Community building has been one of the most important things I’ve done for my online business.
Call them friends, subscribers, tribe, or whatever noun is haute at the moment. A community is a group of people organized around your ideas. And it’s something you must have if you want to succeed as an entrepreneur.
A community provides you with a wealth of opportunity and support
Whether it’s 20 people, 200 people, or 20,000 people, whoever’s interested in what you’re doing is part of your community.
When I started my first entrepreneurial endeavor in 2006, a two-person design company, I had about 18 people in my personal rolodex. And because it was 2006, I think I had an actual physical rolodex, too (hah!).
Now, these people weren’t successful business owners or deep-pocketed angel investors. They were just friends or acquaintances I’d met and kept in touch with. From those initial 18 people, we were able to take our small design firm (“firm” makes it sound cool) from absolutely nothing to a $250,000/year company in just over a year’s time. Those 18 people ended up being the starting point to my entrepreneurial journey.
When it comes to building a community, you never know who someone else knows
While I had less than 20 people in my community, they all had communities of their own. When I asked them if they needed our design services or knew anyone who might, my community suddenly had exponentially larger reach. I started to get emails and (gasp) phone calls from people I didn’t know. They had been recommended to me from my original community connections.
As my community has grown over the years, I’ve enjoyed opportunities I never saw coming.
One random email introduction from someone in my community to someone in their community led to $50,000 in speaking engagements. One random Facebook message led to a live interview on CNN. One random email led to a direct message on Twitter, which led to meeting my life partner, Caroline (no joke!). I could go on and on about all the amazing opportunities that have come to me in my life due to my community. But remember, it all started with 18 people.
Community building isn’t measured in followers, fans, likes, etc
That design firm I mentioned above grew when there was no Twitter, no Facebook, no email list. It didn’t have any of the hallmarks we think of when we think of “community” these days, and remember, it was SUPER small by many people’s standards.
You might be thinking a community has to grow and get big to bring you success, but I’d disagree. You can keep a community extremely small and it can bring you immense results. The key is to surround yourself with the right people and to be extremely clear about who you want to join your tribe/group/blessing (you know, like a blessing of unicorns… which is the actual way to describe many unicorns in a group).
Having an email list > Having followers on social media
The strongest community I had a few years ago was on Facebook. I used to get 250-500 Likes on anything I posted. But guess what? Facebook changed their algorithm. Just a few weeks after that change, the Likes plummeted to 25-50 (and the comments almost all but disappeared). While social media can give you access to lots of people, when you don’t control the platform, your community rug can get pulled out from under you out of nowhere.
Since then, I’ve focused my efforts on building my community through an email list. Email hasn’t changed in years, and if you’re delivering value (which I’ll share more about next), no one can pull any rug out from under you and rob the attention of the community you’ve built.
How to start with community building and how to keep them coming back for more
Engage in valuable or entertaining conversations
The majority of us aren’t celebrities, we won’t be featured on prominent news outlets on a regular basis, and won’t have any opportunities to have a community of fans/followers/friends fall into our laps. However, if you become a source for valuable or entertaining content, people will talk about you to people they know.
Early on in my entrepreneurial journey, I was very curious about marketing. I had some hunches of my own to share, but I also did research and stayed up on marketing trends. Whenever I’d find myself in a conversation with a stranger, they’d ask, “What do you do?” The answer to that question inevitably led to my sharing my thoughts about marketing. I remember always trying to give away as much knowledge as I could. Conversation after conversation, and I became known as a guy who understood and knew things about marketing. It wasn’t because I put it in my Twitter bio. It was because I lived it.
You have something of interest to share with other people. Everyone does. The key is to figure out how to share your topic or ideas while ensuring that you’re trying to help the person you’re talking to. Remember, we’re trying to build a community here, and building a community happens quickly when you become a source of value.
If you’re looking for an advanced technique, think of whatever topics you enjoy the most (marketing, design, music theory, woodworking, etc). Go search keywords related to your topic on Twitter Search. You now have hundreds, if not tens of thousands of people you can interact with and try to help. You’re welcome!
Create consistent content to keep people engaged
Following conversation, what kind of content are you putting out into the world to keep your community interested and new people finding you?
When I wrote “one of the most important things I could have done for my career…” earlier in this article, another important thing would have been consistency. I wrote an entire article about the power of consistency. Showing up. Publishing regularly. Being a reliable source of information. These things matter and make you stand out the more you do them on a consistent basis.
Content doesn’t have to be expensive. You don’t have to spend 10,000 hours per year creating content for your community. You don’t have to buy the fanciest gear to produce your content with. You simply need to create the content you can create, on a consistent basis, so that people in your community can count on you. Think about all the people you enjoy consuming content from. I bet you could list out the schedule of when they publish articles, podcasts, videos, etc.
I mentioned your content not having to be expensive, but don’t be cheap, either. Early on, just get your content out into the world to the best of your abilities. Any smartphone can record a video these days (it certainly couldn’t in 2005, when the only smartphones were Blackberries (ew) and Palm Pilots (ew ew)). This $70 lavalier microphone is one I still use often for anything audio related. And even professional journalists need nothing more than a mic and a blanket fort to record professional audio anywhere in the world.
(Paul Jarvis and I use blanket forts to record our podcast: Invisible Office Hours)
As you get more comfortable creating content and start to build a community, then you can start to think about the fancy equipment you should upgrade to. Until then, do the absolute best you can with what you’ve got at your immediate disposal.
Context separates you from the pack
You can create content all day long, but odds are, someone else in the world is creating content on your exact same topic. Instead of trying to compete on the content level, focus on context.
What is it about YOU that you can infuse into the content you create for a community?
What unique outlook or experiences do YOU have that you can share (pro tip: don’t have unique outlooks or experiences? Go create some by getting outside your comfort zone!)?
What’s twist can you put on things? Is it your non-sequitur writing style? Is it a super unique video style? Are you a wizard with metaphors?
Context is what makes your content stand out from the rest of the players in the arena. If you’re at a complete loss about your context, ask your friends. What do they think is unique about you? What stands out? See what you can learn from the people who know you best and are willing to shoot you straight. Your context will evolve over time, and that’s perfectly okay.
Creativity keeps a community engaged
Let’s face it, people get bored quickly these days. There’s a new app, cat GIF, cool website, or hilarious video to watch every day. When you’re building a community, it’s important to think about how you’ll add creativity to the mix to keep people’s attention on you and what you’re putting out into the world.
Creativity doesn’t happen out of thin air. Here are three ways you can cultivate it. You can exercise your creativity muscles and come up with interesting and different ideas for your community.
Get a little uncomfortable. Nothing creative ever happens in comfort zones and routines. This TEDx Talk about creative thinking has some great wisdom and practical advice when it comes to creativity:
Commotion brings new people into your community
Don’t be afraid to shake things up! Throwing a curveball every once in awhile will keep you energized and your community engaged.
Some of the most popular articles and projects I’ve done are the weirdest. They don’t fit into the categories of “marketing” or “running an online business” or “how to be entrepreneur.” You don’t have to do the big/crazy things, but switching it up from your standard focus and topics can really energize a community.
Why you should let community building happen by accident
I never knowingly set out to build a community, which might be one of your most important takeaways. Mine happened organically, and yours can, too. It actually already is happening! Every time you connect with someone and pique their interest, you are building your community.
But the best/hardest part? Is that you can’t fake it.
The opportunities and support that come from community building cannot be engineered. It happens organically when you treat people with respect.
It may sound cliche, but it’s true, and it’s very simple. Be a good human being, go out of your way for other people, and you’ll find yourself with opportunities and helpful people at your beck and call.
Just remember, it may take a long time, but you should be building a community for the long haul, not the short-term.