Five Things I Learned at Design & Content Conference 2017

Branding, Marketing, Agency

Read Time: 8 Min

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the multi-day Design & Content Conference 2017 in Vancouver. It was a great experience and one I simply had to share with you. (By the way, Vancouver is amazing and it’s worth visiting if you haven’t yet.)

The annual event brings together industry leaders to explain how content strategy and design can work together to create better experiences for customers and brands.

Before I get to the quick takeaways from that conference, let’s break down what content strategy actually is. Moz has a great definition in the “Beginner’s Guide to Content Marketing”:

“Content marketing focuses on the tactics and execution—the actual creation, curation, and editing of content that’s specifically created for the purposes of marketing. This could be anything from blog posts to the confirmation page, and is aimed at building a trusted connection between a company’s products or services and the market that might end up purchasing them. It’s about creating content that people not only want to consume, but that will also help them through the sales funnel.”

The right content strategy has the power to influence global brand decisions as well as granular product copy. These days, the brands that infuse content strategy into their overall marketing strategy have a great opportunity to reach customers with meaningful content that sells.

Speaking of content, let’s get to the list already.

I’ve Things I Learned at the Design & Content Conference 2017

1. Guide, Don’t Tell

If we’ve learned anything from our current political climate it’s that we live in a post-fact era where people tend to make decisions based on what feels right to them—and what aligns with their cultural identity—instead of what authority figures say is true.

In the same vein, consumers lean toward things that make them feel good about themselves and confirm their biases, as opposed to products and services that were forced down their throats (“Buy! Buy! Buy!”). As such, brands that pay attention to their core audiences are more likely to make an impact on those very people.

In my recent memory, I can’t think of a better example than REI’s decision to close its doors on Black Friday so employees could spend the day gallivanting in the outdoors. I mean, it’s Black-freakin-Friday for the love of Pete. A day they would no doubt rake in boatloads of profit. It’s a bold move, but one that no doubt resonated with their employees (who are also brand stewards) and customers who already embrace that kind of lifestyle. It’s a classic case of content strategy at work.

So how can brands think more strategically to reach customers on an emotional level like REI did? In all of the talks at the conference, almost everyone had a piece of advice to share on this topic. Here are a few:

  • Invest in original content: Whether it’s an email campaign, descriptive copy for your services, a video, or your overall brand positioning, make sure it aligns with your Why statement. The rest will follow.
  • Edit down your world: Don’t try to be everything to everyone at the same time. Focus on one audience and curate content around their lifestyle.
  • Don’t tell people which product to buy: Help them arrive at the decision with a more thoughtful funnel experience that educates, informs, and inspires.
  • Give the opposition a seat at the table: Opposing opinions give your product or service legitimacy. Don’t be afraid to talk to customers who don’t like what you offer. Don’t be afraid of bad reviews. And don’t be reticent to opening a dialogue with your customers. Join discussions and invite insight and recalibrate.

2. Tell the same story everywhere

Imagine that you just read an article about a new restaurant in town. You visit the restaurant’s website, where you read the founding story, hear the philosophy behind the chef’s concept-driven menu, and take in the literary theme in the design.

You share the same beliefs as this restaurant, and you love the food options, so you reserve a spot on OpenTable after adding in a few notes about your dietary restrictions.

Upon arrival, the host greets you and confirms the dietary restrictions you divulged on OpenTable. You’re handed a menu and it looks just like the website: the logo is the same, the feel is earthy and warm, and the founding story printed right on the backside. The pages appear to be ripped from an old book.

After you’ve settled at your table, the server welcomes you and reiterates the concept behind the menu. You order. You talk. You wait.

When your food arrives, you see that the server has also brought a small glass with a half-inch of bourbon sloshing inside. “I heard you talking about the whiskey distillery down the street, so I brought you a sample to try. We use it as our base for Manhattans,” he remarks.

Your plate is exactly as the menu described. The presentation is exactly what you expected: down home and casual.

When you pay, you notice that the bill has been placed inside a novel—a final flourish of the brand’s literary theme. And a month later, you receive an email inviting you back to try the new menu.

This is what happens when you tell the same story in everything you do as a brand. Your customers notice the difference. The right content strategy will consider the context of the customer: what they are feeling, what their habits are, and what kind of content they expect to see before making a purchase.

3. Emotion is intelligence

Another overwhelming theme at the Design & Content Conference 2017 was this idea of empathetic design and content. One of the speakers, Beth Dean, who ironically works at Facebook, had recently lost her mother yet was subjected to a litany of Mother’s Day messages on social media. Without knowing it, Facebook’s brilliant algorithms served her content that hurt her on a deeply emotional level. (She later went on to design the function that is helping to end this kind of barrage, so take that Facebook!)

But it doesn’t stop there. Every brand has customers who don’t fit the typical white, middle-class-male stereotype. Every brand has a customer, or potential customer, who is disabled, colorblind, gay, deaf, low income, depressed, a minority, an amputee, a childless parent, a military veteran suffering from PTSD, and more. These are the “edge cases” in marketing, and they are currently underserved by even the biggest brands. We are unconsciously taught to ignore them in favor of homogeny. Future content marketers, however, will consider the impact of content on these groups, and adjust their strategies accordingly.

My advice? Before you post your next message, or hyper-personalize your next campaign, ask yourself, “Could this content hurt someone?” If the answer is yes, start again.

4. Scalable design starts with content and people

Here’s a term I hadn’t heard before attending the conference: scenario-driven design systems. I plan to use it at my next backyard barbecue (fingers crossed that goes over well). The idea is that every piece of content should solve a specific problem for an audience. In my own experience as a copywriter, I can tell you: this is the single biggest thing you can do right now to improve your content strategy. It’s hard to focus on one goal for your marketing tactics, but you’d be surprised how much your conversions go up when you do. Every webpage, every campaign, every billboard, every checkout experience should consider the biggest questions a customer will ask and overcome the biggest barriers to purchase.

Forget the FAQ page. Answer those questions on your homepage.

Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Don’t assume you know your audience. Find out by talking to them in person, doing market research, testing your product or service with diverse groups, and by diving into as many analytics as you can.
  • Tailor your content to focus on the user experience. Think about what the user is hoping to accomplish and build everything around making it happen. Eliminate the fatty, useless content that beleaguers most brands.
  • Don’t start with a layout, start with a solution. I’m sure you’re getting the point here, but you’ll never stand out if your design and copy team starts with design and copy in a vacuum. They should be starting with an answer.

5. Use storytelling to find holes in content

To wrap things up, I wanted to share one last piece of advice I received from the Design & Content Conference. It comes from Marissa Coren and her presentation entitled “Discovering The Power Of Narrative Design.” In that talk, she clearly explained the power of storytelling in content strategy:

“I create a book of sorts, complete with chapters and images, that answer the questions: what are we doing, why are we doing this and how do we plan to get there?” — Marissa Coren, Design & Content Conference 2017

In the rigorous, time-intensive process of converting the buyer journey into an actual map, she learned that brands can (and should) identity gaps in their content and address those weak points with opportunities for enjoyment. This blew my mind (part of which I’m sure is still eating poutine at some café in Vancouver’s Gastown). The example she shared included a basic journey map for the Uber app, in which each page of the app was forced through a kind of quality assurance check, which entailed questions like:

  • What is the goal of this page?
  • What is the granularity of the experience?
  • What is the emotional experience of the user?
  • And what is the content touchpoint?

How the pages fared against these questions informed the biggest areas for improvement. If we can visualize the journey and address what she calls “valleys of uncertainty” for the user, then we can engage customers at their most vulnerable points and reach them with the right kind of messaging. I encourage you to read through her presentation, see the full PDF here.

See our recent work here. And don’t hesitate to reach out.

Related Insights