content strategy publications

I was on the Content Strategy Podcast!

My former boss Kristina Halvorson invited me to chat about all things content strategy on the Content Strategy Podcast!

I worked with Kristina at Brain Traffic in 2010 and 2011, during which the company put on the first Confab conference. Memories…

We reminisced about the early days of the content strategy community, our complementary definitions of content strategy, and whether or not “team personas” is a thing. I HAD A BLAST.

Give it a listen, if only to hear my rich baritone voice:

content strategy

Content Strategy Aligns You, Your Audience, and Your Content

spheres of content strategy

Though I’ve never used it in an elevator, this has been my elevator pitch for content strategy since 2010 or so: “Content strategy seeks to align business goals with user expectations via sustainable online content.” It’s a single sentence that communicates the three spheres of creating content that works: you, your audience, and your content.

Content strategy, defined.

Useful, usable, and efficient content falls within the overlap of these three things. Without all three, troubles are certain to descend upon you. Here’s some fun examples of how content creation can go awry without accounting for all three elements:

  1. You + Audience + Content. You could make some 1,500 page PDFs available for download on your site. But, I’m pretty sure that your audience doesn’t want that.
  2. You + Audience + Content. One way to get your message across is through a full-length Hollywood feature film with this year’s Oscar winners in starring roles. Your audience might want that, but budget and resources might not allow it to happen.
  3. You + Audience + Content. Cat videos. You might have the capacity to create cat videos. Your audience probably wants more cat videos in their lives. But cat videos won’t help you achieve your business goals (most likely.)

To avoid content calamities like these, let’s have a closer look at each of these three spheres.

Your Organization

Your organization

First, let’s talk about you.

You can’t create good content without knowing who you are. I’m using “you” rather loosely to indicate the entity that needs to communicate something to an audience via digital content. It can be your employer, if you manage content on an in-house team. Or your clients, if you work as a consultant or in an agency setting. Or it can mean you, as in YOU. You can have a smart website / online presence, too.

Who are you? This sounds like a weird question, but it’s critical. Getting to the core of an identity, and documenting it, brings sharper focus to communication efforts. Write it down, confirm it, review it, own it. Get to the heart of who you are. Ask these questions:

  • What do you do? Why do you do it?
  • What’s your history?
  • How do others view you?
  • How do you view yourself?
  • What do you want to accomplish?

Knowing yourself in the vacuum of space is only somewhat helpful. Knowing yourself in the context of others, in the context of your competitors and their ecosystem is more helpful. More questions:

  • Who are your competitors?
  • Are they local or regional or global?
  • How do they view themselves? How do they view you?
  • What about organizations with similar missions that don’t directly compete with you? Do they devour a share of available attention?

Finally, what are you doing now? Set aside time to evaluate past and current communications activities. Take an inventory of the digital content you’ve unleashed upon the world on your site and in other channels. How about a few more questions:

  • How are you currently communicating to the world?
  • Is your site responsive, compliant, and complete?
  • Does it support some of the who-you-are answers from the above soul-searching exercise?
  • Is it working? Is it appropriate?
  • Does it put you on a level playing field with your competitors?

Your Audience

Your audience

The tree-falling-in-the-forest part of the equation comes next: your audience.

Do you know who your audience is? I mean, do you really know? If so, great. If not, then we’ve got some work to do. Questions:

  • Who is your audience? How do they identify themselves?
  • Why are they your audience?
  • Why do they align with you and your mission/service/product offering?
  • Where are they? Local, regional, or global?
  • How do they interact with you? Has it changed?

This audience of yours, they have expectations. I talk about this in terms of user expectations instead of just user needs since people may come to you with a need, but that need is embedded in their own expectations. They have a need, but they expect that you will help them with that need in a way that is clear and simple. I know I do.

  • Are they coming to you to complete a transaction, find information, or for entertainment?
  • What mindset are they in when they come to you?
  • Why do they seek you out as opposed to the competition?
  • Where do they hang out, digitally speaking? Apps, mobile, social?

When you know your audience and their expectations, you can then start thinking about creating content for them. Besides, what’s the point of creating content for people that aren’t interested? Or creating the wrong content for the right people? NO FUN.

Your Content

Your content

The final sphere: the content itself. It comes last because it’s entirely dependent upon first documenting and crystalizing definitions of yourself and your audience. FINALLY we can start asking content questions.

Assess your resources and capabilities, and be brutally honest. I’ve witnessed content efforts collapse under the weight of unsustainable volume and impossible-without-burnout timelines. Determine your capabilities and workflow from the start:

  • Roles – Who does what?
  • Responsibilities – Who owns what?
  • Resources – What can we do?
  • Volume – How much can we do?
  • Approval – Who has the final say?
  • Timing – When does it happen?

With capacity in mind, think about your point of view. Tap into your identity, your reason for being, and how that might manifest itself as a message you communicate to your audience.

  • Is this our story to tell?
  • Are others telling this story? If so, how are we different?
  • What do we want our content to do?
  • What goal does it serve?

Combine your capacity and your point of view to think about how your content will take shape. Lead with the message, not with the format.

  • Who are we trying to reach?
  • Is this message right for the channels they frequent?
  • How are we telling this story – copy, visuals, video, interactives?
  • What’s the next step? Is there a call to action?

Finally, filter all content through the three Cs of great content:

  • Clear – Keep it simple. Focus on a single idea.
  • Concise – Respect the audience’s time. Say what you need in a piece, and in a channel.
  • Compelling – Give them a reason to read or watch or listen. Provide an action for them to avoid a dead end.

And there you have it. You, your audience, and your content. Find the overlap of all three, and you, too, will shout, “YAAASSS.”

yaaasss content strategy yaaasss
content strategy

On the New Media Paradigm: An Interview

How can broadcasters take advantage of the rapid changes in technology without losing focus on what matters most: storytelling? Ahead of my keynote address at the College Broadcasters, Inc. National Student Electronic Media Convention, Greg Weston and I discussed the new media paradigm and broadcasting for the Radio World blog. Here ’tis:

This week, the eyes of the college radio world turn to Minneapolis for the National Student Electronic Media Convention, Oct. 22–24, Minneapolis. The convention’s keynote address will be delivered by Clinton Forry, vice president of content strategy at Weber Shandwick. While best-known for his expertise in interactive marketing, Clinton has years of radio experience, primarily at Public Radio International, and started his media career at KUNI Radio at the University of Northern Iowa.

I recently spoke via email to Forry about how content is still king and radio’s place in today’s rapidly-changing media environment.

Greg Weston: Clinton, the word I most associate with you is “content.” In today’s crowded media landscape, how does radio stack up as a content provider compared to so-called new media?

Clinton Forry: The radio world has been in the content creation game since they fired up the transmitters on those first stations. Those broadcast pioneers needed something to transmit, be it news, entertainment, etc. Same with TV. People didn’t buy TVs because they wanted the ability to receive moving images in their homes. They bought TVs because they wanted to see Milton Berle doing slapstick comedy each week.

The same thing happens with online content. We have access to all of these channels, each with their own appeal, user-base, and vernacular. And they all need content. But it needs to be content that adds value in some significant way while also making sense for the station and its identity.

Fortunately for broadcasters, they have been solving for the blank canvas problem for 100+ years or so. They know about audiences, quality and ongoing production — elements that many new media content producers are still figuring out. The challenge is using the natural outputs of broadcast (audio, video, etc.) to tell your story in these new channels.

GW: Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message,” meaning that the method of delivery embeds itself in how the content is perceived. Do you believe that’s true? If so, what are the implications for radio stations that are attempting to be multiplatform content providers?

Forry: I often wonder what the brilliant Marshall McLuhan would think of the current media landscape, ranging from the time-tested broadcast stations to the new, closed social networks of today.

Each new channel represents a slight change in the way we communicate with others, resulting in minor changes to our contexts in the world. The impact of the two-way, conversational nature of social media cannot be overstated. Broadcasters’ place in the communication hierarchy has changed, and I think McLuhan’s mantra applies 100%.

Broadcasters approaching content production for social must now contend with that two-way relationship. This scenario happens every day: instead of call-ins making up the majority of user input, producers can now involve the audience in the planning and creation of the content ahead of time. Audiences can then participate in real time aligned with the broadcast of that content. Finally, those audience members can share a version of that content after broadcast. McLuhan would nod knowingly.

GW: Your keynote address on Oct. 24 is called “Clear, Concise, & Compelling: Use Content Strategy to Better Tell Your Story.” What is content strategy? How can media outlets utilize it to get their message heard through the clutter?

Forry: My elevator pitch: Content strategy is the practice of aligning business goals with user expectations via sustainable online content.

Definitions of content strategy vary from person to person, as content strategists come from many different backgrounds — some have a more technical background, others editorial and others user experience.

That definition evolved out of my background in radio, so it certainly has a fitting application in media outlets. Even a not-for-profit broadcaster has business or organizational goals, one of the simplest being, “to grow and sustain viewer or listener numbers.” The user expectations might be “I want quality news.”

With these two elements in mind we can use the practice of content strategy to shape the content, ensuring that it has a familiar tone, appropriate format, a clear workflow from start to finish, and a long-term plan for distribution, promotion, and maintenance.

When you can sustainably produce clear, concise and compelling content that supports your goals and meets a user need, you’ll be one step closer to cutting through the clutter.

GW: Some people doubt radio’s long-term viability in today’s media landscape. What do you think the future holds for the radio industry? What changes will it have to make to survive and flourish in the coming years?

Forry: When people ask about long-term prospects, I turn to the example of AT&T. Though they were originally known as Atlantic Telephone and Telegraph, they haven’t offered “telegraph” services for quite a while. But, they do a fine job with providing my mobile phone with data connectivity. At their core, their job is facilitating the exchange of information. It used to be telegraph wires; now it’s cell towers.

Broadcasters can think of it in similar terms. The core is creating and distributing content: news, entertainment, music, etc. The Internet offers additional ways for the audience to get this content which was once confined to the radio and TV antennas.

What changes should broadcasters make? It’s about output. Broadcasters should keep serving their audiences as they have been and then reformatting the best parts for use in the online world. This allows you to superserve your current audience and offer an online point-of-entry for those not yet familiar with your radio waves.

To adapt, broadcasters need to shift into a content-first mindset. Instead of thinking of filling one of the 168 hours in a week with content, it’s about formatting a segment for broadcast AND for the website AND for social media. Producing content with several channels in mind doesn’t necessarily mean tons of additional work, but it does require a slightly different approach.

GW: You got your start at the college radio station at the University of Northern Iowa. How did your experience there shape your career?

Forry: My start in college radio was foundational. I learned to think about how the station projected an identity or personality, and how everything we did was in service of that identity. I learned that this identity was expressed in many ways, from the programming and staff to branding and our place within the campus environment. And finally, I learned the importance of storytelling via electronic media.

Each of these elements is critical to communications of any type — radio, TV, websites, print. What college radio offered me was a way to learn these things in an exciting setting. I can say for certain that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for that flyer in my dorm mailbox, asking be to be a DJ on a tiny station in the basement of the student union.

content strategy

Lead With the Message, Not the Format

Format matters. As a record collector and content strategist, I say that with passion. But it’s not the most important concern. Content creators of the universe, please heed this advice: Lead with the message, not the format.

Why you are creating content in that format?

You’ve probably heard the request: “We need to create (video / gifs / animations / infographics) because everyone else is doing it / leadership wants it / I read an article about it.” Content is created. Then, the content disappoints. It doesn’t have to be this way.

We have reasons for creating content. Some good, some bad. Some of these things are out of our control, no doubt. However, even the most vocal advocates of the format-of-the-day will see the light when we start to talk about costs, benefits, and realities of content creation. No one wants crappy content, after all.

“Don’t value your content over the job you need your content to do,” said John Lane, Vice President at Centerline Digital in his presentation, “Content Marketing Art of War.” Don’t fall in love with a format because of its format-ness. Or its current popularity, for that matter. Formats carry the weight of our message. But they do not determine the message.

Avoid the published-equals-success scenario

We cannot communicate an idea without a format. The ideal situation is “we chose this format because it was best-suited to communicate our idea.” One serves the next. We are communicating ideas first.

Leading the content creation workflow with the format instead of the message is a flawed approach for most organizations. Success becomes “we completed and published” rather than “we conveyed the message and the user completed an action.” It’s a tactical rather than strategic act. Busywork, even.

Measures of wrongly-formatted content often devolve into page/video views or downloads, rather than the more valuable and considered metrics of conversion and task completion. Without knowing what you want the content to do, outside of existing, measurement turns into the binary situation of yes we have a video/no we do not.

And sometimes, the finished asset completely misses the mark. It kills the message. Videos end up rambling, and infographics bloat out of control. Organizations still publish it, even if they don’t like it, due to perceived sunk costs. THIS IS AN UNPLEASANT SITUATION.

Create with the message first, format second

Content creation plans MUST include a discussion of format. It should come early in the conversation. But only after you know your message, that thing you hope to convey.

Each format choice has pros and cons, bonuses and baggage. Video assets are tough to get right. Editing octopus-like infographics quickly changes their overall message and composition. Governance becomes a greater issue. Our choice can influence how the audience receives each message.

Production values and capabilities vary from org to org. That’s perfectly fine. My concern is less about the sheen of the finished product. I start a-fretting when form takes precedent over function. Basic messaging elements (i.e. focus, clarity, brevity) often suffer while superficial items such as logo treatments, music beds, and transitions see flawless execution.

Right, then. What to do? Create it as a video? An animation? A .gif? An infographic? Good old sentences? How does a content strategist approach content creation and formatting decisions?

  • State the message you hope to convey, and what you wish folks to do next.
  • Ask yourself, “Why are we doing this?” Write this down. Restate it. Say it out loud.
  • Articulate HOW this serves business goals, even if only as an exercise.
  • Carefully detail the workflow to show how the content will take shape. All of it.
  • Consider the capacity of your content creator(s). Do they have the skill set to tackle more sophisticated content? Or the time?

Know your audience: their habits, their abilities, their devices, their needs, their expectations, and their contexts. The counterpart of this is knowing yourself (or organization, actually): your production capabilities, your business goals, your larger content strategy. Each one of these has a bearing on which format you chose to deliver your message.

Publish (or choose not to) with confidence

Does the content you contribute shine through or does it distract through glitter?” asks content strategist and writer James C. Gunter in his article, “2014: The Year the Internet Finally Grows Up?” It’s is a fine question to ask and ask again throughout the content creation workflow.

Finally, don’t be afraid to kill the content before it kills your message. Each item you place online is an opportunity to set yourself apart from the competition. People (and more and more, search engines) are developing smarter content radars, and will go elsewhere when crappy content rears its ugly head. If the content isn’t great, wipe the slate. (Sorry.)

Instead of looking at completed-but-unpublished content as a sunk cost, consider a halted content endeavor a non-public failure and learning experience. Failing is fine; acknowledging it is the key. Apply your lessons to the next effort. It’ll thank you for it.

content strategy

Content Strategy Is All About CLARITY

Content strategists do many things, wear many hats. We may have different job titles, different duties each day. But really, what we do is simple. Content strategists provide clarity. It’s my chief deliverable, really. Not an audit. Not a set of content templates. Not even an editorial calendar entry. It’s clarity.

Clarity for content creators

Content creators do their best work when they approach their work with clarity. When they have a clear picture of their audience, business goals, and the content’s eventual home, good things happen.

Editorial calendars provide a clear plan for the coming weeks and months. Without them, content creators may scramble to find the right ideas. Channels start to languish. Stress builds, deadlines mount. The production cadence may soon assume haphazard status. NO ONE WANTS HAPHAZARD STATUS. Editorial calendars might take the form of a deliverable, but what they really deliver is clarity.

Content audits are the same. They provide insight (which is a form of clarity) into what needs work and what works well. Is the content accurate? Is it still on message? Is it complete and up to current standards? The audit will tell you. The audit is often a spreadsheet. It delivers details. It delivers CLARITY.

You’ll never guess what style guides can do. Provide clarity, you say? WELL DONE, FRIEND. Style guides help content creators articulate a brand’s personality or an organization’s value proposition in a consistent, easily-referenced fashion. Clarity.

Clarity for content managers

If your job involves the evaluation, maintenance, governance, or all-around wrangling of content at any place along the way, I’m willing to bet that you enjoy clarity, too. Each of these duties require guidelines and standards–the clearer, the better.

Publishing content online (on your site, a third-party partner’s database, a social media platform, etc.) goes smoothly when content managers know the ins-and-outs of each channel. Some of them have quirks, unique needs. Different inputs, outputs, viewports, devices accessing. Make these requirements known and declare their importance. Provide this, and you’ve provided clarity.

Clarity for leadership

Do you know who else enjoys clarity? Leadership. Leadership of all sorts and strata. They’re often tasked with articulating the efforts of content strategists when the time comes to fund projects to improve a content experience. When they have a solid content strategy in their hands and on their screens, they’ll have clarity.

Those same folks in leadership positions need to understand the importance of content. They’re often ultimately responsible for the outcomes of content marketing- and content strategy-related efforts. They want to know returns on investment. Performance and efficiency. They must know how content helps their bottom line. Keen ears and minds await. The clarity of content strategy is on the scene, know what I mean?

Clarity for consumers

Call them users, visitors, consumers, or whatever. The people that come to your online presence. They do not want a muddled, difficult experience. They want simplicity, ease-of-use, and delightful experiences. THEY WANT CLARITY.

Can they accomplish what tasks they set out to accomplish? Can they find a product or service? Can they do it without wading through tons of fluffy marketing jive, or press releases, or mission statements, or outdated information? Yes? Then you’ve provided CLARITY.

Clarity for ALL

There you have it. *cue Oprah Winfrey free car meme* You get clarity, and you get clarity. EVERYONE GETS CLARITY. (Clarity, not bees. Sorry for any nightmares from the above gif.)

I’m Clinton Forry. I’m a content strategist. I PROVIDE CLARITY.

content strategy publications

I Wrote an Article for A List Apart, OMG

I recently had the distinct pleasure of writing an article for the esteemed A List Apart website: “‘Like’-able Content: Spread Your Message with Third-Party Metadata.”

The article is the result of a need for a definitive guide for the creation and implementation of third-party metadata. Now that Facebook and Twitter have their own proprietary metadata schemes, the time had come to look at how those schemes impact the creation and overall message of online content.

Frustration with scattered resources and a lack of editorial guidelines led me to believe that other folks might like to learn about this as well. (I’d been thinking about third-party metadata quite a bit, as a part of a work project.) MY PAIN = YOUR GAIN.

Have a look-see. Let me know what you think!