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May 15, 2019

Association Storytelling: 3 Steps to Success

Professional associations tend to put a significant amount of energy into marketing individual programs, products or events all worthy and necessary priorities, but more engagement-focused as opposed to strategic. This attention on converting members into active participants and customers can lead your organization to miss the mark when trying to leverage email marketing as a strategy for communicating value. Think of your own messaging approaches. How many emails are sent with a goal of membership renewal compared to messages sent to welcome and onboard to new members?

You are not alone in getting caught in this “story trap.” Many organizations often lack a solid brand story that explains their organizational value or their “why” by unifying and aligning messaging in a cohesive campaign across all facets of the organization from mission and vision to the value delivered through programs, products and services.

An association’s brand is not embodied by a single message, logo or tagline, but instead through a collection of experiences the stories we tell. Storytelling is an effective approach for communicating with your members and can be a tool for aligning specific campaigns with your overarching value proposition, mission and strategy. What story is your association telling? Does it provide a comprehensible “why” to members consistent with how and where they should engage with your offerings? And, lastly, how can it be evolved to resonate with the next generation of members?

I recently joined our partners from the International Code Council (ICC), Madi Dominescy, ICC’s executive project manager, and Ronald Piester, AIA, ICC’s vice president of membership and certification, at CalSAE’s ELEVATE conference. Together, we walked through a storytelling and value delivery framework based on a case study of their “Value of the Code Official” campaign which launched in 2017 and successfully empowered members to spread the word about ICC and the code official profession within their communities.

To help association executives looking to launch their own storytelling campaign, we broke our approach down to three basic steps:

1. Identifying the Challenge Statement: What’s your “why,” and more importantly, what matters to your members as you consider promoting it? What data or evidence do you have that provides the need and business case behind your messaging?

For ICC, the opportunity at hand was recognition that their membership, and the profession at large, was aging with 80% of the existing code professional workforce projected to retire by 2030 and over 30% retiring by 2020.[1] However, ICC flipped this challenge into an opportunity by recognizing a market need to promote the profession to young people as a respectable job and a viable option when it comes to career planning. They created and invested in Safety 2.0, an initiative to reach the next generation of code officials and ICC members with relevant tools, programs and messages. They also recognized the need to create a campaign that better articulated the role code officials play in advancing public health and safety, environmental protection and economic security. Enter, the Value of the Code Official Initiative.

2. Matching up Your Message: Define the “how.” How can you match up your messaging in a way that ensures every campaign aligns with the bigger picture of your organization?

ICC partnered with McKinley to develop and implement a research-based approach to understand the support ICC members needed to share the value of the code official with the next generation. Specifically, they wanted to reach young adults through presentations at schools and career fairs, as well as the general public. The project included a poll with chapter leaders, a #CodeHeroes social media photo contest with ICC members, and engagement with ICC’s Emerging Leaders Membership Council and Board of Directors. This research narrowed in on campaign-wide messages that would not only resonate with key audiences, but also bring the Value of the Code Official Initiative into the center of all that ICC does rather than serving as a standalone campaign.

3. Spreading the Word: Give people a “now.” How can you think beyond traditional channels to create a story that isn’t just a few emails, but rather a living campaign in the hands of your members?

Our research for ICC informed the development of a toolkit containing a video, PowerPoint, talking points and a flyer intended to empower members to share the value of the code official with their own networks and communities in a manner that was on-brand, consistent, value-driven and scalable across the full ICC membership. The Value of the Code Official Initiative now stands at the center of ICC’s Safety 2.0 work and is a story worth telling.

Client Perspective:
“Working with McKinley Advisors on this initiative established a foundation for future projects. Over the past two years, we have continued to build on the initiative as the center of our Safety 2.0 umbrella of programs.”

—Ronald Piester, AIA, Vice President, Membership/Certification & Madi Dominescy, Executive Project Manager

Is your association stuck in a story trap? Contact McKinley Advisors to turn your challenge statement into your story.  

[1] ICC and NIBS 2014 Survey: The Future of Code Officials


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