Stakeholder Management for Digital Marketers

Marketing Theory Digital Strategy Communications Article
20 mins

Stakeholder management probably isn’t one of the first things that spring to mind when you consider the ideal senior digital marketer’s skill set – and yet, there’s not much we can get done without it.

A digital marketing team will need to continually implement new tools, techniques and strategies if it is going to maintain its success in the long-term. We need to make big decisions, from changing our approaches to digital marketing to digitally transforming legacy processes – and to do that, we’ll need stakeholder support.

With this in mind, we’ve put together this comprehensive guide to stakeholder management for digital marketers. Let’s map out how you’re going to identify the most strategically essential stakeholders, find out their stance, and manage them to create a better chance of your project getting the green light.

Who counts as a stakeholder?

A stakeholder is anyone professionally involved in or affected by your project. Within your organisation, that means everyone from the CEO to your client account handlers; from the person designing the product to the person building it on the assembly line.

You should also include involved and affected parties outside of your organisation – particularly any agencies and freelancers you work with, and industry bodies with authority over your sector. Their buy-in, too, could make or break a project.

Customers are stakeholders too, and you should aim to confirm their “buy-in” through feedback collection and consumer research.

Listing your stakeholders

The first step in the stakeholder management process is listing your stakeholders. Write them down according to the following categories:

Group 1: Your team

Your team is usually the single most important stakeholder in your project.

Group 2: Internal stakeholders

Every relevant group or relevant influential person within your organisation. This could include (but will not be limited to):

  • The board of directors
  • Sales manager
  • Project manager
  • IT team
  • Sales team
  • Customer service team

Group 3: External stakeholders

Parties outside of the organisation who nonetheless hold an essential stake in your project, including:

  • Customers (broken down into demographic segments)
  • Agencies
  • Suppliers
  • Competitors
  • Industry bodies
  • Unions
  • Media contacts (dealt with under condition of confidentiality)

Get all three groups down on paper in concentric circles, starting with Group 1 in the middle. Also, note any key relationships between stakeholders (this will help later on).

Stakeholder mapping

Now we’ve established who the stakeholders in your project are; we need to map them out in a way that empowers the stakeholder management process.

Our preferred approach is to create a 2×2 matrix showing how influential stakeholders are on one axis, and how impacted by your project they are on the other. Canvas opinion from a few trusted allies on your team to rate how each stakeholder counts on both considerations. Are they very influential, or less so? Will they be profoundly impacted, or less so?

A stakeholder’s impact designation should be based on how heavily they will be impacted by the change. Will it jeopardise their role or their team’s? Will it change how they work? Could it affect their budget and status, or add to their responsibilities?

We can work out the stakeholder’s influence designation by considering how much power they have to block or enable changes, which resources they command and how necessary they are to the project.

Score each stakeholder, then plot them out on a 2×2 matrix according to this template:

If you’re finding this task tricky, we recommend using an online persona creation tool instead – they tend to work just as well for stakeholders as they do for customers.

Mapping out your stakeholders can be extremely helpful, as it will help you work out how to approach each group:

  • Key players who have major influence and are profoundly affected require attentive management.
  • Mavens (trusted experts) who have major influence and are less affected can be brought on board to leverage other stakeholders.
  • Passive passengers who are heavily affected but have little influence should be kept satisfied wherever practicable.
  • Distant cousins who are less affected and have little influence can merely be monitored to ensure they do not become detractors.

Finding your advocates and detractors

Now we’ve identified the stakeholders that matter most to your project; we can start to build a winning team to get the green light for your project.

To do so, we first need to establish which stakeholders are advocates of your cause, and which are detractors – something you can do by asking the simple question: would this change be a good thing or a bad thing?

Talk through this with each stakeholder (or get the equivalent response from a team representative/customer feedback sample) to gauge their feeling. Different people will react to your agenda in different ways. Some will be immediately supportive, some will be somewhat supportive despite having concerns, and some will be opposed. These are your advocates, in-betweens and detractors respectively.

You should now have a growing understanding of which stakeholders you can count on for support, and which will need to be convinced or worked around. This can be visually represented on your stakeholder matrix, by highlighting advocates, detractors and in-betweens in different colours.

Be sure to ask for the reasons why each stakeholder is for or against your project. Listening to their concerns will help flag up important issues, and may help you devise a solution that will ultimately bring them round to your cause.

Create a personalised pitch for each stakeholder

Now is the time to draw up the team of stakeholders that will get behind your project – who is on board, and what rights and responsibilities belong to each stakeholder.

For instance, a stakeholder might get the right to be CC’d into all conversations surrounding the project – but also the responsibility to respond to any queries within 48 hours.

Think about what you want and need from the stakeholder, and what you have to offer them. Then, do the same from their perspective. This process should help spark some ideas about the role you can pitch and how to sell it. What’s the value each way, in terms of both enablement and assent?

Start off with the stakeholders who have expressed their support, working through, from key players to mavens, to passive passengers. Plan out and write up a personalised pitch for each one, taking into account their specialisms and prior feedback.

You should carefully consider the order in which you approach stakeholders. Chalking up some easy wins in the early stages could help you convince more sceptical stakeholders further down the line – particularly if you can get some of your key players and mavens on board.

Winning over detractors

Even if you get every last one of your advocates on board with the project, you will almost certainly still require the support or assent of some detractors and in-betweens.

To work out how to pitch to a detractor, start by considering their motivations. Why are they taking a negative stance? Are they making their judgement based on prior bad experiences? Is there tension between their department and marketing? Listen to the person, and you’ll often find the answer. Remember that it’s better to identify the problem than to guess at the solution.

It’s also crucial to consider what the stakeholder wants, and the value you and your project can offer them. Many will be motivated by ego and power, and this is absolutely something you can use to your advantage.

In some cases, a stakeholder fundamentally will not see the value in your project, in which case you’ll need to start talking about ROI and measurement frameworks. This can lead to a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation where we need to put measurement, IT and infrastructure in place – but for that, we need buy-in from a very senior person.

Other detractors could be motivated by technical factors. For example, your IT department might be convinced you’re going about something the wrong way. Detractors of this type can often be won over by inviting them into a feedback process (with genuine influence over the project’s direction).

We recommend doing this through a feedback mechanism, such as collecting feedback from the involved stakeholders on a monthly basis, and actioning whichever points are practicable. Whenever a point does not get actioned, it will be important to inform the affected stakeholder(s) of the reason why.

By setting out an involved process along these lines – e.g. you’re welcome to have input, but you have to fill out this form – you can reduce the volume and improve the quality of stakeholder feedback.

Some stakeholders’ motivations will, unfortunately, be totally at odds with the project. In that case, you’ll need to go to other stakeholders at a higher level, to negate their opposition or identify a suitable compromise.

Tactics to avoid

We wouldn’t recommend letting stakeholders see your stakeholder analysis – particularly any stakeholder matrices in which they appear. By and large, people simply do not enjoy being analysed or judged.

You should aim to ensure you keep the focus of any meeting related to your project positive at all times. Beware group stakeholder meetings, which can turn into group moaning sessions. Individually, people are generally more amenable, so we recommend you establish rights and responsibilities personally.

The stakeholder management skills gap in digital marketing

Stakeholder management comes under change management and people management, as part of the soft skills that make a complete marketer. As digital moves faster, more marketers seem to be missing these skills – and indeed, those without formal training have never had the chance to acquire them.

It’s about a managed process, rather than hit-and-hope networking; and not just about managing difficult people, but finding those who can help you so you can bring them into a controlled process.

If you can be a master of PPC and social, but if you can’t persuade your manager to add a new plugin etc., you’ll fall short of your potential. That’s a problem because the people around you have a massive effect on your ability to get things done. Stakeholder management makes a big difference, and yet it’s not officially done. We recommend doing it from the very start of a project.

Honing your leadership skills

Not just the CEO, but every agent of change is a leader. As such, honing your leadership skills can provide a significant boost to the success of your stakeholder management. We recommend you seek out guidance and case studies on the subject and absorb their teachings.

Here are some excellent resources to get you started:

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