My takeaways from ContentEd 2021
I was lucky enough to be able to attend (and speak at) ContentEd last month, a conference for content professionals in higher education. In this post, I recap some of the talks I watched and the highlights from them.
Protecting your assets – managing devolved authors through centralised governance of digital content
Speaker: Jenni Taylor, Deputy Head of Digital Communications at Cardiff University
Jenni’s talk was by far the most relevant to issues we face at the University of Edinburgh in terms of content management. We’re a highly devolved institution. Each school and department runs their own digital presence. Is this the best option for us, though?
Jenni spoke about the challenges her team at Cardiff faced in what to do about their publishing model when they launched a new website. They could either:
- not devolve authorship across the university (like they used to), but the central digital team could become a bottleneck for making updates
- have managed devolution, where a central digital team would review and publish changes sent through authors in a workflow
- maintain full devolution of content but risk the quality and consistency of content across the web estate
The Cardiff team opted for the managed devolution option, referenceing a Gerry McGovern quote which highlights the advantage of a mix.
A mix of the central and decentralized is often optimal. The central team has core expertise in web writing, navigation, search, while the decentralized team contains the subject matter experts.
Gerry McGovern, Decentralized publishing equals amateur web management (2013)
Managed devolution is technically what we do in the Prospective Student Web Content team in terms of our degree finders. Schools liaise with their subject matter experts and provide the content to us. We check it for editorial style and readability before publishing to the website.
But this can still be a labour-intensive job keeping up with edit requests. Jenni mentioned a few tips to help mitigate this:
- Expect content to come into the workflow at a certain standard: Authors at Cardiff started to rely on the central team a bit too much for catching errors in their content. The team decided to stop correcting formatting for authors, instead passing back to make sure it met a certain standard before it came to them for approval. Definitely something for us to consider in our degree finder process.
- Not all content needs to go through a workflow request: Our postgraduate degree finder currently makes editors send in an edit request for updates to contact details. This is a type of change we need to consider whether it’s really worth our time approving in the future degree finder system we create.
- Find a way of handling requests that works best for you: Jenni mentioned her team tried out a few ways of handling requests, primarily splitting requests between team members on a day-to-day basis versus week-to-week. This is something my team is currently thinking about in terms of how we handle all our support requests.
Leading content, leading change
Speaker: Sara Wachter-Boettcher, founder of Active Voice
Sara gave an inspiring keynote on leadership and how we can use our content skills to make our workplaces more inclusive and ethical.
To be clear, Sara stated that we can’t content-design our way out of any of the world’s big problems. But skills like empathy, collaboration and facilitations can help.
There were two quotes from her presentation that really stuck out to me:
Stuckness breeds burnout. Possibility brings momentum.
This is a good reminder when you’re living in a pandemic. We feel stuck right now, which is only going to burn us out. But finding any opportunity to create change can reinvigorate us.
Courage and rest are not in competition. They are inextricable.
This reminded me of an article referenced on Duncan Stephen’s (UX Manager at Edinburgh) blog. Helping others helps you. Self-care shouldn’t mean disregard everyone else.
The step-by-step approach to developing your content strategy
Speaker: Tracy Playle, CEO and Chief Content Strategist at Pickle Jar Communications
Content strategy is a difficult concept to wrap your head around. There are many definitions of it, and it looks different for each organisation.
Tracy’s keynote gave an overview of the six core components of a content strategy:
- vision: the overarching strategy of the organisation
- insight: your organisation’s objectives and audience research
- editorial: voice and tone and content design approach
- anatomy: information architecture and taxonomy design
- production: content operations and workflow
- upkeep: measurement and user testing
If you understand what the different components of a content strategy are, you can build one that works for you. As Tracy put it:
A content strategy is an evolving suite of documented blueprints designed to have your content work a particular way for your organisation.
This has definitely helped my understanding of content strategy (and Tracy had already done that in a brilliant blog post she wrote about imposter syndrome in content roles).
It’s kind of similar to how I think about content design. In content design, you’re presented with a problem, and you pick something from your content toolkit to try and solve that problem.
For content strategy, you have a set of components. You need to work out what is currently happening with each of those components, find out what the gaps are and decide how you will bridge those gaps.
There were four stand-out quotes (or anecdotes) from talks on accessibility I wanted to share.
Distance in miles, not walking time
In a fireside discussion on accessibility, Dominic Billington, formerly Head of Marketing and Digital Experience at York St John University, mentioned how they changed distances between campus locations from walking time to miles.
Not everyone walks at the same pace, so using miles is a more inclusive (and factual) indicator.
Technology is a barrier, not disability
I absolutely loved this quote from Janell Sims, Digital Accessibility Consultant at Harvard University. No commentary needed, it says all it needs to say:
When we think of barriers to equal access, it’s really important to remember that the disability is not the barrier. If there is a barrier, it exists in the technology.
How well could you draw an image based on its alt text?
Simon Fairbanks, Senior Content Strategist at Pickle Jar Communications, gave a talk on creating accessible social media posts.
One helpful tip he gave regarding creating good alt text: imagine asking someone to draw your image based on the alt text you write. Could they draw a somewhat accurate depiction of the image?
If they can’t, your alt text probably needs to be more descriptive.
Simon also made a great point about the accessibility of emojis. If you use them, make sure you’re not using them to fully replace text. For instance, the alt text for the emoji of someone with a graduation cap on has nothing to do with graduation. It’s just called ‘student’.
What does uni jargon really mean to students from underrepresented groups?
Emily Robinson, Digital Content Producer at the University of West London, gave a good reminder about how we need to consider the HE-specific words we use, especially around underrepresented groups.
If you have had very little exposure to the world of higher ed, what does something like ‘accreditation’ or ‘Research Excellence Framework’ really mean? Why do those things matter?
Some important things for my team to think about as we start redesigning our degree finders.
Finding inspiration outside of higher ed (aka how to rut-proof your creative edge)
Speaker: Karyn Adams, HA ThirtyOne
This was the last talk of the conference I watched, and what a high note to end on. Karyn spoke about how some creatives can find higher ed a really uninspiring sector because of its cyclical nature. Every year is full of the same traditions and events.
For some creatives, though, this can work to our advantage. It’s a chance to always do something better or differently.
Even if you appreciate those opportunities to improve, this sector can be really crushing to creatives in another way. Higher ed has a ‘because that’s the way we’ve always done it’ mentality. It can be hard to spark change if you’re not given permission from the top to do so.
To combat these issues, Karyn gave a few helpful tips for any creatives looking to refuel. The one that resonated with me most was auditing a class at your institution. You will gain greater respect for your university, the academic staff, and better understand the student experience. Plus you get to learn about a cool topic, too.
Karyn’s overall message was to get out and experience something new or from a different angle. I think that’s a handy reminder for anything in life and resonates with what Sara Wachter-Boettcher said in her keynote. Doing the same thing year after year in HE can lead to the feeling of stuckness. Change can bring about momentum.
My talk on building confidence
I’ll end this post by mentioning my own ContentEd session. I gave a showcase talk on the things in my career that have helped me become a more confident person.
- stepping outside of my comfort zone
- continuing to educate myself
- receiving and giving encouragement
I won’t go into the full details of the talk, but the key messages for each of those points are:
- If you feel uncomfortable with what you’re working on, that’s probably a good thing. It’s a chance to learn something new and build up your capabilities.
- Education didn’t end when you left school or uni. To improve in your job, you need to keep reading and trying stuff out – but make sure you’re doing this at the right time. If you read a blog post one time, you’ll probably forget about it if you don’t implement the lessons in your work.
- Tell someone they’re doing well when they are, or that they are good at something. Make sure you have someone in life telling you the same. If you can’t find anyone, let me know. I’m a big fan of telling people when I think they’re great.
My talk was also a great opportunity for me to take a picture Triple Lauren. That’s me watching the video of me speaking at ContentEd where I talk about the lightning talk I gave at IWMW 2019. Very meta.