How to Talk to (and Interview) Your Stakeholders

If you’re starting on a digital project plan for your brand, you no doubt want the right people in the room. But beyond your project team, who else might be valuable to providing insight and feedback?

Answer: Your stakeholders.

Stakeholders in your organization may or may not be close to the web work you and your team do every day. Nevertheless, they likely have a “stake” in the brand’s success, including the success it has online. Involving your stakeholders in planning and executing major web projects should be a requirement for organizations of all sizes.

Stakeholder involvement in major projects is a good way to build strong relationships with influential people in your organization. as well. They’ll also have some transparency to the work you and your team do, building an understanding of the importance of web projects and strategy.

Who Are Your Stakeholders?

Who are your stakeholders

The term “stakeholder” can be intimidating at first. While your stakeholders may definitely be your C-suite, like a chief marketing officer or a chief operations officer, they can also be people scattered throughout different teams or departments.

According to the fifth edition of Project Management Body of Knowledge, a stakeholder is defined as “an individual, group, or organization who may affect, be affected by, or perceive itself to be affected by a decision, activity, or outcome of a project.”

Long story short, a stakeholder could be almost anyone inside — or outside — your organization. So how do you identify these people?

Identifying (and Alerting) Project Stakeholders

The Harvard Business Review recommends five essential questions to help your team identify project stakeholders:

  1. Does the stakeholder have a fundamental impact on your organization’s performance?
  2. Can you clearly identify what you want from the stakeholder?
  3. Do you want the relationship (with the stakeholder) to grow and be more dynamic?
  4. Can you exist without or easily replace the stakeholder?
  5. Has the stakeholder been identified through another relationship? (For example, are you doubling up opinions from similar roles?)

Your stakeholders may be department leads or managers, but could also be consumer-facing teams of people who have an understanding of your target audience’s wants and needs. These individuals can be valuable in planning the web project’s goals, especially as you plan the user journey.

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Planning Stakeholder Involvement

Once you’ve identified your stakeholders, you’ll want to get on their radar to move the project forward. Ideally, planning your stakeholder involvement will come with some notice. You should alert any stakeholders you want to work with of the following, to gain their buy-in:

  • The project that’s being developed. Background — even at a higher level — of the project you’re involved with and what you’re trying to accomplish will help them understand where they fit.
  • The information you’re seeking. Why do you need their help? What are you hoping to gain from the conversations?
  • Why their input matters. Explaining why their input is so vital to the project’s success doesn’t only build trust, but helps them consider feedback before your official interview process begins.

How you reach out to stakeholders depends on the stakeholders’ availability. If it’s someone who’s accessible in-person or by phone, this would be the most beneficial way to connect as it gives him or her a chance to ask follow-up questions about the project. If it’s via email or instant message, do your best to get a response so they can feel involved.

Interviewing Your Stakeholders

Interview your stakeholders

After you’ve gathered your stakeholders and touched base on expectations for their involvement, you’ll want to schedule a time to discuss an approach that is most convenient for them.

Choose the Right Channels

Your web project will keep rolling whether your stakeholders are involved or not. By giving you their time, they’re doing you a favor so it’s polite to work around their schedule to build a relationship and trust.

There are various ways you can interview your stakeholders to get their input while meeting them where they are, these include:

  • In-person interviews. Ideally, an in-person, face-to-face interview is the best way to get input. In-person interviews allow for follow-up questions, inflection, and nonverbal language that can be telling in a stakeholder’s input. If you can, schedule a meeting time and place that works for them, such as the end of the work day at their office.
  • Phone interviews. Next to in-person interviews, phone interviews are the most preferred. Similar to being in-person, you can hear their voice, ask follow-up questions, and address any last minute questions or concerns that your stakeholder may have.
  • Group interviews. It’s not advisable to interview varying stakeholder roles and departments in a group setting. However, you may have two or three stakeholders who come from one department or share similar responsibilities. In this case, a group interview allows stakeholders to hear each other’s feedback, build on one another’s input, and agree (or disagree) with what their colleagues are saying.
  • Surveys or email. Though often a last resort, surveys and emails can be valuable for obtaining stakeholder input in cases when it’s hard to set a convenient time to talk in-person. This lets them answer your questions when it’s most convenient for them, whether in the office between meetings or at home finishing up any last minute work.

Asking the Right Questions

You’ve identified your stakeholders: Check. You’ve informed them of your project and what you’re seeking: Check. And you’ve schedule an interview to learn more: Check.

However, asking the right questions is essential to getting the information you need. As we all have learned, there are two types of questions:

  • Close-ended questions. These prompt your yes/no responses. While they can open the door to follow-up questions, close-ended questions can establish some must-know information first or help control conversations that may wander off. These questions often start with do/don’t, will/won’t, etc.
  • Open-ended questions. Contrary to yes/no responses, open ended questions require more input and longer answers, typically requiring a follow-up. These questions often start with why, how, what, etc.

The types of questions you ask may range from broad to in-depth, depending on the stakeholders you’re talking to and how their feedback could steer the project’s direction. For example, broad questions might include:

  • How does the website impact your role/department/team/bottom line?
  • What do you like or dislike about the current functionality of the website/tool/etc.?
  • Why is this project important to your target audience?

Based on the answers, you may have follow up questions to better understand a stakeholder’s point of view. Remember: It’s never unacceptable to ask “Why?” when you hear an answer that piques your interest.

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Your Stakeholders Matter

Stakeholders matter

While every project and digital decision may not require stakeholder input, the milestone projects are a good place to keep them involved. Your stakeholders matter. In some cases, they are the ones keeping an eye on the bottom line and mapping the course of direction for the organization. Their involvement — and your interest in their involvement — can be key in the success of your next digital initiative.

So ask for their input. Welcome their feedback and opinions. They may even have ideas your team hasn’t considered that can set a new feature, functionality, or user experience in motion.

Erin Schroeder

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