Conferences are wonderful things. For a couple of days you’re in a bubble with peers, swapping stories, hearing wisdom, taking comfort in sharing similar challenges and leaving with new-found knowledge. All wrapped inside a burst of inspiration.
ContentEd is next-level special. As someone who attends, sponsors (as part of GatherContent) and speaks at events fairly regularly, ContentEd is one I was very happy to return to when I headed to Edinburgh at the end of June for what was their third conference.
An impeccable conference experience
I’ve been there from the start, and the team at Pickle Jar Communications who organise ContentEd have always provided an unrivalled experience as a speaker, sponsor and attendee. Their attention to detail is impeccable and the experience they create is a testament to their hard work.
Conferences are so much more than the speakers and talks. They are very important, of course, but it’s about the whole experience of venue, social events, food, networking opportunities, swag, attendees, and I did I mention food?
3 themes from 2 days and 28 talks
With most conferences, unplanned little themes emerge from the talks, purely by coincidence. You can find crossovers in talks and they are nods to where the industry is focused and headed. There is always a much bigger theme too – and so without further ado, here are the themes I felt were prevalent at ContentEd19, based on the talks I attended and the discussions I had.
1. The art and power of storytelling
We all know how powerful stories can be and being able to tell powerful, emotive and relevant stories through the content we create is essential when that content is being published to multiple channels, in a competitive industry. Everyone wants to stand out – so the key isn’t to create a video, the key is to create an engaging story that resonates with a specific audience.
Brittney Dunkins’s talk was focused around strategic storytelling, whilst Cameron Pegg took a deep dive into data-driven storytelling.
To prove the importance of storytelling, one of the ContentEd Award categories was actually the best example of storytelling. I liked how storytelling wasn’t seen as a gimmick or device to entice users and attract prospective students. Rather, it was seen as a valuable means to drive engagement and build brand affinity through clearly and cleverly constructed narratives.
2. The importance of understanding your audience
We all know that we need to understand what audience we are creating content for. But how can we gain that understanding and keep the audience in mind when navigating so many day-to-day challenges, conflicting priorities and internal politics?
The theme here wasn’t so much in how to do audience research but more around putting user needs first, don’t make assumptions, social listening, and testing. Robert Perry’s talk encouraged us to challenge our assumptions.
In Higher Ed, there are specific demographics to be considered and in a world of choice, connecting to your audience is necessary to thrive. There were some great examples shared around gamification (hello again, storytelling) and using appropriate channels and technology to deliver content where your audience is and in ways that they want (and are coming to expect).
Dougal Scaife shared a fascinating example from Leeds Beckett University about building a chatbot to help with the clearing process as their audience (17/18 year olds) don’t like speaking to people on the phone – which the clearing process has always consisted of. Universities are trying to break away from ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ to ‘this is the way we should do it for our audience.’ That’s no mean feat as it requires cultural change, organisational buy-in and stakeholder alignment. But creating audience-focused and user-centred content is essential, not desirable.
3. The need for inclusivity and being human
The overarching, empowering and inspirational theme at ContentEd, for me, was about being inclusive, human and kind. Sarah Richards’ keynote was focused around accessibility, usability and inclusivity, with so much food for thought around visible, non-visible, permanent, and temporary disabilities. All supported by real-world examples that really emphasises the imperative need for us all to be striving to make the web a place for all.
Many talks touched on empathy, kindness, and consideration. Jonny Williams from Keele University spoke about it this in detail in his talk about emotional honesty in our content. This also links to storytelling and understanding our audiences too, of course.
Empowering the next generation
I got a strong sense that delegates really cared about what they do and the content they create because that content will drive and influence the next generation of content creators, strategists and managers. They want to make a positive difference in the world through education and content.
These three themes of storytelling, audience and inclusivity are a solid starting point and together they form three pillars for a better web that we can all invest in.