Stakeholder Interviews: Engage the Octopus

Melissa Rach

Most of the time when a content project begins, there are interviews with key stakeholders within the organization. The project sponsors and/or their outside consultants often talk to the “strategic decision makers”—generally the highest ranking people you have access to, such as the VP of marketing or the director of such-and-such. It’s a good place to start. After all, strategic decision makers have important insights (and budgets).

But bigwigs rarely maintain web content. In fact, in a lot of cases strategic decision makers don’t have the subject matter knowledge needed to select or create the content in the first place. In his book,What Is Strategy, and Does It Matter?, Richard Whittingham says, “Knowledge resides inside the heads of lower ranking staff, not in the files of top management.”

When it comes to content, organizations are a bit like an octopus. The strategic decision makers are in the head of octopus—setting the overall direction. But just like an octopus needs all eight arms to move forward, good web content needs help from people at all levels of the organization. If it’s a manufacturing company, the most accurate information about the products may live in the heads of the engineering or R&D teams. A healthcare organization that wants to publish content about diseases or treatments will likely need help from healthcare practitioners, like doctors. And, no matter what an organization does, the people who are assigned to create and maintain content know the most about how much they can realistically accomplish.

Here is a DIY octopus org chart from!

So, don’t just interview the people in the executive suite. Engage the entire octopus. Identify subject matter experts and people responsible for the content, and interview a few of them, too.  Ask them things like:

  • How much time do you have to spend on content (for the initial launch AND ongoing maintenance)?
  • What is your role in the content process (e.g., subject matter expert, content creator, content approver… all of the above)?
  • How does content get created in the organization—is there a set process or is it bedlam? If there is a set process, is it tenable or do people use workarounds to avoid it?  
  • What information or messages would you most like to convey to the user?
  • If you talk to the users regularly, what kind of information do the users ask you for or need?

Now, interviewing these people doesn’t mean you have to do everything they suggest. But, knowing what the content-specific stakeholders want and need will help you (and the strategic decision makers) understand opportunities and risks associated with content. Maybe the site you’re designing would require the organization to hire more people to update the content appropriately. Maybe you can see that a certain subject matter expert has something unexpectedly great to say.  Or, maybe just talking to content stakeholders will get them excited to help your project succeed.

Whatever you learn, by engaging the whole octopus, you’ll have far fewer unpleasant surprises when you hand over the reins to the “content doers” after launch.