Building a Stakeholder Engagement Strategy 1

The last post in the series was about overall organizational strategy. The big, overarching master plan. Here we finally get to the place where we look at the engagement strategy. Before we do – a few words about culture.

Culture really does eat strategy for lunch

Do you have a culture that supports engagement?

Does your vision and mission support internal and external engagement? Do your goals include engagement? What about your organizational core values? Are there conflicting values that make it difficult to truly engage, connect and include your community, your staff and your stakeholders in the decision and plans that affect them?

Organizational culture is the combined effect of values, vision, mission and by extension, goals. A healthy culture expresses it’s values, vision and mission consistently. An unhealthy culture is the result of a misalignment or misrepresentation of values, vision and mission. To get an unhealthy culture back on track requires re-aligning the values, vision and mission or purpose of the organization.

Is engagement a strategy?

Engagement, in some views, is not something that you have a strategy for, rather it’s should be part of your overall strategy.  I’m not sure I agree. I mean I agree it should be part of your overall strategy and business plan AND it should have it’s own strategy. I also believe that engagement is both a goal and a tactic – it’s a noun (a thing) and a verb (describes an action). We can borrow from the existing strategic planning language and define generic engagement strategies to help inform an engagement specific strategy. For example:

Flooding - This is the engagement version of  Overall Cost Leadership. We’re talking mass communication across multiple channels to all segments. This can be a good strategy if you have the person power to listen and respond across multiple channels. I see so many marketing and engagement gurus advising to “be everywhere”. This is great if you can be everywhere without spreading yourself too thin. Best to be where your stakeholders are most often.

Differentiation - This works here too. Creating unique engagement opportunities is getting harder and harder but there is always room for innovation and creativity. The now famous Old Spice campaign was and still is a great example of differentiation by personalization. In the education sector differentiation could mean flipping engagement in the same ways classrooms are flipping.

Focus - Again, like the overall strategies, focusing an engagement strategy can work well on it’s own for some sectors or organizations and can also be combined with other strategies. Focus as an engagement strategy can help engage stakeholders who typically don’t engage. Try using their language and their preferred methods of communication to communicate just with that specific group.

What is slightly different is that when it comes to engagement there is more opportunity to switch strategies depending on the situation. For example, if something important has happened the strategy might be flooding all your engagement mediums to get information out to everyone quickly. Over the long term your strategy for engagement should link back to your goal or goals. This applies across all sectors, from business to government to non-profits. Let me say that again.

Your engagement strategy should link back and directly support your goals.

Set your goals first then create a strategy that will meet your goals, which in turn will support your mission or purpose and move you toward your vision. Create your communication plan and tactics after you have outlined your strategy. In other words, identify the job first then choose the tools to get it done.

Engagement goals

One way to organize engagement goals and objectives is to use a framework that identifies the intention or the commitment first. In the engagement framework below we have combined the best of the IAP2, Arnstein and Himmelman to create a framework that should work for just about any kind of community or stakeholder engagement process.

Stakeholder Engagement Continuum

By using a framework that explicitly names the commitment you are more likely to stay on track when it comes to deciding on tactics and tools that you use to engage. It also helps clarify the goal itself. There is a big difference between setting a goal to “Inform stakeholders of our new initiative” and “Collaborate with stakeholders to create a new initiative”. Using the verb to define the goal helps focus it. Our post on Goal Setting hinted at this framework and includes a section on SMART Goals and Stakeholder Mapping that applies here too. The work done in that section should, ideally, form the foundation for this section. This section then creates the foundation for a communication plan.

Stakeholder Engagement Pyramid

An engagement strategy usually includes at least the following:

Identifying current state – Where are you now?

Creating a vision and mission specifically for engagement – This could be around increasing social capital or the health of you stakeholder community overall.

Naming engagement goals – SMART goals broken into smaller objectives.

Performing gap analysis – “We are here and we want to get there”.

Identifying stakeholders – Really identifying them, knowing their wants, needs, and communication preferences.

Setting boundaries around engagement – No, you can’t do it all.


Remember – Strategy is a map of the entire territory. At best its a live map that changes as the environment changes. In real life the engagement strategy and communication planning occur at the same time.

A marketing mindset

Marketing is becoming the go-to profession for community engagement innovations. School districts and non-profit organizations can benefit by thinking about stakeholder engagement as if stakeholders were customers. Just look at what Lego has done and learned about collaboration as a marketing strategy.

In this decade transactional marketing has given way to content and relationship marketing with organizations like Zappos, Starbucks, and NASCAR leading the way. There are valuable lessons to be learned from these innovative and engaging companies. Here’s what media maven Mari Smith says about engagement and marketing:

Your customers and prospects want to know that you’re listening, that they are important to you, and that you are striving to improve your brand, products and services as a result of their feedback. You can’t afford to be a one-way broadcast channel. You need to embrace the conversation and, as my friend Brian Solis says, Engage or die. By that, he means it’s those companies who engage with their community that will thrive in the long run.

Stakeholders want – and are beginning to expect – the same thing. They want to know you are listening, that they are important and that you are striving to improve your school or your community organization based on their feedback. Embrace the conversation with your stakeholders by creating a solid engagement strategy – not so you won’t die – but because it’s part of your culture and because your vision is to thrive.


The next and final post in this series will include the communication plan and tactics all wrapped up in an awesome template and infographic. How engaging is that!

Be sure to check out the other posts in this series:

Values - The foundation of any strategy.

Vision - You simply cannot have an effective strategy without defining vision first.

Mission - If you are a mission or purpose driven organization you need to do this before you decide on strategy.

Goals - Yes, goals also come before strategy. You can’t create a master plan until you know where you are going.

Overall strategy – A strategy primer. What it is, where it came from and why you need one.


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One thought on “Building a Stakeholder Engagement Strategy

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    I appreciate that you link the engagement strategy back to the company goals. It is such a simple principle but it often gets overlooked in the excitement of creating a “new” plan.