Q & A with Katy Asher
Have you been surprised by perceptions of your neighborhood association? If the name of your neighborhood association leaves people looking like a deer caught in the headlights, or maybe worse, conjuring an image of a homeowners association, it’s time to think about branding.
Branding is the process of creating a clear and consistent message about your organization. It’s a means of building an informed, interested audience. That way, when presented with opportunities for engagement (like volunteering or joining the board) your audience is already aware of who you are, what you do, and why it matters.
As volunteer-based organizations, neighborhood associations are notoriously under-resourced, both in terms of time and money. However, brand management does not necessarily require a significant financial investment or specific expertise. What it does require is the willingness of your board to engage in discussions about how they see the neighborhood association, and how they’d like others to see it.
To see these principles in action, look no further than the Arbor Lodge Neighborhood Association (ALNA).To learn how Arbor Lodge went from an association with a logo, to an association with a complete brand, including a cohesive editorial voice, we spoke with ALNA board member, prior staff member at Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods, and soon to be Neighborhood Outreach Coordinator at SE Uplift – Katy Asher.
Katy knows what it takes to get people excited and invested in their communities – After all, she has tried just about everything over the years including dancing on the side of the road with a sign advertising a local neighborhood association meeting!
How did you go about developing your Neighborhood Association’s messaging?
I started by trying to get more specific about who our audience is but not necessarily in terms of demographics. Instead of looking at renters vs. homeowners or these people vs those people, I focused on what type of person would be interested in what our neighborhood association does. What would motivate someone to participate? Essentially the question was who is a neighborhood volunteer and why are they involved?
We found that our volunteers participate for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes a big issue draws people in. Some people just feel it’s the right thing to do. But one thing they have in common is a general curiosity about the city and an interest in seeing how it works; finding out how to solve problems and building a neighborhood together. Also I think our audience consists of people who are curious and willing to get up and leave their house and do something, whatever that thing is. Maybe they have a little free time and in that free time they want to connect with other neighbors or give back in some way.
First we want people to know we exist at all, and next, we want them to participate. We hope to engage neighbors by piquing their curiosity about the neighborhood and the people around them.
I started a Facebook page for our neighborhood association. I tried a lot of different messages at the beginning to see where I would get ‘likes’. After about a year of trying different things on Facebook and growing our membership, we found there were certain topics that got more comments or more ‘likes,’ or attention in general and this helped us hone our message. We also heard board members saying, “We want to refine what we post. We don’t want this whole smorgasbord, we want something clearer,” which was good feedback too. It meant people were paying enough attention that they had opinions and were ready to be strategic about messaging.
Once you were pleased with your message, how did you move it forward with approval from your neighborhood association board?
I decided to develop some editorial guidelines to bring before the board. I based them on how I would try to describe what I was already doing to another volunteer. I identified what I thought our primary messages should be, the scope and tone of what we talk about, and then things that are absolutely not allowed.
I brought my list to the board and we discussed it. I think people were really happy someone had thought about it at all. They were pleased someone developed some structure. I worried they wouldn’t accept it. Instead, we had a lively conversation about how we want our neighbors to see us and how to communicate about ourselves. So we voted it in.
What did you identify as the primary message, scope of communication, and tone of communication?
We are aiming for positive, encouraging, welcoming, engaging and non-judgmental. We want our tone to acknowledge that people care about so many different things. The complexity and variety within the neighborhood is fascinating to me.
With our content I thought it important to point people in the direction of our meetings and events first and to try to show why we think it’s interesting enough to have a meeting about this topic, whatever it is. What is so great (or terrible) about this thing and why should anyone else care? How can we introduce in a way that does more than state it will be an agenda item? I try asking questions like, “Have you ever wondered how this happens?” Again, we are trying to get people curious.
So our primary message is: attend Arbor Lodge events and meetings and volunteer with us and others in the neighborhood. Most people are not enticed by the prospect of sitting in a meeting, so instead, I invite people to join us as we discuss this really important new development in our neighborhood or join us as we meet parents from our local PTA and discuss how to keep neighborhood kids fed and warm in the winter.
You are suggesting framing it as a conversation as opposed to a meeting?
Right. We also try to have events that are not meetings. We have a happy hour at the end of the month and volunteer days in the park. We also try to promote ways to volunteer with the neighborhood that don’t require meetings or a lot of time, like “Join our flyering team and get some exercise. Out already? Well, maybe you can help your neighborhood while you’re out and about.”
Our content guidelines also encourage participation in city and north-Portland-wide issues, not just neighborhood association specific issues or activities. We try to connect people to larger community topics, like the air quality advocacy going on along Willamette Boulevard and Swan Island, so that people can get involved, provide input and take action.
We also try to support other organizations building community in or near the neighborhood. If a business is doing something community-oriented we might highlight that. We also support city and regional opportunities for civic engagement, for example, ONI (Office of Neighborhood Involvement), the County or Metro may have opportunities to sit in on committees or advisory boards. We want to promote opportunities to have a voice.
So that’s primary messaging: attend events and meetings, volunteer with us or volunteer with other community things that are going on in the neighborhood.
The “No’s” (for communication criteria) include endorsing political candidates and endorsing or promoting a position on an issue unless the board had authorized it. You want to be really careful about speaking without the board’s approval; it’s good to spell it out so there aren’t misunderstandings. And of course, no insults or slander.
How did you determine which communications tools or social media platforms to use?
We did have a lot of conversations about whether to focus on print or online platforms. Some of our younger board members said, “Everyone’s online. Why spend a lot of time hanging flyers and posters?” Other members of the board don’t have regular access to the internet and advocated for the importance of doing outreach beyond the internet.
Mailings can be expensive so we’ve taken to making posters and also flyering. We’re trying at least once in the spring and maybe once in the summer to flyer door-to-door. When we make posters, we get them laminated so they’ll last a few months. We’re not as frequent with our print distribution but we make an effort on a regular basis. We put flyers up at the grocery store and coffee shops…we’re always looking for places that are more pedestrian friendly to hang them as well, like the park.
We always make sure our website and our Facebook pages are on all our print materials for people who do have internet access. And that seems to have really worked. It’s increased the number of people following us online as well as the number of people showing up to our events.