Nearly everybody knows the old joke about the camel being a horse designed by committee and appreciates that there’s a problem with any project if too many people are involved in the decision-making process.
But I firmly believe that many online projects end up looking like horses, while what we actually want to see is a few more camels, llamas, and perhaps the odd gnu. That is, projects of infinite variety and totally fit for purpose.
A great branded website should represent the organization commissioning the project. Lack of involvement from a broad spectrum of stakeholders can result in a perfectly acceptable website that oozes best practices but lacks innovation or any of the brand’s character.
Most websites depend on an internal, multi-author environment for sustenance. So consulting a wide range of views and interests at the conception phase is an effective way of starting to build this sense of ownership. Without it problems can quickly develop, leading to pages populated by stale content (even dummy text that never gets replaced).
To be sure, this issue predates the Internet age. But offline projects were never designed to last as long, nor did they have the lateral reach of online. A paper direct-mailing campaign came and went. A printed annual report had a dusty shelf life of a year.
A website may be “current” for several years and be accessed by a wider breadth of audience than paper-based communications. So getting it right – and having everyone on board – is even more important online. Here are some tried and tested approaches to getting good buy-in.
Lightning rods vs. content champions
Don’t see all your buy-in from the upper echelons. Yes, you need board and executive support (and budget approval), but the view at this level can be too corporate and conservative if not tempered.
What you need is a decent slice through an organization’s make up, even if that scares the pants off the higher-ups. In particular you’re looking for lightning rods and content champions.
Lightning rods are the people who get listened to within an organization. They don’t necessarily have a management position but people respect what they say and they have a view you need to know about and respond to. Unconsulted lightning rods may feel resentful, which can jaundice their views on the project with far-reaching consequences, because they’re so widely respected by their peers.
Content champions are people who have an intuitive grasp of the importance of having good online communications and what makes online content different from offline content (for example, the level of impatience and need to “get on with it” that online users exhibit). You can find content champions at all levels.
Sometimes people who are already engaged in marketing and communications can be disappointing. This is where online skills tend to be relatively undeveloped and the new project is seen as a threat to traditional power bases and ways of working.
These people may already be overworked and so the prospect of dealing with the website “as well” can be onerous. Good consultation, particularly around managing process, can make all the difference.
Opinion seeking and shaping
Always engage site users – through questionnaires, surveys, focus groups, interviews – but work closely with internals on user selection and how they’re approached, particularly in B2B where people can be very protective of relationships.
All great online projects benefit from workshopping, where a selection of higher-ups, department heads, unit leads and lightning rods brainstorm on the project, its rationale and ambition. Content champions are less valuable at this point, as they can get too preoccupied with how individual elements of content will be created, rather than seeing the bigger picture.
Don’t be too formal about this workshopping. I’ve developed some great brainstorming sessions with a room full of people, a plate of sandwiches, Post-it notes, a ball of string and brown paper.
This approach also has a place in training, as part of action learning sets in the run-up to launch and post-launch. This is where your content champions prove invaluable.
Content strategy – a catalyst for buy-in
Right, I need to come clean at this stage. I’m a content strategist, so obviously I’m a fan. But having external content strategists involved comes with all sorts of bonuses, not least that employees notice the unfamiliar face in the room, which raises the project’s profile without having to bang on all the time about “the new website.”
It also makes the process more transparent and gets everybody thinking, even those not directly touched by the opinion-seeking and conception stage. I’ve come across projects that were managed internally and less transparently. The first that the majority of employees knew about them was a looming deadline for content that they were suddenly responsible for.
In the past, this buy-in activity might have been part of the project development stage. But this often came with a certain bias reflecting the core discipline of the company brought in to handle the Web project. For example, if the core business was Web design, a significant amount of the opinion seeking might be around what the new website would look like, as opposed to the site’s usability or the usefulness of the content itself.
Having an objective content and user-focused perspective in the room allows a variety of voices and disciplines within the organization to be heard.
Ultimately, that will make for a more holistic website – and a more unified company. And that’s what buy-in is all about.