How to Plan and Run a Content Strategy Alignment Workshop
If you want to ensure a project goes smoothly, you need to get everyone on the same page right from the start. Enter the content strategy alignment workshop.
You’ve got a content strategy project. The project involves and affects people throughout the organization. Those people need to understand the project and contribute to its outcomes. Time for an alignment workshop!
What is a content strategy alignment workshop?
A content strategy alignment workshop is a working meeting that builds shared understanding about things that are important to the success of your project. “Shared understanding workshop” would be more accurate, but that sounds like it involves trust falls and incense. So “alignment workshop” it is!
Note that “alignment” is not a synonym for “agreement.” Not in this context, anyway. It’s alignment in the sense of common cause. The project is a machine with an important job. The machine won’t run smoothly, or might even break down completely, if key components are misaligned.
Perhaps most importantly, a content strategy alignment workshop is an opportunity for you, the strategist, to not only learn from the people in the room, but also to make them feel heard. Helping everyone air out their content feelings in a room together helps turn stakeholders into allies—maybe even champions—of the eventual strategy recommendations.
Alignment … on what?
For starters, use the workshop to reach shared understanding about:
- Scope of the project
- Goals of the project
- Potential impact of the project
- Project roles and responsibilities
You’ll also use the alignment workshop to approach shared understanding about key content strategy things related to the project, such as:
- Organizational goals that impact content
- Priority audiences (and non-priority audiences)
- Vision/mission for the content initiative
- What’s not working about the content right now
- Specific problems or opportunities that can be addressed by the project
Really, anything that you anticipate your strategy recommendations having an impact on is worth trying to address in the workshop. Remember, this is your opportunity to make participants feel like they’ve contributed to the eventual outcomes.
When should I lead an alignment workshop?
You’ll want to have it early in the project, but not too early. It needs to happen after you have a decent idea of what the project goals are, but before any new strategy decisions are ratified. For example, you might choose to workshop rough drafts of a content strategy statement or prioritized audiences. But the only thing you should be selling is the project itself and the value of content strategy, not specific solutions.
(If the ship has already sailed on some decisions, be clear about that. Don’t force people through the theater of collaborative design if their contributions aren’t going to change anything.)
How do I plan an alignment workshop?
1. Work out the attendees.
Get your core team’s help in identifying the right attendees. The room should be full of influencers and leaders—people who can be strong advocates for a particular audience, product, topic, or stakeholder group.
Focus first on having the right voices in the room, then consider size. Most activities can be adjusted for larger groups. Eight to 15 people feels pretty good. Bigger than that gets tricky. You don’t want so many people in the room that someone can hide out on their phone without you noticing.
2. Work out the schedule.
In The Content Strategy Toolkit, Meghan Casey recommends three to six hours for a workshop and I would agree. Under three and there’s not enough time to actually workshop anything. Over six and you will die of boredom. (I love content strategy, but let’s be real.)
3. Work out your goals.
Sit down with the project brief, list of attendees, any background material you have, a scratchpad, and this article. Synthesize into a list of high-level goals for the workshop. It’s sometimes useful to write down your “secret mission” for an activity—what you’re actually trying to accomplish—as well as how you will frame the goal for the workshop attendees. It’s OK if these aren’t the same. For an activity about audiences, for instance, you might have:
- Stated goal: brainstorm and prioritize audiences for our primary website
- Secret goal: help participants understand they don’t talk about audiences in the same way, and nudge them toward choosing “existing customers” as primary audience
4. Work up an agenda with activities.
Choose activities to help you achieve your goals and budget time for them in the workshop. Play with this a bit until it feels right. This workshop may be one of the only opportunities to have the sustained attention of some people in the room on content, so I tend to err on the side of breadth over depth. A few preliminary decisions that can be revised and revisited as you go along is more useful than an exhausting two-hour debate about content goals.
Resist the urge to overplan it. The best thing to be happening at any moment during the workshop is for a participant to be talking about content strategy and feeling heard. Choose activities that encourage that.
Do plan time at the beginning to introduce yourself, introduce the workshop, and introduce the project—but you probably already thought of that, smarty!
Simple tools and activities are usually best: worksheets, index cards, sticky notes, even simple discussion prompts. Adapting card-sorting or the KJ-Technique can work well for establishing prioritized audiences. Mad libs tend to work well for strategy statements.
What should I watch for during the workshop?
I’m going to assume you’re already somewhat comfortable with facilitation. Here are a few specific considerations for an alignment workshop:
- Conflict. You want some conflict in the air. Not too much, not as the focus, but cultivating an environment where a bit of jostling and “I’m not so sure about that” is welcome. Think hockey game, not boxing match.
- Capture. Having a buddy who can take notes is very helpful. I also like to use worksheets, and take photos of easel pads and whiteboards, to help document things throughout the day.
- Groupthink. If you’ve got a good mix of people and they’ve been given permission to advocate for their constituencies, this isn’t a huge problem in an alignment workshop. Still, I like to build in micro-activities where participants write down their thoughts before sharing with each other or the room. As a bonus, you can collect these to supplement your notes.
- Pace and vibe. Use your interviewing skills. Resist the urge to fill every moment with noise. Let opinions reverberate a bit in the room. Ask people to reflect on what someone else just said. Use lots of conditional phrases like “How would we feel if …” or “What changes for you if we decide to …” You’re trying to cultivate an open vibe, and get a mix of feeling like progress is being made without feeling like the preliminary decisions are final-for-all-time decisions. I told a recent group: This isn’t a speak now or forever hold your peace situation, but it’s definitely a speak now situation.
How do I know if it worked?
These are the types of things you want to hear after a content strategy alignment workshop:
- “It felt really good to talk about that together.”
- “I’m excited that our team actually cares about content!”
- “I didn’t expect [thing] to be such a point of conflict but I’m glad we got to work through it.”
- “We already suspected that was the right direction but now it feels like everyone is on board with it.”
- “So-and-so doesn’t usually speak up in these conversations, so it was great to hear their input.”
You, the strategist, should leave with a better understanding about what recommendations are likely to go over well and which ones might need a harder sell. You’ll also have plenty of anecdotes, inputs, and preliminary decisions to work from to build your strategy. Great job!
Scott Kubie is the lead content strategist here at Brain Traffic and the author of Writing for Designers from A Book Apart. Scott has focused on the content side of digital experiences since 2009, and was the first UX content strategist at Wolfram Research. He grew up in rural Nebraska, and studied electronic media and journalism at Drake University.