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.

1 comment:

  1. Good advice, particularly the insight that you must be as close as possible to your interviewee. So often I have to respond to others who insist that a survey will do, especially when we don't have time to do a face to face. I suspect they don't think about the quality of the answers when they take this point of view.