Bethel Storytelling: Who Are We?

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For those of you who are familiar with Bethel’s homepage, you know that at the top of the page we have a feature called Begin. Belong. Become. Clicking on any of these images brings you to profiles of students, alumni, faculty, and staff. Ever since the website redesign, we’ve used these profiles to tell the Bethel story to site visitors.

You’ll notice changes to Begin. Belong. Become. in the next few days. I wanted to give you all the inside scoop on our new storytelling feature.

Why Tell Stories?

The idea of storytelling is extremely important when we’re trying to communicate the things that make Bethel unique—our community, faith, academics, etc.—to outside audiences. Think about a visitor who wants to know more about Bethel, particularly prospective students and their parents. They could go to our About section and read up on our mission, history, and values. They could learn about our Majors & Minors and get a glimpse of specific departments they might be interested in. They could find out about Spiritual Life and Student Life on campus.

All these sites are great for learning about Bethel. This is what we value. This is what we study. This is how we live. Those things are helpful and important, and we communicate those things well. But they’re all examples of talking the talk.

Storytelling is our chance to walk the walk. Here are real people in our community. This is how they’re acting out our values, representing our community, investing in our academics and campus life.

These stories give prospective students a picture of Bethel as a real place, as a community. And they can start to imagine themselves amongst us.

The challenge of storytelling

Most of the stories on our site are written in the third person—“She traveled here…”, “He studied this…”. Telling our story this way creates distance and a level of remove between the subject of the story and the person reading the story. The person writing the story, who is typically a Bethel employee, fills that distance. Unfortunately, outside audiences are inclined to see Bethel employees writing about the Bethel community as marketers representing an institution.

Our target audience for these stories—young adults exploring their college options—has been trained to be skeptical of things they read online. They’re very aware of when they’re being marketed to and have a low tolerance for market-ese.

So when I—an employee of Communications & Marketing—tell stories about Bethel folks to an audience that has no reason to trust me, the defenses go up. The cynicism they’ve learned from years of advertising saturation makes them question my honesty and my intentions.

It’s a problem faced by all websites. It’s a matter of building…

Authenticity

How do you earn that trust, build credibility, share the story in a way that will convince your reader to give you the benefit of the doubt? How do you get your audience to see the real people in the story and behind the story, and not just an “institution” marketing a product?

Companies have dealt with this problem in different ways. The history of advertising is one attempt after another to form deep, genuine, emotional bonds between customers and products.

One recent example that comes to mind is Apple’s “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” campaign and Microsoft’s response. Mac portrayed PC as out-of-touch and clueless. Mac, in contrast, was the cool kid. Fun to hang out with, easy to use, solving problems instead of creating them. Microsoft said “wait a minute, that’s not who we are” and developed their “I’m a PC” ads. In these, Microsoft profiled PC users who are innovative, creative, and hard-working. Perhaps most importantly, the people in their stories were genuine folks doing good things in the world.

What made these ads work?

They have a personality. There’s a face to go with the story, and a unique voice. Perhaps most importantly, they’re told in the first person. They go directly from the source to the audience. It’s people telling stories for themselves, not marketers telling stories about them.

How can we be authentic?

Here’s the good news: we already are!

I’ve never met a person at Bethel who isn’t authentic. I truly believe that everyone here is genuinely invested in making Bethel a life-changing, welcoming, and supportive community. People here are passionate about making the world a better place. We don’t need to spin it. We don’t need to get out the marketing thesaurus or tell any tall-tales.

We just need to figure out how to communicate it.

How can we tell authentic stories?

I started thinking about this after I read a profile that Kelsey wrote on physics professor Chad Hoyt. The profile is organized as a series of questions and Chad’s responses, almost like an interview. By using his words, Kelsey was able to capture Chad’s voice and personality. It puts a face on the physics department and some of the amazing research happening there. The photography pushes the story even further. By showing Chad in his natural setting, hanging out in the lab, working with students, we can visualize a department with real people doing serious research.

Around that same time I interviewed Nathan Freeburg, Bethel’s Associate Dean of Leadership and Community Development. As I was talking to him I was struck by both his wisdom and his sense of humor. Here’s a guy that most students interact with at some point during their years at Bethel. He’s got a lot of great advice, lessons learned from years of watching students succeed—and yes, fail—plus he’s really funny. Why should I talk about him when he can speak for himself? So I wrote it as an interview, and we get a peek into the mind of a “Bethel institution.”

About a month later I spent some time with two Bethel students, René Kowlessar and Dinnah Gustavo. The first thing I noticed was how full of life they were. They’re passionate, thoughtful people, and they had incredible insights to share about community, leadership, and the things that make Bethel unique. It occurred to me that I didn’t need to be in the story at all. I just got in the way. So I took my questions out and let them share their story and experience from their own perspectives.

A new way to tell our story

A variation of that style will guide our storytelling going forward. We’re going to let people in our community tell their own stories in their own voices from their unique perspectives.

We’re going to frame the stories around 5 themes:

  • Building Leaders
  • Serious Academics
  • Christian Spirituality
  • Community
  • Global Engagement and Awareness

These aren’t strict rules, but guides to help us ask the right questions when we’re putting profiles together.

We’re also going to rethink our photography, moving away from the profile style pictures and trying to show people in the context of the story they’re telling – more like the Chad Hoyt story.

How can you help?

We’re always looking for interesting stories, and it’s not always easy to find them (because we’re not usually connected with what students are up to).

So if you know any students who would be great to profile, let us know!