of student voices sharing their tales of why they love Oberlin — as well as ongoing regular student blogs. My favorite is a podcast series by student musicians Hannah and Davis that turns the spotlight on other talented conservatory students. That’s how you empower current students to show your music program can hit the right notes for prospective students.
Beyond those presentations, we drew inspiration from Boston University’s Dean Kenn Elmore who presented the amazing keynote “New Major: American Cool.” Many of us web folks consider ourselves nerds, but Kenn showed that by taking risks with a sense of dignity, patience, intelligence and a sense of control, cool things can happen. Empowering student stories involves yielding some of that sense of control to allow them to shine — and Confab Higher Ed celebrated the awesome results.
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I don’t have enough words to say how amazing all the presentations were at Confab Higher Ed, but I thank everybody who made it possible and participated. And here’s hoping that by showcasing the rise of student storytelling, colleges and universities everywhere will allow student voices to show how cool pursuing an education can be.

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