Craft News

Evolving the Modern Event Website

Apr 8, 2016 in Case Studies

Confab Events Homepage

Background

Confab Events offers some of the best content strategy conferences on the planet, including Confab Central, the longest-running content strategy conference in the US. Their conferences draw attendees and speakers ranging from freelancers to executives of Fortune 100 companies. Team Confab puts a lot of heart and passion into their events, and it shows: attendees return year after year to reconnect with their tribe, and describe their experience as “life-changing” and “career-invigorating.”

Behind Confab Events is Brain Traffic, a highly influential content strategy consultancy. Kristina Halvorson, CEO of Brain Traffic, wrote “Content Strategy for the Web,” considered one of content strategy’s foundational works. Meghan Casey, their Lead Content Strategist, wrote “The Content Strategy Toolkit,” one of the best modern starting points for organizations of all types and sizes. And Tenessa Gemelke, Manager of Communications and Events, is well regarded in the conference community for making Confab conferences the welcoming and inspirational environments that they’ve become known for.

Problem

Ironically, Confab’s aging CMS was not great at handling their content needs. Every year the situation got worse. The back-end had grown bloated with lots of duplicate content and third party plugins, resulting in high maintenance and upgrade costs. Eventually things got so bad that the Confab team was forced to rely on their technical team for what should have been non-technical things, like publishing content to their website.

When the website was due for a redesign, Sean Tubridy, Creative Director at Brain Traffic, decided it was time to switch to a modern CMS that could handle the complex needs of the site and put the control of the content back into the hands of Team Confab.

Sean knew that the job was going to require a truly flexible CMS, but he didn’t have the time evaluate all the new tools on the market and migrate the content himself, in addition to leading the redesign effort. But he knew just the right person to call: Ryan Irelan.

Proposal

Ryan is the founder of Mijingo, where he publishes video training courses that help web professionals learn about the latest technologies and techniques. He’s a gifted educator and superb consultant, able to translate complex ideas into logical, actionable information. He understands the intricacies of hosting, launching, and promoting events, and after spending several years as a technical director at a high profile web agency, working with creative directors is second nature to him.

When Sean described the Confab Events challenge, Ryan knew just the tool for the job: Craft CMS.

Craft is specifically made to build custom workflows for non-technical users. Craft’s emphasis on Author Experience means that a developer can build a unique workflow that the content team can use directly. For Confab in particular, Craft’s built-in Matrix and relationship features would be critical. Ryan also knew that Craft’s tight integration with the open source Twig templating system would be flexible enough to handle the ever-changing front-end challenges facing the website.

With Craft, Ryan was confident he could give Team Confab control over their content. Sean agreed and they got to work.

Work

The Confab Events site might look like a typical conference website at first glance, but it’s actually a collection of several websites for each individual event. The event websites are created when the events are announced, and edited in real time as more information about them becomes known. When an event comes to a close, its website is archived for posterity.

Content Types and Relationships

Much of the content on event sites needs to show up in more than one place. For instance, information about a speaker will show up on their speaker profile, and alongside any sessions they are giving. And if the speaker is involved in more than one event, their information will need to carry over to the other event sites, too.

So Ryan’s first job was to map out all the unique content types an event site would need to include, and then find a way to relate that content together in a way that didn’t require the content managers to enter any duplicate content, and which could scale as new sites are added.

At a high level, he settled on four content types:

  1. Speakers
  2. Events
  3. Sessions
  4. Pages

Those content types would be related together in the following ways:

  • Speakers relate to Sessions
  • Sessions relate to Events (via a Program matrix)
  • Pages relate to Events
  • Sponsors relate to Events

Once the content types and relationships were mapped out, Ryan was able to implement it all using Craft’s Sections and relationship fields, creating a system that empowers content managers to define new content quickly and easily, in a way that is reusable when it is needed elsewhere.

Layout Control

When an event is first announced, many of the details are usually still getting worked out. For example, the keynote speakers might be lined up, but the venue and session information may not be known until a later time. So it was important that the layout on each event site could change based on the information available. What Sean didn’t want was for Confab staff to be dependent on a developer to implement every single change. Team Confab needed to be able to add pages, change layouts, and control navigation on their own.

“We needed Tenessa and her staff to have direct control over the layout from the Control Panel. Ideally they would 'drag n’ drop' to reorganize existing data depending on the information available.”

Sean Tubridy, Creative Director, Brain Traffic

Ryan solved this by creating some custom fields that gave content managers a simple UI for controlling which content should be displayed for each event site, and the Twig templates were coded to take those controls into account. The end result is a system that gives Team Confab precise control over the layout, without needing to get their hands dirty in the code.

Confab Central 2016 Edit Page

The content admin interface Ryan created for Team Confab gives them an unprecedented amount of control over their event sites.

Smart URLs

Confab Events wanted the URL structure to be conference-specific, so people can browse the content for a particular conference type, and they wanted to be able to “archive” past event websites so the content could be referenced after-the-fact. To achieve this, they decided on a URL structure that combined the event name and year:

This too ended up being delightfully simple to do, thanks to Craft’s flexible URL routing features.

Painless Updates

A side benefit of using Craft CMS turned out to be that Confab was able to reduce reliance on heaps of third party code, thanks to the treasure trove of functionality built into Craft. Third party plugins only play a “utility role” in the site, providing useful but not mission-critical features. This is helping ensure a clean, hassle-free upgrade path as Craft continues to march forward with new features and security/performance improvements.

“When I first updated and it took about 15 seconds, I just about fell on the floor. I was so used to spending hours and hours updating my old CMS and all its 3rd party options. With Craft, I updated and it was ‘Ping! You’re done; have a good day!’”

Sean Tubridy, Creative Director, Brain Traffic

Results

Once the foundation was solid, the rest was a matter of great communication and iteration leading up to launch, making the little adjustments with Confab’s team that take work from good to great.

Visually, Confabevents.com sports a retro Grand Prix-inspired design. Which is appropriate, as Sean likes to say that the site is now “easy to drive.” Tenessa appreciates that the Craft implementation allows her and just one other person to manage the three Confab Events and their many assets with ease. Training a brand new staff member took less than hour on the new Craft setup. Now, the staff can directly update the content of the site as information comes in.

“As things progress, we can drag/drop/reorganize that information using the existing data. We can completely reorganize the program on the page as it is coming together. It’s so easy.”

Sean Tubridy, Creative Director, Brain Traffic

By simply selecting some checkboxes, they can choose which sub-navigation items to include on a specific event page depending on which information is available. If the venue has been selected and they’re ready to open registration, but the program isn’t fleshed out yet, no problem. They can just turn on the Venue and Register nav items, and keep the Speaker List and Program Details disabled until they’re finished.

To anyone who has managed an event website, this setup represents is a big step forward. Events grow organically, with many of the details coming from all directions in no logical order. Having a website flexible enough to increase its sophistication as information arrives is life-changing.