A business isn’t a business without other people. Without customers, suppliers, investors, employees, it’s just you and maybe a product or two. So in this article, I’m going to take you through how to create a stakeholder engagement plan.
At the root of it, running a business is all about people. If your business is going to succeed you are going to need to know who the people critical to your success are and then build great relationships with them.
Stakeholder engagement professionals do just this for a living. They help organisations, businesses and projects achieve their goals by identifying the stakeholders that have an interest or influence in its success and developing plans for engaging them.
The process of stakeholder engagement builds trust with the network of critical individuals and removes the barriers preventing a business achieving its goals.
Table of Contents
- It’s all just Transaction and Interaction
- What is Stakeholder Engagement?
- The Stakeholder Engagement Plan
- 1. What You Want to Achieve
- 2. Who Your Stakeholders Are
- 3. The Needs and Wants of Your Business and Your Stakeholders
- 4. Where to Spend Your Time
- 5. What to Talk About With your Stakeholders
- 6. How and When to Engage
- Listening to Feedback
- 7. Evaluating success
It’s all just Transaction and Interaction
Running a business can at times seem complicated. With a helicopter view though, business can be seen as little more than a series of interactions and transactions between different people. Even if your primary customer base is other businesses, you’ll still be dealing with the people employed by that business.
So it figures that to grow a successful business you’ll need to build relationships with all sorts of people in all sorts of roles: suppliers, champions, investors, customers – whether they are currently involved with your business or not. And you’ll need to ensure that your interactions and transactions work not just for you, but for them too.
Developing a stakeholder engagement plan will help you identify who these critical people are and formalise your strategy for building relationships with them to the benefit of your business.
What is Stakeholder Engagement?
According businessdictionary.com, a stakeholder can be defined as “a person, group or organisation that has interest or concern in an organisation. Stakeholders can affect or be affected by the organisation’s actions, objectives and policies. “
Stakeholder engagement is the process an organisation uses to engage relevant stakeholders to help them achieve accepted outcomes.
It is a discipline that has developed into a recognised and vital part of managing successful projects; from building highways to delivering successful change in large corporations.
So business owners and entrepreneurs can learn a thing or two from stakeholder professionals. Developing your own engagement plan will put structure and purpose around your networking and help you build the right relationships to propel your business to success.
The Stakeholder Engagement Plan
Your engagement plan will set out:
- What you want to achieve
- Who your stakeholders are
- The needs and wants of your business and your stakeholders
- Where to spend your time
- What to talk about with your stakeholders
- How and when to engage
- Evaluating success
We’ll now will look at each of these in more detail.
1. What You Want to Achieve
The first step in developing any engagement plan is setting out your goals. All engagement goals will support your overall business objectives, so an engagement plan should flow neatly from your business plan.
Think about what you want to achieve: maybe it is to secure investment, secure more media coverage, or negotiate better deals with your supply chain.
As is usual practice when setting goals, make sure your objectives are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound. From these you can develop engagement aims, for example, to inform stakeholders of x, or gather feedback from stakeholders about y.
A Little Help From my Friends
The next part of the engagement plan will help you focus on why you need to engage other people, and why they might want to be involved. This will help you later on when you come to develop messages that your different stakeholder groups find compelling.
Begin by writing down a list of all the reasons you need other people involved in your business. It could include: buying your product or service, providing funding, promoting your business, giving feedback that helps you improve your customer experience and so on.
The next step is to put yourself in your stakeholders’ shoes. Why do they want to be involved in your business? What will make it worth their while and how can your business give back to them?
2. Who Your Stakeholders Are
Each business will have a different set of stakeholders with a wide variety of backgrounds. The best way to identify who your stakeholders are is to think about who has an interest in your business, is impacted by your activities, or has an influence over your success.
For example, your stakeholders could be journalists that write about similar products, services or your industry; key suppliers; the people that influence your customers; potential investors; or website review writers.
The trick is to be as specific as possible – try to identify the individuals you are going to need to get to know. Find out their names, job titles and the organisation they work for. If you can, identify who their manager is and relevant subordinates are too.
List all your stakeholders in a database or spreadsheet with their contact details. This is your stakeholder database.
Mind the Gaps
It is likely that to begin with you will not know all the stakeholders your business will need to engage. Your stakeholder engagement will be a process of refining and building as you go. Remember to ask the people you interact with if they know of anyone else that might be interested in your business and add their suggestions to your stakeholder database.
Some stakeholders will be difficult to approach without an introduction. Think carefully about whether you can gain an introduction from someone you already know – they are more likely to trust you if the introduction comes from someone they regard well.
3. The Needs and Wants of Your Business and Your Stakeholders
Now that you have identified your priority stakeholders, you’ll need to spend time getting to know them better. A good way to get into their shoes is to consider the stakeholders’ wants and needs or SWANs.
Add columns into your stakeholder spreadsheet titled ‘what is their interest in the business?’ and ‘what can we do for them?’. Your original list of why people want to be involved will help you fill in the detail.
Understanding your stakeholder needs will help you to build better relationships, increase their trust in you and your business and develop compelling communications materials.
You will also need a clear idea of what your organisation wants and needs (OWANs) from your stakeholders. Add in a further column into your stakeholder list called ‘what do we need from them?’.
4. Where to Spend Your Time
Your final list of stakeholders might be long and daunting. How on earth are you going to have time to build relationships with all of them? This is where stakeholder analysis comes it. Once you have your stakeholder database you analyse your stakeholders to determine who you need to prioritise.
One way to analyse is draw an interest/impact matrix on a large sheet of paper. You can then write each of your stakeholders on a post it note and decide where you want to include them on the matrix based on their level of interest and influence.
Those with a high interest and high influence over the success of your business are your priority stakeholders. Those with a high interest but lower influence must be kept informed but require less direct engagement. Stakeholders with high influence and low interest need to be kept satisfied or influenced to move in to the high-interest section. And finally those stakeholder who have little interest and hold little influence over the success of your business are defined as low priority and require much less direct interaction.
5. What to Talk About With your Stakeholders
Now that you know who your stakeholders are, what they are interested in and what you would like from them, you are in a position to start developing some compelling key messages. If you have a significant number of stakeholders you may wish to group them by characteristics. For instance, by location, stakeholder type, or interest.
You can then develop three key messages for each stakeholder group based on the SWANs and OWANs. The messages should cover: what your business is about, how they can help you and what’s in it for them. Think back to your goals – will the messages help you reach them? These will be the starting point for your conversations with them, whether those conversations are face-to-face, through your website or a newsletter.
6. How and When to Engage
Once you know who your stakeholders are and you have drafted compelling messages for them, you’ll need to develop a plan for how and when you will go about engaging them.
There are a large number of ways you can engage with stakeholders depending on where they sit on your interest/influence matrix, what their needs are, and what you are trying to achieve.
Different goals will require different approaches to engagement. Do you need to inform your stakeholders of a change to your business hours? Maybe you need to gather information about what your customers want from a new product?
Think about whether you need to inform – provide information to help people make a decision, gather information – to gain insight into comments and concerns, involve – provide opportunity for people to talk and listen, or consult – share decision making with your stakeholders. Once you know the approach you need to take, pick an engagement tactic that will help meet your requirements.
Inform – newsletters, websites, promotional items, mailshots, advertisements, videos, newspapers, TV and radio
Gather information – surveys, forums, face to face meetings, telephone calls
Involve – focus groups, design workshops, feedback forms, social media forums
Consult – liaison groups, facilitated meetings
The engagement plan outlines who you are going to engage, how you are going to engage them and when. But remember that one size doesn’t fit all. Those stakeholders in the higher interest and higher influence zones will need more face-to-face and involvement than those in the lower zones. Use this to help you prioritise your time.
Listening to Feedback
A key part of building trust is to listen to feedback, act on it where possible, and let people know what you have done as a result of their comments.
For this reason, in any stakeholder engagement plan you need to ensure the feedback loop is closed using a ‘you told us, this is what we’ve done as a result’ communication.
Another useful engagement pro tip for influencing your stakeholders is to plot them on a target. The further away from the bullseye, the further they are from alignment to your thinking.
If you are trying to influence your stakeholders – perhaps you are wanting to help your business get better deals with key suppliers, or secure cash from a potential investor – you can use a target to help you work out how far your stakeholders are from where you need them to be. This will help you prioritise your time and evaluate whether your engagement activities are working.
7. Evaluating success
A stakeholder engagement plan is always evolving and you’ll need to make sure you are building in time to evaluate whether the plan is working or not.
If it isn’t getting the results you’d hoped think about whether you have correctly identified all your stakeholders. Are there stakeholders missing whom you have not yet engaged? Have you misunderstood their needs and wants, or if you’ve got the stakeholders right are your methods for engaging with them not hitting the mark.
Evaluate your progress against your original goals and consider what you might need to do differently to increase your chances of success.
There aren’t many businesses that would survive without people. Taking time to identify your stakeholders and truly understand their needs and wants will help you build strong and productive relationships, that whilst not necessarily always harmonious, will enable you to weather the challenges and propel your business to success.