Humans are emotional beings. And despite our best efforts to maintain a Spock-like level of reason, how we feel has a funny way of overpowering how we think.(Why else do you think ‘sex sells’ so well?) When you’re validating a new business idea, you need to connect with your users on an emotional level. This is where your community comes into play. The community you build around you and your project will not only validate your idea for you, they’ll attract more like-minded people (aka customers). And, with so much content constantly vying for our attention, having a community built pre-launch can be the difference between success and failure. Here, we’ll take a look at why and how everyone from serial entrepreneurs to best-selling authors to coders has built strong communities around their products.
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Every project starts with a networkWhen serial entrepreneur Jason Zook started out with his IWearYourShirt business, he thought the product would sell itself: “We flipped the site live the night before and so I woke up expecting an inbox full of money.” The reality? “12 people had visited the website.” So he did the next thing that made sense. He reached out to friends and family. “I literally went into my inbox and emailed every person in here. And not ask them to buy, just to tell them about this crazy thing I’m working on and ask ‘do you know anyone who might be interested in it?’” It may seem simple, but that outreach turned into 5 sales. Those 5 sales turned into more referrals and the business and community around it started to grow. Jason Zook explains how to build a community around every project you start: The key? Start by building a community out of who you know and go from there. In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Steven Covey calls this working your ‘Circle of Influence’—focusing your effort and time on the things you have control of. Rather than reach out to people you don’t know or start running ads, go to places you know will at least give you a shot: “So many people want to start on social media with a new project and they immediately say, I need to create a Twitter account and a Facebook page. But you have no trust there. You have no rapport with anyone. And even if you do, it’s not as good as what you have if you just email someone who knows you and say ‘hey, look at this project. Can you support me in some way?’” Now, Jason’s go-to launch plan for every project from books to website to software consists of the same community building exercise. Start with the circle of influence and move out from there.
Communities are built on values, not topicsThe reason your friends and family are a good place to start, is that you probably share at least a few values with them. And every good community is built around shared values. Ask yourself, why do people care about what you’re doing? Green Energy isn’t just about energy. It’s about environmentalism, feeling connected to the Earth, and being a conscious consumer. That’s what your community wants to hear. Not just how your product will make their life easier, but that you’re one of them. That you’re on the same team. When best-selling author Chris Guillebeau started building the community around his book The Art of Non-Comformity, he knew there were powerful emotions he could tap into with his community. Chris Guillebeau on the philosophical aspect of communities: “When I first built the community, it wasn’t organized around a demographic or a certain kind of people that met certain criteria. It was very much values based. The whole movement was about non-conformity. Now how is that expressed? It’s expressed through travel, entrepreneurship, etc… What are then the needs of those people and how can we meet them?” Knowing your target audience means that you’re able to tap into those needs and create something people truly want. But unlike just giving them the answers, your community allows them to help each other, be in a safe and welcoming space, and create meaningful connections. As a wise person once said…
“People come for the content and stay for the community”Starting with a Facebook group where you can directly engage with your audience sounds exciting. But at the early stages of your business, having enough time to devote to nurturing a full-blown community is most likely not going to happen. Instead, you should look for your own MVC (Minimum Viable Community). What is the easiest way for you to make engaging with a community part of your routine? Is it through email? Blog comments? A Slack channel? Facebook? Maybe even a local meetup. For Laurence Bradford, founder of Learn to Code with Me, it all started with her blog. “The first several months of blogging was just trying this and that and seeing what sorts of content people enjoyed. I think it was about a year later I decided to start the Facebook group and the reason was I had heard this quote somewhere, ‘people come for the content and stay for the community.’ “So I started to think, how can I take this beyond just the blog and actually have people communicate amongst one another and help each other especially for something like learning to code, which can be a frustrating and challenging and oftentimes very lonely undertaking.” Laurence explains how she built a highly engaged community of more than 6,000: The answer for Laurence was a Facebook group. However, a group requires constant attention and nurturing to keep members engaged. So, in the early days when there are fewer people checking in, Laurence went to the group that she thought would help her the most: “Initially I would just start inviting my friends. But when I say ‘friends’ I mean my online friends. So maybe they’d been reading the blog or had been doing similar kinds of blogging online, and I just reached out personally through email or Facebook to invite them.” We can start to see a pattern here. But moving into the next space beyond ‘friends’ takes time. “The group very quickly got to around 50 people. But when it started to truly take off was when I added it to my email list.” Laurence had set up an email automation campaign for new subscribers to her blog. Meaning they would automatically get a series of emails introducing them to her and her content once they signed up. The flow is quite basic: People come to the blog, sign up for the email list, and then join the group. At this point, there’s one more logical question: How do you get that traffic to your blog or community in the first place?
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Bonus: How to land high-profile guest posts and break into existing communitiesTalking to everyone involved in this post, one of the main comments that came up time and time again was guest posting. Writing for other established audiences and communities gives you a chance to hone your skill, show that you’re part of their ingroup, and get validation on your ideas. When writer and entrepreneur Ryan Robinson was looking to build out the traffic and audience for his own blog and courses, he reached out to similarly themed sites to get featured. Places like Lifehacker, Forbes, and Inc. where other entrepreneurs looking for help and support would congregate. But it’s not just enough to write for these communities. You need to give them a clear next step to engage with you. “I always make sure to include at least 1 link back to a specific post, landing page, or project I’m seeking to promote (or validate) within the first few paragraphs of the guest post to make sure I’m maximizing my chances of driving back readers who are interested in signing up to learn more.” This basic landing page or post needs 2 things:
- A brief description of your upcoming solution (business, course, software, blog, etc…)
- A way to collect email addresses
5 steps for cold-pitching guest posts:Ryan’s first guest post back in 2015 was for Buffer—a social media scheduling tool with a blog readership of well over a million monthly readers. Ryan cold-emailed one of the writers on their team using this exact strategy:
Step 1: Create a landing page (or blog post/proof of concept)Nearly every post I publish on my blog is treated as a proof of concept for a potential course topic. I choose to use blog posts as proof of concepts because that’s what I’m good at and I can do it quickly. For your purposes, this landing page can be in the form of a simple blog post, sales page, product description, video or otherwise. This is the destination that’ll serve as home base for when you’re ready to go out and pitch guest posts.
Step 2: Build a list of publications, brand and blogsOnce I publish a post to my blog, I’ll create a shortlist of 10-20 different publications, blogs, and brands that I think I can realistically land a guest post with. I choose a topic closely related to my landing page back on my own website. I’ll vet these websites and make sure they accept content on my topic and have engaged readers.
Step 3: Create outlines of derivative works from the original postNext, I’ll break down the sections of my original post and start outlining what a more detailed post could look like. For example, from my post on the 10 Steps to Starting a Business While Working Full-Time, I could choose #2 on the list (Inventory Your Strengths and Interests) and outline a more detailed post that expands upon actionable strategies for finding your strengths and interests. Now, I’ll start to pair up these new post outlines with the target websites I want to get a guest post published on.
Step 4: Find the right point of contact at my target websitesThis is key. You need to pitch a real person and make sure it’s the right person. That’s someone who (1) cares and (2) can do something about your guest post idea. For that reason, I always look to target a marketer, writer, editor, or blog manager.
Step 5: Reach out with a value-driven approach, then pitchBefore pitching someone, I’ll often go back to my original post and add in a relevant link to a piece of content on their blog. That way, when I reach out, I can keep the message related to just my mention of them—providing value first. I’ll ask them to give it a quick look to make sure I’m citing them properly and linking to the best possible destination. Two things they’ll care about and it’s not a big ask. That gets them to my website where they can see what the post is about and a bit about me. Then once they respond, I’ll pitch them on the guest post topic that I believe to be most relevant. It’s a lot of work and you definitely want to spend time making sure your guest post does well. But by providing value first, you’re going to plant the seeds for a relationship that will grow and evolve.
Few products survive without a community. When you create a community of people that is engaged, excited, and connects on values, you’re not just solving a problem. You’re making your customers feel like a part of something bigger.