Content Strategy for Higher Ed: Tips from Confab

by Rebecca Del Giudice

On November 11-12, 2013, Confab: Higher Ed took place in Atlanta. This was the first time that Confab, a content strategy conference founded by well-known content strategy expert Kristina Halvorson, held a session focused on a particular industry.

While I did not attend Confab, I did sit in on a great recap session put together by the folks at Meet Content, a web firm that specializes in content strategy for higher education. At the recap session, some of the people who had presented at the conference shared summaries of their own talks and what they had heard from others. There were also several people who had attended the conference and gave their views on the most important takeaways.

As someone who provides content strategy and editorial support to higher education clients (among others), I found the session very helpful. Here are five themes that emerged:

Empathy: One of the big themes of the conference, and one that every editor can relate to, was empathy. As Lisa Maria Martin, User Experience & Information Architecture Specialist at The George Washington University, said in her talk, “People make content. And people have feelings.”

The theme of empathy resonated with many of the recappers. Empathy means understanding your audience’s needs, and it also means finding ways to work with your content owners (in the case of higher ed, this could be everyone from the dean’s office and alumni relations to faculty and students, etc.) Sometimes in our day-to-day struggles with making and maintaining great web experiences, we forget to look at our work from others’ point of view. That could mean remembering to value your business partners (who may not understand what you do, but who contribute institutional and academic knowledge). Or it might mean taking a step back and thinking about how your latest web page or social media post looks to students, and whether or not it is meeting their needs. Staying in our silos with our blinders on does not allow us to grow and to help our audience get the information they need in the best possible ways.

The mobile mandate: Many of the recappers, especially Jenny MacIntosh of Boston University,  talked about the impact of Karen McGrane’s talk. McGrane, the author of an influential book on mobile content strategy, mentioned some striking statistics from the Pew Internet survey:

  • 35% of Americans still have no internet access at home
  • 20% of Americans have no internet access at all
  • 91% of Americans have a cellphone, and
  • 63% of Americans are using a smartphone

What does this mean for editors? It means we must champion mobile. The fact that a significant percentage of Americans, including prospective students, can only access our content via their phones, provides a renewed sense of urgency to ensure that our websites are easy to view and engage with on mobile.

Reuse and transmedia storytelling: The concept of COPE (create once, publish everywhere) resonated with Confab attendees. It is more important than ever in this era of shrinking budgets and understaffed departments to leverage content in as many ways as possible. But with this idea comes the equally critical idea that you should be prepared to meet your audience where they are. This means determining what stories you want to tell and making sure those stories can be told across multiple channels, not just where your university is comfortable or has an existing presence. One example came from Ma’ayan Plaut from Oberlin College. In her Confab talk, she mentioned that in one case she had posted an event to Buzzfeed instead of to Oberlin’s social media accounts, because she knew that was where her target audience was. 

The idea of transmedia storytelling takes COPE a step farther. It asks you to leverage the same story on different platforms, but also to take into account that you may tell different parts of the same story and the platform determines what you highlight. For example, you might have created a series of alumni profiles that includes interactive video, still photos, and text with pull quotes. You may decide to pin the pull quotes on Pinterest, post the still photos to Instagram, and highlight the interactive videos on Vine, and you might put all of the content on your website. For each channel, take into account how your audience engages with you and what parts of the story will resonate the most.

Speak in a language your audience understands. This one is near and dear to most editors, and in higher ed it’s no different. We struggle with overly wordy, non-web friendly text that our colleagues want to post on the website. Remember the empathy theme and look for ways to help your colleagues understand why it’s important to use clear, easy-to-understand language and avoid jargon. Jargon will turn off prospective students, alumni, and others who visit your site. Jargon is another example of lack of empathy, because it is as if you don’t care that your audience doesn’t understand what you’re saying. One recapper recalled a great suggestion: look through your analytics and search logs to see what terms site visitors are using. Do those terms match up with the vocabulary you’re using on your website?

Make students the hero of your content. As an editor in higher ed, you should ensure that the content you review puts the spotlight on students, not the college, whenever possible. There is a natural tendency to make the university the hero in an effort to promote your school to outsiders. But showcasing your amazing students is the right way not only to support their achievements, but also to show how much students can thrive at your institution.

For more on the Confab Higher Ed event, check out Meet Content’s recaps and the Confab site.

“Content Strategy for the Web” – Key Points

by Alison Lueders, Great Green Editing

My summer reading tends toward mysteries – Dan Brown’s “Inferno” – that sort of thing, But this month I read Kristina Halvorson’s “Content Strategy for the Web.” Ideally web editing occurs within the context of a content strategy. Here are some key points to ponder while you sip that cool lemonade or iced tea.

Some definitions

We don’t create content for its own sake. It usually exists to meet some organizational objective.

According to Halvorson, “Content is what the user came to read, learn, see or experience.” And content strategy does several things:

  • “defines how you are going to use content to meet business objectives
  • guides decisions about content throughout its lifecycle
  • sets benchmarks against which to measure the success of your content”

Content strategy crosses disciplines, including:

  • messaging and branding
  • web writing
  • information architecture
  • SEO
  • metadata strategy
  • content management strategy

Sound complicated? It is, but Halvorson exhorts us to “call it what you want – just get it done.”

Web writing – “a whole lot more than smart copywriting”

Halvorson describes web writing as “the practice of writing useful, usable content specifically intended for delivery online. This is a whole lot more than smart copywriting. An effective web writer must:

  • understand the basics of usability design
  • be able to translate information architecture documents
  • write effective metadata
  • manage an ever-changing content inventory”

I hadn’t seen this distinction expressed quite like this, but I found it helpful.

Developing a content strategy

The book describes the steps involved in developing a content strategy. While these can flex significantly in practice, the basics include:

  • stakeholder alignment – getting key people to support your content efforts
  • audit – identifying what content you currently have
  • analysis – understanding the world in which your content lives
  • core strategy – setting the long-term direction for all your content initiatives
  • content – defining the substance, structure, workflow and governance of your content

People

It’s telling that the last 4 chapters of the books discuss “people issues” – from content job descriptions to governance approaches to ways to pitch content efforts to upper management.

In my experience, it’s not developing the content or implementing the technology that’s the biggest challenge. It’s managing the people issues.

Adaptive content – what does it mean for web editing?

In discussing the future of content, the book makes the point that “we need to start thinking about content as something that lives beyond a particular publishing platform.” So true. As web editors, is our work really confined to one platform? Or is our focus increasingly on content, regardless of form?

Bottom line: The book sums up the importance of content this way: “Better content means better business.” I really believe that. The book does a great job of explaining why this “no-brainer” idea is both important to understand – and really hard to do right.

What books about web writing and related topics do you read? Share your favorites here!

Why You Should Write for Us

by Alan Eggleston

We need more editor writers for this blog. It’s not that you don’t have anything else to do, but you do have things to share as an editor or as a writer for editors.

Photo: Rusty Clark, creative commons license

Photo: Rusty Clark, creative commons license

You may have things to say that are difficult to share elsewhere that can be addressed on a professional blog. You may have ideas that have nothing to do with your work or that won’t work for your organization but could work elsewhere. You may just have a wealth of experience and you want to pay back to the profession. All these are great reasons to write for the Web Editors Blog.

So why not sign up for the Web Editors Group on LinkedIn and then the Web Editors Blog Project subgroup and let us know you’re interested in contributing? We will let you know what to do from there.

What’s in it for you

There are lots of reasons this would be good for you.

Networking. For instance, executive coaches often suggest joining professional organizations and networking through them. Writing for the Web Editors Blog will get your name out in front of all the Web Editors Group Members as often as you publish an article. (We post the article on the Group page, too.)

Professional Resource. Just as you would refer and link to your LinkedIn profile as a professional resource, each article becomes a linkable resource both to you personally and, potentially, to your organization. If you have a personal blog, a Facebook fan page or Google Plus brand page, or a Twitter business page, you can link to each article as you publish, also. Why not set up a search under your name on the blog and create a link to that for any of your pages as well? Of course, you can link your article byline to any of your pages as well.

You may set up a byline to link to Google Plus Author to boost your search optimization opportunities, to your LinkedIn profile to aid networking opportunities there, to your Twitter account to promote social networking, or to anywhere else you would like.

Career Booster. Articles about professional topics are good career boosters. You can promote what you have written to your colleagues, to professional audiences, on your LinkedIn profile, on your resume, and anywhere else you promote your experience, skills, talents, and knowledge. Attending a conference? Promote your Web Editors Blog articles to show your bone fides. Joining a professional blog or forum discussion? Reference your article as further reading.

Boss Pleaser. Writing for a professional blog – an online professional journal in essence – on your own time shows initiative and enterprise and should impress your bosses. An email to them announcing the newest article, tying in any organizational references, should impress.

What’s in it for us

Growing Quality Content. This isn’t a paying gig – we don’t have an income stream for the blog. But together we provide an audience of web editors who read the blog and are looking for quality information on their profession.

Steady Flow. There is no set frequency of submission; it’s up to your willingness to publish. But the more often you can post the better our readers will become familiar with your work and look forward to reading you. We would love to have you post at least once a month, but it isn’t required.

Targeted Content. There are no established topic lines, but there are general topic categories to help guide. Of course, the topics should relate to web editing and web writing, and sometimes they are even more general than that about writing or editing, which still apply to the Web. It’s probably obvious that we should tailor the content to the audience.

Topic Categories you can currently choose include:

  • Content
  • Design
  • Editing
  • Graduation (typically May issue)
  • Management
  • Miscellaneous
  • Mobile
  • Professional
  • Profile
  • Project Management
  • SEO
  • Social Media
  • Strategy

Typical publishing standards apply.

Won’t you join us?

We have a great group of editor writers who contribute now. You will be joining them in creating a superb blog associated with professional quality and talent. Associate your name with that growing list. If you’re a web editor, please join us!

A Passion for Commas

by Alan Eggleston

A writer friend, Will Conley, posted a thought piece on his Facebook page, a small excerpt here:

Hey, Passion. Righteous Indignation called…

When I first read it, I thought it sounded like poetry, almost Shakespearean, thus:

Hey, Passion.
Righteous Indignation, called.

Commas2

And Will responded, “Oh, how a comma says so much.”

That got me thinking, too. People treat punctuation so off-handedly, yet punctuation is as much a tool of communication as are words. And no punctuation mark is more simple yet speaks more complexly than the comma.

The comma commands order in a series. It separates warring clauses. Just as important, it announces an introductory phrase, says farewell to the concluding phrase, too.  The comma hands us off in a letter greeting or conclusion, and sets off parts of a whole such as location or time.

You won’t see these many diverse roles for the period, the exclamation point, or the question mark – let alone the colon, semi-colon, slash, or dash!

Yet no mark is as misunderstood, misused, abused, or underused as the comma. I once accused someone on a corporate approval route of using a comma shaker when reviewing copy, because he seemed to indiscriminately add commas, and then I couldn’t make any sense out of many of them. One of our publication editors even added commas of her own, in an attempt to provide some consistency between all the writers and reviewers. Oh, the humanity! Among writers, these just bred confusion.

I got into a discussion with someone on Twitter recently about punctuation that indicates a “pause.” She felt nothing was adequately enough understood by readers to handle the job, including the comma, the ellipsis, or any of the dashes. I pointed out that in print, all had been well established over many tens to hundreds of years for their various purposes and variations of pauses, but she insisted that today’s reader can’t know what is in the writer’s mind by these punctuation marks. I think they can, if they are used and edited consistently.

That is why I still favor the Oxford (or serial) comma. Yes, I know, often you can deduce the meaning without using that final comma, but the goal of the writer and editor aren’t to leave a question in the mind of the reader but to be clear. Leave the questions for the poets and philosophers. Our purpose as editors, in particular, is to be clear. Thus, except in the case where I am trying to fit a house style in which they already follow the no-Oxford rule, I refuse not to use the Oxford comma. I nurture a passion for commas.

Yes, Will, “a comma says so much.” And we as editors owe it to our readers to give voice to those commas so that our readers may clearly hear.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle on the Web

by Alison Lueders

Happy Earth Day! I encourage you to take action today – however small – to make our planet healthier. Many small actions can have a big impact.

As I was thinking about today’s post, I wondered how I could possibly tie Earth Day to web editing. One of the mantras for Earth Day is “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” In fact, that’s very relevant to web editing.

Reduce – use fewer words

This point was driven home to me at the Nielsen Norman conference last month. Fewer words aids reading speed and comprehension for ALL readers. Web editors have the skills to trim the words while retaining or enhancing their meaning. We also know that saying something in fewer words is often harder than saying it in a lot of words. “Less is more” on the web, but “less” does not mean “easier to write.”

Reuse – share the ideas

It’s a no-no on the web to write something once and post it verbatim in multiple places. But as a green business owner, I know that many people are unaware of why operating a business sustainably matters. Repetition is one way to educate people, So I may blog for my website and then re-work the same set of ideas into a client newsletter. Same ideas, different words.

Then I use the web to spread the word. I may share my original blog post through Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and so on. I want the idea to get out broadly, without running afoul of the “original content” police.

Recycle – when words become wisdom

Sometimes, an idea or a set of words is so true and so powerful that it stands the test of time. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “Be kind” or the Gettysburg address. These words are repeated and passed on and remembered. They are words that guide us in tough times and see us through to better times. These words eventually become known as something else – wisdom.

Web editors – as shapers of words and ideas – help share wisdom with the rest of the world. I think that’s pretty cool.

So, I find that “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” fits just fine into my web editing toolkit. What do you think?

Writing for the Web – Highlights from the Nielsen Norman Group Conference

Last week I spent 2 days in a class called “Writing for the Web,” put on by the Nielsen Norman Group (NNG). They are usability experts on all aspects of the web experience, from accessibility to visual design to content. I wanted their take on how web writing fits in to the overall scheme of effective website design. Here are a few highlights.

Highlights

Reading on the web really is different from print. NNG’s research and eye-tracking studies show that people who read online find it:

  • Harder
  • Slower
  • Less effective in terms of comprehending what they read

The NNG instructor used the term “information foraging” to describe how people read online. To attract and keep the hurried web reader, web writing has to be shorter, simpler and clearer.

Written content is key. Despite what your graphic designer might tell you (and I love the ones I work with), it’s the words on the page that have the most impact on users – not color, not format, not layout. Not blinking boxes or popups or videos. Words are the quickest, simplest way to communicate clearly with users. And they are by far the most effective element on a website for building trust and credibility.

Clarity beats cleverness. People are very task-oriented on the web. They want to conserve their mental energy. So encountering your newly-coined term, inside joke, or cultural reference is more likely to make them click away. If your meaning is unclear, they won’t stay to figure it out.

Surprises (to me)

People don’t mind scrolling. Previously, I thought it was best to avoid creating pages where users had to scroll. According to NNG’s research, clicking around is more disruptive to people’s web experience than scrolling down a long page. That’s why we take these classes!

Simpler writing helps everyone. I was stunned to learn that 43% of people in the US read at a lower level of literacy. Meaning they read more slowly than average and have more difficulty understanding what they read.

Simpler writing – meaning fewer words per sentence and fewer syllables per word – benefits everyone. Reading speed and comprehension increase enormously, even for high literacy readers. When you consider the time saved, and the greater satisfaction people feel when they can understand and make decisions more easily, it’s a no-brainer to take the time to simplify your copy.

MS Word has a grade level indicator. As in, “this copy is written at a 6th grade reading level.” Who knew? Probably you did. But if you want to achieve a target grade level for your audience, this is ONE data point that shows how close your copy comes. I now have this feature turned on in my copy of Word 2010.

Thumbs-up for the Yahoo Style Guide. NNG confirms that this is a good style guide to use on the web. It’s a guide – not the gospel – and NNG is quick to point out that part of a web writer’s job is to exercise judgment in applying any style guide.

Bottom line: Pardon the cliche but, “It’s the content, stupid.” No matter what neat, new technology comes along, it’s still the words that matter most to your audience. So take a bow, all you web writers and editors. Your ability to find those few, right words that resonate with your audience and compel them to act is a skill and an art to be proud of.

How Do You Use Current Events?

By Dawni Everett

Everyone wants their articles and blogs to be read. We all look for ways to improve our site visits and user interactions. I’ve read hundreds of articles on ways to increase traffic and most of it deals with finding ways to make your posts and website relevant. Search Engine Land recently published an article discussing the Link Apocalypse, obviously tying into the Mayan Apocalypse. Last year, even our own Web Editors Blog had several posts dealing with graduation in the month of May.

I’m sure you have all read the same articles as I have about using current events, however I was never able to get it to make sense to me. Most of the articles out there are for travel sites, or hotels, or restaurants. My company sells rubber stamps. How could I possibly use current events in anything I write to help increase our visibility?

About a month ago I finally read an article where someone explained it in such a way it finally clicked with me.

Follow in the moment trends and hot topics to inspire content ideas for your blog. For example, if you’re in the restaurant business, you could have monitored the web for relevant stories and possibly stumble upon the  great syrup robbery in Montreal. Once identifying this story as something you can leverage, a great way to generate traffic and potential press would be a blog post called: “10 Great Recipes for someone with $20Million worth of Syrup”. It’s a story that would be edgy, relevant and most importantly, a story worth sharing.

While it didn’t have anything to do with stamps, this time it showed how using something (the theft of $20 Million in Syrup) that has absolutely nothing to do with your business (restaurant) can be used and it provided an actual example (10 Great Recipes for someone with $20 Million worth of Syrup). This is a fun, tongue-in-cheek sort of way to use real time news and it is exactly the sort of thing I love.

It got me thinking about the different things we use stamps for and even some of the more outrageous stamps we’ve seen ordered here at work. I am currently working on an article for President’s Day that will introduce Where’s George (stamping dollar bills) with the title “Celebrate President’s Day with Dead Presidents” and I’m looking forward to publishing it.

Do you work in an industry where the “common” knowledge that everyone else talks about doesn’t seem to fit? Maybe the trick is learning to see it from a new perspective.

Personally, I cannot tell you how excited I am for the next celebrity divorce.  “The Top 10 Stamps (couple’s name here) Should Use on their Alimony Checks” will be published the very next day.

What are the best real-time news ideas you could you use with your business?