Confab Central: forward progress

It’s been just over 72 hours since Gerry McGovern wrapped up his keynote at Confab, thus drawing to a close the 2015 edition of the one of the best content strategy conferences of the year. I’ve spent a large part of this long weekend sleeping, because let’s face it: going to sessions all day and stretching your mind into new and productive ways of thinking about your work is tiring, not to mention the fact that I burned through days’ worth of energy sweating through my dress while I waited for my turn at the lightning talks.

Attendees often talk about keeping the glow of a conference alive so as to keep the momentum going at work. That’s true for me as well, but my biggest takeaway from Confab is something a bit more hairy. I found myself drawn to the talks that dealt with being better at advocating for our work and improving our industry. As members of a field, we have definitely moved from simply defining content strategy and toward “defining ourselves,” as Margot Bloomstein put it so eloquently in her talk.

I’m thinking about Laura Creekmore, who told us plainly to get over ourselves as “artists” and learn to quantify the value of our work. Or Ronnell Smith, who bravely described the moments when he was fired for defending precursors of content strategy to the C-suite. Or Anne Lamott (ANNE LAMOTT!), who reminded us why we became writers (and how to get back to it). And the aforementioned Bloomstein, who argued that we improve our industry as a whole if we define our own specialties and boost those of others.

“If you used to write…get back to it!” –Anne Lamott (!) #confabmn #verklempt

A photo posted by @katiekeen on

I think of my own journey in putting together my lightning talk and discovering how much my current role has changed. It made me more than a little nostalgic, because I know that I’m dealing with larger challenges now, and although I’m down for solving them, there is no simple solution.

But then, I think of the great conversations I had at lunch, or at the snack bar, or during a 5:30 a.m. taxi ride to the airport. I think of the strong group of colleagues I have right here in Boston, and the tacos and karaoke we’ll be sharing in the near future. (Not tacos and karaoke together, but—actually, that’s a great idea.) Finally, I think of Jonathon Colman’s opening keynote, reminding us that in the face of wicked ambiguity, “we solve problems together, or not at all.”

Content strategy and content marketing walk into a bar…

There has been a lot of talk lately about the difference between content strategy and content marketing. A lot. Well-mannered missives have been fired by my colleagues in both fields, and perhaps the most prominent event thus far has been Kristina Halvorson’s SXSW talk, Go Home Marketing, You Are Drunk.

Around the time that Kristina was taking the stage in Austin, I was beginning my stint as a contributor to our company blog, wondering what I was getting myself into as the debate heated up in blog posts and on message boards. The post I was working on at the time wasn’t exactly Pulitzer material. What would my fellow content strategists think? Or for that matter, my friends from my past life as a journalist? Most importantly, what did it mean for my future as a writer?

I kept thinking back to that scene in Season 3 of Girls, when Hannah is talking to her fellow GQ “advertorial” writers about how they wound up there.

Was I having a Hannah Horvath moment of my own? After all, I get free snacks, too.

I don’t loose sleep over my writing career, because I’ve found fulfillment in the transition to content strategy. But here’s the thing: when you’re in-house, it’s a different landscape when it comes to content. Many of my company’s content marketing practices were well established long before they hired me as their first-ever content strategist. But, I’ve cheerfully championed the pillars of content strategy that we were missing, like a style guide and messaging standards. Meanwhile, my colleagues have zeroed in on my writing experience—that thing I was willing to cast aside for the sake of moving forward—as a thing to value.

Over time, I have played up the “expert writer” card and managed to establish myself as an editorial guide on whom my coworkers can rely for sound feedback without judgment. And, I’m pleased to say that the overall quality of our content has improved.

A consultant would move on to another client at this point, meanwhile my role has grown to include product marketing, with a strong emphasis on customer experience. My work has gotten even more interesting, and I can be very, very busy.

That means that, wearing my editor’s cap, I can’t be a gatekeeper through which all content flows—that was never intended to be my role—but I can be a resource for my coworkers, be it an extra set of eyes, or the ace in a hole to write a monthly blog post.

We’re not going to catch every typo, and I won’t be adding each and every one of my posts to my clips, but that’s not the point. I’ve learned that ours is a whip-smart content marketing team with larger, well-thought-out goals, and they are moving toward them with or without me. But, let’s be honest: they’re my goals, too, because we all want the company to thrive.

The best thing I can do for our team is support them and offer up the tools from my experience to help them succeed. I would think this excludes them from the same category as the companies that Kristina was lampooning in her slides, but someone wants to call our content marketing team “drunk,” fine. I’m buying their next round.