Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Stakeholder interviews for quality content: Why, who, and how

Stakeholder interviews aren't very sexy. They're not new, or controversial, or unique to content strategy. They don't lend themselves to interesting diagrams or sketches. Both writers and clients often overlook them entirely. I'm not sure why. I think they just don't get it. They just don't see how powerful and useful stakeholder interviews can be. They must have tried it once, found it lacking, and gave up on it. If you're one of "them", I suggest you try again.

After all, how can we speak for our clients, if we don't speak to them? Here are some tips to make it easy for you.

Why do stakeholder interviews?

To build relationships and establish credibility. What better way to reach out and establish a conversation with the people who can make or break your project and those who know the most about it? You get to know them, they get to know you, and information is much more likely to flow your way after that. If you're walking in cold as a new project team member, stakeholder interviews (done right) are a fantastic way to establish yourself as someone who can listen, contribute, and add value.

To identify patterns. Whether you're trying to determine content requirements, business objectives, customer needs, or anything else, you have to look for patterns. And the best way to identify patterns is to ask each similar type of stakeholder a similar set of questions. Of course, you're going to ask on-the-fly follow up and probing questions, but when your core set of questions are consistent throughout your interviews, you'll find that patterns emerge. These patterns point you in the right direction.

To find discrepancies. Identifying differences of opinion early in the project is critical. If key stakeholders disagree it's better to bring that to light before any development is done. Sometimes discrepancies are OK (like different business units having different objectives) and can be dealt with in various ways. Other times, you really need to facilitate a commonly accepted approach, whether or not everyone is in agreement. For example, neither you nor the project will be successful if there is no widespread acceptance of who the target market is or how to communicate with them. Discrepancies can also indicate an abundance of subjective opinion and lack of real knowledge. You want to base your content strategy and content decisions on sound research and knowledge.

To unearth that golden nugget. It doesn't matter how prepared the project lead is, and how many stacks of documents they've given you outlining project research and requirements, there is ALWAYS a gold nugget still locked away in a stakeholder's brain. Maybe it's an interesting insight, or a great piece of research, or some examples that demonstrate what can't be articulated through words. Sometimes you just need to get the facts straight, or validate your assumptions. Stakeholders are powerhouses of knowledge, and there's always something new to find out through talking to them directly.

Who do you interview? The people who..

Hold the purse strings.
We gotta keep them happy. They also tend to know a lot of useful stuff. Think department Directors, VPs, etc.

Influence the people who hold the purse strings. These people are a giant step closer to the actual project. They've usually fought to get the project budget from the person above and are highly invested in it. You better get input from these people, because if you head off in a direction they don't understand they'll stop you in your tracks. These are often business managers.

Have customer knowledge. These are your customer stand-ins and advocates. They work directly with customers and understand their motivations and pain points. They often have a practical perspective and can provide insights that help you to see past a mountain of wish-lists and identify the few, critical, customer must-haves. These may be call-centre staff, sales people, or service providers.

Have technical knowledge.
It's all fine and well to create a brilliant content strategy, but if the client doesn't have the technical resources to make it happen, then it will die before it's born. Do your homework: talk to the IT guys.

Have subject matter knowledge.
As a writer, you know a lot of stuff. Especially about writing. But odds are, there are people in the company who know a lot more about what you're writing about than you do. You need to combine your writing wizardry with their knowledge. These people could be anyone. They may have an official title (like "Subject Matter Expert"), or they could be any old employee who has specialized knowledge.

How do you interview?

Get as close as possible. Face-to-face is best. By phone is OK if necessary, and sometimes preferable. For example, I'll often choose to do stakeholder interviews over the phone prior to an out-of-town, on-site project kick off to begin establishing relationships and so I can have something to contribute when we all meet. Then when I arrive on site, they already feel like they know me. But for the most part, interview in person when possible. Don't use surveys of any sort.

Be respectful of time. There's no right or wrong time frame. It depends entirely on the purpose of the interview and who you're interviewing. But as a basic guideline, ask for half the time you think you'd really need and stick to it. If you frame your questions well, and stay on track, you won't need all the time you think you do anyway. And you can always follow up later if necessary. Most of my stakeholder interviews run about 20-45 minutes, depending on the purpose. Subject matter interviews may need longer, but for anything requiring more than 1 hour it's better to break it up over multiple sessions. Or turn it into a half day session and call it a workshop!

Carefully craft your questions. This is critical. Developing really effective interview questions is both art and science. Read up on how to design good interview questions for your objectives. Focus your questions on three or four main topics and make sure that every question counts. Edit out the weak questions and eliminate redundancy unless it's part of your interviewing strategy. Always test-drive your interview questions on a real person first. Bonus points if that test person has a similar knowledge base as your actual stakeholders.

Take good notes. Consider having someone else take notes for you so you can focus on the interview. Make notes of any potential quotes that you could use if you're delivering a stakeholder interview report. Quotes that reflect common themes are a great way to personalize the data you collect.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Content strategy tip: Show, don't tell.

If you're like most business people (and many writers), the concept of "show, don't tell" is hard to integrate. When I talk to clients about demonstrating their corporate characteristics, and living their brand, and acting on their mission statements, I always get very enthusiastic head nods, and "Yes!" exclamations. Everyone's excited and on-board. And then they say, "And on the home page, we need to say something like 'We care about each and every customer as if they were our children, and you can trust us to provide the best service in the industry, bar none! You have our word on that, and our word is our bond!'" Hmmm... they missed my point.

Please, for your own sake, stop trying to tell your customers what to believe. They don't like it, and they don't trust it. That kind of copy is not only useless, it's potentially damaging. People just don't believe what they're told anymore--they believe what they experience. You still need to develop key messages for your website, but instead of conveying these messages through your copy, you need to convey them through experience.

Let's look at the client's message above and see how we can turn web copy into web experiences.

What's the first message in their home page copy? "We care about each and every customer as if they were our children..." OK, fair enough. But, instead of telling them, how can we show that you care about them? First you have to care enough to really know and understand them. DO YOUR RESEARCH. Get to know your customers well. Parents don't care for their children simply by telling them they care. They look after them and guide them. How can you look after your customers? How can you guide them? (Hint: It's NOT by telling them that you have the perfect product for them!) When customers come to your site and find information that's useful and pleasantly surprising--information that fits into the context of their lives and makes them feel understood--then they know you care.

Next message? "...and you can trust us...". Can they? What inspires your customers to trust you? It certainly isn't you telling them to. But maybe it's your credentials, or your professional reputation, or how long you've been in business. Maybe it's because you're local, or maybe it's because you're global. It may be because you have testimonials or reviews or recommendations from other customers just like them. Or they may trust that if you've already sold 20 billion products to 20 billion happy customers, then they're likely to be a happy customer too. Again, it's all about knowing what inspires your customers to trust, and then showing them that you're trustworthy.

And: "...the best service in the industry..". Says who? Other than you, I mean. If you can back up that statement by showing that reputable organizations, publications, or awards have recognized you as being the best, then do it. If not, don't say it.

And finally: "You have our word on that, and our word is our bond!' Really? What guarantees or warranties do you offer? What's your return policy? What experiences have other customers had that demonstrate you sticking to your word? Make these things obvious on your site rather than your verbose promise. (And ditch the exclamation marks. Nobody trusts exclamation marks.)

If all of these messages are demonstrated through the content on your site, you don't need to say them. Your customers will see it, believe it, and say it for you.

So here's my challenge: Take a look at your corporate mission statement and key customer messages, and think about ways that you can demonstrate them through your web content. Then share your ideas with us in a comment below. And a call-out to all the other content strategists and web writers out there: What other messages and values have you demonstrated online, and how?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Content strategy in 6 crazy-simple steps

I keep reading about how content strategy is so difficult. People say it's hard to pin down, it's vague, it's a moving target. Those are really just excuses. Content strategy is difficult in the same way that losing weight is difficult. The process is not complex. It's not hard to figure out what needs to be done. The challenge is in mustering the commitment and willpower to do it.

So, let's say you really are serious about implementing a content strategy for your website this time. Here are 6 surprisingly simple steps for you to follow:
  1. Conduct a content audit. Look at the content already on your site. What's worth keeping? What needs to be thrown out? Which pages bring in traffic, and which pages are never visited? Determine the "OUCH factor" for each page: is the page outdated, unnecessary, current, or has to be written? It's a simple idea, but the challenge here is in developing a deep and meaningful relationship with your spreadsheet.

  2. Review existing research. Odds are, in a company of any significant size, there is already some research done on your customers, your website performance, your competitors, and standards within your industry. There is often both in-house and third-party research for you to reference. Part of your job here is to paint as clear a picture as possible about these things, and the other part is to identify the research gaps that still need to be filled.

  3. Do primary research. You know the research gaps, so now you get to fill them in. In addition to the items above, you need to get crystal clear about your business goals, marketing objectives, technology constraints, and project requirements. You also have to get to know your customers as if they were your family. Who are they, exactly? What are their goals and motivations for doing business with you? What are their barriers? Where do they hang out online (or even DO they hang out online!), and why do those places appeal to them? What do they expect from you, and what would it take to pleasantly surprise them?

  4. Create customer personas. Now that you know so much about your customers, distill all that knowledge into a few well-researched, well-written personas. Personas are fictitious people that represent each of your target customer groups, but are based on real market data and customer research. Include personality, story, or lifestyle elements that answer each of your key customer research questions. Make sure that every team member gets to know these personas well, and run every web and content design decision by your personas to see how they react.

  5. Define your content strategy and tactics. You now have clear view of your business goals, marketing objectives, project success metrics, technology constraints, and, of course, your customers. You know where you are now, and are ready to figure out where you need to be to meet your goals, satisfy your customers, and beat your competition. In a nutshell, that's the first step of your actual content strategy--figuring out where you need to be based on all of the things above. It's really about knowing what the overall business strategy is, and determining how your web content can support and reflect that. Once you have your strategy, you can determine the tactics, or the techniques and tools you'll use to get there. For more on strategy and tactics, Chris Moritz wrote a great post for the Content Marketing Institute on diagramming content strategy and tactics that you should check out.

  6. Set guidelines and processes to support your strategy. Knowing what has to happen, and how to do it, is easy compared to actually doing it! A solid content strategy will fail if the people executing the strategy don't have the tools or resources they need to effectively carry it out. This is the stage where you create an editorial calendar and a writers' style guide. This is where you push to ensure you have sufficient resources to hire people with the right skill sets, or retrain the people you have. This is where you ensure that your processes support your strategy, and that they include continual testing and evaluation of all things content. This is where your hard work and brilliant insights will either fall flat, or take wing!
Alright, alright... I never said that content strategy was easy.I just said that the process is very simple. And I know you won't let the need for a bit of hard work, creative problem-solving, mind-boggling analysis, and insane powers of persuasion scare you away from doing what's right for your business. Then again, if you're easily scared, you can always give me a call.