Lisa Hickey offers six ways to think about community building, and 16 ways to start building.
One of the things I talk about a lot is that since The Good Men Project started, we’ve connected with over 5 million absolute unique visitors. But there’s a whole lot of difference between 5 million isolated people and a community of people who work together towards a common goal. There’s a difference between media reach and a tribe.
And I’ve talked about building a network, and how when you have 10,000 people in that network (fans, followers, business associates, friends, readers) you go from being seen as an individual social networker to someone who heads up a media company. You’ve build a platform, and that platform has some value because you can reach a heck of a lot of people. That, in and of itself, is cool. But how do you then take that network and turn it into a growing, thriving community? A fandom? An engaged group of evangelists?
One way to think about it is through the lens of old vs. new media. Take The New York Times, for example. The good old fashioned, black and white and printed on newsprint version. They sell, say, 1 million copies of the newspaper a day. But each of those individual people who buy the Times doesn’t know each other, talk to each other, share the news, talk together about why what is in the Times is important. They don’t have a common vision; they just read the Times. Some of those millions may talk to each other about what they read, but it’s still far from a community. It’s not even a network. What they have is a bunch of subscribers.
Here are six ways you can think about the difference between building a community and building a collection of 10,000 strangers?
1) People in a community work together towards a common goal. The common goal of The Good Men Project is “sparking an international conversation about what it means to be a good man.” In an old fashioned-media company, we might simply point out male stereotypes. Whereas in a community, the people actively work to change those stereotypes. Everything the individuals in our community do — whether writing, editing, commenting, reading, sharing, communicating — revolves around that one goal.
2) A community recognizes each other by name. Ok, so you are the leader of your own community. What’s great is if you know people’s names – you recognize them — as commenters, tweeters, emailers. You know why they show up, why they believe in what you do. You don’t need to know everyone’s name, of course, but the rule of thumb is that if they’ve interacted with you 3 or more times, it would be impolite not to recognize who they are.
But the real sign of a community isn’t how many of the names you know. It’s whether the people you are connected know each other’s names. You want to build something that you can walk away from and have the conversation continue. And if nobody knows who anyone else is, that’s not going to happen.
3) A community understands the values they share. At The Good Men Project, we are lucky. Right here in our name we have two of our core values. Three actually. We are about, by and for men. We are about goodness and what that means in this day and age, particularly from a male POV. And we are a project – we are building something. People who are outside the project say, “oh, look what are they building over there.” People who are members of the community say, “pass me a hammer and a nail, would you?” They know what we are building.
4) A community helps each other. We talk about a lot of really difficult subjects on The Good Men Project. Sexual abuse, race, politics, gender, sexuality, unemployment. And so having people you can turn to when those conversations turn difficult is critical. But there are other ways to help each other – from the obvious ways like sharing each others posts and commenting on posts to anything like helping people find jobs, introducing them to people in your network, working together on co-written posts, sharing topic ideas.
If you are the one building a community – the best way to get others to be helpful to each other is for you to be helpful first. The people in your community will quickly learn to help each other by your example.
5) A community participates in the media instead of just consuming it. Back a very long time ago, media was something you read. In fact, if you read enough, it became part of your identity: “The man is well-read” people would say admiringly. As the internet allowed us to make connections as a fast and furious rate, media became something we shared. Everything became media, from 4,000 word essays to a picture of a bowl of cornflakes. Sharing was the new mantra.
But if you look at where media is going next, what the next big thing is – it’s media you participate in. You don’t just read it, you write it. You don’t just share, you share, you listen, you learn and you write about that experience. You don’t just spam people’s networks, you actually get a group of people who want to learn and grow together. You talk. You create. You use what you’ve learned to create more. And together you take actions that make everyone happier, smarter, funnier, more entertaining. That’s a community.
6) A community shares a common language The Good Men Project has had 5 million absolute unique visitors since we started. You might think it would be difficult to turn 5 million people into a community. But that’s what countries do. And we’re the size of a small country.
You don’t have to literally form a new language, but the members of your community should understand what the other members are talking about most of the time. When new people come into the community, there should be people patient enough to explain things to them. If people in your community are arguing, remember: “All arguments are about words.” And if you can’t get them to stop arguing, get them to more fully participate.
That gives you the framework for how to think about community building conceptually. But I love action steps. Here are 15.
1) When someone comments on a post, don’t just say “good point”, or “thank you”. Listen to what the person says, internalize it, and respond back in a way that moves the conversation forward. As Charlie Capen says “Turn your comment replies into art.”
2) Ask your best commenters to write a guest post for you.
3) Introduce people in your network to each other, specifically mentioning how they might help each other.
4) In order to get to a tipping point, you need to go from individuals to small groups to large. Focus on bringing in people into your community from all those levels – other individuals, other small groups, other large groups who share your mission/values.
5) Develop a voice that people want to listen to. How? Be clear, be passionate, be concise. Tell stories. Be specific. Read what you write out loud and listen to the rhythm and the flow.
6) When someone talks to you (tweets at you, comments, emails you), take a moment to think about why – how it relates to your community. Make a mental connection between what they just said and their name. You’ll be able to remember 1,00’s of people this way. (Sidenote: There’s something called Dunbar’s Number which says that 150 is the most amount of stable social relationships you can have at one time. Where you know who each person is, and how that person relates to others in the group. My view? Dunbar’s number is for wimps.)
7) Protect your community from spammers – your own work and others. If what you wrote was not something you can’t wait to share with others because you think it will be important to them (not you) – then don’t.
8) Be helpful. “Helpful is a secret, powerful, club, not to be underestimated.” says Chris Brogan. I concur.
10) Accept a diversity of ideas, people, and thinking into your community. Be open-minded.
11) Look for a diversity of media to tell your story. Videos, podcasts, radio shows, schools, workshops, panels, theatrical performances, songs, art, polls, questions, stand-up comedy, poems, talk shows. You – together with members of your community – can create any of those. Wondering how to turn a call into your own radio show? Try TalkShoe — Thanks, Thaddeus Howze. Or make up a media. THAT would be cool.
12) Do more with comments than just allow them. Make the best ones Comment of the Day. Start an Open Thread around an idea by a commenter. Put in a system that votes comments up and down. I used to joke that I wanted my job title to be: “Chief Bubbler at MediaWe”. Find the best ideas and get them out into the wild where they belong. Bring things to the surface that other people don’t see.
13) Give shoutouts to people in your community. Mention them by name. Oh – BTW — thanks Mark Sherman, JR Reed, Kyle Osier, Shawn Maxam, Earl Hipp, Chris Anderson, Thaddeus Howze, Joanna Schroeder, Justin Cascio and Noah Brand – all of whom were on the call today and help me build this list.
14) Create increasing levels of engagement with the people you meet. Here’s how it works on Twitter: How friends are born: Stranger -> follow -> @ -> dm -> fb -> email -> phone -> meet -> Friend (don’t worry, I’m also friends with tons of people I haven’t actually met).
15) Common language elements can be as simple as a hashtag on Twitter. #DadsTalking lets people know exactly what is going on.
16) Be not afraid. I have haters. I’ve been called names. People talk about me behind my back. Worse than that – some people ignore me.
When you have a community of people who like you – for who you are, what you do and why you believe in – the negative stuff goes out with the tide, and you remain a part of something bigger than yourself.
Ask me any questions — here in the comments, or by email firstname.lastname@example.org. Help each other. Build something.
photo: jorislouwes / flickr