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Unpacking Now What 2013

 The Now What Conference was a long time coming. I wasn't involved in the planning or setup, so I can say with humility intact that I thought it was a fantastic conference. The selection of speakers was excellent, the production values were top notch, and the audience seemed engaged and appreciative. I'm always proud of our team at Blend, but the conference put it over the top.

There are a lot of conferences you attend for the networking opportunities, and a few you attend to really learn something from the talks. For me, NowWhat was the latter. I was helping with the production and that meant following what each speaker said very closely. You pay more attention when you have to help advance the slides. 

The speakers didn't coordinate their presentations, but that might be hard to believe if you attended, since there were a few themes that were constants across most of the presentations. That points to strong trends within the industry, and it's worth taking a look at them:

It's your content, but it's your audience's attention

Businesses spend a lot of time thinking about their message. "What do we want to say to our potential consumers?" And that's an important question to answer. You should know what you're going to say, and how and when you're going to say it. But audience behavior on the web has shifted in the past few years. Prior to Twitter and Facebook, when users were consuming daily content, they were seeking it out by visiting a regular set of sites, or using RSS. But increasingly, audiences are using social media streams to have a selection of customized content brought to them in addition to (or in place of) this seeking behavior. We've gone from hunters to gatherers of news.

As a brand, if you want to be a part of that stream, you need to think about not just what you want to say, but what your audience wants to hear. People are only going to subscribe to sources of information that interest them, and the bullet points in your 12-point marketing plan may not be the first thing on their minds. But they are your customers, so you do share some common interests. Use your position of expertise in areas around your industry or related topics to come up with things to talk about that may not directly involve you, but are interesting to your audience. If you were to sit down with one of your clients for a casual lunch, what are some things you would talk about? What can you do to create some interesting and valuable information based on the resources you have and what you do? The best summary I heard was, "Give a lot, take a little." 

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p>Theme for <a href="">#nowwhat13</a> - build content around what customers want to talk about, not what your business wants to say.</p>&mdash; Joe Kepley (@joekepley) <a href="">April 18, 2013</a></blockquote>
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<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p><a href="">#nowwhat13</a> enjoyed this quote. Brands aren't expected to be flawless anymore. <a href="" title="">…</a></p>&mdash; Brittany Reith (@BrittanyReith) <a href="">April 18, 2013</a></blockquote>
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<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p>@<a href="">melissarach</a> - Let conversation lead content. <a href="">#nowwhat13</a></p>&mdash; Bryan Ruby (@cmsreport) <a href="">April 18, 2013</a></blockquote>
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Successful websites are made of people! PEOPLE!

The other big recurring theme was the focus on "soft skills" within a project - goal alignment and management of project intent not just project milestones. In my years working on project for the web in various employment positions, I've seen a few projects fail. It's almost never due to technology. Web projects fail because requirements were wrong, expectations weren't managed, or important stakeholders weren't considered at the right time. Project management is as much a process of political alignment as it is a process of managing time and technology. Everyone has to agree on the overall vision for the organizational structure to work. 

 Governance is another area where 'people management' was heavily discussed. It's clear that to maintain proper order on a large web property, everyone involved needs to understand the importance of providing the right content and maintaining it. You don't simply write something for the web site and then forget it exists. Every piece of content on your site needs to be there for a purpose, and it needs to always be right, even when things change. This means that someone is responsible for owning it and taking pride in it.

At the same time, governance shouldn't be there to enforce a rigid tone or suck the soul out of your content. Write your website for people, because people like to be treated like people, not 'end users' or 'uniques' or 'prospects'. The Golden Rule still applies. Don't make something you wouldn't want to read.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p><a href="">#nowwhat13</a> Theme 2 - get everyone involved that needs to be at the BEGINNING. <a href="">#nosecrets</a> <a href="">#nosurprises</a></p>&mdash; Cathy McKnight (@cathymcknight) <a href="">April 18, 2013</a></blockquote>
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<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p>B/c you cut the lawn doesn't mean you own the yard. Just b/c you maintain company's web presence doesn't mean you own it. The org owns...</p>&mdash; Cathy McKnight (@cathymcknight) <a href="">April 18, 2013</a></blockquote>
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<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p><a href="">#nowwhat13</a> @<a href="">mrvilhauer</a> Talk not only about content strategy but also people strategy.</p>&mdash; Bryan Ruby (@cmsreport) <a href="">April 18, 2013</a></blockquote>
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My biggest takeaway from NowWhat is that it gave me another chance to get fired up about the web. Lisa Welchman's keynote was the perfect capper to the day. One of the coolest things about a new medium is that it's new. And the web is perpetually a new medium. Even though it's been around for 20 years, we are constantly getting new tools to work with. And that means that best practices are constantly shifting. It's an environment where there are some generally-understood best practices, but any of them could be trumped tomorrow by a better approach. It makes the web exciting and engaging for both users and those of us who work to build it. As web professionals, it's easy to think that we're working day to day in an established field. But the truth is that at 20 years in, its' still one of the newest professions out there. We're still the '49ers working the gold rush, and the things we're doing now are going to be How It's Done for the next generation, until a new wrinkle comes along to change it once again.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p>If you are working on the digital today, you are making a difference. You have a responsibility to get it right. @<a href="">lwelchman</a> <a href="">#nowwhat13</a></p>&mdash; melissarach (@melissarach) <a href="">April 18, 2013</a></blockquote><script async src="//" charset="utf-8"></script>