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Let Your People Speak - 3/1/2011 -

Effective communications is about storytelling, and the most authentic voice you have is that of your own people.

By Carla Kalogeridis

Technology journalist, new media speaker, and author Paul Gillin recently made the case that the IBM Watson Jeopardy™ challenge, in which an IBM computer thrashed the two greatest Jeopardy champions of all time on February 14th, was the greatest B2B marketing campaign ever. And there are lessons for associations, as well.

"One reason I liked it so much is that IBM let scientists—instead of corporate suits—tell the story of their achievement,” says Gillin. "This was documented in more than 30 videos that IBM posted on YouTube as well as chat sessions and group Q&A interviews on the website reddit.com.”

Where are the opportunities for associations to tell their own stories in unique ways, and who at your association should be doing the telling?

Gillin points to the passion that the IBM scientists brought to this project, which is clearly evident in a video (watch the 11-minute summary video) posted shortly after the contest ended. "It's clear that Watson's accomplishments were more than just a technology triumph,” he says. "Researchers reacted as if their child had just graduated from Harvard. Their passion was contagious and genuine.”

Why don't more associations let the people who build the organization and its media products come out of the shadows the way IBM did? Or, is it that association staff members have been so conditioned that "it’s not about them” that they just don’t want any part of the limelight? And even if that is the reason, are associations missing a great opportunity to showcase the organization through the passion of its people?

Tell Your Stories

"Effective communications is about storytelling,” Gillin says. "People don't respond to statistics, feature charts, and positioning statements the same way they do to other people.Entrepreneurs excite us when they share their vision, yet successful organizations often bury enthusiasm under layers of approvals and official spokespeople.”

To be sure, association members have intense information needs, and their questions are often best answered by the association editors and communications teams who serve them. "Do unofficial spokesmen sometimes say the wrong thing? Sure,” says Gillin. "Does it matter? Not really. Organizations are far too sensitive to the indiscretions of individuals, which usually can be sidestepped with an apology or explanation.”

Give your association team members a couple of hours of media training, and then get out of their way, he says.

Blogs: the New Trade Show

Why do so many people resist the idea of contributing blog or online content? "The issue of time commitments and availability is valid, but usually overstated,” suggests Gillin. "Many staff members are only too happy to write papers and travel thousands of miles to deliver presentations, yet writing a 500-word blog entry or recording a how-to video is seen as overwhelming.”

Most association publishing team members naturally like to share, and they know that conference presentations are good for their careers. And yet, while contributions to the association’s social media programs potentially reach a much larger audience than a presentation at a trade show, they go to the trade show because that's what's always been done, Gillin says.

Associations should recognize their role as content facilitators and draw contributors out from behind the curtain, he continues. They should have the statistics to demonstrate that their blog reaches a larger audience than the trade show. And, they should position member communications as a privilege, not a chore.

The best way to encourage individual contributors to participate in the association’s social media programs is to celebrate them, Gillin says. "Recognize contributions to the association’s blog in your newsletter, or hand out awards for the most prolific or creative blog contributors every quarter along with a small gift certificate,” he suggests.

When association staff (and members) see that their involvement in content generation is good for their careers, they will quickly come on board.

Carla Kalogeridis is editorial director of Association Media & Publishing.


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