Planning Content Goals With Web Stakeholder Interviews

Lego people

Do you know the purpose of your web content? Let’s buddy up with content stakeholders and set some goals.

In an earlier post, we talked about using focus groups to better understand your web users’ needs. But external web users are not the only type of users we need to understand in order to create valuable and purposeful content.

To create web content that works, we must also understand our internal web content stakeholders. These are all the people planning for, creating, curating, editing, approving, publishing and maintaining content, among other tasks. These are the subject matter experts who can answer the question, "What purpose does our content serve? Why is it here?"

Indeed, these content stakeholders — whether department heads or staff assistants — are users too, using the website to support their department goals. As web content professionals, we should plan for web content that supports external users’ needs as well as institutional and internal stakeholder goals — this is the recipe for successful content.

To create purposeful content that meets web stakeholders’ goals, we need to understand how content supports their work. So let’s ask them!

The Need for Goal-Driven Content

A successful content strategy relies on every page of your website having a clear purpose and defined goals. No clear purpose means no clear value — and no way to measure success.

Content goals are often treated as a given: "The purpose of our content is to communicate." Okay, sounds good. But trying to relate these broad objectives to specific results or making informed decisions when planning for content is not easy.

Among other things, content goals should:

  • Clearly identify content value for users
  • Provide guidelines for determining what on-page content is appropriate and useful
  • Ensure content is unique and organized appropriately
  • Lead to the creation of content that inspires action
  • Define benchmarks for measuring success
  • Determine who is needed to review and approve content

Since you need clearly defined content goals for your content strategy to succeed, let’s buddy up with content stakeholders and plan for content with purpose.

Conducting Group Web Stakeholder Interviews

Depending on the number of content stakeholders involved with your institution’s website, you may decide one-on-one interviews are manageable. This would allow you to dig deep into page-level content goals. However, if you’re like most institutions, you’re looking at hundreds of content stakeholders. In this case, it’s more realistic to conduct group interviews, which is what we are talking about here.

Similar to conducting group web user interviews, group stakeholder interviews allow you to identify broad goals in different departments or sections of the website. Then comes the post-interview work of identifying themes and shared goals to inform the purpose and value of content.

In most cases, group interviews provide good context for content experts to hone in on and identify page-level content goals. If not, you can circle back with certain content stakeholders to clarify purpose.

Scheduling Web Stakeholder Interviews

To get started, choose stakeholder interview participants based on their direct knowledge of the content being addressed.

For example, if you are assessing admissions content, you would involve admissions staff, of course, but also possibly financial aid and marketing staff. Consider subject matter experts such as faculty, as well as content creators, editors, approvers, publishers, etc. — all the people who make decisions about content on your website.

When scheduling stakeholder interviews, group participants by shared goals and primary audience, not by department.

If you’re scheduling stakeholders of academics content, you might group faculty together or deans and academic department heads. Additionally, you might group career services staff with alumni. If your continuing education or adult learning department caters to a significantly different admissions audience, you might group them separately.

Small group meetings of four to six people work best, but it’s more important that all the right people are in the room.

A one-hour meeting works well for groups of four to six people. For larger groups, you might need closer to one and a half hours.

Listen and Guide

For many, a content stakeholder meeting will be a new experience. To help them understand the purpose of this interview meeting and focus their input, email them in advance with a clear agenda, along with some preliminary high-level questions.

Your job as the meeting facilitator is to listen and guide only.

Rather than telling participants an idea is bad or "We can’t do that because … ,” be visibly open-minded and considerate of their perspectives. Whether you agree with their opinions or not, you are learning a great deal about their needs and priorities — which are the real insights you’re looking for.

Hearing people discuss content problems, you may be eager to start talking solutions. As content professionals, that’s our training. We’re problem-solvers. But stakeholder interviews are for fact-finding, not problem-solving. We want to learn how stakeholders use their website to do their work. Problem-solving at this stage of your research is premature and can easily derail the conversation. Resist the temptation.

Like you, stakeholders often have strong opinions about your website and may be tempted to offer solutions. While you want to be open-minded and let stakeholders voice their opinions, it’s important to keep the conversation focused.

If the conversation veers too far off course, gently guide participants back on track. Remind them of the purpose of the meeting and assure them they will have an opportunity to be part of the solution after this early research.

Decide What to Ask

When planning your stakeholder interview questions, remember the purpose of the meeting: define content goals. You want to learn from stakeholders the purpose and value of their web content. It may seem obvious to simply ask, "What are your web content goals?" But for many, that’s no easier to answer than, "What are your communication goals?" It’s a deceptively simple question that requires lots of consideration.

It’s hard to articulate the purpose of web content and how it relates to other content. That’s why you’re there to help! Stakeholders give you the puzzle pieces, and your job is to put the puzzle together.

Content goals are informed by your institutional goals. For this reason, try starting the conversation by asking stakeholders about what they do and who they serve.

You may feel like you know the answers already — for example, "Admissions serves prospective students, of course." But by having admissions folks describe how they serve and communicate with prospective students, you’ll have a greater understanding of their priorities and processes. You’ll understand the important messages they have for prospective students. You’ll also have a better understanding of what their audiences care about, including what content and what user tasks and questions are most important.

For a one-hour meeting, plan for a short list of five or six questions. Use these questions to frame the discussion but allow flexibility for unplanned follow-up questions and related topics.

To get the conversation started, you might ask:

  • What is the primary function of your role and department?
  • What services do you provide? Which of these services is most important?
  • Who are all the different audiences you communicate with or provide services for?
  • Who is your primary audience? Who is your secondary audience?
  • What are you trying to communicate? How do you want to be perceived?

Once you have an understanding of the basics, dig into the details. For example, if you’re speaking with admissions staff, you might ask:

  • What does the admissions process look like? How do prospective students move from being an inquiring student to an enrolled student?
  • What does each step look like? What is the role of the admissions website in facilitating the admissions process?
  • What are the different ways the website supports your work? (In other words, if the website disappeared tomorrow, how would it affect your ability to carry out your role?)

These questions should be tailored to each stakeholder group based on their content’s audience and function and their department goals. Seek to understand their priorities — what issues are most important to them?

Defining Goals

At the end of each stakeholder interview meeting, you will hopefully have tons of notes. Now comes the hard work of making sense of these facts, descriptions, and opinions. You want to synthesize this data to identify common themes and work to narrow down these themes into actionable content goals.

At a high-level, stakeholder groups may seek to improve customer service, increase applicants, or better reflect the culture and values of your institution. These goals are valuable and relevant, but we need to dig deeper to identify page-level content goals that we can work toward and measure.

Here are some examples of more actionable page-level content goals:

  • Provide new student orientation information, introducing resources and encouraging engagement
  • Describe the distinguishing characteristics of an academic program and how it can help students achieve their professional goals
  • Convey how faculty’s experience and expertise benefit students and the campus community
  • Inform current students about course scheduling and policy information
  • Describe how a campus program contributes to the student experience and how students can get involved

The more specific the content goal, the more clear, focused and measurable the content will be.

Content Goals at Work

Content goals should inform content planning and creation. This means they need to be made useful for content contributors and should be built into your content workflow.

Help people to define goals and use them. Content goals inform every element of your content strategy — from content audits to content governance. One way to help content contributors put goals to work is with content templates. These are page-level prescriptive guidelines for creating content. They include (among other things) content goals, communication goals and voice-and-tone guidelines to help guide content contributors toward creating purposeful, valuable, on-brand content. Wouldn’t you like to see more of that? I sure would!

Once you publish or update your goal-driven content, work to identify meaningful metrics to measure the content’s success. Your goals describe what you want your content to do — now you need to learn if your content is actually doing what you want it to!

What types of content goals guide your content strategy? How do you put those goals to work?

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About Rick Allen

Rick Allen has worked in higher education for over twelve years, helping to shape web communications and content strategy. As principal of ePublish Media, Inc, a web publishing and content strategy consultancy in Boston, Mass., Rick works with knowledge-centric organizations to create and sustain effective web content. Keep going »

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