The One Thing About Building A Community

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Have you ever wondered why there is such a struggle to build a sense community around the Digital Marketing initiatives you are developing?

It goes well beyond the famous movie line, "build it and they will come" from Field of Dreams. There is one, critical, piece of the puzzle that most Marketers and self-proclaimed "Community Managers" forget: it’s not about what’s happening on your space as much as it is about what you’re doing on the communities that serve your industry and space.

You will have no semblance of community unless you are an active community member in the other spaces.

If I had to do this all over again and start from scratch right now, what would I do? Without question, I would start a Blog and fill it with relevant and valuable content for the community, but I would spend ten times as much time adding value to the five or ten existing communities where my potential members might be hanging out, reading and connecting. It’s not a ploy and it’s not a trick, I would do this because I am interested and want to engage with the other community members. I would also be hopeful that those community members would be appreciative of my contributions and take a chance on checking out what I’m up to on my own space.

Give more than you get.

Some people hear that and think it’s about giving more on their own space (Blogging more or tweeting more). Big mistake. The "win" (if you can even call it that) is to give away more on the existing/other communities and spaces. To be valuable and relevant there. It does seem so counterintuitive at first blush. The idea is to populate and add value to someone’s else’s platform and community? Yes. Hugh McGuire (from Librivox, Bite-Sized Edits and a co-host on the Media Hacks) said it beautifully and succinctly: "don’t Blog to be known… Blog to be knowable." It’s subtle… and it’s true. 

The community decides when it’s a community… you don’t.

When you are an active member of an existing community, they will, if everything goes well, become proud participants and members of your community. They don’t owe it to you, and just because you created a platform doesn’t give you explicit rights to any community. As mentioned here, there and everywhere, community is something that is earned after time and value. Community is not something that happens when you need it, it’s something that you build over time that is suddenly there for you, when you need it.

If you want to build a community – be an active community member everywhere else first… and mean it.


  1. So true. I spend 2/3 of my time on other people’s sites/blogs/forums. A CM needs to genuinely care about the community they’re in, they have to care enough to want to spend time reaching out to potential members.
    Another thing I’ve learnt is that visiting other people’s sites can be good for SEO. People tend to add you to their blogroll when they’ve got to know you. And the backlinks have actually helped with my Google PR.

  2. Mitch,
    This all looks like hard work. Like a lot of effort. And that’s exactly what it is.
    There’s such a lot of ponzi-esque, do it quick and dirty nonsense that leaves many thinking that this social stuff is just like link-baiting.
    But it’s not.
    Authenticity is earned. Trust is earned. We can’t expect to walk around and get respect or position or work based on our own sense of self-importance. Can we?
    I wonder if a cultural obsession with instant fame has given us a feeling that life shouldn’t be hard work. Just ‘cos we’re not all working at a real coal face doesn’t mean that work is effortless!
    Maybe I’m just listening to the same people as you, Mitch – but I’m hearing a lot of people talking about the need for a focus on what you can bring and the passion to bring it.
    And that’s not just about digital/online/social *stuff*.

  3. This is an excellent post, Mitch. For the longest time, I was a blog stalker. When I first started reading blogs, I didn’t understand the importance of the conversation. I read the post, maybe tweeted a link, then moved on.
    Now, I realize that the comments section offers an invaluable opportunity to further flesh out an idea of delve into a great conversation with your readers. My blog is still new and it doesn’t get many comments, but I now understand the importance of participating in other blogs….not to benefit myself, but to help add value to others. And, typically, I learn something in the process by getting involved in the discussion.
    Great advice!

  4. Mitch,
    I think you hit the nail on the head with this one.
    A community isn’t going to form magically around a fan page you create or a blog that you start. It’s about going out and interacting with the people you want in your “community” where they already exist.
    Once they know who you are and value your input they are more than likely the check out your ‘community” and if the content housed in your community is remarkable than you will start to see a shift in eyeballs towards your site.
    Too many people try to start from scratch when it comes to blogging. If there already is an industry leading blog in that space, why not try and become a guest blogger on that site. Reinventing the wheel doesn’t need to take place, help out with the already established blog while you are building your own. It builds credibility and your passion/dedication to the subject should shine through.

  5. What a fabulous article! So true. My problem lately, has been I have been so knee-deep in work writing a book, managing an updated website that will come soon, and writing my daily blog, that visiting other blogs and sites have fallen by the waist-side over the past few weeks. There simply doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day. This has been upsetting, as I always do what you propose – contribute and engage where I feel I can contribute. Mitch, how do you handle the overwhelm and still find time to engage?
    Big Fan Erica

  6. To cite an age-old cliche, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Building any type of community and a band of followers takes time. Absolutely right! That’s probably why so many companies get burned out after their initial social strategy launch. Gotta keep engaging consumers and interacting on a frequent basis. Build it, and they’ll come.

  7. Exactly Mitch !
    This is also the lesson sadly missed by many of the candidates seeking office here Toronto’s municipal election.
    My approach has been to join as many of Toronto’s online communities, ask and answer questions on their websites, and intentionally ignore updating my own campaign blog.
    It’s works two fold: because I am engaging on the community’s ‘home field’ if you will, when they see my level of activity there vs my stale blog posts, this re-inforces their respect for my choosing to hang out in their ‘hood.
    Also, measuring web traffic to my campaign site informs me when and from where my message and participation is reasonating.
    Lastly, by choosing to turn notification on for select message forum and blog post which I have joined via comments makes me that much more ‘knowable’ on the go as my blackberry keeps going off several times an hour with updates. Hence making for better campaigning in person with Toronto voters and residents and media interviews.
    HiMY SYeD

  8. It’s part of the job. It’s like saying, “I have time to Blog but not the typing part.” It simply doesn’t compute. If you’re publishing a book, Blog and website, why would anyone connect to you if you are connecting back to them? It’s not something you do on top of what you’re doing. It’s something that is a part of what you’re doing.

  9. Thanks for another great post. Commenting and community involvement is like going to the grocery store to pick up a few things vs. going next door. If you go next door, say “hey can I borrow some sugar?”, it’s probably a one time thing. Because you may not want to do that again. Nobody goes next door anymore. But, if you go to the grocery store to pick up a few things one week. You go back next week. Then again. Everyone is walking around doing the same thing. You never know who you might see or meet. People see what others are doing/buying. You spend your time at the grocery store making your decisions and getting your products. Just an analogy I thought of.

  10. When it comes to posting on your own blog, less can sometimes be more. Posting a blogpost may be putting your idea out there to stimulate discussion. However, taking the time to post on other blogs will also stimulate discussion and can help build your community just much.
    If you allot one hour a day to “blogging” take a few of those hours to read other blogs and join in the discussion. If you only interact on your blog, all you will hear is the echo of your own voice.

  11. Great blog post Mitch and fantastic comments from everyone. This conversation has so much value and has given me many things to think about.
    Thanks everyone.

  12. nice post, Mitch…I have always been an observer of other online communities…not an active participant…I will apply your thoughts today, and go forward.

  13. For me, the participating in “community” is my way of feeling I am “giving back” to my profession.
    Just like some folks tell themselves they will give to charity each year, these same folks should give back to an online community. It does not have to be a “profession” online community; perhaps it could be around a blog that supports human rights or a charity.
    And in the process of “giving back” I am sure the person doing the giving will learn something. I know I have.

  14. One of the elements you discuss here Mitch is about finding the community members in other spaces. I continue to have difficulty finding them. In my case, it is business owners prepared to discuss their business issues in a peer to peer format. Any suggestions from the readers?
    What I tend to find are groups, such as on Linkedin, full of spammers or people out to promote themselves or business. Finding the genuine communities is hard.
    What experiences do others have?

  15. Andy, I reco looking for specific industry-based communities that are at least somewhat moderated or have a “new members approval” process — this is almost entirely to keep out spammers.
    Other than LinkedIn, some of the mail list groups on Yahoo or Amex’s OpenForum are good places to find people discussing and sharing their business issues.

  16. True, true and true again. I don’ think it’s counterintuitive at all, Mitch. It’s another application of looking at the customers’ needs/wants instead of your own features and benefits. If we blow our brains out trying to build a community around us, or our brand, we are doing the same thing as the company trying to sell people based on why their company is so great versus ‘let me help you with your problem’. There are exceptions (Mini, Harley Davidson), but I think for most brands you need to go where the people are, not, as you say, build it and they will come.
    As an aside, great session at the Art of Marketing event yesterday. I have three pages of notes to sift through on your session alone.

  17. From my perspective the fact that so many people are self proclaimed experts or Community Managers takes away so much from their efforts.
    They way most people present themselves can give you a good idea on how they are going to interact with others (most of the time). Most of the people I have interacted with online calling themselves an expert where all about talking about their efforts and not listening.
    I think that just as brands belong to everyone and not to the company that has the trademark communities are built on the support of many people.
    I was an active reader of blogs as previous people have posted and I have been learning to leave my footprints behind and give my point of view. On twitter and other platforms I have been spreading the word around and distributing what I think is good content.
    I think that as we learn on how to interact we realize that instead of writing 5 blog posts and have nobody interact on it. It is better to write one and share your thoughts on other content. If we do not do this we fall into virtual monologues and blogs that are created for the blogger not the readers.
    I have tried various efforts locally and I can say that one of the reasons they failed was due to my interaction and showing appreciation of the other content I was reading. This past 18 months as I went on my own setting up my consulting practice I have realized that the best deals I have had have come from giving more than what I was expecting to receive.
    Just as Mitch said if you do not interact you have no semblance. And in my opinion if you can make anyone else’s content more relevant it can only work in your favor.
    Thanks for the Great “Six Pixels of Separation” Book and your posts. I also enjoyed the other previous posts.

  18. I agree with David that it’s not about reinventing the wheel; it’s about upgrading it. And I agree with you Mitch that on every blog that I visit the magic occurs after the words “Comments”. If it wasn’t for the interaction and ability to find others we wouldn’t be connected at all. Thanks to this post I just found Laura Click which could very well maybe the next speaker at one of our conferences. Great job! –Paul

  19. I really like this post.
    Many companies try to set up a community within a market segment to “eavesdrop” on the conversations and insights that might be shared. Then their leaders pop in every once in a while, “friend” someone, make a self-serving statement, push some marketing jargon, and then fly out again. And they wonder why 95% of the community members aren’t participating, aren’t sharing, aren’t GIVING THEM WHAT THEY WANT.
    Companies need to give, give, and give some more before the semblance of a real community can be achieved. Great community managers can help make that happen.

  20. Mitch, your portion of The Art of Marketing was my favourite and most relevant yesterday. I’ve been wresting with the most effective way to build a community of our customers and so much of what you said has put me on the right track. And just to prove your point; reading all the comments on this post clarified it even further. Thank you.

  21. Engagement is leading by example. The rise of participation by commenting is a great outreach to sharing and extending the ideas of the original post. One thing I take from this thread is a desire to start celebrating the great comments of the week in addition to great blog posts. Is there a trackback capability for comments? It seems that celebrating the comments off site from the related blog might expedite more people to participate.

  22. is another great place to find like-minded people. The beauty is that you could find a group right in your own community (or, maybe a few miles over). I found an entrepreneur group right in my own city. Haven’t gone yet but I plan too. Good luck. πŸ™‚
    Oh, great article as always Mitch! I too have the problem of juggling everything from family, work, starting a small business and the like. I’m really learning about the importance of getting my mug out there to meet people face to face. It’s so easy to be virtual all the time and take the easy way out.

  23. Right on spot.
    We see three major challenges for Community building:
    a) Fish where the fishes are: in other word you have to map the virtual community out there in your industry, vertical or center of interest and spot great members, guest contributors and places where to promote your community.
    b) Create great content AND spot greater content from the outside (b2)
    c) Have something to sell that’s off value. Analytics and market research are the low hanging fruits … provided you’ve mapped the community out there.
    We specialize in community mapping, analytics and engagement πŸ˜‰

  24. One of the most valuable things a business can have is a strong following. Community members who engage with you on a regular basis tend to be loyal customers as well as brand ambassadors. And to build a strong following you need just one thing.. patience.

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