Written By Nik Koulogeorge
Oct. 31, 2018
Nov. 21, 2021
In 2014 I came across a gem of a video while putting together my fraternity's expansion presentation - The Message Map.
(He's so cheerful!) The idea of a message map may not be revolutionary to you, particularly if you are a marketing genius, but it aligns with Simon Sinek's "Golden Circle". Beyond its usefulness for marketing, the message map exercise is an excellent way to identify your chapter's niche and to make sure your operations are aligned with a central vision or purpose. I have used it to help several fraternity chapters grow (by as much as 280%) and to simplify their decision-making processes.
The storyteller in me had unconsciously used the concept behind a message map well before seeing the video. Like many students, I was taught to write essays with an introduction, 2-3 supporting sections, and a conclusion. It is a logical way to piece together a presentation, proposal booklet, and anything requiring clear communication. Still, the "message map" gave me a simple way to teach or re-teach that basic technique to students, volunteers, and colleagues.
Humans are visual creatures, and to see something mapped out speaks to someone better than a long-winded explanation or page packed with words. The key point of a message map is that it can visually or verbally get your point across within 15-30 seconds. This is particularly important during recruitment, where you may not have much time to explain what you are about before a student loses interest, wanders to another table, etc.
Our team used the message map to pitch to potential campuses, to design our summer training for the consultant teams, and we used it to set themes for our annual goals. We did very well, and I was floored when 6 months into the academic year, during a staff retreat, some consultants recited our message map perfectly from memory (partly because I figured my team just ignored my message map rambling).
I also worked with a few chapters as a consultant and taught the student leaders I worked with to make use of a message map. Here are some of the results:
One chapter grew from 7 to 30+ men in 2 years by simplifying their message
Another chapter doubled in size by simplifying their message with the message map
I sat in a chapter meeting at another chapter where general members (read, not exec board members) were questioning ideas for activities based on how they fit the message map
If you want a majority of your members to be "bought in," if you want to improve not only the number of people you recruit but the dedication of those people, and if you want to make the process of completing all 1,000,000 things your school or fraternity requires of you, then follow the guide below.
(Consider this the practical application of this post about the value of a clear vision during recruitment.)
Crafting your message takes some reflection - you need both the "Twitter-friendly headline," and 2-3 supporting points. Here are some thoughts:
Gather your newest members - ask them why they joined the fraternity and take notes. Ask the same question of members who actually show up to things.
Look through your ritual book and jot down the recurring themes. What are the major lessons or takeaways from each ceremony?
Gather your executive board, maybe even your chairmen, and look through the previous year's calendar. Which events/activities did you love and which felt like a waste of time.
Doing that gives you an idea of who your chapter is and what is expected of your chapter in your ritual. Chances are your "Twitter-friendly headline" is going to be something about brotherhood and making people better. How you make people better is articulated through your 2-4 sub-points (the things which will differentiate you from any other fraternity).
Find an alumnus who is not attached to the past and show them this post and the message map video. Explain that you need them to make sure the idea of a message map stays in place when you've graduated from your position. (In another article on this site, I suggest that advisors make use of a message map, too.)
Let's say that you are a member of a fictional fraternity called Pi Zeta Alpha, and your 15-second pitch (the combination of your headline plus your 2-3 points) is as follows: "The Members Of Pi Zeta Alpha Fraternity seek to build supportive, lifelong bonds by uniting men committed to personal development and a love for pizza" (PZA fraternity. . . pizza. . . get it? I'm so good)
Your next step is to look through all of the events that you've done and all of the events you need to do per your school's/fraternity's checklist of arbitrary standards. See which activities or events already fit in with "supportive lifelong bonds," "personal development" or a "love for pizza." Remember: you've chosen these sub-points because they represent truths already evident in your chapter's membership and activities, so this shouldn't be hard.
There will be things your chapter has done in the past that do not fit in with your new message map. You might need to organize a philanthropy event, but your annual volleyball tournament may no longer fit with the chosen categories. There's no need to completely trash the event; just be open to tinkering with the formula or trying something new.
A potential member says, "Tell me more. How does 'pizza' become a part of your fraternity?" As described in the video, you will use each of your activities as supporting points beneath the sub-points. You or a strong recruiter might reply with something like, "We have a pizza party once a month, our fall brotherhood retreat is learning to make pizza from scratch, and one of our spring projects is making pizzas from scratch to feed students during finals week."
Would that attract anyone to join your fraternity? I have no idea, but people love pizza, so I guess that it is a better sell than promising that you have a strong brotherhood and that they just need to join and pay to see for themselves. Would I support and donate to my chapter if they chose to use "pizza" as one of three themes? Abso-flipping-lutely.
In any case, you can see how the fictional chapter demonstrates their ability to bond over pizza. You can even get an idea of how they transform a brotherhood event (learning to make pizza) into a service event (providing pizzas during finals, at a soup kitchen, etc.).
The only people who should hear the phrase "message map" are your executive board and your recruitment team. This is an important point because people hate feeling like they are being told what to say. A message map crafted with input from 50 people is going to be generic. Some people are going to be livid that their suggestions weren't included. Skip the drama.
Instead, once your executive board/adviser is on board, start using the language during chapter meetings or interactions with members. Acknowledge, if you are a PZA member, that everyone loves pizza, and that it just so happens that you're going to do a brotherhood event about making pizza. Then pause for the inevitable applause. Your pizza-making event was such a fun success that you're going to replicate it and donate pizzas you make so that your brothers can bond and give back to the community. Continue using the words and phrases of your message map among members and in how you promote events.
The third chapter I mentioned in the "In a fraternity chapter" section kept using their chosen words, "atypical" and "genuine," in regular conversation. Eventually, the brothers got the point that if they wanted their ideas to be taken seriously, they needed to pitch them as something atypical, genuine, or both. All of the new members were recruited with those words, and so the brand stuck for many years.
Your "Twitter-friendly headline" is unlikely to change much over time, and the interests of your members are unlikely to swing wildly from year to year. That said, do not attach your ego to your message map. Things change, and it is more important that your chapter apply a message map well than apply the same message map forever.
This is why it is important to get your strategic planning-savvy alumni aware of the value of a message map early in the game. Maybe, after a few years, the fictional members of the fictional PZA fraternity decide they like burgers more than pizza. That's fine! They'll just swap pizza out and swap the burgers in. Maybe they sell burgers to raise funds for local farms. Great! (The name wouldn't make much sense, but this is a fake chapter anyway)
The most impressive and successful chapters I visited while on the headquarters had a well-defined niche and stuck to it. Do not be a jack-of-all-trades fraternity chapter. Focus on the things you like and turn the things you are required to do into things you like to do. Maybe fraternity leaders and professionals will ditch the lengthy checklists of standards and let the interests of their members guide fraternity organizations.
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