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Q&A with Content Strategist Clinton Forry

Content strategist Clinton Forry gives us his take on how content strategy differs between agency and in-house, the importance of informing strategy with data, and where content strategy is headed in the future.

Clinton Forry

Clinton Forry, senior manager of digital content strategy at Ameriprise Financial, has been involved in content strategy since before the naming convention and standardization of the practice began. He churns his passion for technology—which he credits to the green-monitor Apple computer that cast a spell on him in third grade—and strategic thinking into content projects with soul. We had the pleasure of meeting him at Confab, and found out more about his current role, how he evolved as a content strategist and what he’s learned as the industry as grown.

Clinton ForryHow much room is there for creativity in your current role at Ameriprise?

To me it’s all about how you approach the content. You can come to it thinking it’s not really exciting or sexy, but that’s when you get to use your creativity on the sly, which is fun.

How do you stay excited about work that might be a bit drier?

I’m able to bring a unique, content-centric perspective to the department. The notion of content strategy is relatively new to the interactive marketing department here, so it’s exciting to bring that on a day-to-day basis.

What are your day-to-day responsibilities?

Some days I’ll work on a style guide for the department or I’ll put together a set of content-creation tools for other business partners throughout the company. That includes page templates, insights from our search partners, and a distribution plan and strategy. Other days I might edit a thing or two, or spend a whole afternoon knee-deep in wireframes. Lots of hats.

How has your role changed since leaving the agency world?

It differs quite a bit. When I was at an agency I was put on a single project with a single goal in mind and a definite end date. Here in the corporate environment, we still like to have end dates but they’re a little more flexible; there’s less dependency on end dates from a business and billable hours point-of-view.

For me the biggest difference between in-house and agency content strategy work is the familiarity you get with a brand. Prior to working at an agency I worked within a brand, Public Radio International, for almost nine years. In that time I really got familiar with that brand inside and out. I could tell you the mission and what we stood for, past relationships we had as a company, and what kind of vision the CEO had for things in the future. When I was at an agency it was about trying to get up to speed as quickly as you could, and trying to internalize as much of that domain knowledge as you could and use it to complete the work at hand.

Now that I’ve been in my current role for almost three years, I feel like I’m finally getting a grip on how the place really operates. That kind of thing is really valuable. I can bring this backlog of knowledge about the brand and some of the finer intricacies of working within that brand to each project. I can use that to my advantage.

Have you found agency experience gave you an advantage when transitioning in-house?

It was great to get the perspective of an agency. Not only in how that world was run but also in how I interface with agencies now that I’m on the corporate side. I think that’s something that everyone can benefit from—being on either side of that desk at some point in their careers.

Now I’m more careful about giving agencies what they need to know to get the project done rather than just dumping all the style guides and every last bit of documentation we have on them. Just because we have the documentation doesn’t mean that it’s pertinent to what an agency might need to do. Having been at an agency I know what I’m expecting from an agency, so I’m going to equip them with the tools that will help ensure that success.

Having the understanding of what an agency needs to succeed goes a long way and makes a relationship go more smoothly, in my experience.

You’re a seasoned Confab vet. What keeps you coming back each year?

I helped put on the first Confab when I was still working at Brain Traffic—I was very happy to be a part of that. I didn’t get to go to any of the sessions the first time. I was too busy behind the scenes to take it in, which was a bummer because these were some of my peers and heroes talking about the things I love.

The second year I came back, when I was working here at Ameriprise, and got to take it all in as an observer. It was everything I hoped for and more. I like to keep coming back because there’s really not another forum like this anywhere, where we as a collection of like-minded people are in the pursuit of the same vision: trying to help people align their business goals with user expectations. And, we are a super-fun bunch of people. I already can’t wait for next year.

What was your biggest take away this year?

This year, my one takeaway is about approaching things with informed intent.

Intent means we shouldn’t be approaching a problem just because it’s a shiny object that everybody else is doing at the moment, or someone has a crazy idea that we should be doing this. We need a very clear intent that’s grounded in goals. Do it for the right reasons.

The informed part of that for me came from talks like Misty Weaver’s session about audits, or Mike Powers’ session about user testing and analytics. Informing the things we do with hard data is key so it’s not just me going off on a tangent saying ‘I think we should solve this problem because that’s the way I think it should be.’ No, we have the data to back it up.

That data plus our intuition as content strategists–that is what can yield long-lasting, sustainable solutions.

What books and blogs are you reading?

I’m making my way through the A Book Apart series, which is fantastic, required reading. I love the A List Apart blog, too. They have well-thought out articles by our peers in the content industry, but also outside of that in the more technical side of things.

I think it’s important for people in the content world to have an understanding of the world of development. Even if we’re not able to sit down and write a page with CSS and HTML5, we need to be able to know how to ask the right questions.

You’ve seen the Content Strategy field grow from infancy to the present moment. How do you see the profession developing in the future?

I wrote my first pages of HTML in 1999. I didn’t know about content strategy at the time. I didn’t think about it as content strategy until I read Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web. I had a moment when I was reading the book on the bus and I thought “this is the title for what I do on a day to day basis.” Now I’ve had a chance to see it evolve, after the term “content strategy” has become a bit more mainstream.

There was a strange era that I feel we’re just coming out of which felt like “content strategy versus content marketing,” which isn’t really a battle, necessarily. It’s better to have an understanding that these things can work together. As long as everybody is working with solid goals with good strategy, these can coexist.

As far as the way content strategy is heading in the future, I think about the presentation Kristina Halvorson gave at SXSW, Go Home Marketing, You Are Drunk. One of her messages was that there are some questionable things happening in the world of marketing. At the same time there are serious deficiencies in the web presence of these companies. If a company really has a great social media presence but the rest of their website is sub-par, that makes for a poor user experience.

We could name many sites, and go through them, page-by-page. We’re likely to discover that from a messaging, usability, interface, and information architecture perspective, many of them are in need of some tender loving care from a dedicated content team. I know how difficult it can be to get some of these problems fixed because ever since I started working in this industry I know things don’t move at a swift pace. I think content strategists have a plenty of work ahead of us to go forth in the world trying to fix these problems.

How well known do you think content strategy is to the outside world?

As often as I find myself explaining to people what I do, that leads me to believe that it’s fairly unknown. When you start to unfurl it a bit, people understand what it is.

As content strategists, our definitions vary from person to person about what it is that we do. Different people have different backgrounds—some have more of an editorial background, some come from more of an information architecture and user experience background, some come from journalism. Each one of them practices a slightly different flavor of content strategy.

In some ways, we’re all in pursuit of the same goals: trying to make websites that are awesome. Or at the very least, that meet user needs and expectations in pursuit of business goals. A tall order, perhaps. But we can do it.

For more content strategy insights from Clinton Forry, follow him on Google+ and Twitter.