Think of the last great story you heard and loved. Was it from a movie? A book? A memorable personal story someone shared with you? Why did that story move you emotionally? Why did it make you laugh or cry or feel scared? What was it that inspired you to share the story with a friend or even take action after you heard it?
If you’re building or growing a community for your organization to connect, collaborate and build relationships with employees or customers, then you need to harness that same power of storytelling. You need to think deeply about the answer to those questions about why you love your favorite stories. And you need to use those answers to influence, guide and transform your community strategy.
To begin, you should ask yourself what are the most memorable elements of your community story? Do you even have a story?
If you don’t have a community story, ask yourself “why?” and then set out find out what’s missing from your organization’s community story. Find out what needs to make it more compelling and most importantly, ask yourself, does your central story communicate the value proposition of the community?
Okay, I want to pause for a moment and tell you that, if you haven’t guessed yet, I love stories. I love telling and listening to stories. Whether it’s a movie, book or a friend’s personal story they’re sharing with me over coffee, I love unpacking the story and figuring out why it moved and engage me so much.
I love watching people tell stories too. And I love watching other people listen to others tell stories. I love figuring out why I share my favorite stories over and over again. And I always ask myself those same above questions.
Besides storytelling, I also love building communities. And when it comes to community strategy I use the power of storytelling and the answers to those above “story” questions to enhance how I approach building communities for organizations.
I recently gave a lightning talk at CR Connect in Boston about how storytelling should be a key tool when building and executing your community strategy, and I wanted to share with you what I shared during the talk, plus expand on the talk a bit.
Here’s my talk summarized into 5 key areas highlighting the important areas to developing your community stories and what they must possess in order to spread and inspire action in your community.
1. Become a journalist and go get the stories.
Don’t wait for the stories to come to you. Since I have a background in creative writing, journalism and strategic communication, and those areas all influence and make up the lens through which I see community building.
Whenever I build a new community or inherit an existing community I put on my journalist and explorer hat and seek out the best stories. I talk to people (staff and customer members) to hear what they have to say about the community and how it does or currently doesn’t help them work better or solve whatever problem that they have.
I listen for cues, barriers, insights and “a-ha” moments where breakthroughs or roadblocks happen for each individual person, because each moment, whether good or bad, are key turning points and value-add moments that need to be shared with others so the skeptics can be transformed into believers and believers can be transformed into evangelists through hearing the stories of others who are just like them.
I encourage you to be journalists and story seekers too. Yes, it’s hard work to take the time to understand your audience and go digging for those hidden stories gems. Yes, it hard to take time to listen to and discover the stories from your members and even your skeptics, but in the long run taking the time to listen and truly understand your members and their needs and successes takes the guesswork out of crafting communication you use to inspire action. Knowing your audience’s needs always makes for better storytelling.
Approaching community building in this way and passionately embracing the story gathering part of storytelling will help focus your community message and it will make your messaging much more real, relevant and inspiring to your audience.
2. Follow this equation
Community mission + Company brand/mission + Member stories = New Community Narrative.
Like a savvy mathematical storytelling chef, you must deftly combine the right mixture of those three key elements together to create your story to create a compelling community narrative. During my lightning talk, I used that equation to explain the importance of having a clear mission for your community. I explain that your mission must in some way connect with your company brand and mission and then you must add in member stories to add flavor, humanity and context.
All those key ingredients combined will give you your new community narrative. You can’t tell a community story effectively with only one element. For your story to resonate and be effective, you must have and combine all three to create your community narrative.
3. WIIFW (What’s In It For We)
Your community narrative must have a clear value proposition. What people both individually and collectively are going to get out of participation. Much of this will come from the member stories too as members share in their own words why that are a part of the community and how it helps them solve problems and how it helps the entire organization.
I also don’t suggest using the standard “what’s in it for me” approach and mindset. Focusing only on the individual is to limiting and doesn’t get at the real value proposition. I suggest positioning your community narrative as a adventure that benefits everyone. Show how when everyone comes together for the common good we all win. Appealing to the intrinsic motivation will allow your community to endure. I suggest you create a story that inspires your audience to think “Hey, if I contribute “What’s In It for We” how do we ALL benefit and make the world a better place together?”
4. Inspire action
Speaking of inspiration your story must inspire your audience to take action. Again, like a great story inspires you to share, pay money or take some sort of action, so to should your community story inspire others to take specific and measurable action in your community. More on measuring that action in a moment.
5. Evolve your community story
When I say “evolve” I mean this in two ways.
- First, like the story arc that characters go through in a movie, the individual members stories should show someone or a group of people going from one place to another because of what they experience in the community.
For example, the story should clearly show how the community helped that person go from having a problem to finding a solution. And that story should compellingly show what the transformation from skeptic to champion and the story should example why that transformation was important to the company. And that evolutionary process is what should inspire others to join and participate in the community.
2. Second, when I say that your story should “evolve” I mean that you should make sure that the general story you’re telling needs to develop. Think of the characters from your last favorite movie. Those characters changed over time during their journey. They grow and learn. They travel along a story arc to a new place. This evolutionary and transformation process is what makes the entire story so engaging. It’s what pulls you in. And the same should happen to the stories you tell about your community.
The story you begin sharing about your community should not be the same story you have three or five years from now. If it is, your story has grown old and possibly stale. If that’s happened, you need to take a long look at your community narrative and see what needs to change.
Maybe you need to rethink the equation I mentioned above? Maybe you need to find new member stories? Is your story no longer aligned with the company mission and vision? Maybe your strategy needs to change? Whatever it is, take time to figure out what’s wrong and make the adjustments.
Measure your storytelling
Okay, if you follow those five steps, you’re on a good path. But how do you know if your story and how you’re telling is successful?
When it comes to the impact of community on a business and the value it brings to the organization, I strive to measure everything I can. Same goes with storytelling. There are ways to measure the success of your storytelling and you should use them all. Here’s a quick list of questions and ideas to get you thinking:
Gauge word-of-mouth and offline buzz.
One way I’ve used is to pay close attention to the general offline impression of the community. Were there doubts about the community being spread and are those doubtful conversations still happening? Pay attention to how community is talked about among employees and customers and events. Has buzz about the community increased or decreased since you begin sharing your new narrative.
How has the value conversation about your community changed? In the past, I’ve been able to gauge the success of a story message and story by seeing where doubters and past critics stand and whether or not they became champions and advocates.
Are your champions sharing your message like you would during meetings? Are they talking like you. I’ve had many surreal moments in the past where I heard people saying what I would say. It sounded so strange but then I was like “hey, that’s a big win. They’ve taken my community story and message and made it their own and are influencing people I might not have even been able to reach. That’s exactly what I want!”
Is your story changing the culture vernacular? One way we know if a movie or a book has taken root and is a classic, is if it becomes a part of our everyday live and culture. If a changes the way people think, act and engage with others. Quotes, underlying messages and themes from movies like Star Wars, Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump to name a few, have inspired us and become intertwined in how we communicate to family, friends and colleagues.
Those stories have entertained so much that they changed the way we talk and see the world around us. If your community story is successful, your community narrative should do the same. Listen close, once you spread your new community narrative, are people talking differently about your community? Has your story changed the company or customer culture in any way?
Do you customers or employees use your community as a verb instead of just a noun. Meaning that do they say “hey, I’m going to go [Insert the name of your community, like people do Google] that today and see what others have to say.” If that’s how employees and customers are using the name of your community then your community story is having an impact for sure.
Build and use your metrics toolbox
You should use the standard measurement tools too. Polls and surveys should be a part of your regular community narrative measurement. Use formal polls to measure all communications. Use surveys to measure and analyze how effectively the community narrative and message is spreading across, talked about and shared.
Develop regular methods for listening both informally and formally using check-ins, town halls, coffee chats, scanning discussions online both internally and externally.
Use numbers to your advantage. You should use the metrics from your community platform and web metrics to measure impact and success. Use all the standard engagement and web analytics and metrics such as email opens, click-throughs, shares, likes, views, unique visits, time on site, referring site and conversations.
Measure both the qualitative and quantitative. At the beginning you might not have the volume but we might get just a few great comments that you can use for future communication to grow and build momentum.
Use listening tools and methods to review posts and comments for sentiment. See what parts of your community narrative story are showing up in those listening activities. You should also leverage Net Promoter Score (NPS) surveys to see how likely people are to spread your story. Using the standard metrics and KPIs of your community and tying them back to the business goals of your company is a great way to demonstrate impact to stakeholders so they begin to understand how the community and the narrative is transforming the organization.
You should also use measurement as a way to determine if the call to actions of community story are successful. For example, does the key message and call to action in your community narrative clearly direct people to share, to ask questions and document their work?
If it does, then use those call to action as metrics. Measure how many new ideas, questions and moments of open sharing happen in your community and see if those actions connects back to what you’re ask people to do in your community story. If they do, great! Keep telling the story. If not, you need to rethink and revamp your story to get the actions you want.
And if your community platform’s metrics are limited, find ways to create your own and build ways to measure success. Start somewhere and experiment and then evolve how you measure the effectiveness of your storytelling. Whatever you do, always find a way to measure the impact of your new community narrative.
It’s so important to measure your communications. Again, if you get anything from in this post, get this: don’t just send out your community story and hope it sticks. Instead, discover and decide on ways to measure the effectiveness of your community story and narrative.
“Be Prepared” to Share
I love the Boy Scout motto which is to always “be prepared.” And, you guessed it, in order for your community to grow you must be prepared to share your community story at a moment’s notice.
Being ready to share your story is equally as important as the other above points because, as I mentioned in my last post about the power of moments, those turning point moments, those short, yet pivotal in-between chats, those elevator conversations and rare and quick meetings with leaders that always seem to just happen out of the blue, are all crucial to the future success of your community.
And you must be ready for all of those moments whenever they arise.
Being ready to share your community story in those pivotal moments is what will make or break the success of your community strategy and what you tell (or don’t) share with stakeholders and skeptics in those moments will send your story, and likely your community, soaring or sinking.
I’ve had moments where I wasn’t ready with a crisp, focused and inspiring story and I walked away disappointed knowing I missed a golden opportunity. But I used those moments of failure to learn. I used those missed chances to prepare for the next moment because I knew it would come around again and since then I’ve been ready and succeed in those future opportunities.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to start doing all those things I mentioned above. I can’t say enough how crucial it is to have a distilled and compelling version of your story that will inspire someone in 30 seconds or 5 minutes.
You must be ready to talk about your community story quickly and succinctly in the context that matters to your audience. You must know enough about the person or people right in front of you in that critical moment and then be able to them the most important part of the community that will resonate with them emotionally. You must be able to use your story to show them how the community can help them solve their problem.
Be ready to talk about your community story with passion and conviction, just like you talk about your favorite movie you saw over the weekend or book you couldn’t put down. Like a prepared survivalist, have a collection of stories prepped and ready to go when opportunity comes knocking at your door.
You never know who will be next to you in the elevator or who will sit down next to you in the next all-hands meeting and ask you before the meeting starts, or even better, pop that softball question during the meeting when everyone is listening, and ask “So…how’s the community doing? Is it really working?” Or “I don’t have time, so why should I join the community?”
We must be ready because if we’re not…
Why Don’t Communities Succeed?
To wrap up, among other common barriers to adoption, I strongly believe that the lack of effective storytelling is what keeps most communities from growing, gaining support and making a difference for companies and their customers.
Lack of time put into developing your community story and knowing how to share it is what holds back and eventually kills many communities. It’s hard to communicate the value of your community if you can’t tell your community’s story in a way that emotionally moves and resonates with people at a deep level.
Which is why we, as community building professionals, need to get better at how we gather and share the business value stories about our communities.
What I’ve seen in the past is that community building professionals, for many reasons, don’t prioritize discovering, crafting and sharing stories throughout the organization. Most community professionals get caught up in the day to day duties and are too reactive and unfortunately dedicate little time on storytelling development. If we want to see more organizations understand and benefit from the value of community, this needs to change. We need to become better and more prepared community storytellers.
So let’s do it! Let’s work hard at becoming great and inspiring tellers of our community stories. We’re all working too hard not to. Let’s be diligent in making the time to discover and share our community stories in compelling and creative ways and share them with passion and purpose.