Recently, I (virtually) attended the 2020 Confab Content Strategy Conference. Usually held in Minneapolis, the Covid-19 pandemic forced the team behind Confab to shift the conference experience from hotel ballrooms and expo centers to livestreams and Slack conversations. When I first heard the conference was going virtual, I was skeptical to say the least. I wondered how they could make the program engaging, useful, and thought-provoking through a screen. But, I’m happy to say that Confab did an excellent job at taking the essence of a content marketing conference and fitting it into a digital format. From interactive Q&As with speakers, trivia night, cake decorating contest, and happy hour with fellow attendees, Confab was the perfect balance of knowledge and fun. Here’s a run-down of how it all went.

Opening keynote: Collaboration

One of the first keynote speakers of the conference was Rhiannon Jones, a senior UX Writer at a large online food delivery company headquartered in Europe. Think DoorDash, but across the pond. She shared the challenges she faces in having to collaborate with those who worked across the company’s “squads” which represent the restaurants, the delivery drivers, and the consumer. Each squad had its own team, consisting of project managers, designers, researchers, and developers. Left to float between these teams and feeling overwhelmed, Rhiannon learned quickly that collaboration skills were key. When things reached a stalemate, she realized there was one thing to keep in mind—the overall strategy.

Rhiannon emphasized that it’s important to remember that it’s the overarching vision that’s being collaborated on, not the details. The strategy is the groundwork, the content and copy are the house that’s built on its foundation. But how do you make sure everyone’s on the same page? Rhiannon shared three steps for laying the groundwork of a successful collaboration strategy.

1. Get to know each other as humans, not just as job roles

According to Rhiannon, “collaboration is about good communication.” In order to facilitate this communication, it’s important to know who you’re working with, beyond just seeing their name in an email or a message in Slack.

2. Agree who’s accountable for what (and how)

Rhiannon shared this crucial step for collaborating and avoiding issues down the line. If everyone knows what they’re accountable for, and what others are accountable for, the project is more likely to go smoothly. If you’re able to say “I’m responsible for this, and for its outcome” then your fellow collaborators will trust you.

3. Set (and don’t forget) your goals

Setting goals at the beginning of a project is one thing. Keeping those goals front and center months down the line is another. But, goals can and should be able to change as the project goes on. As a living, breathing part of the project, Rhiannon emphasized that it’s important to make sure goals aren’t gathering dust in a document while the work continues.
Rhiannon shared that developing these skills not only improved her relationships at work, but also improved her writing. I found her keynote very insightful and a great reminder of why we place so much emphasis on strategy at Zion & Zion. I hope to use her collaboration insights on future projects.

On-demand insights

Along with livestreamed keynotes and conversations, Confab featured a library of previously recorded talks and seminars on demand. One talk I learned a lot from was the following.

Don’t be Creepy: How to Write in an Increasingly Personalized World

Amy Lipner, Content Design Manager at Collective Health, provided strategies and resources for content creators looking to tailor their writing for a world where everything is personalized, all the time. She began by sharing results of an Evergage survey which showed that 99% of respondents believe that personalization had an impact on advancing customer relationships. This makes sense—it’s easier to have a better relationship with a customer when you’re speaking to them directly. The question is, how do you balance personalization with the creepy feeling that a company knows too much about you? Amy gave several examples, rated on what she called “the creepy scale.”

  1. A banking app making a credit card recommendation when you check your savings account? Not too creepy, and actually quite useful if you’re looking to open a new card.
  2. Spotify’s customized “Made for You” playlists? Not creepy, and a good way to find new music.
  3. An Instagram ad for something you just talked about? Pretty creepy and feels invasive.
  4. A targeted ad for pet funeral services after you just adopted a cat? Very creepy and ill-timed.

Amy argued that a lot of the creepy moments could be solved with a solid content strategy. Issues of tone, voice, and timing can all be hashed out during the strategizing process, so creepy moments don’t have a chance to occur. Amy defined personalization as “anticipating someone’s needs (and wants) and tailoring interactions to those preferences.” From push notifications to chat interfaces, personalization is everywhere. With so much money on the line—Accenture estimates that personalization failures cost $756 billion in the US alone—a strong content strategy is pertinent to getting things right. This strategy should take into account the three keys of personalization:

  1. Relevance
  2. Transparency
  3. Trust

In the examples above, the creepy examples were either irrelevant, ambiguous, or untrustworthy. A strong strategy would avoid these pitfalls by making sure the user’s experience and reaction are taken into account.

Amy also shared six touchstones of personalization. If the keys of personalization guide the strategy, the touchstones of personalization guide the copy and messaging itself. They include:

  1. Personalized content should lead to a personalized product experience
  2. Privacy and data concerns should be addressed
  3. You want to be part of the conversation the user is already having
  4. Direct user feedback is critical
  5. You need to be comfortable with being (a little) creepy
  6. The question of “why” can make all the difference

The last point encompasses a larger theme of personalization, according to Amy. That is, personalization should never be a one way conversation. It’s all a bit creepy, but if you frame your messaging with transparency, users are less likely to run for the hills. Users should know why they’re seeing an ad, what data is being used, and be able to tell you how they feel about it. Ongoing feedback can help you further tailor your content strategy to make sure you keep the truly creepy moments to a minimum.

Closing keynote: Think Like a Songwriter to Tell Better Stories

Kathrine Becker, a Narrative Strategist at Capital One, began her keynote address with a question: What if your life was a musical? What would you sing, and how would you know what to sing? When Katherine began her career balancing a corporate job during the day and life as a singer songwriter at night, she constantly asked herself those questions. What she found is that the way we form narratives in the business world isn’t that much different than the way we form narratives in songs. The key common denominator is a desire to communicate narrative goals. These include:

  • Establishing identity
  • Unifying audiences
  • Dealing with failure

Establishing identity

Most musicals introduce their characters through song. In the musical world, this is known as an “I am/I want” song. It tells the audience “you should pay attention to this person, and here’s why.” “I am” songs are an opportunity for characters to establish themselves, while “I want” songs establish their motives/desires/conflicts. In the business world, these statements could look like:

  • I want to work for a company that aligns with my values
  • I want to solve this problem for my target audience
  • I am working towards a better understanding of content strategy

The clearer your “I am/I want” statement is, the clearer your identify is.

Unifying audiences

Musicals feature a common enemy that audiences can unite against. In songwriting terms, this is referred to as a “banner” song. In the business world, this could be a concept, problem, or pain point that everyone on your team can rally around. For example, a delivery service’s banner song could be that they want to end the long waits customers have when they order food. Or, a clothing store could strive to stop waste by only using sustainable materials. Whatever your “banner” song is, you should consider it a statement of your organization’s main goals and objectives.

Dealing with failure

Sometimes, no matter how hard you work, you have to deal with failure. Maybe you lost your job or your company had to pull the plug on a promising project. No matter the case, how do you tell your audience without being a total downer? In music, this is done through a “torch” song. Think of the iconic power ballads from Mariah, Celine, and Whitney. They’re sad, bittersweet, and cathartic. The goal of a “torch” song is to look forward and honor how the memory of whatever was lost will live on. In the business world, this comes in handy when it comes time to craft PR statements and think of temporary setbacks as moments of opportunity.

Final thoughts

Even when limited by the confines of a computer screen, Confab was an explosion of strategy, content marketing, copywriting, collaboration, networking, fun, and more. And, with all the talks and streams available on demand, I can go back and experience what I missed—something that’s not always the case for in-person conferences. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to attend, and hope to attend future Confabs in 2021 and beyond.