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How to Set and Align on Project Objectives for Your Content Strategy

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In this excerpt from The Content Strategy Toolkit: Methods, Guidelines, and Templates for Getting Content Right, Meghan Casey explains how to establish and align project objectives for your content strategy.
This chapter is from the book
  • OK, so now is the time for the “content strategy is not always a linear thing” speech.
  • Setting and aligning on project objectives happens at the beginning of your project, for sure. But it also happens throughout the project. Sometimes objectives change. And sometimes people just need to be reminded of what they agreed to in the beginning.
  • You can’t realign if you didn’t align in the first place. So this step is critical. Even if it’s difficult, don’t skip it.

Set the Table

Preparation is the key to a successful alignment session. Preparation means a few things here. First, it means getting the right people in the room. Second, it means planning how you’ll get from “what are we doing here?” to “let’s move forward.” And, third, it’s helping your stakeholders be engaged, thoughtful participants.

The People

Getting the right people involved from the start is probably the most important thing you can do at this stage. So get out your stakeholder matrix from Chapter3 (Content Strategy Tool 3.1).

Aren’t you glad you filled that out?

Now make yourself a four-square grid on a piece of scrap paper. On the x axis (horizontal), put Strategic on the left side and Implementer on the right. On the y axis (vertical), put Influencer on the bottom and Decision Maker at the top.

On your four squares, start plotting people in the appropriate places. You’ll likely have to make some tough decisions about who to invite to the planning table. Aim for no more than 12 people in your alignment session. It’s a small enough number to be manageable, yet large enough to get representation across stakeholder types and to do some small group work if that ends up in your plan.

Invite derailers—get them involved now and deal head-on with their objections. Don’t shy away from inviting people you know will disagree. Now is the time to get those disagreements on the table and work through them. Remember, their objections are just a need you haven’t uncovered yet.

You can probably leave out product/service/offerings experts for now. But consider including people responsible for technology, your CMS, and so on. If you have the room, invite someone who plays a user proxy role to help ensure you’re keeping your audience in mind. Think about who is going to be most willing to speak up and not just say what everyone else is saying (unless they truly agree, of course).

If you have anyone in the upper-right quadrant—implementers who are also decision makers—you’re going to need to dig into that later. It usually suggests you have people who should be playing a more strategic role doing the work of an implementer. Although that situation can be OK, it often means you’re not using their skills and expertise appropriately or they need to work on delegation.

The Plan

The most important part of your plan is to decide what it is you want to achieve during the session. In most cases it’s something like:

  • Agree on the objectives and scope for the project and understand the next steps, including how each person in the room will be involved.

With your session objective in mind, you can start planning the session. Depending on how many stakeholders you invite, how familiar they are with the project already, and how much discussion you think will be needed to get to alignment, shoot for a three- to six-hour session.

Using the session objective example, an agenda would likely look something like Table 4.1.

Before moving on, a few of notes about the agenda:

  • In the first part of the meeting, take a few minutes to explain what content strategy is.
  • Walk through the work you’ve done so far that led to the project’s approval. You can reuse what you put together to get funding or resources.
  • Don’t skimp on the introductions. Even in a small company where everyone knows each other, people can come away with a new perspective on a person or team. And in larger companies, your meeting might be the first time a group of people has been in the same room.
  • When you’re wrapping up, give a high-level overview of how you’ll communicate with workshop participants to provide updates and ask for their assistance or input.

Table 4.1 Sample Agenda

ACTIVITY

DURATION

Background and Ground Rules: Explain the project, why people were invited, and the rules you expect participants to follow.

15 minutes

Introductions: Share your name, your title, and why you were invited.

30 minutes

Individual Exercise and Discussion: Fill out the worksheet that covers business/department/team goals, problems and opportunities, and personal viewpoints, and then discuss with the group.

30 minutes

Problems Post-up and Grouping: Brainstorm problems this project should help solve, and then group them into categories.

45 minutes

Perfect World Post-up and Grouping: Brainstorm how things will be different if the project is successful, and then group into categories.

30 minutes

Reality Brainstorm: Make two columns on the board, and brainstorm—based on the previous two activities—what this project can help with and what it can’t realistically improve or change.

20 minutes

Objectives Synthesis: Work together to synthesize the identified problems, perfect world, and reality items into project objectives.

60 minutes

Roadmap: Brainstorm the steps necessary to reach the objectives, and then map them to a timeline; have each person say where they think they need to be involved and how.

60 minutes

Recap and Next Steps: Summarize the progress you made in the session and what will happen next.

15 minutes

The Content Strategy Tool 4.1 is a full, downloadable plan based on the sample agenda with exercise instructions and templates. Later in this chapter, you’ll learn some facilitation techniques and ideas for making the session as productive as possible.

The Partners

You want people coming to your alignment session feeling smart, valued, and ready to participate. To help them get into this mindset, introduce the project with an in-person discussion (whenever possible) and follow up with an email (the Content Strategy Tool 4.2 is a sample email you can download) and meeting invitation.

I recommend sending your email separate from a meeting invitation. I’ve found that the message often gets lost in the invitation itself, and you end up with a bunch of people confused about why they were invited and more likely to RSVP with a No.

Follow the same outline in your in-person conversation and your email, and include the following elements:

  • Introduction—Even if you think they know who you are, say what your role is in the organization. If you’re a consultant, work with your client to write the email to introduce you to the team.
  •  Overview of the project—Explain this in terms of the opportunity to solve a problem the stakeholder cares about.
  • Why you need him or her—Tell each person why you specifically want him or her involved. Make each person feel important.
  • The team—Let them know who else you’re inviting and for what purposes so they can see how they fit within the larger group. You don’t have to list each person individually, but give them a sense of who’s involved.
  • Expectations—Tell them a bit about the meeting and the kinds of ideas and input they’ll be asked to contribute. Then, let them know how you imagine they’ll be involved moving forward.
  • A big thank you—Recognize that this is a commitment and that you realize they are taking time away from other pressing projects and tasks. They’ll appreciate it.
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