Last week I had the pleasure of attending Confab Higher Ed (#ConfabEDU) in New Orleans. The conference was held in the heart of New Orleans, the French Quarter, at the Hotel Monteleone. I opted to attend the day of intensive workshops on Wednesday, which occurred before the two-day conference starting on Thursday.
This was my first time at a Confab conference, which focus on content strategy. There are also two other conferences: Confab Central (which is more broad in industry scope) and Confab Intensive (which is composed of all extended workshop-format sessions). Confab Higher Ed focuses on – you guessed it! – selling farm equipment. Just kidding. It focuses on higher education. But I’ll come back to the farm equipment in a minute. For now, allow me to share a few observations I picked up from the impressive brain power that congregated in NOLA!
Confab is unlike any conference you’ve attended before.
First off, all the sessions are about, or relate directly to, content strategy. Content. Strategy. Who does that? Many of us live in a world where content and strategy are never used in the same sentence except to utter, “I wish I had time to plan out a content strategy.” Sadly, there is more reacting than planning, primarily as a result of scarce resources (like staff time). I was thrilled to have the opportunity to focus on strategy for three days.
Second, the conference planners take their audience members’ preferences into account. (Logical, since that was one of the main tenets advocated for in the talks about content strategy.) By this I mean that they recognize that many (most?) of those individuals working in this field are not strictly extroverted. There were signs to direct you to rooms you could use if you needed a quiet place to work, or just a place to get away from it all. Prior to the mixer event on Thursday night they even gave “networking tips” to put everyone at ease. Compare this to South by Southwest, where you basically feel like you’re “doing it [the conference] wrong” if you’re not out all night at the networking parties, and you can really see the difference in this conference vibe.
Third, they make the session rooms work for you. Every session provided varying seating options – right in front of the speaker, farther back with multiple screens to view the presentation, live streaming online, chairs, tables complete with power strips to recharge laptops. This is much different from other conference experiences I have had, where individuals sat on the floor to be near electrical outlets or to be able to view the speaker. The conference spared no expense in ensuring that everyone got the most from the experience.
Half of your inspiration will come outside of the speakers’ slide decks.
I’ll be the first to admit: I was well on the road to burn out before attending this conference. I had taken on too much at once, hadn’t taken a vacation in I don’t know how long, wasn’t getting enough sleep… Getting away from my desk for a few days of training helped, but it wasn’t the solution since all my to-do’s were still on my to-do lists (yes, sadly I have more than one).
But while at the conference, I somehow hit reset. The speakers’ ideas were great and did give me a lot of ideas. But I also got ideas from attendees on the social media stream using the hashtag #ConfabEDU. I learned from people I met during conference meals. I shared ideas and discussed strategy with a group of colleagues that I had dinner with several times.
And I explored the city! New Orleans really is not short on arts and culture. Getting out of the hotel in the evenings and staying an extra couple of days for a vacation was great. I went to museums, walked around the city, and listened to jazz music at Jackson Square. Each experience was a new source of inspiration. When I returned to work this week, the length of my to-do lists didn’t bother me quite as much. (And listening to the jazz albums I bought in the French Quarter while I put my nose to the grindstone sure didn’t hurt!)
We are all in this together.
I am a one-person-shop when it comes to the communications in my office. I work with a team of several fabulous people but they all focus on different areas of our work. Discussing the best method for scheduling tweets or branding Instagram posts isn’t something that comes up in regular conversation. While at the conference I was able to talk with several other individuals in similar situations, including others that work at my institution. Knowing that I have others I can talk to who are familiar with content strategy and our audiences is a great feeling.
Part of acting on this knowledge requires intentionally breaking down barriers that are common in higher education: silos. (I promised to come back to the farm equipment!) As the final keynote made clear, silos can make you feel trapped when you’re stuck inside with everything pushing down on you. But if work to cross barriers within the silos, by reaching out and networking with colleagues in other units on your campus, you can accomplish new and innovative things.
Confab Higher Ed was well worth the investment of money and time. I highly recommend it to any individuals looking for an education in content strategy. For those who missed this year’s conference you’re in luck! Many of the sessions were live streamed, and a recording is available on the Confab YouTube channel. Attendees were very active using the hashtag #ConfabEDU, making it a trending topic in many cities around the country. I also made a Storify recap of some of the best tweets from the various sessions. Finally, you can view my sketch notes from the sessions I attended in the slide deck below.