What IABC Can Do for Digital Signage Managers

EPISODE 142 | Guest: Maliha Aqeel, global chair of IABC, founder and CEO of The Ideas Collective

As a digital signage manager, you might not have had any formal training in the systems and methodology used by communication pros, but that doesn’t mean you can’t access that vast knowledgebase.

The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) enables a global network of communicators working in diverse industries and disciplines to identify, share and apply the world’s best communication practices. And they are here to help.

  • Hear the benefits of IABC membership and attending the World Conference
  • Explore IABC resources available to members and non-members
  • Learn how to leverage relationships inside your organization for efficiencies
  • Understand the power of storytelling for a positive, fulfilling experience
  • Get links to lots of IABC resources you can use today

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Get more communications advice in our Masterclass Guide for Communications Planning


Derek DeWitt: We at Visix are aware that very often the digital signage manager, that is the person who has been tasked by the organization to run the digital signage system – manage it, schedule content, create content, come up with campaigns and so on – is not the person who purchased it. And sometimes they aren’t even communications professionals in any meaningful sense of the word. So, does that mean that they’re just stuck? Of course not. There are lots and lots and lots of options out there in the world.

Now, just surfing the web endlessly for hours a day may not be for everybody. Some people prefer to join an organization which is all about business communications. For example, the International Association of Business Communicators, or IABC, which is one of the premier organizations of this type, a global network of communications professionals who also hold a world conference every year. And so, we’re gonna talk about IABC, what it is, and how it might be helpful to a digital signage manager and other people tasked with organizational communications.

To help me with that, I’m speaking today with Maliha Aqeel. She is the global board chair of IABC, as well as the founder and CEO of the Toronto, Canada-based Ideas Collective, which is all about thought leadership and management consultant and a bunch of other things, and recently won a Gold Quill award last year as well. Thank you for speaking to me Miss Aqeel today.

Maliha Aqeel: Alright, well thank you so much Derek, for having me.

Derek DeWitt: Thank you. And thank you everybody out there for listening to this episode of Digital Signage Done Right. I remind you again that you can subscribe, and you can follow along with a transcript of the conversation we have on the Visix website where you will also find many helpful links.

Okay. So, Ms. Aqeel, IABC started way back in 1938. It’s one of the premier organizations of its type for business communicators. When did you get involved with them?

Maliha Aqeel: I got involved with IABC after I moved to Canada, and I was looking for a way to meet other communication and marketing professionals because I was new to the country. This would’ve been about 14, 15 years ago now. And I remember someone had mentioned IABC to me when I was living in Dubai ’cause they were a member. And at that time there wasn’t any presence in the Middle East for the association. That has changed now.

So, when I was looking around in Toronto, I was like, okay, how do I meet others? I thought back to that conversation and I just went on Google. I searched for IABC. I saw that they had a chapter in Toronto and coincidentally the largest chapter in the world. And I signed up. Then I signed up to volunteer because volunteering was the best way to meet other people. And I’ve been involved with the organization ever since in a volunteer capacity serving first on the chapter board in Toronto and then on international committees and now on the international executive board as chair.

Derek DeWitt: Wow! So quite a rise.

Maliha Aqeel: Yeah.

Derek DeWitt: I think it’s rather safe to say that you’re a fan of IABC.

Maliha Aqeel: I am. I’m a huge advocate because as I reflect back on my career, I was a good professional before IABC, but joining the association helped me to realize the potential of communication and all of the possibilities of how communication can connect people inside an organization, but also with stakeholders outside the organization. The power of communication to inspire people to drive business results. That was something I don’t think I was ever aware of prior to IABC. But, you know, talking to people in the association, other members who were doing amazing work and you’d learn from them, you know, you have those conversations that make you go, huh, I never really thought about it that way.

And it is a very diverse and international community. That’s something I value extremely because I’ve always had an international perspective. I’ve spent the majority of my life in global roles. And for me to be able to tap into my IABC network, whether someone is in Australia, in London, in the US or even here in Canada, I know that I can do that. Because one of the things that I certainly noticed, a difference within IABC versus perhaps other organizations that I’ve been involved with, is that when you are looking for help, someone from IABC is always putting their hand up. Of course, we sometimes joke that as communication professionals, we are unable to say no, so that’s why we raised our hand up. But I think for me it’s always been this welcoming aspect.

I know that in some of the conversations that take place on the hub, which is the members-only forum, I often see discussions where someone says, hey, does anyone have a template for a stakeholder engagement plan? I need to create one for my organization, but I’ve never done one before. And people will reply and actually share their templates. They’ll share the templates, they’ll share what worked well for them, what didn’t work well for them. And inevitably someone will say, hey, I’m willing to get on a call if somebody would like to join us. I’ll just set up an impromptu call and everyone can join, and I can walk you through how I did the stakeholder engagement plan. So it, it’s in a way people self-organize to share information. No one ever says, you know what, like, no, that’s proprietary, I can’t share it. And if it is proprietary, they’re willing to have a conversation one-on-one to kind of like walk them through their experiences and share their insights.

And for me, that’s been absolutely valuable. It’s really helped me in my career, particularly when I transitioned from public relations to doing more internal communication. I was able to tap into other internal comms pros within IABC to really understand how do I make that shift? You know, what are things I need to be aware of? Because, you know, you can be really good at one side of communication, but then you’re thrown into a whole new avenue, and you have to realize there’s new language you need to know. There’s new sensitivities you need to be aware of. And while the principles of communication don’t change, I think understanding the nuances can help you be more effective in what you’re doing.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. I mean, it’s been said much that we’re in an attention economy and communications is certainly a, or if not the, driving force behind that. And it’s funny because I think that this is certainly true in the world of writing, which is where I come from, or the world of design where my wife comes from. A lot of people think, oh, I’m a good writer, but they’re not. Or a lot of people think, oh, I have a good design eye, but they don’t. And I think a lot of people think that they’re really excellent communicators, and within certain contexts, especially informal contexts, that well may be the case.

But what we’re talking about, especially when we’re into the world of internal communications, it is a very specific skillset and a very specific outlook that has to encompass a lot of different aspects of the target audience for a number of different purposes. I think there are very few people who are, you know, at the age of 12, all their teachers are going, man, that person’s gonna be an internal communications professional. You can just see he’s got a natural talent.

Maliha Aqeel: What’s interesting is there is absolutely a difference between communicating and communication, because communicating is something that all of us do. I’m communicating my point of view right now. Doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s communication that’s going to, you know, lift an organization’s brand. Probably a poor example in this case, but, you know, it’s, it very much is about the act of doing something versus the impact that you can have. And whether, to your point, it’s through words, through design, through other forms of communicating, you know, like visual storytelling, video storytelling, podcasting, all of those are acts of ensuring that the message gets out there.

But when you think about what communication is from a professional perspective, the role of communication is to deepen understanding. It’s to inspire action and it’s to transform the organization and how, whether it’s your employees or your customers view the organization within the world in which we live. And that, you know, it can feel like that’s a very lofty thing to do. But if you think about the best organizations in the world that we all get inspired by, we get inspired by them because of the communication, because of how they tell their story, how they bring that story to life through the marketing that they may be doing, through the ad campaigns, through the stories that they tell on their own website, through their videos. You know, it’s about, you know, using things like digital signage, whether that’s digital signage in an, you know, an out of home setting. It’s using it within the company premises. It’s about using that to tell their story in different ways. And in that respect, it becomes one more channel for them to get their message out.

And when you’re thinking about how to get your message out, you have to think about all of the channels where your target audience is most likely to engage and to see that message and potentially have some kind of an interaction with it. And to me, when you think about communication as a whole, that’s what you need to be thinking about is yes, you need to deepen understanding, but how do you do that? You do that through a multi-channel approach. And the multi-channel approach can include things like websites. It can include your social media. Maybe for your employees, you want them to know what’s happening in the world within around them in the industry in which you operate. And then if you have your premises, your campus, you could have a digital signage wall that literally has things like, here are the industry news for our industry. So people when they’re walking by, they know what’s happening in the world around them, and the work that they’re doing is contributing to those industry trends.

Likewise, with inspire action, again, how do you do that? For some organizations, it’s about sustainability. It’s about providing volunteer opportunities to their employees so that if they say that their purpose is to make the world a better place through the business that they’re in, then you want to make sure you’re matching that by inspiring your employees to contribute, to give their time to potentially plant a garden as part of your volunteering activities or whatever they like to do. And so, how will they know that that’s what you’re supposed to do? Like how do your customers know that by purchasing from you, they are contributing to making the world a better place? Well, they know it because of your communication. And I think that’s what we have to always remind people, that communication is not sending out an email. It’s asking ourselves; how will our target audience know what they’re supposed to think, feel? Do they know through communication?

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, the CEO and president of Visix, Sean Matthews has frequently said, even on this podcast, that the main purpose of digital signage is to change human behavior. Yes, yes, we’re informing people of stuff, but this is why we only say every message should have some kind of call to action because you’re trying to get people to do something for some way, whether it’s sign up for the 401k or it’s, contribute to this carbon offset fund or, or whatever, or just, hey, dress up for Halloween. Whatever it is, we’re trying to get them to do something. We’re trying to get our audience to do something. And even customers, it might not just be, hey, buy our stuff! It might be, there’s a lot more now in the public conversation about all kinds of things where simply buy my stuff isn’t enough anymore. It’s just not good enough.

Maliha Aqeel: When I think about myself as a customer, I think about how I would be inspired to take an action. And for me, it’s about the stories. I want to see people like me in the storytelling. I want to see what the benefit is to me. Some of it is purely functional, like certain products, they are functional. We need them every day in our life, we don’t think too much about it. But other things which may be more discretionary, whether it’s a product or a service, you really want to feel like this is something that’s going to make your life better or is going to transform who you are as an individual. And it doesn’t have to be, you know, that the transformation is you become a completely different person the next day. But rather it makes you want to really do some self-examination and ask yourself, like, if I was to engage in a particular brand, how will that change the way I view myself?

And with some brands, it is about, you know, kind of like the self-love. They allow you to feel better about yourself. And I don’t think people appreciate the power of that enough. It feels sometimes that it shouldn’t really be the brand’s role to make you feel good about yourself, but for some brands, that is exactly it. And you know, if I think about a brand, like let’s say The Body Shop. Whenever I go to the mall, I always drop in on The Body Shop because they have certain scents in their hand creams that I absolutely love. And even if I’m not looking to buy, I will go and put some on and it automatically improves my mood. So, you know, it’s like, I think that’s where brands do have to think about, you know, what is that impression we want to leave behind? But at the, also it’s like, how do we ensure that people see that?

And you know, you made the point earlier about using signage, and that’s exactly it. We are surrounded by neon lights. We are surrounded by messages. We are surrounded by brand names and static posters. But I find, like particularly with static posters, you see them often enough that you start to ignore them. But if you have some kind of a multimedia visual where there’s digital signage, you have something that maybe allows people to interact with that signage. Maybe they are able to control a little bit of the experience of what they would like to see in the signage at the store. You’ll start to notice that it’s the act of being entertained that brings people into your store. Because now you’re not just saying like, you know, just watch something pretty on the storefront, but rather like, hey, why don’t you kind of like play around with the content that we are displaying and that will want you to go inside to see what else they have that can entertain you. How else will they gamify the customer experience?

And I think those things are how brands stand out, because right now it is about standing out in a crowded space. How do you say pick me? You do it by being creative about how you display your values, how you tell the story and how you get people to engage with it in some shape or form.

Derek DeWitt: As you sort of mentioned or alluded to, the modern age is strikingly different, at least on the surface as to how things used to be in the past. We are simply bombarded with this stuff, and we have so many options available to us. And yet as communicators, we do have things like digital signage.

And when digital signage started out, it was essentially a, let’s call it a locally-broadcast PowerPoint. And now it is so much more, it’s, it’s interactivity, it’s data mapping, it’s pulling from live web data sources. There’s just a ton of stuff going on now. There’s voice-activated interfaces and gesture control, and a number of other things. Some things are even completely appless. You can book rooms and, and just do a ton of different things with this technology.

So, here’s a person who has been tasked with, okay, here’s this preposterously tricked out hot rod of a car. Go be fast and wow everybody, and make sure that you achieve certain goals, good luck. And they’re just going, oh my God, I don’t even, I drive a car, but I never really even thought about all these other things.

So, then there’s an organization like IABC, which very clearly has said right on their website, the reason that it kind of exists is to help people develop knowledge, skills and behaviors within sort of a global standard of purposes and principles. And I think that’s, it’s laudable and it’s also very useful for people no matter what their background or what their level of education is or even their level of interest.

Maliha Aqeel: You know, one of the things about IABC, there’s a focus on producing knowledge, and that knowledge is disseminated through various channels. Some of them are master classes, which are online classes on a very specific topic. And those are open to non-members. So if you have someone in the organization tasked with identifying the digital signage opportunities, they could go to an organization like IABC, do a search on the website to see if there’s any resources that come up, whether it’s a masterclass or it’s an article in the online magazine Catalyst. Or perhaps it’s a webinar that was offered a while back and the recording may be available. Some of these resources do have a cost associated with it. So, I think sometimes it’s just about knowing that the resource exists if even if you’re not able to partake in it. But things like the articles, those are available and so you’re able to read and, and get the knowledge that you may be looking for.

But the one thing that I would recommend to someone who’s a non-communication professional that’s been tasked with what I call managing a particular channel or sourcing a channel, is to go to the communication or marketing team in your organization and ask them about what you should be looking for.

In my last corporate role, my team was responsible for all of our channels and our tech stack. So, one of the things that I did was I, as the communication director, built relationships across the organization and I made sure that I told our department’s story. So that if someone in human resources was looking for a particular tech stack, whether it was about, you know, HR communication to employees, they knew that our team likely already had a tech solution that they could use. Likewise with operations, they knew that our team was responsible because I had taken the time to tell our story. I had taken the time to tell different departments, here’s how you can work more effectively with us. And that way they didn’t necessarily have to go out and look for particular types of solutions. They could come to our team and ask us first, and if we had something that would fit the bill, then we would onboard them onto that solution. And if we didn’t, we could direct them to the right resources so they could find the information they needed.

But I think that’s where, what I would say to someone is, go and make that relationship inside your organization first. And I would say to communication professionals, go out and tell your story inside your organization. People should know why they can come to you. What are the things that your team is responsible for? And, you know, not every communication team is responsible for the tech stack, but many of them are. And even if they’re not, through their association with IABC and other similar associations, they have certainly seen enough of that information to at least provide guidance to the other individuals so they can go down the right path as they’re working on sourcing and understanding what are the opportunities out there.

So it is about, you know, we talked about storytelling before. I think the storytelling, doing it inside your organization is so incredibly important for communication professionals because the average person inside an organization often does not have any engagement with their communication team. They don’t even know who they are. It’s often the leaders that engage in communication. And so, you know, communication professionals need to get better at communicating about themselves. We are so great at sending out the internal newsletter, but we never include a story about what we’re doing. We’re telling everyone else’s accomplishments and their achievements, but we never talk about our own because we just never think of ourselves that way. But I think that needs to break. By us adopting these new habits of promoting ourselves, we can make sure that we are a resource for anyone who’s looking for different types of channel solutions, even if they don’t have to be managed by us.

In some of the organizations I’ve worked at, the talent team had a learning and development sub-team, and the L&D team often had, like, the best platforms or applications for creating training videos. And I would’ve never even known about them or thought about them except that, because I had done that relationship building, I remember I was talking to someone about doing some kind of a doodle video as an explainer about one of our products, and they said, oh, did you know that L&D actually already has a license to that particular platform that you were thinking about getting? So maybe you can just talk to them and see if they can give you access, because there’s no point getting your own license to do something for a one-off video. You can just get access through L&D. And that’s what I mean about creating those connections and dot connecting inside your organization because that’s where the efficiencies come from from organizations.

When I’ve worked with technology teams, they absolutely hate it when every single department wants their own software. ‘Cause to the IT team that’s a complete waste of money. So I think like, you know, when, when you’re working with the leadership team, the leadership team wants to see that every single department inside the organization is thinking about efficiencies and they value teams that dot connect. And it’s not necessarily specific to communication, but absolutely, if communication is the dot-connecting department, I think they can raise their visibility and their value a lot more than if they weren’t doing that.

Derek DeWitt: It’s an interesting idea that hey, efficiencies come from connections. I think that’s absolutely right on the money. And the more connections you have, internally and then also externally, the more efficient things become in many ways.

I think one of the interesting things about IABC is you certainly have all those connections and so on, but you also just have a lot of just resources. Like I’m looking at the website, there are webinars, there are podcasts, there are in-person events, there are virtual events. Like just two days after this podcast goes live, there’s an online sort of seminar about The Promise and Perils of AI-Enabled Synthetic Media. Super interesting topic. I think it’s gonna impact a lot of different aspects of communications. You have masterclasses, which are also open to non-members. You’ve got members-only webinars as well. You’ve got just a ton of stuff that people can access.

There are even these shared interest groups, which I think are quite interesting, from student work to healthcare stuff and education to DEI and even change management. And the organization also offers consulting members for that kind of, hey, my needs don’t really fit into any of these neat bundles. So not only is it just connections in many ways, a lot of what IABC offers can be very focused, which I think is very useful.

Maliha Aqeel: Oh, absolutely. And you know, with the events, there are so many more events happening at the local chapter level. And many of our chapters during the pandemic, they obviously had to move all of their events virtually, and I found that many of them are continuing to offer their events virtually because it allows more people to attend, whether they are non-members or members.

When you have a virtual event, you know, let’s say the event is taking place in Los Angeles and it’s a virtual event, I can still participate from here because it is open to everyone. I think that’s one of the things that I feel the pandemic changed is it made things more accessible. And that accessibility is something that many of us are unwilling to let go of. And I find like many of our chapters are offering those virtual events and they are promoting them on their social media feeds because they want more communication professionals and even non-communication professionals to participate.

Derek DeWitt: And of course, as I mentioned at the top, every year there is the big IABC World Conference, which this year is June 23rd through 26th in Chicago. And I think it’s an interesting topic. It’s “Communication Creates”, specifically it creates discovery, possibility and opportunity. And I think that’s just a very nice message, frankly, it’s a very activating kind of a message.

Maliha Aqeel: Absolutely. And the World Conference has a program advisory committee. And they did an excellent job of selecting speakers and topics that truly speak to the theme and also presents very diverse points of view. Because that’s one of the things that IABC really focuses on is we are an international community. And because we’re an international community, we owe it to our members to present that diverse point of view. We can’t have a tunnel vision of things that we would like to talk about, but rather we ask our members to participate.

We ask other professionals to participate in World Conference by submitting speaker proposals, and then the program advisory committee reviews them. The speaker proposal is available, like around the world, you can be from any part of the world to participate in world conference as a speaker. And then the program advisory committee reviews things, and they, one of the overarching questions they ask themselves is, how does this particular topic align with the theme of the conference? It’s not an easy job by any means because, you know, it’s often we get more than 200 proposals. So, we have to make sure that, you know, we’re picking topics that are diverse. You know, you don’t wanna have too many AI topics because I know as an attendee, at some point you’re like, okay, everyone’s saying the same thing. How is it different? But you want to have the right balance of thought provoking topics and speakers and the more foundational topics and speakers, so that young professionals who attend the conference can get something concrete and tactical that they can take back to their workplace. And therefore, you know, their employers are willing to pay for them to attend Conference.

On the other side of it, if you’re a senior professional, you want that thought provoking topic. You want speakers that make you want to transform your team. You want to hear about topics that are on the horizon so that you can start to reflect on them and be prepared when and if they impact your organization. I think I’ve attended every World Conference except one since 2012. And every year I get something valuable from it, whether it’s the spotlight sessions and the marquee speakers, or it’s through the breakout sessions that take place. But most of the time I get a lot of learning from just connecting with people in the hallway. You know, there’s, there are people that I only ever see at World Conference, and so we always make a point to get together. But it’s the conversations that are happening in the hallways after the sessions where someone is reflecting on what they took away from it, but also perhaps what they have done in their organization. So, you don’t just learn at World Conference from the sessions, you also learn from your peers in a very informal kind of a way.

But, you know, if anyone hasn’t attended World Conference, I always recommend it because it’s, it’s a really great introduction to IABC. And it also, you know, will encourage you to see if there’s an IABC chapter in your city or your province or state, what have you. It may be an opportunity for you to get involved or may just be an opportunity for you to participate in local events so that you can keep the learning going.

Derek DeWitt: So, no matter what position you find yourself in, whether you’re in charge of your organization’s communications or just the digital signage aspect of it, and you were part of that decision to get that system, or whether it’s simply been thrust upon you. The main thing that organizations like IABC communicate to you is that you are certainly not alone. There are a lot of people doing what you’re doing. And everybody’s got different experiences, everybody’s got different ideas, everybody has different access to information and to insights. And there’s no reason for you to be sitting there pulling your hair out, trying to figure out, oh my God, what can I do to really use this system that I’ve been given or these tasks that I’ve been assigned. There’s a lot out there for you.

You can again, go to the IABC website. Obviously, there’ll be a link in the transcript and, if you get a chance, maybe you can talk your boss into paying for you to go to the World Conference this year, which will be June 23rd through 26th at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago, right in downtown. And, who knows? Maybe you’ll find a lot of different things that you can access. Maybe you’ll become a member, maybe you won’t, but even if you don’t want to, there are lots of materials that you can nonetheless have access to.

Well, I’d like to thank my guest today, Maliha Aqeel, she’s the global board chair of IABC, for talking to me about what she gets out of it, why it’s useful. And frankly, I think it’s useful for a lot of different people. It’s not just useful for, you know, people who are maybe in charge of a large communications department with a gigantic company or an international company. I think this is, uh, this is useful for just about anybody. Even a small junior college communications department of two people can find something of use with an organization like this. Thank you for talking to me today, madam. It’s a, it’s all very interesting stuff and, like you, I am also a fan of IABC.

Maliha Aqeel: Great. Well, thank you so much, and it was really great speaking with you.

Derek DeWitt: And thank you everybody out there for listening. I again remind you there’s a transcript on the Visix website with links as well.