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Content Strategy

Getting stakeholder buy-in across a siloed organisation

Robert Mills • 6 minutes

In 2016, the University of Auckland embarked on a three-year program of work that would revive its web presence. It wanted to change its digital first-impression from an out-of-date, content-heavy, organisation-focused and traditional website to an engaging online experience designed for its users that truly showcased the vibrancy of university life.

On paper, the brief was fairly straight forward: conduct user research, define personas and customer journeys, design a new information architecture and audit and re-write hundreds of pages of content so that it was useful and usable. But the team knew that a critical component to the success of the project was to get stakeholder buy-in. Without that, none of the deliverables would be accepted, content would not be reviewed or approved in the tight timeframes given, and the new centralised website would lose its integrity quickly after launch.

In our recent webinar, some of the team shared their journey through this program of work. They told the story of how they engaged stakeholders from the beginning, adapted content production workflows so they fit the business, and built an Agile content team that mobilised content producers across the University to create user-first content that ignored internal silos.

A digital-first University

The impetus for committing to a long-term transformation project was to be a truly digital-first university. Despite being steeped in tradition, the university is also cutting-edge and at the forefront of research.

Facts about the University of Auckland:

  • Founded in 1883
  • Largest university in New Zealand
  • More than 40,000 students
  • 5 main campuses
  • 8 faculties and 2 large scale research centres

This was their first true agile project and it needed a big change in ways of thinking about how to solve challenges.

What the project achieved

  • Over 19,000 pages of old content reviewed, rewritten or removed to form just over 7,000 pages in the new formats.
  • 15 websites consolidated to one
  • Service Divisions, Faculties, and LSRIs have analytics dashboards to see how their web pages are performing
  • A true culture of collaboration between all the content writers and content coordinators across Faculties and LSRIs

Building a content team

It was about eight months into the project that they started to build the necessary content team. This would being together lots of different roles and disciplines, but on the proviso that they had to be sat together as working remotely wouldn’t cut it.

The assembled team included seconded staff members and contractors.

Those seconded had real knowledge of how students use the website and the problems that they face with it.

The Contractors brought different ways of working, open minds and lots of energy. New people bring questions. The university has its own language so contractors asked questions about that, they often asked why not when internal staff said they couldn’t do something. The contractors positively challenged the status quo.

An outdated homepage

The legacy homepage had been added to and allowed to grow for eight years. It was ‘the place where everything is housed.’ As part of this project, the team spent six months creating components for the new homepage. 

Once the homepage was planned, structured and under control, the team moved onto the faculty sites. In this instance a faculty is like a college, not a staff member. Then they tackled program or course pages, news, and are improving other areas as the project continues.

Lessons learned

As with any project, there were plenty of lessons learned, which presenters Michelle and Sally were happy to share during the webinar.

1. Our ways of working evolved throughout the project

The team setup a lot of the agile processes, hired two contract writers and made sure everybody was onboard with agile methodologies and vocabulary.

The team grew and changed as contractors came and went but publishers were involved for the project duration. It was essential there was a versatile team that could move between roles, because ways of working did change and things were learnt.

There were four key areas to the project, each with their own processes:

  • Planning
  • Writing
  • Publishing
  • Launching

Each team member was comfortable at every stage of process. The publishers didn’t write, but the writers did learn to publish. The team was flexible and willing to learn, within clear roles, so that meant they could also level-up their own skills.

2. Delays to development didn’t give the content team extra time

The content team had to work closely with external forces such as the development team. Whilst they were on the same project, the content process wasn’t affected by any changes from the teams around it.

A content roadmap was defined and adhered to regardless. There was no shift in content deadlines, even though this was an agile project. Eventually, delivering what was promised on time gained the trust of stakeholders.

3. It helps to have a great product

There was a lot of wariness across the university. Many stakeholders stood back and waited to see what happened with the project.

The website wasn’t loved. The homepage had been neglected. Templates were breaking down as they tried to make them do things they weren’t designed to do. Naturally people distrusted the whole thing.

As the project progressed and the new website started to come together, those sceptics could see the new version (product) was great! They started to see the removal of duplication of content and an improvement in content quality. Of course they wanted that for their own programs and many of those reluctant stakeholders became advocates.

4. Stakeholder engagement was ongoing and continued to grow

Stakeholder engagement isn’t a box ticking exercise or one-off task. It never stopped for the entire project, and beyond. It wouldn’t work to have a one off chat to provide occasional updates. The content team admitted that they underestimated the engagement effort. As the project gained momentum, engagement didn’t decline over time, it became more intense. Luckily they implemented a solid engagement plan.

Engaging stakeholders

The next stage of the webinar looked in more detail at the fourth lesson learnt. There were three clear stages to the content teams engagement strategy:

  1. Pre-engagement
  2. Engagement hierarchy
  3. Tell the story

The university had a huge eco-system of content and needed a multi-phased approach to communication and engagement.

The project leads went in and answered all of the big questions from stakeholders before any work had taken place. They ‘broke the big rocks so content team only had little rocks to deal with.’ During these pre-engagement chats they discussed the project, how it would run, and what the different phases would be. They also kept track of who they engaged with and when and what issues had been raised.

Next they had to map out an engagement hierarchy. It was necessary to build relationships across a hierarchical organisation. People respected they had a 1:1 conversation rather than group discussions or workshops as it made them feel more able to be honest – especially senior leadership.

They also ran kickoff sessions with new business areas being worked with. This was an opportunity to disseminate the language around agile, sprints and share tools for the project. They also shared their golden rules, which we will come onto shortly.

Telling the story was important, and in ways that would make people listen and would resonate. Part of this process included showcases where updates were provided.

During the showcase, someone was named stakeholder of the sprint. This cost nothing but was well received. It showed the project team were nice people to work with and the showcase became an amazing communication tool that helped to raise champions and advocates.

Content review and workflow

There was lots of legacy content in the university’s digital estate. A lot. With the new user-centred approach, not all of the existing content was fit for purpose.

To solve this they created different templates for different content types. Such as a homepage template, link pages which connected different sections, and content pages.

When talking to different areas they could show them how their page would be structured. Content was written in Google Docs (you can also use GatherContent for this!) Below you can see source content on the left and the published equivalent for an alumni page.

A spreadsheet was then used to track progress:

In this example they were keeping track if a page had been approved, if there were blockers and if it had been published.

That was ok for straight forward content but a lot of it wasn’t so they needed to be flexible on how to collaborate with content owners, get feedback, sign off and for it to be published.

The course information was complex, with multiple owners so pre-conceived ideas about engagement had to be changed. It had to be tracked at a component level:

This information was used as a communication tool for showcases and a way to push content owners forward. There was no one size fits all for creating and publishing content so the team had to leave their egos at the door and adapt as the content needed, with lots of course correction.

The golden rules

Some golden rules were developed by the team but it extended beyond the core content team and the rules were embraced across the organisation. The golden rules were the points of truth to reflect on when things were rushed, intense or there were lots of demands from across different areas of the university.

The work itself:

  • Accessibility and responsive design
  • Not all content is equal
  • Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

Where we work:

  • The University is not an agile environment
  • The website is not the answer to all of the businesses problems
  • To have a great website we need great publishers and remember, the faculties are not all the same

How we work:

  • Aim for better, not perfect
  • No one knows as much as all of us. We are learning and working at the same time
  • How we get things done is as important as getting them done

What’s next?

A new team has been formed to help continue with the work, the web team. Their aim is to continue the direction and support to those doing the work.

The team will begin looking at artefacts around the website – communication pathways, style guides, policies – and making sure they are all inline with website. The website is still being iterated on to keep aligned with golden rules too.

Watch the recording

If you want to find out more about this project at the University of Auckland, watch our on demand recording where Sally and Michelle talk through everything in this summary in more detail.

Getting stakeholder buy-in across a siloed organisation.

About the Author

Robert Mills

Head of Content, GatherContent

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