Clinton Forry, content strategist and writer.
I’m currently the Senior Content Manager at Ameriprise Financial. I write mostly at Content-ment.com. After almost a dozen years here, I’m proud to call Minnesota’s Twin Cities home.
I’ve often said that I got my start in the content world when I started making mixtapes as a kid.
My professional romance with content started in world of public radio. I was on the air for four-plus years. Soon after, I made my way to the big time at Public Radio International (PRI). For the next nine years I worked almost every conceivable point in the content life cycle. I remember presenting my first content strategy-type documents and audits as early as 2007.
After that, I spent over a year at Kristina Halvorson’s content strategy agency, Brain Traffic. Then, just eight months ago, I landed at Ameriprise Financial in what has turned into a dream content job of sorts.
Since 2006, I have written a blog about all-things-content-related: Content-ment.com.
How did you get into the field of content strategy? Why do you love what you do?
The work many of us have been doing for many, many years was content strategy before the label really started to stick. It seems that I stumbled into it.
I’ve always had a rubber-meets-the-road philosophy when it comes to content. It’s due in part to being viscerally connected to it on a day-to-day basis for so many years. I’ve always found it easier to rhapsodize on the real-world experiences in the content world because of it.
I love doing it because I have one of those brains that enjoys finding patterns and organization. And, I come from a long line of storytellers.
Content strategy is an increasingly popular term to describe the work of hybrid editors/writers publishers and oftentimes, social media management, but what is your definition of content strategy? What roles and job duties does it encompass?
My short version of content strategy is this: “Aligning business goals with user expectations via sustainable online content.”
The business goals part of that elevator pitch is often overlooked. Businesses flip the lights on every day for a reason. Be it a non-profit, a service industry, or online retailer, the hope is that they will be able to accomplish something: furthering support for a cause, providing best-in-class service, or selling a need in a way no one else can. Online content can help them do that.
The user expectation part is just as sophisticated (if not more so). My hope has always been that the user expectation is not only met, but exceeded. I could talk all day about how user needs and expectations are miles apart. (And I may at some point. Blog post idea!) The bottom line is that each of us has expectations of organizations, companies and brands online. Seldom are they able to completely deliver upon them.
As far as roles — content strategy has its roots and branches in many online disciplines. The best content strategists have some technical understanding of how these online platforms operate (i.e., HTML, CSS, etc.) Next comes a sharp editorial sense. Not just from an editor’s point-of-view, but from an overall messaging standpoint. So many of the messaging components get their start miles before the words hit a wireframe.
Design and user experience plays a big part in it as well. These things are all interrelated. Which is a wonderful thing, when it works.
My duties: I may spend part of a day involved with designing a content production workflow, wireframing, performing content audits or competitive analysis, developing message and information architecture, SEO, analytics, and more. Anything that touches on that alignment of business needs and user expectations.
The strategy part of it is great fun (and also the most important part). Translating business goals into sustainable content creation and governance plans is more delightful than I should probably admit.
How does content strategy relate to branding? How should brands be using content to engage consumers in ways that may not always focus on the “sell” aspect of the company?
It relates to branding in a simple way: content is the very thing organizations use to live up to and deliver upon a brand promise. A brand’s online experience is only as good as the content and its presentation.
Consumers might not always look to a brand for buying reasons. Getting past the sales pamphlet “brochureware” websites is a milestone for any organization.
Companies can use content to tell their brand story in a much more vibrant and relevant way than ever before. Multiple formats (video, images, text, interactives), content curation, and social engagement provide a truly 3D version of brands that organizations only dreamed of in the past.
To do it effectively, organizations will do well to implement repeatable processes and workflows to ensure that the content is planned, created, delivered, and cared for in a sustainable fashion over time. Because, like truckers, we are in this for the long haul.
What are some of your tips to keep in mind when creating a content strategy for a brand?
Don’t be afraid to question everything. Sometimes things get done a certain way because John Doe did it that way before he left 6 years ago.
Put pen to paper. Sketch out that wireframe, that editorial calendar or that decision tree. Great things happen when you introduce the spatial variable of the blank Post-It, whiteboard or notebook into the thought process.
Keep the larger strategy in mind. Write it down and glance at it often. Remember what is driving the project / endeavor, and the overall objectives. It helps with scope creep, too.
We are telling stories. It might be a dull story, like selling mud flaps. But approach it as a story. Stories have beginnings, ends and they have a point. Just like the best online experiences.
What are some problems you see in the field of brand content development and publishing?
As more and more platforms emerge, especially in the social media world, organizations will strain to meet those platforms’ particular needs. This often comes at the expense of other endeavors. And it doesn’t always align with their other in-force strategies.
The best advice I can offer is to think not in terms of particular platforms upfront like Facebook or Pinterest. Instead, start with a message that meets a business need and user expectations. Choose the message appropriate for the audience, THEN select an appropriate platform.
A solid content strategy will have a component that anticipates future needs, to some degree. It may be as simple as the activity of creating content nimble enough for future adaptation into other platforms, devices, and yet-to-be-invented displays. We can’t anticipate everything, but we can make the content we produce as forward-compatible as possible.
Finally, brands should feel relieved to know that not all messages need to be broadcast on all channels at all times. Phew!, right?
What do you feel is the ultimate goal of creating a content strategy for a brand?
Success has many forms, from favorable increases on key performance indicators to efficiencies and refinements to the overall user experience. If users are happy (and then some) and the business is meeting its goals, we will have won the battle.
Successfully implemented content strategies often yield cost savings via streamlined content creation workflows. Establishing sustainable, efficient content creation frameworks also provides time savings for those involved in the process (as compared to previous iterations).
Simply put, content strategy should make content more effective and less of a headache to create and maintain.
How does content strategy collaborate with other disciplines, such as a user experience or social media team, on projects? Why do you think it is important to include a content strategist on a team from the beginning?
A content strategist has a unique opportunity to pull all of these disciplines together. It’s why understanding these other roles is critical.
I’ve heard others compare a content strategist’s role to that of a movie producer. An understanding of the concepts of cinematography, screenwriting and lighting will help make a better film. A movie producer isn’t hanging lights or focusing cameras, but they are aware of how they will affect the final cut of the film.
The same holds true for a content strategist. They might not be coding or managing the database or API, but knowledge of how they operate will affect the recommendation they make (and as a result, the final online product).
Many content strategists like yourself are also content curators, helping to bring together content pieces and make connections between the wide array of information available. What is the value in content curation? How can brands use curation to relate to their overall strategy?
Curation allows organizations to capture the energy, storytelling and contributions happening in their unique ecosystem. The story of their field or industry is being told by hundreds of people every day, no matter how focused or niche.
Part of telling an organization’s story is laying claim to their part. Putting a thumbtack on the map and declaring, “Here we are, in relation to all other things.” Curation uses outside content to provide that context in a way that would be impossible from inside the organization.
The example I always give is music-related. (Confession: most of my examples are music-related.) If I sold record players, I could talk to my fan base about record players all of the time. But, it is a far more compelling thing to talk about the records that people play on record players, along with the tidbits about the record players themselves.
That’s the lovely thing about curation — it can augment your current content creation activities. It needn’t replace them. It makes them fuller, more interesting, and will ultimately deepen the engagement between the organization and a fan/user/person.
What trends do you see happening in the field?
Responsive design is getting a great deal of attention right now, and for good reason. Responsive design tackles the presentation of online content in an appropriate way across multiple devices and platforms
The content strategist’s role of bringing elements from several disciplines together has become a critical component for organizations implementing responsive design. Here, the technical knowledge of how online-connected devices meets editorial and messaging presentation in ways that we’d never envisioned five years ago.
It’s exciting, because we content strategists are HUGE FANS of clear and concise presentation of content and messaging. Responsive design invites the people working with content to pare down what we offer so that only the essential remains.
The cool thing is this: everyone benefits. No one wants to wade through an unpleasantly bloated online experience to find what they need.
What are some of your “must read” books or blogs for content strategists and writers?
Three great ones:
1. Hobbs On Tech: This is David Hobbs’ blog, and it is always superb. His writings show how all of our online disciplines are interrelated. He has some great guides for download on the site, too.
2. Shelly Bowen’s Pybop: Ms. Bowen talks about real-world content strategy issues in a clear and helpful way. Plus, there are often fun illustrations.
3. 52 Weeks of UX: This is a delight. It’s at the end of the 52 weeks, but the archive is FULL of great things. Check it out.
I’ll pick two. They are more heroes, really. Marshall McLuhan and Brian Eno.
McLuhan for the obvious “medium is the message” reasons. We will be applying his concepts to things 100 years from now, and they will seem as fresh as today. I was introduced to his thinking in some theory classes in college. It blew me away then, and still does today.
Musician and producer Brian Eno is a clear contender here, too. In his musical and non-musical projects, he applies systems and thinking that might seem removed or cold at first. But once you understand his approach, it becomes something closer to what you might hear in a Zen monastery. Just search for his “Oblique Strategies” and you’ll know right away what I mean.
Music that gets you in your zone: I’m a hopeless record collector, and I rather fancy jazz music from all eras. But, I am easily distracted, so I can’t listen to it when I need to be in a zone.
When the zone beckons, I tend to the more noisy and drone-y electronic music. Tim Hecker is my current favorite. Do check him out, won’t you?
Feature image courtesy of Flickr user joshuaseye.