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Risk-taking, Storytelling and Knowing Your Audience Come to the Fore in Reset, Reinvent, Revenue 2021

“The best outfits in the game are really studying their audience. We know from years of audience data, people are much more likely to remember a brand if they are attached to a good story. Storytelling can create ways of reader engagement that are simply more memorable than going to a brand’s website.”

That equally “memorable” quote came from Denise Burrell-Stinson (pictured here), content marketing leader, former head of creative, at the Washington Post Creative Group, leading off the just-completed Day 2 of Reset, Reinvent, Revenue 2021, Associations, Media & Publishing Network event for association professionals. Good storytelling was just one of the many themes  highlighted during the event.

Another was that publishing pros need to take risks and try new things. It helps to have a boss like keynote speaker Scott Stuart, CEO of the Turnaround Management Association, who at the pandemic’s outset, quickly established an atmosphere where his staff could feel free to take those risks.

In March 2020, Stuart said that they quickly assessed the situation and “made decisions. We knew we needed to take risks, to be bold and be early—if we were going to create a new model. Why? We determined this wasn’t going to be a two-week event. It [was going to make] an entire year of programming not relevant.”

Out of that came a whole new world, literally, for TMA. “We had to reimagine what member value was,” Stuart said. “So we created new programs. The Chicago Chapter was doing Power Hours with Toronto. The UK Chapter was meeting with San Francisco. There were bourbon and wine tastings, Bingo and poker tournaments. We didn’t just survive; we elevated our profile and became leaders in our space.

“We were unafraid to take risks, so there was creativity and leading by example. It was paramount to everything we tried to do. And then members started to be unafraid to take risks. And we had the highest retention rates we ever had. People understood for the first time the value proposition that they could avail themselves to—the programming all throughout our system; any chapter was now available to them. The virtual environment elevated that.”

Stuart elaborated on what TMA learned from going all-in on the pivot to virtual and how they are already seeing benefits for future events.

“We made a number of changes to our conferences. We were very hit or miss about a bunch of them in the first opportunity back in the fall. We took the learnings from that and in that second conference opportunity we equaled our sponsorship dollars we would have had in an in-person environment,” he said. “Now we go back in-person [knowing] we were so powerful in what we deployed.”

In fact, Stuart said groups started approaching TMA in April asking to buy sponsorships for events in 2022. “We made value urgent in the virtual environment. We showed that in our pivot that with our global membership there was probably more value in virtual.”

The second session sounded some similar notes. “You have to try new things and then adjust, see what really works,” said Jenny Teeson of the International Live Events Association. “Dive deeper, find what it is” about what you tried that worked—or didn’t. “Maybe bringing a person back for a specific membership group if you have a great speaker. There’s no magic solution—it’s trying different things and seeing what sticks.”

Nicole Quain of MCI USA picked up on that idea of seeing what your audience values and delivering more of it—but in a reconfigured way. One phrase she used could easily become a mantra: Repurpose, don’t just regurgitate. “Deliver bite-sized content. After a good hour-long webinar, pick 30-second or one-minute clips [to offer later]. Try to be fresh with it. Slice up content that can be optimized for a [specific] channel.

“The key is knowing your audience, their likes, dislikes, patterns of behavior. How does your audience engage with certain channels?” Quain added the importance of staying up to date. She pointed to Clubhouse. “It’s a new platform, audio-based. You can stop in and have conversations. It’s a whole new thing to tackle. You have to be willing to the research.”

Other suggestions Quain and Teeson offered included:

– Give snippets of information to tempt a future bigger delivery—Quain’s example is John Mayer releasing one song now for an album coming in July. “Why is he just giving us one song? He’s streaming engagement.”

– Stay in touch after virtual events. Send a thank-you email. “Survey their thoughts, do your due diligence to make them feel warm and fuzzy,” Quain said.

– Remind your audience that content was relevant and useful—the more they’ll want to come back. Maintain engagement. Share and create new groups based on that topic.

On Day 2,  Burrell-Stinson spoke to the group about rewarding brand loyalty and the importance of talking to your audience.

“Everything we learned, how we got through 2020, really came from people who said, who believe, ‘constraints inspire creativity,’” she said. “This is an opportunity. We can do it big. We can do it better. It requires a level of dialogue, people saying, ‘I don’t know, but let’s plot the path together.’ When you have that conversation with your partners, it engenders a deeper relationship, a more fulfilling and productive one.”

Burrell-Stinson added that there should be a “sync and a synergy between the brand and the approach,” also emphasizing the need for good storytelling, no matter of it’s content creators or content marketers. And while the pandemic pushed the Post to have more conversations with its audience, a post-pandemic world should only encourage that more.

“For a publisher, for anyone making content, the deepest, most granular understanding of your audience, that’s not a ‘nice to have’ that’s a mandate,” she said. “When you go about engaging in partnerships, when you’re trying to reach that audience, what you know about the audience is going to be the foundation of your success.

“It starts with insights. It means at any given moment, understanding what the hot topics are with our readers. How do they respond to our content?” she says. “Each reader at Washington Post has a story of how they interact with a story. The ultimate measure of reaching readers is how they take action. Data is more important than ever. At any given time, our creativity was informed by hard numbers.”

We’ll have more about Reset, Reinvent, Revenue 2021 in coming weeks.

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‘Captivate Your Audience From the Very Beginning’; Steen to Showcase Storytelling Skills at Virtual Event

“Pay particular attention to the first and last sentences of a story. People tend to remember the first things you say and your concluding thought. Make sure they are as powerful and memorable as possible. I don’t necessarily use the same words when I am telling a story, but I typically know what the first and last words will be.”

Those carefully chosen words come from Scott Steen, executive director of the American Physiological Society, in a white paper he wrote titled Becoming Your Association’s Storyteller-in-Chief. Steen will be one of the featured keynote speakers at the upcoming Reset, Reinvent, Revenue 2021, AM&P Network’s virtual event for association publishing professionals, online everywhere June 16-17.

While Steen’s talk—titled MarComm as Change Agent: How Brand Drives Organizational Change—will delve into other areas, his proficiency at and commitment to the art of storytelling will serve him and his audience well. You’ll hear how he’s led associations through major transformation and why association communicators are perfectly positioned to be the catalysts of change within their organizations. (Can’t wait? Tune in here to learn more from Steen on how communications drives change.)

“Effective associations tell stories to: promote their profession or industry; attract new members; trumpet their accomplishments; honor their members; sell their experiences and products; and more,” Steen wrote. “But few leaders take the time to hone their storytelling skills.”

While Steen’s doubling-down on storytelling is not a revelation, its emphasis is well-warranted. In December 2019, after speaking to our media group for 30-plus minutes about the vital nature of digital design and the reading revolution that digital has thrust upon us, Mario Garcia—a Columbia professor and author of the book, The Story—closed by saying: “The takeaway is if you have a good story, people will stay with you… I don’t sit here and lament what was. I celebrate what is. These are the best times to be a storyteller, but you have to explore all that is there.”

The pandemic may have amplified the value of storytelling even more, as we all experienced things for the first time over the last 15 months.

The Food Marketing Institute opened its virtual meeting last year with footage of members talking about the importance of grocery stores and communities during the pandemic, the role they played, and how they gave back to their communities. “Opening the event with the stories was so powerful,” said Margaret Core, VP of marketing and industry relations. “That’s engagement: We let the actions of our members tell our story.”

Steen lists 5 Principles for Telling a Great Story, based on a version by Stanford Business School Professor JD Schramm. They are:

Parachute In. You have seconds to capture your audience’s attention… Captivate your audience from the very beginning by jumping right into a story.

First & Last. (This is the lead quote about first and last sentences.)

Goldilocks Principle. Not too hot, not too cold, just right. Use too few details and you’ll prevent your audience from truly experiencing your story and lose emotional connection. Use too many and your story will become confusing and (worse) boring. Make your details count.

Poetic Language. Poetry uses carefully chosen and powerful words to communicate both information and emotion. It also uses language economically, conveying tremendous meaning with the fewest words possible. The best presentations and speeches do, too.

The Sound of Silence. [Interesting on the day that A Quiet Place Part II opens up.] Silence tends to make Americans nervous, but it can be an incredibly powerful tool when you are telling a story. It gives people time to “get the joke” when you say something funny. It intensifies the moment when the point is profound or poignant.

As with all of our content, measurement must be considered. In a whitepaper titled, Storytelling 2020: What You Need to Know About Storytelling in Marketing, the Atlanta chapter of the American Marketing Association wrote: “Be prepared to isolate the data that matters to your storytelling efforts. Then analyze what messages had an impact, which ones didn’t and where there is room for optimization. Also, leverage this data to get a better picture of your customer and where there are opportunities to extend the relationship to create stronger, even lifelong, connections.”

Speaking of data, Emily Laermer, managing editor for Ignites at Money-Media, told us this a couple years ago: “Data and visual stories are pretty consistently among our most saved and forwarded content. In the most basic sense, data stories are ones that just have a ton of information. So they can be generated from a huge spreadsheet or Excel file. But they don’t necessarily have to be numbers driven. They can be stories that have a lot of facts. So for example, new rules and regulations are great data stories. The first story I worked on at Ignites required that I read a 400-page rule on mutual fund regulation and how the funds were going to have to change their reporting. That’s a data story.”

Suggesting you read 400 pages of rules is not the best way to encourage data stories, but there are easier ways. Timelines can be very effective. In reporting on a company that had been acquiring other companies, Laermer went through annual reports, press releases, etc., and built out a timeline that proved very engaging.

Finally, Steen believes that everyone can be a storyteller, especially publications pros. “While there are naturally gifted storytellers, storytelling is a skill,” he wrote. “As such, storytelling can be learned and improved with practice… Ask yourself story prompts. What is the worst trouble you ever got in as a kid? What was the best journey you ever took? Who do you admire most and why? What is the most daring thing you ever did? Believe me. You have stories.”

It will be enthralling to hear Steen tell his story on Wednesday, June 16 at 3 pm. Make sure that happens by registering here.


Reaching audiences and driving revenue: Reset, Reinvent, Revenue 2021 keynotes urge creativity

In his book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, best-selling author Daniel Pink gives our typical day three stages: a peak, a trough and a recovery. He wants you doing analytic tasks in the morning, administrative tasks—emails, expense reports, etc.—in the midday, and insight problems in the afternoon. “…We’re less vigilant [then] than during the peak,” he says. “[But] that looseness—letting in a few distractions—opens us to new possibilities and boosts our creativity.”

Two of the keynotes for our June 16-17 Reset, Reinvent, Revenue 2021—a virtual event for association publishing professionals—Denise Burrell-Stinson, head of WP Creative Team in the Creative Group at The Washington Post, and Scott Stuart, CEO, Turnaround Management Association, also emphasize the importance of creativity—not the first characteristic you think of for CEOs and brand marketers.

“We’re looking to see how our creativity and ideas and how we reach audiences can be a driver of revenue,” Burrell-Stinson said on a recent Associations Council podcast. “When that’s done well, it’s a good marriage of business and creativity. We used to think that they have to live very separately—the person who was the creative mind was not the business mind, and the person who was the business mind could not be counted on to be creative. I’ve found that as absolutely not true. Everyone can embrace [those two attributes].”

Asked how the Turnaround Management Association was able to pivot so well to put on a successful virtual event, Stuart simply said, “Creativity. We know that a certain percentage will come [to an event] for education. We also know that people are Zoomed out. They also want to have some fun; they’re used to going to Las Vegas for a TMA event.

“How can I give them a feeling that they’re not just stuck on Zoom,” Stuart asked. “We created 24 [short, interactive] sessions on industry topics, built a networking room, covered DEI. We had Colonel [Robert J.] Darling who was in a bunker with Dick Cheney on 9/11. We added a casino experience and dueling pianos, had an illustrator doing drawings while sessions were going on.

“We created variety and”—Stuart slowed down here to accentuate—“actionable optionality. [We brought] you as close to in-person networking as you could ever imagine. Sponsors saw they got value out of it. The only downside was that because people expected the ‘same old,’ it caused us to market louder to get the message out. But once people saw it, they were our great evangelizers.”

That’s something all of us strive for. How much better is it when someone else talks you up, especially a member? That human connection is something Pink also addresses in his book, written before the pandemic but probably more on target now. “Research shows us that social breaks are better than solo breaks—taking a break with somebody else is more restorative than doing it on your own,” he said.

With the water-cooler conversation still mostly out for now, finding a neighbor, a nearby friend, or just a visit to the local barista might be Pink’s restorative recipe. He calls afternoons “the Bermuda Triangles of our days,” citing a Duke University study that found that harmful anesthesia errors are three times more likely at 3 p.m. than 8 a.m., and Danish test takers who scored significantly lower in the afternoon than morning. “Regular, systematic breaks—especially those that involve movement, nature and full detachment—reduce errors, boost mood and can help us steer around this Bermuda Triangle,” Pink said.

That connection to the audience is something Burrell-Stinson came back to time and again during her interview. Before reaching out, she said it’s important—especially during these times—for staff to feel aligned with the organization’s message.

During the early stages of the pandemic, “I was one of those people showing up and asking, ‘What is my job right now?’ I can’t sit here selling. I really wanted to know that I felt right about what my job was.” Fortunately, the Post felt the same. “Let’s talk to our audience and see what they need right now,” she said.

“We did this deep, intentional engaging of the audience. ‘Tell us what it is you need to know. Tell us what’s helpful. Tell us what’s respectful. Tell us what empowers you.’ And they did. And when we listened to the audience we had our North Star. They told us what was going to work. When we had that information, we were actually able to take it to brands and say we’ve heard from this audience, they’re vocal, they’re smart and let’s do more than just market to them. Let’s really engage them on their terms.”

You will want to engage—creatively or otherwise—with Burrell-Stinson, Stuart and the third keynote as well, Scott Steen, executive director of the American Physiological Society, on June 16-17 and hear more of what we can take out of the pandemic to help our organizations to Reset, Reinvent (and grow) Revenue. Find more information and register here.

Listen here as Burrell-Stinson discusses the challenges and opportunities brought by the current publishing climate. And listen here to more with Stuart on how he’s led his organization through this pivot with creativity.

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‘Let’s see what they need now’; talking to audience gave these two leaders direction

“We’re looking to see how our creativity and ideas, and how we reach audiences can be a driver of revenue,” said Denise Burrell-Stinson, head of WP Creative Team in the Creative Group at The Washington Post. “When that’s done well, it’s a good marriage of business and creativity. We used to think that they have to live very separately… I’ve found that as absolutely not true. Everyone can embrace [those two attributes].”

I love seeing “ideas,” “creativity” and “revenue” in the same sentence. Burrell-Stinson (pictured), who will be a keynote speaker at our AM&P Network Associations Council Reset, Reinvent, Revenue 2021 virtual event June 16-17, laughed a bit when reciting her title—that’s a lot of “creativity.” But she made a lot of sense when crediting much of their success to listening to readers.

“One of the things we learned at the Post in 2020 is that there’s still an appetite for marketing content,” she said. “But it had to be done a specific way. One of the ways that we were able to get through that time and 2020 was by being in constant conversation with our audience. ‘What’s the best way to reach you? What’s the type of messaging that you want to know about? What do you believe has value?’

“They were like, ‘You know what, we still want to know about brands, but only if they’re helping people. We want to know that the brands that you’re working with have a POV on social justice.’ They want gender equity and racial parity all the way across the organization.”

That was huge for the Post to hear. Similarly, I remember interviewing Kevin Turpin, president of the National Journal, on his organization’s turnaround a couple years ago. He didn’t go quite as far as Burrell-Stinson—a lot has changed in society in two years—but he did want his staff to listen more.

“One thing we launched was a presentation center,” Turpin said, explaining that by talking to their customers they discovered that’s what they needed help with. “They were being asked to explain Washington in more detail. They knew the content but needed a workable format. We’re actually very good at that. Take what happened in midterm elections and create a 40-page sllde deck out of it. We’re still doing that for board meetings of Fortune 500 companies.

“When businesses are trying to recreate themselves and change, they spend too much time inside, in strategy meetings, batting around ideas that they think will work,” Turpin added. “We don’t spend enough time going around. How are [our customers’] jobs changing? What are they thinking about? What are they investing in this year? This will give you solutions.”

While “going around” means something totally different in 2021 than 2019, those customer conversations have become even more paramount. It’s also important for everyone who interacts with customers to share what they’re hearing, from customer service to podcast hosts to receptionists, if there still is one.

“No one should ever feel that their sphere of influence is too small to make change,” Burrell-Stinson said. “If you’re working for a platform, a content creator, a digital magazine, the everyday results of your job are a contribution that ladders up to what the overall goals are.” As a fact checker early on in her career, she knew she was making a big contribution to the publication.

“During the early stages of the pandemic, “I was one of those people showing up and asking, ‘What is my job right now?’ I can’t sit here selling,” she said. “I really wanted to know that I felt right about what my job was.” Fortunately, the Post felt the same. “Let’s talk to our audience and see what they need right now.”

“We did this deep, intentional engaging of the audience. ‘Tell us what it is you need to know. Tell us what’s helpful. Tell us what’s respectful. Tell us what empowers you.’ And they did. And when we listened to the audience, we had our North Star. They told us what was going to work. When we had that information, we were actually able to take it to brands and say we’ve heard from this audience, they’re vocal, they’re smart and let’s do more than just market to them. Let’s really engage them on their terms.”

At our BIMS event in December, Turpin also emphasized those points. “We had a really deep dedication to getting to know our audience as best we could,” he said. “Knowing what their top challenges are, how those challenges are changing? ‘What are the new things that are getting into your budget that wasn’t there five years ago? How are you managing the office differently?’

“We spent a year with our customers, asking them a set of questions over and over. The most important one was, ‘What keeps you effective?’”