The content approval triangle: a mental model for stakeholder management

Fiona Brook
5 min readOct 12, 2021
A messy outline of a triangle with a label on each corner. Starting from the top, the labels say ‘status’, ‘style’ and ‘sales’.

After lots of user research, validation and more than a few edits, now it’s just stakeholder sign off and you can get that content up on your website.

Then sign off doesn’t go smoothly. It’s circular and frustrating. You’re intimately aware of the needs of your users and why they matter, but it feels like no one is listening. Even when you know that a stakeholder cares deeply about user needs, it might not always feel that way.

But tackled in the right way, challenging feedback can give really helpful insights. By better understanding the constraints that most businesses place on content design, it’s easier to pre-empt the challenges that will arise.

Perspective 1: Sales

The first corner of the triangle is ‘sales’. These constraints tend to come from stakeholders in search, marketing and sales. Challenges are characterised by certainty and typically are supported with data. Recommendations are often based on what’s been proven to work in the past and there is an aversion to taking any perceived risks. Qualitative insights might be seen as less valuable than quantitative data and if you challenge this perspective, you’ll likely be met with more data.

Can sound like:

“Last time we did this and it resulted in a 300% ROI, why are we not doing that this time?”

“We get X amount of traffic for the following search term, we should focus on that.”

What’s the issue?

Folks working in these fields can be laser-focused on the bottom line because they are constantly aware of, and held accountable for, budgets. In their work, they don’t always have space to think laterally—everything must be codified, quantified and accounted for. Simply, they might have come to expect that if x goes in, then y will come out. It’s frustrating for content people because it doesn’t consider the real-life person having the real-life experience at the other end. It can also feel like it devalues the role of content because content can be nuanced and subjective.

How to persuade:

Start small and build trust. Run some small scale guerilla testing in the office or take a straw poll of the team to give credibility to your recommendations. Instead of explaining heuristics, patterns or rationale—show. After a while, you’ll have a backlog of case studies that you can rely on to support you. And hopefully some goodwill to buoy you along.

Perspective 2: Style

Secondly, ‘style’. These challenges tend to come from stakeholders in brand, PR and content management or sometimes design, in more siloed businesses. This perspective is characterised by a sense of duty. Talk is often framed with what we need to do—it can feel like there’s a lack of flexibility, and it seems like there’s only one version of the truth or one way of doing things.

Can sound like:

“We can’t talk about this directly, we need to appeal to everyone.”

“It works really well the way you’ve done it, but brand guidelines state that….”

“This is the standard template we need to follow.”

What’s the issue?

Often these business functions work closely with the public and are highly aware of public perceptions of the business. They may have a more traditional view of how an organisation should interact with its users and worry about how content could leave the business vulnerable—perhaps with the battle scars to prove it.

How to persuade

Depending on the organisation, there may be very good reasons for these reservations. And if you’ve dedicated years to building a brand, then of course it’s important to you. Content design might be new and slightly scary to a well-seasoned PR manager. But the good news is that you have one very important thing in common: a deep understanding of the value and importance of words. So make sure you show your process, make sure your ideas are well thought out and credibly supported, and keep asking for input. Oh, and ensure that checking content is ‘on brand’ becomes a key aspect of the sign-off process—treat it with as much regard as other considerations. As content people, we know what it’s like to be overlooked. Bring them in.

Perspective 3: Status

The final corner of the triangle is ‘status’. This is characterised by authority, you’ll encounter this feedback from senior stakeholders, subject matter experts, and legal and compliance people. Although these stakeholders clearly know what they’re talking about, they might have been with the organisation for a while and got used to doing things a certain way. They might not typically have to explain or justify their thought process—which means that feedback can feel frustratingly instinctual. Challenging these stakeholders can lead to defensiveness and depending on your relationship and the organisational culture, it might not be an option for you to push back.

Can sound like:

“This is incorrect, should say x.”

“Can’t say this.”

[Rewriting large swathes of content without giving a reason or because it ‘sounds better’]

What’s the issue?

As content designers, we hold the idea that content should be a collaborative project. But there are people within your organisation who will have a lot to answer for if something goes wrong or an end user reacts badly. Senior stakeholders often feel very personally accountable for content—because they have to be. What’s more, they’ve often been in the business for a long time and have built a wealth of knowledge. Sometimes this means they make decisions that seem opaque because they’re not used to needing to justify things or working in the open—plus this takes time they might not have. But, crucially, that doesn’t mean that they’re wrong.

How to persuade

Remember that whatever someone’s position in an organisation, they’re just a person. They too worry about being liked and how others perceive them. Although it’s important to respect their authority, try to be empathetic and connect with them, human to human. If you want to be a go-to person for them, you want them to feel comfortable interrupting you or asking you questions.

Another tact is to send a weekly update on the content project. Keep it brief, stick to the headlines, and send them consistently even if you never get a reply or acknowledgement. But never, ever use it to say ‘I made you aware of this issue when I sent my weekly update’. You both know it doesn’t count and breaking the social contract in this way is not going to build trust.



Fiona Brook

Interested in people, content design and building a better, more sustainable digital world.