Five ways to understand and collaborate with stakeholders

3 minute read

We were one month into a university content project, when, during a weekly call with a remote client, I heard the words every content strategist dreads: “I’m just not sure how long the approval process is going to take.”Like many content strategists, web designers and UX architects, I have had nightmares about the approval process. Because I know—like you—that it can mean the end of project efficiency. It can be the arbiter of scope creep. The death knell for a once positive, creative and dynamic working relationship.

Ok, so maybe that is melodramatic. But it’s not untrue.From my experience, the fear of the approval process is rooted in three common beliefs:

  • Collaboration is impossible
  • Strategy doesn’t work
  • We can’t get anything done

These negative perceptions tend to govern how content strategy teams make decisions and as a result they can stop your team from pushing to develop more creative content and pursue new opportunities. They are most difficult to overcome at the start and end of a project because both of these phases are focused on gaining buy-in from colleagues and clients. Left unchecked, you can reach your launch period and suddenly hear the following derailing statements from stakeholders.

I think this creative is out of touch with our mission.I don’t see the value in this approachWe should hold off until we have a better idea.

How do we fix it?

We know that content strategy is made up of two things: content and people. I’ve learned that the approval process is where those two things meet or, in a common scenario, clash. Our job as content strategists is to navigate the people side of things while negotiating the content side of things.

Navigating People means understanding who your stakeholders are and what they want. By doing so, you show stakeholders how the project adds value to their work, their team, and their company.Once you know how to collaborate with stakeholders, then you begin Negotiating Content. This is the push and pull period where creative content and strategic decision-making is pitted against institutional roadblocks and personal conflicts.

Where do we start?

Like most things, content strategy starts with people.

First: Know thy stakeholders

Assuming you have a project goal in mind, the first step toward better collaboration in the approval process is identifying stakeholders and their roles. Understanding who you are working with is critical to collaborating effectively.

Second: Identify what is at stake

Every stakeholder is involved in the project for a different reason. Use their role and motivation to your advantage. For example, if you are working with graphic designer, consider including him or her in every conversation that relates to design—not just those explicitly regarding design choices. Why? Because he or she will be affected by the decisions made in those conversations.

Third: Understand each stakeholder’s language

Communicating effectively with stakeholders is linked to their motivation. For example, for decision-makers, every project is an investment because they are typically responsible for allocating project resources. In order to collaborate effectively, you should discuss content strategy in relation to ROI.

Fourth: Set specific expectations

Once you know who stakeholders are, what they want and how to talk to them, you can better articulate your expectations for their involvement. For example, a subject-matter-expert should know exactly when they need to offer knowledge for the project and also how and in what form they should provide feedback. Feedback can double the time allotted for a project, so be as specific as possible on how feedback will be evaluated and incorporated.

Fifth: Show the value of their input

One reason stakeholders can become frustrated is they don’t feel “heard.” I know, I know, this isn’t a therapy session. But helping stakeholders to see how their input was incorporated or even why it was rejected is essential. It makes them an active part of decision-making without letting them make the decision.

Want to learn more about collaborating with stakeholders?

Converge Consulting, is a digital marketing agency that has partnered with more than 100 colleges and universities to support student enrollment and engagement. We’ve identified three common stakeholders through our work: Institutional Decision-Maker, the Subject Matter Expert and the Value-Add Voice. Download the infographic for details.


Stakeholder Interview Matrix

A template for a stakeholder matrix, with some handy starter questions to help you get going.

About the author

Brittney Dunkins

Brittney Dunkins is the Director of Content Strategy at Converge Consulting. Catch Brittney’s session on Content Myths Debunked: Ten Things You Believe That Aren’t Necessarily True at Confab Central in Minneapolis this summer.

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