Yes, We Still Need To Accept Content Is King

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Yes, We Still Need To Accept Content Is King
by Drew McManus

Drew McManus recently served as a judge for AAAE's first-ever content competiton. The following is a reflection from him on the conference entries and themes. 

The survival of arts organizations depends on our ability to communicate. So when Katy Coy from the Association of Arts Administration Educators (AAAE) reached out with an invitation to participate as a 2017 content competition adjudicator, there was no way I was going to miss that boat.

The idea of a competition dedicated solely to the value of written content was not just appealing, but exhilarating. By and large, the competition’s parameters were loose:

“…[submit] content that exemplifies, expounds upon, or aligns with The Wallace Foundation’s Nine Effective Practices of Audience Building.”

This approach added an extra degree of intrigue.

It’s one thing to stand at home plate for your turn at bat and know a pitcher is going to throw the ball your direction. That’s the way the rules work; it’s all neat and tidy. By and large, most competitions function in similar fashion; entries are submitted via a clearly defined set of topic, format, and length requirements.

That was not the case with this competition.                                                                         

Instead, imagine standing at home plate and the pitch can show up from any direction, thrown by any member of the opposing team; hell, even someone from the stands.

That’s the way this competition worked.

By contrast, this approach can feel chaotic and require adjudicators to do more than read entries and tick off scores on a detailed evaluation sheet.

I found it to be a wonderfully refreshing process.

Each of the finalists submitted his/her entry using entirely different formats, diverse writing styles, and a wide variety of supporting material. Each required multiple reads, always in different order. Rinse and repeat enough times and you ultimately arrive at a level playing field for comparative evaluation.

At the end of that process, the contribution from Yuha Jung came out on top.

Ironically, Ms. Jung’s paper, originally written for an academic publication, focused almost entirely on theoretical approaches to solving very real problems related to a crippling lack of diversity among fundraising practices.

That’s a bold choice for a competition guided by The Wallace Foundation’s Nine Effective Practices of Audience Building (and since acronyms are fun, we’ll call it NEPAB), a guide based on the very real work of 10 arts organizations to develop audience-building initiatives. Those efforts were firmly rooted in an empirical process: market research, generating stakeholder buy-in, and actionable results.

Nonetheless, Ms. Jung’s contribution stood out because of a strong content game that capitalized on the following tenets of effective content creation.

Make The Content Actionable

Ms. Jung’s contribution identified a very real problem and did not shy away from certain elements of the material just because it was uncomfortable or sensitive. While the other contributors focused on deserving projects that had already been implemented, they provided far less actionable context.

When it comes to actionable results, I’ll take an idea based on rigorous research that also lays out how to apply the information over one that may not have benefitted from the same degree of groundwork.

Source Your Info

If there’s one thing I could change about content creation with a magic wand, it would be all about sourcing content. In the age of fake news, content that lacks supporting documentation stands out in a negative context more than ever. While reviewing my evaluation notes, the one item that stands out the most is a lack of satisfactory supporting material or the use of intentionally vague statistics and/or static analysis.

Media Should Enhance The Content

A number of the contributions included presentation slides chock-full of highly detailed charts and graphs. Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, when those slides fail to convey the message in standalone format, they quickly detract from the primary content.

It’s no secret that people learn and process information differently, so it’s usually a good thing to include media in your content…but only if it adds value. If there was one area where all of the contributions left some evaluation points on the table, it was how they used media.

Precision And Brevity

The one area where most of the contributions excelled was submitting work that had been judiciously edited. Most of the contributions relied on a narrative tone, which is terrific approach as it can serve as a tool to make stronger personal connections with the reader.

Putting It all Together

In the end, each contribution excelled whereas Ms. Jung’s work managed to capture my attention and inspire thoughtfulness. It encouraged me to write several posts at my own blog on diversity and that sort of actionable result is precisely what good content does.

I want to take a moment to acknowledge the hard work from my fellow adjudicators Donna Walker-Kuhne from Walker International Communications and Bob Harlow, Researcher and Author of The Wallace Foundation’s Taking Out the Guesswork.

Likewise, kudos to all of the contributors; each of their works had something special to contribute.  Lastly, I want to thank Ms. Coy and everyone from AAAE for working so hard on such a worthy project. The more service organizations and Foundations encourage, inspire, and reward those inside the field to step up their content game, the better.