How storytelling creates a community

Association CEO Cheryl Durst offers insight on the power of stories—and why she still believes in long-form journalism.

BY Cyndee Miller
VP, Content, Imagination

“Did I ever tell you about the time a couple on their way to a KKK rally left me with their child while they went back through airport security to pick up the fanny packs, dog and toy snake they’d forgotten?”

Cheryl Durst knows how to tell a story. She weaves in all the right details—like how she spotted a confederate flag as the woman said, “Excuse me, Miss Black Lady, will you watch AngelJune while we find our things? Just smack her if she acts up.”

The tale is just one of many in the Durst repertoire.

This is a woman serious about storytelling, calling it an essential life skill. And it’s no different at work. “Content marketing is like a really good play. It has a beginning. It has a middle. It has an end. It has antagonists. It has protagonists.”

As EVP and CEO of International Interior Design Association, she tells a powerful story of her members and the industry as a whole. One of the main plot points? Commercial interior designers don’t fluff pillows. They create experiences.

And she knows the value of sharing that story to members (as well as their clients and future members) through books, videos, social media, awards, enewsletters and a newly reimagined member print magazine, Perspective.

But Durst also knows the story has to be in absolute strategic alignment with “what an organization does, with what its members do, with what the industry does. That’s the biggest test, that it doesn’t look or feel artificial, but that it’s really authentic.”

We’ll start with a big one: What are IIDA’s top goals with its content marketing?

I’m a firm believer that everybody has their own idea of what they do as a job, as a profession, as a career. One of our duties as an association is to remind our members of the value of what they do.

The other goal is around knowledge about interior design. We don’t just hoard it and keep it for ourselves. We know that our members share Perspective with their clients. And so it’s about giving our members one more vehicle to better articulate their value.

We also want to have a content marketing program that’s really cohesive. Whether it’s social media, whether it’s the events—it’s tying it together. I see that as our next step—making it really one cohesive, compelling story from the association. So we’re constantly supporting our mission and our vision as an association—which is knowledge, value and community.

What does content marketing do that advertising and other kinds of marketing don’t?

Advertising and PR can get what I call “shove down your throat-y.” Content marketing allows an organization to use its most authentic voice. And there doesn’t need to be a lot of spin, you don’t need to set the stage. You can be very authentic with content marketing.

Ah, yes, what a brilliant segue into this whole business of fake news. Do you see it changing how people look at content marketing?

A year ago, you couldn’t have asked me that question, right? But now, everybody’s skeptical about what they read. We’ve always been cognizant of spin. We’ve always been cognizant of marketing language. But because of this conversation about fake news, consumers of information have become a little bit more skeptical about everything they read.

Whether it’s your members or somebody randomly picking up your publication, that seed of doubt has been planted. Is this real? As a society, the needle has been pushed pretty far on our bullshit barometer—whether it’s because of social media, whether it’s because of reality television, whatever those reasons are. We’ve become very questioning as a society about the information given to us. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but people producing content have to be more aware of it than ever before.

One way to counter that is thought leadership content. And IIDA has clearly invested in it, especially with the books and the research. How did that begin?

It started with our book series, What Clients Want. And we also partnered with a trade association to do our Design Leveraged series, which is all about research on the collision of design and employee engagement, recruitment, attraction, retention and satisfaction. You could anecdotally talk about that, but we also need the credibility of pure research.

So we did it in a format where we talked about companies like Coca-Cola, like 3M, and we had bona fide research that we analyzed—about 1,500 employees across the United States talking about their workplaces. Our members found that information incredibly useful. They’ve been talking to their clients, and now they’ve got a book series from IIDA that supports the conversation.

It’s beautifully designed, it’s wonderfully written. And all those things matter, especially for our audience. You just can’t throw research out there. It’s about the entire package. I’ve definitely seen a lot of organizations that just say, we’ve got the research, and then they put out the PowerPoint, the PDF and a bunch of really wonderful charts and graphs. But most people aren’t interested in deciphering what those charts and graphs mean. You’ve got to have the narrative. And you’ve got to have the story. Human beings are consumers of great stories. We need to engage, even though I know engage has almost become a really boring word.

Who is just absolutely nailing content marketing right now? And what are you stealing from them?

AARP is doing a phenomenal job of being very authentic. Obviously they’ve got a great moment in time—what is it, every 6 seconds somebody in the United States is turning 50? This is not an organization for old people. It looks like an organization you want to be a part of. And the information they have—not about aging, but about well-being, about travel, about financial planning. They take the whole gamut of where a person is in their life and make it really relevant to who they are as an organization.

My other one would be the Society of Human Resource Management. Once upon a time, people would say HR people, they must be the most boring people in the world. But they’ve been very deliberate about the viability of HR as a career. They have a phenomenal certification program, they’ve got incredible research. What they’ve done to position that profession has been really incredible. And they tell a great story.

Obviously cause-related organizations like Susan G. Komen are doing a phenomenal job of creating community—which is at the core of every not-for-profit. And that’s become so important in our society. We all are looking for that community that we want to be a part of.

How do you see IIDA’s content needs and goals changing as it becomes more global?

There’s still that quest for information, there’s still that validating the profession, but also connecting designers from all over the world to best in practice. So whether it’s happening in Kenya or Kansas City, people want to know what other designers are doing and how they’re successful.

We don’t want to make that fatal mistake that we’ve seen other associations make—that what happens in the United States is the best possible way for it to happen. Clearly, in other parts of the world, design is more a part of the DNA—for instance in Italy or in Scandinavia. So there are lessons to be learned—that we’re learning daily—from our members outside of the United States.

And that goes down to how you’re interviewing and sourcing…

Exactly. For us, acknowledging the diversity of practice. It’s not just reporting how design is defined in large firms, but how it’s happening for sole practitioners, or for firms doing retail or hospitality, and not just workplace.

Every association out there is trying to pull in millennials and even Gen Z. How can content help?

It’s about satisfying that “I want to be an expert” piece. If you read our content, you will become better at … something, whatever, fill in that blank.

Associations are really looking at that FOMO factor—that you need to read this so that you can be a part of this movement. Increasingly, younger members really see membership in an association as being very activist. And so that’s very grassroots, but you can’t be an activist unless you’re a well-informed activist.

There’s a lot of buzz about how this is the first generation of digital natives. Do you see that reflected in how your younger members consume content?

I do. But it’s interesting that even among our younger members, there’s still value in getting information from print. Not that I’m saying we don’t ever do streaming video or some of the other channels, but print, by far, seems to have great value.

Why did you decide to reimagine IIDA’s print magazine, Perspective?

It needed a refresh. A magazine should not sit on a shelf. There should be multiple touch points, no matter where members are in their design careers. And we felt that we were moving away from that. It was getting a little too precious, so we wanted to bring that accessibility aspect back.

And what do you hope that readers will get out of the new Perspective?

Well, kind of jokingly, I say that you should feel like your IQ goes up at least three points when you read that magazine. Also though, I want there to be a connectedness to the magazine. I want our members to be possessive about it. To be territorial about it. This is about me, and design, and how I practice design.

The magazine is incredibly tangible. They can hold it in their hands. It’s very visual, but it’s also very literate—one is not exclusive of the other.

What do people think?

The response has been fantastic. Even moving away from illustrations to having real people on the cover. The content feels relevant. There’s been a groundswell of commentary about the change in the magazine. So that’s always very gratifying.

There’s obviously been a massive push to short-form and visual content, but IIDA has stood out—as have many associations—as a supporter of magazines and long-form journalism.

We absolutely have to acknowledge the science behind people having a shorter attention span. But that puts the burden back on the people creating the content and the people designing the content to make it more compelling.

There will always be a place for long-form, and as much as human beings have a short attention span, human beings still want to be immersed in a topic, and you can only do that with long-form. You can’t immerse anyone in anything with 140 characters. You just can’t.

Okay, so social media: Lover? Hater? Accepter?

Tolerator? I get it. I absolutely get it. It has become a phenomenal way to connect people with people, people with ideas. I’m not sure I love it, because sometimes it moves way too fast. And can you actually grasp anything? Can you actually learn anything? But it is a wonderful way to stay au courant.

And do you have a preferred channel that you stay au courant on?

Probably Facebook. And LinkedIn, which is old school apparently.

But IIDA is active across all the social platforms?

Yes. It’s all about being relevant. So we added Snapchat for students, but it could be something different next year. Our team is constantly looking and listening to our own members about what they’re using and where they’re getting information. I know a lot of associations are struggling with it, but if you want your voice to be heard, then you’ve got to put your voice in places where your audience or your intended audience is listening.

And what’s your top goal with social?

It’s one more avenue for members, non-members, prospective members, clients to attach to IIDA.

You got your degree in journalism, correct?

I did—once upon a time, when it was called print journalism.

It seems to give you a different vision of content and content marketing…

Words matter. Storytelling matters. A lot of people will say words are just words and you’ll just tell a story, but there are still rules when it comes to what you’re trying to get across to your audience. We may tell the same story, but it will have a different voice when we tell it on social media. It will have a different voice if it’s a longer-form piece in Perspective. It can have a different voice or even inflection when it’s a quick news item in a chapter or member newsletter. Being cognizant of how you’re telling that story and where you’re telling that story is so critical, and maybe even more critical because we’re inundated with so much information.

Want more storytelling from Cheryl Durst? Read her own first-person gems.