Welcome to Digital Homesteading.
This collection of resources from 9 Clouds helps you build your business and community.
So you built a website.
That’s the kind of question our neighbors over at Blend Interactive deal with every day. And they’re certainly qualified to answer it — as experts in web design and development, they have some pretty good ideas about what to do with websites once they’re launched.
But not everyone does. In fact, Blend was asked Now what? so much that the company decided to create an entire conference dedicated to answering that question.
Based in our shared home of Sioux Falls, SD, the Now What? Conference aims to help professionals maintain and improve their web presence. That’s something our staff at 9 Clouds happens to know a thing or two about, too; it’s basically our business model.
But as this year’s Now What? Conference demonstrated, the web is a collaborative world, and we all need to work together to keep it running well — no matter what industry, company, or position we’re in.
So in true collaborative fashion, my team sent me to the conference to connect with others and see what nuggets of wisdom I might be able to bring back. As it turns out, I was able to deliver many delicious nuggets (and I’m not talking about the chicken variety).
Here are my top seven takeaways from the 2016 Now What? Conference in Sioux Falls.
1. “Don’t Run from Ambiguity.” -Jonathan Colman
Jonathan Colman kicked off the conference with his opening keynote, “Wicked Ambiguity and User Experience.”
The Webby Award-winning UX content strategist at Facebook took a unique approach to his speech. Using examples from history, he explained how “wicked problems” (a.k.a. problems with ambiguous, if not impossible, answers) have served as catalysts to ignite our creativity and help us innovate together.
As a result, Jonathan said, we’re more than just “creatives.” We need to join forces to find effective solutions. “We’re united against ambiguity.”
As a self-proclaimed “creative,” I can resonate with this. It’s easy for anyone involved in digital marketing to segment ourselves based on our individual roles; after all, much of our work is done online and alone, so there’s not always a ton of collaboration involved.
But there should be. Especially when we’re facing complicated issues, it’s important to enlist the help of others to come up with the best ideas possible. We’re a team, and we should act like one.
We should also be willing to take risks in our work. In Jonathan’s words: “Don’t run away from ambiguity. Run toward it.”
2. “Maintain a Posture of Confidence.” -Ron Bronson
Ron Bronson spoke next, addressing small teams specifically in his talk “The Lone Ranger: Managing the Ups and Downs of One-Person Offices and Small Teams.”
Ron’s manner of speaking was a lot like the small teams he spoke about: engaging, fast-paced, and a little all over the place. As an advisor to digital marketing teams across industries, he knows firsthand how hectic it can be to be part of a small team; you wear many hats, and you have the responsibility of keeping them all straight.
But Ron gave us some things we can do to make our jobs easier on ourselves.
For one, we need to develop trust among those we work with, as many of them don’t understand what we do. “It’s your responsibility to communicate your pain points,” Ron said. “No one else’s.”
The part I liked best about Ron’s session was his idea of “maintaining a posture of confidence.” Since the industry of digital marketing is so new, and most of us are still working out the kinks of our jobs, we can fall into the trap of believing we don’t know what we’re doing.
But we do — or at least, we know better than most. And that’s something to take pride in. Ron encouraged us to “communicate your smarts” — and while that’s difficult for many of us humble Midwestern folk, it’s also essential to the success of our work. So go ahead — wear those hats with pride!
3. “Floss One Tooth at a Time.” -Matt Grocki
After a brief morning break, content strategist Matt Grocki returned with his talk, “Reducing Digital Clutter: How to Clean Up the Back of Your House.”
The idea of “digital clutter” is something we can all relate to, right? Sure, some of us have a minimalist (or at least responsible) approach to managing our content online, but most of us are what Matt calls “stowaways” or even “Post-It warriors” — shoving all our ugly stuff into the back-room closets where no one goes.
But that ugly stuff is still there, isn’t it? We have such a cognitive disconnect between our tiny devices and the amount of data stored inside them that we forget how overwhelming it all really is — especially to the site user who isn’t familiar with your style of organization. It’s important to keep your content clean and manageable, both for your team’s sake and your users’.
To do this, Matt suggests “flossing one tooth at a time.” Instead of tackling your entire site at once, start small. Err on the side of simplicity. Eventually, you’ll have a house that looks as nice in the back as it does in the front.
4. “Think about Story, Not Channel.” -Megan Costello
Following a delicious lunch of discussion and music, Megan Costello stepped up to the stage with her speech on “Content Heavy Lifting: How to Recycle (and Upcycle) Your Content Over and Over Again.”
Along with some inspiring thoughts on weight lifting (note to self: work out more), Megan shared some great tips on repurposing content across different mediums. Listing examples from her work in higher education, she offered practical advice for transforming a single message into an entire campaign.
My favorite part about Megan’s session was her emphasis on story, rather than channel. As a creative writer, I love story — I think it’s what makes us human. It’s also an effective marketing tool.
People want to hear about other people. According to Megan, “Every story should be grounded in a person.” So when you’re crafting your content, instead of starting with what, start with who.
Also, make sure artwork is a priority when designing your messaging. As Megan said, “Art is a content hero.”
Once you have your story, you can upcycle or recycle it for different channels — yes, including print. We digital marketers tend to scoff at print marketing, but it does have its place, if the audience is using it.
In the end, our customers are our first priority. We need to be responding to their needs, not forcing our own upon them.
5. “Treat Your Customers Like Cats.” -Misty Weaver
Next up in the Now What? lineup was content strategist Misty Weaver, speaking on “Busting the Field of Dreams Theory: Making Content Meaningful, Useful, and Findable.”
Since Misty’s session was mostly about search engine optimization (SEO), it was right up my alley as a 9 Clouds employee. I loved her Field of Dreams analogy — how the whole “If you build it, they will come” concept totally flops when it comes to SEO. If your website isn’t helpful (let alone searchable) for the user, they won’t come — plain and simple.
Misty gave some excellent suggestions on how to improve your SEO, which we’ve also written about at length on our blog. She talked about listening to your customers’ needs, providing them with valuable info, using metadata wisely, and achieving balance and authority on your blog.
“Content marketing can’t just be cute,” Misty said. She suggested treating your customers like cats — it’s hard to gain their love. It takes time, effort, and a whole lot of coaxing.
But in the end, it’s worth it. Cats are more loyal than you’d think.
6. “Be T-Shaped.” -Rebekah Cancino
After another quick break, UX consultant Rebekah Cancino came back with “Next Level Collaboration: The Future of Content and Design.”
Rebekah’s energy and passion for collaboration was contagious. She advocated creating a “culture of openness” in our offices by promoting the four types of openness: personal, active, outward, and exponential.
Rebekah offered several ways to do that, but the biggest takeaway for me was her idea of being “T-shaped” — having a broad knowledge and deep expertise. So while it’s important to be highly skilled at our own positions, it’s equally important to have a general understanding of others’ as well. By learning more about our colleagues’ (and clients’) jobs, we are able to both empathize and cooperate with them better.
In meetings, Rebekah encouraged us to “first faucet, then funnel” — meaning we should start by brainstorming and asking questions freely, and then narrow down to the best ideas. I liked her idea of taking your own best idea off the table; that way, you have to not only think outside the box yourself, you also have to hear out others’ ideas.
7. “Practice the 90/6/6 Rule.” -Kevin Hoffman
Kevin Hoffman closed out the Now What? Conference with the second keynote, “The Five Meetings You Meet in Web Design.”
Ah, meetings — everyone’s favorite part of the day, right? Wrong. Most people, millennials like me especially, have short attention spans for meetings.
But as the Meeting Design author argues, meetings don’t have to be dreadful. As long as they’re managed well, they are highly effective in helping companies get $#*! done.
Kevin described the five genres of meetings he has found: beginnings, presentations, middles, explorations, and endings. Each one should be treated differently, but there are a few common practices that can be applied to all of them.
For one thing, Kevin proposed the idea of “visual listening” — that all meetings should include visual aids, like whiteboards, to help people process and remember ideas.
The most innovative idea for me, though, was Kevin’s 90/6/6 rule. In this model, meetings should last no longer than 90 minutes, with no more than six ideas introduced in one stretch, with no more than six people in a team. Kevin also said that for every 10 minutes of idea generation, you need 10 minutes of discussion and reflection.
That means your meetings should be kept small in size and short in duration. If you need to break up your meetings — or eliminate them altogether — don’t be afraid!
Cool Takeaways! Now What?
If you can’t tell, I had an excellent (and highly thought-provoking) time at the 2016 Now What? Conference in Sioux Falls.