Why Your Association Should Start Storytelling

Storytelling is a powerful way to communicate. Here’s how the International Sign Association incorporated a storytelling strategy in its marketing efforts.

Storytelling is powerful. I see it with my kids. For instance, I sent my daughter off to kindergarten this year, and in the days and weeks leading up to her first day, we chatted a lot about what she could expect. But picture books like Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten, The Pout-Pout Fish Goes to School, and Monsters Love School just seemed to say it better than I could. But stories aren’t just for kids; they also resonate in the association world.

“Associations are successful when they are working on behalf of their members,” said Alicia Auerswald, CAE, vice president of marketing, membership, and communication at the International Sign Association (ISA). “Stories provide a way to showcase that work by telling it through members and others affected by it. Members see themselves in their peers and stories resonate in a way that a list of activities does not.”

ISA has found that storytelling has helped add validity to what the organization is doing on behalf of members. “ISA can say that we work on behalf of our members, but it isn’t nearly as powerful as a member standing up and saying, ‘ISA worked on my behalf and here’s how,’” Auerswald said. “Stories resonate with people in a way that messaging doesn’t always. The key is in finding the stories that support the messaging. Both have their place and, ideally, they work together.”

But how does an association go about finding those stories to tell?

ISA reached out to Seth Kahan at Visionary Leadership for guidance in creating its master story, and the first step was answering a few questions that would provide the framework for the overarching stories that ISA would tell. These questions included:

  • What is the one thing you do better than anybody else?
  • What are audience’s wants, needs, and pain points that you can help solve?
  • Why should your audience care?
  • Why would your audience need you and your solution?
  • Why should they pick you over the competition?

Next, ISA gathered its executive leadership team and then its full staff at a daylong retreat to craft its master story. After this, ISA brought it to its board and key steering committees. “This was important for a few reasons: one, it brought additional buy-in to the project,” Auerswald said. “But, more importantly, it added another 30 people who worked in the industry day to day to help find these stories. And quite honestly, it added another layer of accountability to the project, with the board and committees expecting us to deliver what we had promised.”

ISA uses its stories in blog posts, videos, testimonials, and article placement in key industry trade publications. Here’s an example: One of the ways ISA works on behalf of its members is connecting with local planners on improving sign codes. “For instance, when we republished a highly technical guide on sign brightness, we included three case studies of how communities had adopted these standards and how it had made their lives easier,” Auerswald said. “Using these community stories—even in a highly technical publication—sold the success of our standards far better than we could have.”

ISA also markets its annual conference with stories. “The event draws about 10 times our company membership, so we have to extend our reach quite a bit,” Auerswald said. “But getting a business owner to justify time away from the office and the expense of taking staff is a hurdle. Having other attendees tell how they used something they learned or a product they saw to grow their business is a strong selling point.”

Storytelling is a powerful form of communication, and “good storytelling has drama and character, obstacles to overcome, and challenges to meet,” Auerswald said. “The same can—and should—be included in our communication. Most associations are out there day in and day out, working on behalf of members, solving issues that matter to them. We just aren’t always so great at telling our stories. And maybe we should stop trying. Master stories let others do that for us.”

How does your association use storytelling? Please leave your comments below.


(mactrunk/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Emily Bratcher

By Emily Bratcher

Emily Bratcher is a Contributing Editor for Associations Now. MORE

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