In our recent webinar, Tracy Playle shared advice and examples for defining and explaining content strategy with stakeholders and non-specialists.
You can watch the full recording on demand or read the transcript below.
I’m still working on my own narrative as to how you explain content strategy to people who do not understand content strategy. And often when I’m giving conference presentations or Webinars or running workshops, I actually use them as an opportunity to test ideas out with the people in the audience. And while I can’t necessarily see your feedback here, I’m hoping that some of your questions, and some of the things that you comment as we go through will also help me as much as I aim to help you in the session.
So this afternoon we are going to, or this morning, wherever you are in the world that is, we’re going to cover three things:
- We’re going to talk a little bit about how to define your own narrative for talking about content strategy. So that’s the one that you’re going to feel confident in your own self. This is what I do on a day to day basis, and this is what content strategy means to me.
- We’re then going to think about defining a narrative for content strategy for people who don’t understand it and don’t work in our world.And we’re going to think about that in terms of thinking about different role types and in different stakeholders that we may need to connect with.
- And then we’re going to touch a little bit on the charm offensive. How do you actually go about broaching the conversation around content strategy, bringing these people on board and really doing the stakeholder engagement piece that we all know is so important to our work. Typically, our work touches the lives of so many people within our organizations
Now I do have to give you one little warning before we really get going with this, and that is this little lady here. She should be asleep right now. She’s just had a big walk, but this photo was taken about 10 minutes ago, and she’s wide awake, and she would love to play fetch right now. So if you do hear her moving around in the background, I must apologize for that. It’s the downside to deciding that I’m going to run a Webinar from home, but it’s quieter here normally.
A framework for thinking about stakeholders
That’s Scout, by the way, and speaking of dogs and cats, there’s a framework that I like to use when I think about stakeholders, and I just wanted to start today’s Webinar by thinking about that framework and that is to think about your stakeholders as cats and dogs. So to some extent when we’re planning for stakeholder engagement and getting them on board to understand what we do.
My recommendation is to plan for cats, plan for the people who have cat-like behavior in their relationships with you. So they’re the kind of people who they will come to you when it’s on their terms when they want to come to you. It’s really about them, and they can be quite aloof in terms of wanting to understand your work. So for them, content strategy might not be anything that’s particularly of interest to them and might have a bit of a mere disapproving, maybe even attitude towards it. And they’re going to decide that they are going to engage when it’s the right time for me, and they’re probably going turn their back on you a few times.
Now, if any of your stakeholders are incidentally telling you to look at your butt, I suggest that you report to your HR department immediately. You will, however, also find that some of your stakeholders are a little bit more like dogs. Now they’re going to get really excited about what you do. They’re going to think it’s the best thing ever. They’re going to love what you do. They’re going to love the impact it’s going to have on the organization. But the reality is that they may not actually get it and they may just get excited because they just love the sound of something new and something different and within there. So while we will embrace the dogs, because they can be our ambassadors and our supporters, we also need to be careful in making sure that we manage their understanding as much as we manage the understanding of the cats.
The cats are just a little bit harder to reach in the first place. So when you are thinking about stakeholder engagement, my life lesson for this is to really plan for the cats and the dogs in this process and try and get them working together. So think about how you are going to lure the cats in to be interested in you and how you’re going to make yourself interesting enough and relevant enough and attractive enough in what you have to communicate and what you have to do so that the cats will actually want to come to you and want to, I would say sit on your lap, but that sounds extremely inappropriate when thinking about stakeholders.
First and foremost, defining for you. So as I said, I’ve struggled a little bit over my career in understanding and defining what it is I do. And my dad still has no idea. I still have not yet found that the term, the way of talking about what I do that I can actually make my dad understand it. So hopefully some of the advice that I can share with you will work for some of your stakeholders in other professions within your organisations. But there are still some people, it’s pretty tough to find these explanations for. So I, for a long time didn’t even have the term content strategy really at my disposal to use as a descriptor for what I do. I’ve referred to myself as many different things over the years, a communication’s strategist, a digital engagement specialist.
There was a period where I was mostly known for doing a lot of work in social media as well. And it always frustrated me that I felt like I was being very much boxed into a particular channel, or a particular in a platform in the work that I do. Content strategy as a term kind of really started to resonate with me, I realised that was what it was. But I’ve then spent the last 10+ years really understanding what that means to me. And I think there’s a lot of anxiety amongst all of us that work in the content strategy profession that feels a lot like imposter syndrome where we meet up with other content strategists, and we kind of go, “Oh my God, they’re brilliant at that thing. And I have no idea as to what they’re talking about and what that actually means. And does that mean I’m not a content strategist?”
Defining content strategy
I think it’s fair to say that content strategy is such a broad profession and the broad discipline that it’s okay to carve out your own piece of what that means for you. And it’s actually quite important that you do that, and you have that confidence in what it is that you’re doing and therefore what it is that you’re doing for your organisation. I’ve worked quite a lot on the definition that feels comfortable to me. I have completely shamelessly begged, borrowed and stole from everybody else in my definition of content strategy. And this is the one that I tend to use the most when I’m talking about content strategy to other people who typically work in communications type roles.
If I’m talking to different people, and we’ll come to this more, I will adapt to this definition in different ways. So my definition is that I talk about content strategy as being a process, and it’s a process that is about supporting organizational goals. And part of that process is in defining how we plan, how we create, how we distribute and how we maintain content. And then it’s important for me that I include a piece of description that is about making it clear that the content is about being useful and usable to our audience.
And then this last piece of this description for me is particularly important in separating out sometimes is what is perceived to be the more kind of content marketing and of content strategy, and that’s the piece that’s more around content structuring and modeling and taxonomy design and all of that kind of stuff. So thinking about it as being a process, it is also about making our content understandable and adaptable to machines and intelligence systems. Of course when I say that to some people their eyes glaze over, and they really have no idea what that means. So in some instances it’s not always appropriate to include that as a description and not always necessary for them to understand that piece.
Equally, there are other pieces in there that I might drop and depending on who I’m talking to. So I think it’s quite important to have that understanding of where on the content strategy spectrum, if you will, you actually come from and what it is that you’re trying to do with your content strategy. And so I think some of us might have a description that feels a little bit more like a description of content marketing.
Some of our work in content strategy is a little bit more aligned to working on product content. And some of us it might be kind of more enterprise content, which I sort of see more as being information management, so we might be dealing with and help documents or policy information or things like that.
That’s not really marketing, but it’s more about that customer service side of things all that information and provision. And I think it’s good to be quite clear as to where content strategy sits for you. And it could be that it actually embraces all of these. And it could be that it embraces something completely different altogether. And that is absolutely fine. You just need to gain some clarity for yourself in that. So understand what you’re getting at first and foremost, and understand what that means for your organisation. And then have to think about what the overarching organisational need is that your role as a content strategist is to actually serve him for your institution. And by this, I’ve been given support to this as to how we can align this to thinking about our organisational personality.
Three ways to talk about content strategy
And so I’ve come up with three different buckets of thinking about the types of description that we would have for content strategy depending on the personality, or the culture of the organisation that we exist in. And typically the types of language we use, the way in which we like to talk about our business and our strategies and how we go about them. And those three buckets, those three different ways of talking about content strategy are, one is a very kind of cultural positioning way of talking about content strategy. So it’s aligned with how we want to describe our organisation. And almost from it from a kind of a culture and what do we stand for perspective?
And one is all about deliverables and what content strategy is actually going to do for our organisation from quite a tangible output perspective. And the last one I’ve described as being relational, but it’s more about thinking about content strategy as been something that builds connections as well. So those three different descriptions start from very different places. So the first one starts from a place of describing and thinking about brands, personalities, positioning and values. So this is an example here of a description of content strategy if you run an organisation that is particularly important to you. So in this case, content strategy sets a vision, and a plan or how the content that we create, and the way in which we create it will ensure that we remain innovative thought leaders in our sector.
So the important piece here is that your content is supporting that positioning of you being an innovative and thought leaders. And that one plays true quite a lot in the sector that I work in mostly, which is the higher education sector. And the deliverable perspective then of talking about and thinking about content strategy starts from a position that’s more related to those actual outputs. The return on investment type of factors that we may be asked to consider. So we might start from a position of thinking about finance or sales or our investor relations.
And so here, content strategy is the process of planning and creating content in order to increase profit margins by supporting sales cycle and increase in efficiencies in how we work. So it’s about the content marketing piece and the customer service piece to support our sales cycle. But it’s about making us more efficient as an organisation, reducing time, reducing cost, reducing duplication and all of that stuff, in order to make us more effective and efficient in our management of content. And then the last one, the relational one, which is probably that the vaguest of the three bio’s, I think sometimes one of the most interesting ways of looking at content strategy really focuses around those efficiencies, the systems, the way in which things connect, the way in which people connect as well.
So with that description, we’re thinking about content strategy as a process that accurately and efficiently plans and maintains content, reduce risk and enhance efficiency for you, the people in the system’s working coherently. So here we’re more looking at the kind of the governance, and the people side of thinking about content strategy rather than necessarily the outputs from the marketing side or a sales return necessarily for an efficiency game as well. So you always need to think about the personality of your organization and think about which one of those three, or it could be a fourth one, it might be something completely different altogether. Really feels like to you, a comfortable description for content strategy for your organisation.
What does strategy mean for your organisation?
I think you also need to be quite clear that when you’re talking about content strategy, you need to think about what the word strategy means within the context of your organisation. To a lot of people the word strategy means a document. It’s a strategic place, a process that we hope people will do something with and will live and breathe and embed into their work in practice. But typically people think of strategy as the document and the place in which is documented. But that’s not always true when we’re talking about content strategy. And in fact, more often than not, when my colleagues and I are developing them for our clients, it’s a whole series of documentations and processes and approaches that we’re putting together.
It’s really not this one single document.
So be clear about what strategy actually means within your organisation. Is it a vision? Is it document? Is it a process? Or again, is it something else altogether? And then think about that piece around to what end you’re actually using content strategy. What is the kind of the outcome of it? What is the benefit to the organisation? And be clear on that. And again, remember at the moment we’re talking in the context of you being clear and confident in your own mind as to what it is that you’re doing. But it’s really, really important that we get to grips with this before we start going out and talking to stakeholders and trying to explain it to them.
And so it could be that you use language that’s about sales. It could be that you use language about efficiencies, about achieving our organisational goals, about supporting a vision. It could be some of the softer stuff that’s around values that we know is increasingly important to think about. But it could also be about the way in which we work together, or the reputation of our organisations as well. Now there’s another piece that we need to really think about defining, as well. So we’ve thought about what a strategy mean to your organisation, but we also actually need to think about what does content mean. And it sounds like… it sounds like an odd thing to say because I think those of us that are on this webinar properly feel very confident in understanding what content means.
But I think when we find we go out and start talking to stakeholders and non-specialists, they actually can really struggle with that word. And I just wanted to take a moment to share with you a story that was shared with me earlier this week by one of the fellow speakers from the ContentEd Conference that we’re holding. Now, she’s the first person in her organisation to have the word content strategy in her job title. And she fought quite to get that into her job title. And in one of the first pieces of documentation that she circulated around her organisation to help to explain what she was doing and to help get some buy-in for some of the concepts that she was developing.
That document got passed to an intermediary before it got sent around to the organisation’s leadership team for them to actually read it. And the person, the intermediary that actually received that document, looked at the words content strategy, decided that didn’t mean anything to them and used the find and replace all function to turn that into consultancy strategy because that consultancy strategy meant something to them and content strategy didn’t. And so the problem there wasn’t the word strategy, the problem was the word content. Fortunately, my friend found this before it got circulated around. But yeah, some people, this is the kind of cat mentality, right?
It just doesn’t interest them at that moment in time so they kind of don’t care. So they’re just going to change it to something else.
So we need to have a definition for content. We can have definitions that we might feel comfortable with. I personally feel pretty confident with this definition of content, and I feel confident talking to other content strategists or communications professionals. Particularly those that have a slight digital slant to their role in using this particular terminology. But if I was talking to someone who didn’t have a digital focus in their role, and I worked with many marketing and communications professionals that don’t, even just the words metadata in there is going to immediately switch somebody off. So we might want to think about having some different terminology to how are we going to actually think about and talk about content for them as well.
So it could be that we need to think about what language they would use for talking about this kind of stuff. And it could be just something as simple as talking about information rather than talking about all the texts and images. But we may just need to add in a few more words like words, pictures, and videos within there. So at this point we need to get ourselves comfortable with that definition that’s going to work for ourselves and us as individuals. And I’ve shared mine with you and I’ve shared some ideas and thoughts around how you can think about using the terminology that’s going to work for you. But we’ve already started to move on to thinking about how we’re going to define this for them.
Making content strategy relevant to other people
And that’s what we really get into with this Webinar, is really about how can we develop this narrative that means something to other people? So the narrative that we’re getting into is not just one that explains what we do, it’s one that helps people understand how we are relevant to them. And those are two slightly different things. And so we’re going to touch now on thinking about how we can make sure that we’re demonstrating our relevance to other people as well as being able to talk about it in a way that hopefully will make sense to them. And one of the places that I tend to start in any content that I’m working on is strategic alignment with an organisation strategy, a big vision document, if you will, that the organisational plan.
And the reason I do this is because I want to be able to demonstrate that we have showed how content strategy is relevant to each and every part of that organisational strategy, regardless of whether or not the piece of content or the area of content that we’re working on actually does support every single area of that strategy and that vision. So I have in front of you right now an example, this is a fictional example this doesn’t come from a real strategy, but it’s the kind of phrasing that I come across quite a lot with the types of strategies that I work. So the strategic piece it would be what is in the what column here. So I would take out of the strategy document, the organisational strategy document this piece it says, “We exist to promote the health and wellbeing of students and our undergraduate, graduate and professional level as a foundation for academic and life success.”
I will remind you that I work a lot with universities, hence the slant here towards the higher education sector. But this is the kind of thing that I will commonly see in a university strategy. So the next thing I do is I look at that and okay, I say, “Okay, we want to achieve this for the organisation, right? Who do we need to reach and who does our content need to serve in this context?” So we map out some audiences there. And then lastly, we start to say, how will our content strategy and how does our content need to serve these audiences? And when we go through that process of talking about how and we reflect not just on the content that we are going to deliver to them, but also how we might use their interactions to understand those audiences more.
And also we might reflect on how we’re going to work as an organisation in order to actually deliver that experience to those audiences as well. So I normally put a little statement in there and what I’ll do is go through each and every part of that organisational strategy and go through this exercise irrespective of whether it is the piece that I’m working on. So what I mean by that is that I will quite often be bought into an organisation to work on with a marketing team and in many instances the interpretation the audiences that I work with of content strategy is actually what I would personally regard as content marketing strategy. So I’m playing this kind of constant game of sort of saying, “What do you actually mean by content strategy?” when I’m working with them and digging deeper in that and then checking what their expectations are.
But in order for me to demonstrate relevance to the rest of the university and to get buy in from them, I do actually need to explore the places where some people would perceive I don’t belong. So the parts of the strategy that might not necessarily relate to engagement and marketing. And in my world, that could be something like a part of a strategy that relates to teaching and learning. Well, we’re quite often told, we mustn’t touch teaching and learning, that’s for the teachers. That’s for the academics to deal with that, that’s not for the content strategists. That’s not for the communications professionals. Or it might be that there’s a whole section in the university strategy about research priorities and changing the world for the types of research that they’re going to do.
And again, we’re not researchers in an academic sense in that respect. But it could be that the work that we need to do needs to support connections between academics. It might need to support peer communications across the academic ministry, it might need to support research communications in terms of demonstrating the impact of the research that they’ve done. So there’s always a point of relevance when you can find narrative for content strategy aligned to the parts of an organisational strategy, and the other people are primarily concerned with and going through this exercise, this activity of actually doing it for yourself really starts to help you build a confidence in how you are serving them.
So once you’ve done that exercise and activity, you’ve already started to build a narrative around the different areas of the organisation or the business and generally at that point, I then try just to pull it back to a super simple statement that just captures just in one or two sentences the essence of what content strategy is actually going to be doing for that organisation.
So you look at all of those different columns that’s the how column, and you pull them together in one statement. So this is just an example one that the universities content strategy aims to ensure maximum efficiency, accuracy, and effectiveness in how we plan, create, distribute and may contain content. And we’re aspiring to is to adopt a centralised approach in this instance to managing the content, and we need to integrate the digital asset management system so that we can repurpose that content and manage an accurate record of where and how it is and how it can be used.
Now that description again probably will mean something to a content strategist but won’t necessarily mean something to someone else a non-specialist within the organisation. So we need to take these descriptions, and we need to turn them to them. And what we need to be a little bit careful of always, I’ve just spoken about aligning our descriptions to the organisational strategy, and the big vision. And the part of that strategy that those individuals may serve. But we also need to consider that they too are individuals, and it might be that they actually have some individual pain points that we need to look to as well beyond the strategic piece. So we need to understand them as individuals, as much as we need to understand the piece of the organisational strategy that they are seeking to serve and that they’re responsible for delivering on.
A content strategy toolkit to connect with our audiences
This is where the toolkit that we have available to us as content strategists really, really comes into play. We really do have this, what we’re really talking about in this Webinar is using all of the tools and tactics that we actually deploy when we’re developing a content strategy for thinking about the audiences that we need to connect with and understanding those audiences and all of our UX methods and all of that. It’s all about use, taking those tools and applying them to stakeholder engagement really is what we’re thinking about. So use your content strategy tool kit here. Think about using things like user stories, think about task stories, use activities like empathy mapping to map out and understand what’s going on in those internal stakeholder mindsets. And you can think about doing exercises like task analysis.
Now here we’re not necessarily saying to ourselves, a top task as in what do they want from the intranet let’s say. A top task might be something that they actually need to achieve in their role. They might need to make their team work better. They might need to answer more phone calls and the customer service team. They might need to reduce the number of legal cases that is coming up against the organisation. So think about what the top tasks in their role might be. Do conduct stakeholder interviews, and we’ll come onto that a little bit more shortly. And don’t shy away from doing things like card sort activities or care word activities and in fact, care words activities can be really powerful when thinking about our stakeholders to determine the language that we’re going to use in order to describe and explain content strategy to them.
Third party research, it sounds very grand in this context, but something like talking to the PA of that stakeholder that you need to engage in that you will need to get on board can actually be quite a powerful thing. Because they ask them what that person cares about at this moment in time. Talk to other people who have been in meetings with these people and understand them and think about developing personas for some of your stakeholders as well. You might use the very flippant persona essentially of the cat and dog at the beginning of this webinar. But we can take that framework and use it.
So all of those tools and tactics that we use as a good content strategist, we can deploy to find this narrative to talk about content strategy. And the heart of this really is to focus on their ship and not yours. So focus on the problems that they are trying to solve, and the problems that they face. And as I say, they are not always aligned to the strategic piece that they’re actually working on. So one of the things that we need to think about is what type of stakeholder are they and what is the relationship that they will have to content strategy? And there are really two very obvious relationships that different stakeholders can have.
One of them is that they are a consumer of your content. And the other is that they are a producer or an owner of content. So we would want to think about them in those two different ways. So they would have different needs. One of them would have audiences that they need to reach, or in order that they can do their job, and they therefore need your content strategy to support them in that goal. And the others are people who need information so that they can do their jobs, and everyone within an organisation is probably going to have a blend of these two things coming together, although the weighting of that will be slightly different.
User stories for content planning and content creation
So think about that when we’re starting to think about composing this narrative to them, which one is the most important to them? Is it about serving their information needs or is it about helping them to serve their audience’s information needs? And within that, and one of the tools that was in the list just now, I love this tool. Massive acknowledgment to the GDS team and Sarah Richards for this. But User Stories are such a useful tool, not just for content planning and when you’re actually creating content for your external audiences, but as a framework for you thinking about how you talk about what you do. So in its simplest term, and I know people have slightly different variations on the wording used here, but as a, whatever the audience member is, I want or need to do something so that I can.
And a lot of people will use it as a tool to plan their content, but let’s think about this in terms of how we can use it to plan a narrative for content strategy. So if we take some different roles within the organisation, so as a legal officer, I need to ensure that our information is correct so that I can avoid a scandal and a nasty fine. Or as an IT director, I need to ensure that our systems work together so that I can avoid my team wasting their time. Or as a payroll officer, I want to process expense claims on time so that I can get them paid promptly and, or as a customer service advisor and need to answer multiple customers a day so that I can meet my performance targets.
So within there we’ve… in each of those we’ve got a problem that they’re trying to overcome, and we’ve got a definition of their role and we’ve got the need that we need to help them serve in that context. So immediately we’ve given ourselves some clues or tell a narrative that we might take to talk to each of those people about content strategy. Now we have also spoken about hanging this in the context of thinking about organisational strategy as well. And I’ve quiet… on a regular basis now worked with organizations where I just modify this statement slightly and as a way of helping them to define what their content strategy needs to do for them.
Turning user stories into a strategy story
So we turned the User Story into a strategy story. So that becomes, the organisation has a goal to do what, and so we must reach the audience, goes in there. With content that, and that piece that goes into the, with content that, becomes the substance of your content strategy to some extent. It kind of gives you the places to where you need to go with your strategy. And you can take this framework, and you can also then apply it to individual teams and individual functions within your organisation.
So you can do that big piece that we’ve already spoken about and that big overarching strategy statement, or you can define it down to a team level. So this team has a need to, and so they or we must reach in order for them to achieve this with content that.
So again, helping to define it down to a narrative that will work for different parts of your organisation. Another tools that I use a lot as a content strategist, but I always have in mind when I’m doing stakeholder engagement work is Empathy Mapping.
I never know where to attribute Empathy Mapping into it’s… it’s not my tool at all. I’ve completely stolen that but I’m afraid I don’t know the original source of who invented Empathy Mapping, but it’s so simple and so powerful when we’re thinking about our stakeholders, what are they thinking about? What are they feeling, what are they seeing and what are they doing? And just having that as a framework for thinking about how you are going to approach them and how you’re going to talk to them and how you’re going to define how your work as a content strategist is relevant to them becomes quite important.
So where I’m going with this is that we don’t have one single descriptor for content strategy. You will have the description, and the narrative that feels right to you and helps you to understand your existence in life. And then you’ll have descriptors that will work for different people. So what you end up building up is to some extent multiple narratives for talking about content strategy and multiple definitions.
That’s fine, you need to be a little bit careful with expectation management in that they don’t think that the definition that you’ve given them is the sole definition. But what you’re defining as a definition that works for them in their role. So what I have in this table here is a few different definitions to serve different role types within an organisation. So when we look at the definition for the IT director, we were comfortably confidently using the words content strategy in there.
But we’re talking about content organising, content structure and particularly we’re talking about the importance of that in terms of how it connects with the systems, and the databases that we need to serve that content to our different audiences. So we’re talking a language that shows immediate relevance to them. You’ll notice in the definition of content strategy that I’ve popped down in here for finance directors that the words content strategy on not used at all. And in this context we’re simply talking about a process. So we’re talking about how we’re developing a process that makes the information we create for others more efficient and effective. So here I’m making a very stereotypical judgment and I would probably want to test that. The words like efficiency and effectiveness are going to be quite powerful words for a finance director, and be careful with making those documents.
Using a language that your stakeholders understand
They might not actually be the case. So you do want to test that a little bit and get to know them a little bit beforehand and just make sure that you are going to be using the right language for them. And then in the last scenario the role type that I’ve defined as a faculty marketing officer, so again, this is relevant to the world of higher education in which I work. And this will be someone who is promoting, let’s say research programs or academic programs within a faculty of a university, so not within the central marketing team. And again, comfortable and confident with using the words, content strategist to this audience that they’re going to have heard those terms before. But important that we’re talking about audiences, we’re talking about audience experiences or relationships or engagement or using those kinds of words that actually resonate to them.
And less interest at this point in talking about things like systems and databases, where that type of level of thinking about content and content structure, it might not accurate actually exist within their role or be relevant directly to their role. So what we’re getting at here is that you need to define content strategy, not just in terms of what it will actually… Not in terms of just what it is, but what it will actually do for them. And make sure you keep that in mind when you’re defining those. So let’s come back to the user stories that we looked at just now and connect those two descriptions of content strategy to those role types. So our legal officer, to start with, we decided that they wanted to ensure the information was correct and accurate so that we could reduce the organisations legal vulnerabilities.
So in this case, our description might be the content strategy about having a process with sharing and managing the right information in the right places and ensuring its accurate and compliant. So what we’re putting emphasis on is the piece around content strategy that’s about maintenance and is about accuracy and content being up to date. And that is going to resonate with them, and they’re going to understand the importance of that to their role. With the IT Director who was concerned about making sure the systems work together so that their team ain’t spending lots of time fixing development problems that they probably don’t want to be dealing with. For them it’s about understanding how, the content needs to connect and it needs to work for all those different systems. So with them, we might want to talk about design and taxonomies and helping about developing that kind of consistency across the different systems and platforms that we’re using.
For our payroll officer, actually this is an example where the relevance of content strategy to their role is more about serving information and content to others. So for them actually what they want is things like the intranet to work properly and for people to be able to access the information around how do you submit an expense claim? And they want to spend less time answering questions about people’s expense claims. So they want the intranet to work properly for them. So content strategies might ensure that their audiences can quickly and easily get the information they need and can answer their questions in order to complete the tasks, likes of an expense claim form that they need to do. For our customer service advisor, we’ve got a bit of a blend in terms of them serving information to other people, but also them needing to access information.
So in this case, our description becomes about ensuring that the audience has and can quickly and easily get to the information serve that self service need that we might have, that we could be addressing with content strategy, but also about serving their needs. So we want to structure content in such a way to be able to quickly and easily access answers to those questions. So here we could be talking about categories and tagging, but we don’t necessarily need to use that language when we’re talking here. Really, we can just talk about how we’re going shape our content in a way that they can get their answers really quickly from there.
So hopefully that makes sense in terms of understanding and accepting that you don’t need to have a single definition for contents right here. It’s okay to serve that different people in different ways depending on who you’re talking to. As I say, in the expectation management pieces, you do need to be careful because what you don’t want is your customer service advisor to think that that is the only need that you are serving and that you are there just to serve their need and nobody else’s. So what you do need to make it clear as is the bigger picture and that’s where having done that, that strategic alignment piece really comes into play.
Stakeholder engagement is not a single meeting
So moving on then the last piece then is to think about that the charm offensive and how you go about doing this. As I was putting these slides together, I came across, there was the image that I used earlier, of the guy is scratching his head and when I did a search on my Stock or whatever it was for person scratching their head, this image came out, and I kind of thought, “Yeah, I have to have an image of a T-Rex at some point in one of my presentations.”
So forgive me for the silly image here but I do so think that sometimes when we go in and start talking to people about content strategy week, we can go in a little bit like this sometimes. We kind of, we stray in and talking about how wonderful content strategy is and talking about this thing that we’re working on and this thing is going to change everything for our organisation.
We’re going to break down silos and change cultures and all of our content is going to connect and it’s all going to work together and all this stuff about ecosystems and all this amazing stuff that we know we’re going to do. But they still don’t know what we’re about. They still don’t understand content strategy at that moment in time. So we need to be a little bit more methodical in terms of how we address stakeholder engagement. And we need to accept that stakeholder engagement is not a single meeting that we have at the end of the process of us developing our content strategy at which that meeting is designed just to get their sign off or just to get their buy in. It needs to be much more iterative than that. And some of you will undoubtedly be on this journey.
So firstly, we need to think about who are they? Who are these stakeholders that we’re trying to reach out to? So you’re going to have a cluster of stakeholders who are people from whom you need support. For example, you might need them to approve some budget for you and you might need them to actually sign off on your content strategy. Or they may need to sign off on a governance process or something like that. There are going to be people from who you need their inputs into the process. So for example, you might need to access their understanding of audiences. You may need to access their content needs and particularly if you’re working on something like an intranet project.
And then there are going to be people who are impacted by your work. So this could be content owners around your organisation or there are going to be people who you need to do something in order to support the approach that you are ultimately going to recommend. So that might be things like technical support developers and again, that could also include content owners as well within that. And that there might be a bit from the gray areas across these four categories. So firstly, think about which of these categories, your stakeholder that you’re about to approach falls into. What is the need for you to be actually engaging with that person?
It’s probably fair to say that if they don’t fall into one of these categories, you might want to be questioning why you’re talking to them at all. Because what you don’t want to be doing is going out and engaging with someone just because it feels good to do so. You want to make sure that this is a process that’s going to deliver something for you and for them as well. Otherwise, they’re going to get to an end of the meeting and just be scratching their head and kind of go, “Well, that was nice, but I don’t really know why you’re here.” And having a little template that you can work through to think about each stakeholder and to think about defining your narrative for them can be quite useful. So this is one I created earlier. In fact, it’s for the book that I’m launching this summer, which I’ll mention later.
And in this template you’re just going to mark out who the stakeholder is, why you’re engaging with them, what is the purpose of them being involved? And talk about what they actually care about, what their needs are. So all the stuff we spoke about of Empathy Mapping within there. And then we’re going to think about what we want them to know about what we’re doing, to think about it, to feel about it and what we want them to do. And what we want them to do is a really important piece we have to be clear about that. We’re going to map out and consider how we’re going to reach those people and also help give some thought to how often we need to keep in touch with them. And again, we’ll come back to that in a moment.
A four-stage process to engage stakeholders
Think about the core questions that we’re going to ask them and then make some notes in there, so here we just have a box just to capture any other stuff that might be relevant to thinking about this particular stakeholder. So that could be insights that somebody else has told you about this person. And so then we’re going to go through a process of engaging them. And what I’m mapping out here is the kind of a model hypothetical process. It’s going to be different for everybody that you speak to. But this is a four phase process that we can go through, and it helps you to think about the balance of you talking versus listening during this process as well.
Stage one: One-to-one meetings
So in the first stage of this process, you’re going to aim to meet with this person on a one to one basis.
So you’re going to get in front of them, and you’re not necessarily going to talk about content strategy at that time. What’s actually going to happen in that particular meeting is you’re going to spend about 15% of your time talking and they’re going to spend about 85% of their time talking. And so this is mostly a meeting in which you ask them questions and you encourage them to talk about some of the objectives that they’re working to, their motivations, the barriers that they need to overcome in their role. And you start to build up a picture of how the work that you are going to do can actually help and support them and therefore how you’re going to develop this narrative to show how you’re relevant to them.
Stage two: Stakeholder workshops
The next stage there might be stakeholder workshops, and a lot of this will be quite familiar with doing this similar thing. Again in the stakeholder workshop, you’re going to spend most of your time listening and observing rather than talking, they’re going to spend the substantive amount of time talking to them.
And in those workshops that you might be, for example, trying to extract from them, things like audience insights, or it could be content requirements depending on what the project you’re working on and what the approach is that you’re taking. Say what you’re aiming to get here, is there anecdotes from views but what you will also get from a stakeholder workshop scenario is you will start to gain a bit of a picture of how these people interact with other people. What kind of questions they ask of other people, are they quite confrontational? Do they sit back and listen themselves? And that will also start to give you a bit of an insight into the personality of these people that you later on are going to go back to probably on a one to one basis in order to get their buy in.
And by gaining that kind of picture, their character you’re going to help yourself learn from and how you’re actually going to approach them.
Stage three: Planning and design workshops
So the next phase might be that you’re going to involve them in some kind of planning or design type workshop. Now in this stage, you’re going to probably need to talk a little bit more. You might want to be sharing some audience insights or sharing some research and then starting to get their ideas. But what you’re really aiming at doing here is giving them the opportunity to own the content strategy essentially that at this point they feel like they’re doing the work, and they feel like this is something that they’re so bought into because it’s all their ideas that you’re going to take and develop.
Stage four: Buy-in meetings
And then the last piece is really the buy-in meetings. So you’ve taken all of their ideas away, you’ve synthesised them, you’ve developed them into your strategic approach and now you want to go back to these people and get their final support. So this is that the first moment where really you will probably be presenting to them, or you’re talking to them more than you would have been earlier on, but making sure that you also leave large amounts of time for them to be questioning and talking back and challenge them what you’re talking about as well. So in that particular scenario, really are after persuasion and requests for support.
And it’s really around here. It’s kind of between the stages two and three that you’re going to start to develop these definitions and these narratives for these individual people and as to how you’re going to talk about content strategy to each of those individual people. Because you really want to be able to go that design workshop with that narrative or at least with a sense in your own mind as to how you might start to approach that narrative with them. The first meeting that you have, one of the really important things there is to make sure that you establish an ongoing relationship with this person, so that you can keep coming back to them. So don’t be afraid to ask questions like, would you mind if I come back to you with more questions later on?
And they will, I promise you always say yes, and what that does is it gives you an opportunity to keep that relationship going and that momentum going and to keep that conversation going in a way that helps you to continue to understand what kind of language they use. And the problem with this when you approach this is that we can be a little bit coy, particularly when we’re dealing with very senior leaders and we might shy away a little bit from going back and ask him for more. My advice to you is don’t be coy and even if you don’t necessarily have a question to ask them, and you don’t have an excuse to get in front of them, make it up. Like fake a reason for following up with them just to find something that you spoke about in that initial meeting with them and just go back to them and just say, “I was just pondering this thing that we were talking about. Would you mind if I just, can I just check with you about that or can I just follow up with you about that and, or can I just get your thoughts on this piece?”
And it doesn’t actually really matter if it’s not something that you really do need, therefore it some other input on at that moment at the time. The important thing here that you’re doing is actually maintaining that relationship with them. And the other thing to bear in mind, particularly when we’re talking to senior leaders and trying to get their kind of buy-in, is that it’s not jeopardy, right? We’re not waiting for them to guess the questions that we really want to ask them. So don’t be afraid to just come out and ask some pretty broad questions in these scenarios. In fact, most of the time they’ll appreciate you doing that. So don’t be afraid to ask them what the word content means to them.
Don’t be afraid to ask them what kind of language they would use. Don’t be afraid to, and I love using this question. I’ll frame it in the context of something like, in three months time, I’m going to have produced a content strategy for your organisation, and I’m going to need to persuade you to put some money into this. What do you need to see from me in order for me to persuade you that you should do this? And the insights that you get when you deliver that, as I say, not only tell you what actually needs to go in your strategy, but we’ll also tell you a lot about that language that you need to use with them later on as well. Check in that they’re understanding, this is particularly useful with the dogs, right? They’re kind of nodding, and they’re going along, and they’re agreeing and this is all great, but just check in that they are actually understanding.
Does that make sense to you? Almost get them to play it back to you sometimes and don’t be afraid to ask them to do something. Would you be willing to do whatever? And the other thing that’s so powerful in some of these early meetings as well is to use this as an opportunity to do some of your third-party audience research around some of the other stakeholders that you need to engage with. Because chances are, particularly if you’re dealing with, let’s say, c-suites, senior leader type personalities, that they all know each other quite well. They work together on a regular basis and that they know what makes each other tick.
So don’t be afraid to say you’re in the meeting with the Operations Director or the HR director, kind of say to them, “Look, I’ve got a meeting next week with Finance Director.” How do they work? What kinds of things do they like to see? What kind of questions do they ask? And use that as an opportunity to get some insights. And they’ll probably love talking about their colleagues. And lastly, really think about, making sure you’re clear going into those meetings about what you need. So be clear about what you’re asking of them and don’t be afraid to state that upfront and say to them, “I’m in this meeting today to ask you for 20,000 pounds for a piece of audience research.” Let’s say for example. And then you get into the detail of why or, “I’m here today to ask if you will do this?”
So be clear about what that is up front and be confident in what you’re going in there to, they will otherwise be a little bit confused if you don’t do that with them.
Summarising what we’ve covered
So just to wrap up and to summarise really just a few points really in thinking about how we get non-specialists on board and just to cover some of the points that we’ve discussed today. Make sure you are confident and clear in what content strategy means for you and feel comfortable in that own personal narrative that you have before you think about going out and communicating what content strategy is to other people. And make sure you take those steps to be clear in how content strategy can serve the whole organisation.
It doesn’t necessarily need to be how it is serving the whole organisation. That can be visionary in terms of how it might serve the organisation. And make sure you define who those stakeholders are and be clear that they are people who it’s actually relevant for you to be talking to. And understand why you are trying to get them on board and understand why they might be interested on getting on board by understanding their objectives, and their pain points, and the things that content strategy can help them to overcome. Make sure you draw in your entire content strategy talk here and all of the tactics and techniques that you use as a professional in this space to understand your audiences in order to get into their heads and to develop that same kind of insight about your stakeholders that you would want to develop about your external audiences and to make sure you feel comfortable in adjusting and adapting your definition according to how content strategy serves them.
There’s no problem with you changing your own definition as to how content strategy serves you, right? Content strategy is not a nailed down professional. I mean this is constantly evolving space the whole time when we are all making this up as we go along. So be confident in changing it, be confident in adjusting it and keep sharing those definitions with other people because we all love to hear them, and they all certainly serve the wider content strategy community when you do talk about this stuff. So keep communicating internally and also eternally and keep communicating with other content strategists and do you keep evolving in the work that you do and the relationship and the narrative that you form with those non-specialists around the discipline of content strategy.
You might be surprised, they actually may be able to help you with coming up with that narrative for themselves as well. Especially the dogs, those that are really excited about it. Thank you.
You can watch the full webinar recording on-demand.
About the presenter
Tracy Playle is founder and CEO of Pickle Jar Communications Ltd, and its sister company, Utterly Content Ltd. She primarily serves as Chief Content Strategist for Pickle Jar Communications, specialising in working with the education sector. Since becoming a consultant content strategist in 2007, she has worked with over 160 education institutions in more than 20 countries to develop content and digital communication strategies.
Before founding the company, Tracy worked as Head of Research-TV and in a number of in-house communications and marketing roles at the University of Warwick, one of the UK’s leading universities.
She is known for her passionate and energetic presentations, and is invited to speak at conferences around the world about content strategy and emerging communication trends. She has spoken at conferences across five continents, and in 2016 completed the Confab hat-trick speaking at all three of their events in the USA, concluding with the opening keynote for Confab Higher Ed. In 2017, she founded the ContentEd conference, the first European conference focusing on content strategy in the education sector.
In 2014 she won a prestigious Crystal Apple Teaching Award from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) for her contributions to conferences and workshops in Europe, Asia and Australia, advancing knowledge of content strategy and digital communications in the education sector. She was the first European digital communications professional to receive this award.
When she’s not hopping around visiting clients and conferences, she lives in the North East of England with her dog, Scout.