Managing stakeholders on complex content projects [Interview]

When you’re responsible for delivering the content part of a massive web project, getting the input and sign-off you need is consistently one of the hardest parts.

How do you get senior executive engaged and focussed? How do you get their feedback in the timeframes you need? And how you earn their trust?

To explore those questions, I spoke with John Gaines, a Seattle-based content strategist with more than 16 years’ experience, including as advertising creative director at Microsoft.
content strategy canberra

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Matt: John, in your experience of managing big, messy content projects, what are some of the common threads?

John: Two areas. The first one is when you find it challenging to hold the clients or the stakeholders accountable for their actions. You agree on a schedule and you have to deliver on time or there are financial repercussions, but the stakeholders and clients don’t necessarily feel compelled to adhere to their side of things.

Matt: Why is that?

John: They’re busy people. It was not so much like this ten or fifteen years ago. Now everyone is so overworked that a big portion of their job seems to be just spinning off stuff for other people to do.

Senior stakeholders might not have time to get feedback to you or they might be triple-booked during a timeslot when you really need their input. You might only get them for ten minutes of a one-hour meeting and then they zip off to the next one. Then when they do give feedback, it’s not always informed by what’s actually happening.

Matt: Got it.  You mentioned another area…

John: That’s about how the deals are shaped and sold. You never do content work in a vacuum. It’s always part of a bigger IT initiative like a new website, new intranet, maybe the tech side of a new brand launch.

That deal is shaped by an IT vendor or a tech vendor working with the CIO or the CTO–all tech guys. So you get a bunch of tech folks in there focused on trying to deliver a tech solution and they don’t think about the content until it’s too late.

Matt:  So how does this impact the project?

John: When you’re three-quarters of the way through it and somebody says, “Okay, now let’s port over the old content into the new experience.” Not only does the old content not fit, it’s not even close.

I wrote about this in a post recently. There is this belief that technology engages users. That’s completely wrong. Content engages users. The technology delivers the content, but the content does the actual engaging.

Matt: So how do you shift the focus?

John: It’s tough. You have to work with the sales or business development guys, which can be almost impossible depending on the org. Sometimes they don’t want the added hours on the effort, or they want to sell what they know, which is rarely content. But the people shaping the deal and setting up the economics of it need to be looking at content, and they need to bring the content people in early.  Do that content inventory to capture everything you have. Get the taxonomy created. Then start on the audit so you really have an idea of what the content work is going to entail.

Matt: John, I wanted to go back to what you mentioned about struggling to get senior executive focussed on content.  What’s worked for you?

John: At the upper levels, those people are so busy doing so many other things that you can almost never get their full attention. So you’ve got to understand the human interactions, how they actually get things done.  Find out who their trusted deputy is and work with that person.

Only take the most important things to the alpha stakeholder, and make sure that you’re delivering on those things. For everything else, work with that gatekeeper.

Matt:  How do you build that sense of trust, then, with the senior execs?

John: They’re are human like anyone else. They have a lot of things to get done and they’re under a lot of pressure. They know that they’re cutting you short on time and info. You need to be be understanding, and reassure them that you have their best interests at heart.

Matt: I’m wondering about triaging senior executive’s feedback. What I tend to see — and this may be a government thing —  is that content will get written and it will go up to the senior executive who will want to read every word, often when they don’t have time to read every single word. Is that something that you’ve run into in your travels?

John: Yeah, it does happen. But like you say, the private sector tends to be a little more pragmatic. What’s the real problem that you’re having? Is it that they want to read it but they don’t have time, so they just sit on it?

Matt: There’s a bit of that, and as you put it really well earlier, they often give feedback that’s not particularly informed by user needs, even business requirements. So it tends to just get flattened down to corporate speak.

John: Yeah, in that kind of situation if you’ve built that relationship with the gatekeeper, sit down with them over a beer and say, “What does your boss really need to accomplish? What’s the most important thing for them?” And solve for that. It’s the ideas behind the words that are more important, not the words themselves.

Matt: For sure. And I think as content professionals, we can tend to see ourselves as valiant knights of correct grammar. So we get attached to the words on the page, and sometimes, as you say, there’s got to be some trade-offs.

John: Look, whether you get to do good work depends on your crew, but it also depends on the stakeholder. The more you get them to trust you the more latitude they’ll give you with language. That’s if they understand that you’re focused on solving the problem that matters most to them and that you’re working at the idea level and that you’re not attached to the words.

If you get attached to words, the senior executive will get attached to words. But if you reframe to say, “Hey, you know, it’s all about the idea. Do we have the right ideas in the right order?”

If you can get to that, then things will work fine.

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