How to Build a Community: The Difference Between 10,000 Strangers and 10,000 Engaged Activists.

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.

So what.

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 Help each other. Build something.

photo: jorislouwes / flickr


About Lisa Hickey

Lisa Hickey is CEO of Good Men Media Inc. and publisher of the Good Men Project. "I like to create things that capture the imagination of the general public and become part of the popular culture for years to come." Connect with her on Twitter.


  1. J P McMahon says:

    The comment thread didn’t last very long on this essay, but I read it and I’m going to throw this out there. Jaron Lanier wrote an incredible book a couple of years back called “You are Not a Gadget”. One of the ideas that struck me the most from the book was the idea that people being “friended” on Facebook diminishes the whole idea of what friendship IS. I like this site, look at it semi regularly, and have commented multiple times. I even recognize some of the other commenters, most of whom use pseudonyms. But I don’t see myself as a member of some “community”. I also look at the PUA site Chateau Heartiste, but I don’t consider myself a part of that community either. And that dude gets hundreds of comments on his posts, often from the same people. No one on this site is ever going to lend me their truck, help set up a block party, or go to a parent’s funeral. Along with the fake name posters, I really don’t know who the people staffing and contributing to this site are, really. I am assuming that they are using their real names and photos (unless it obviously not the case) but how can I be sure? I have no idea where anyone is geographically, unless they put it in a mini-bio. I think what you have here is a web site about guys that has had a good bit of traffic, but it is hardly a “community”. You could have a real, three dimensional conference, cruise, or picnic somewhere, and see how many three dimensional people actually go through the trouble to show up. That would be the start of a community.

    • I do like your 3D definition of community. But if the truth be known, I have enough of those people in my life. The danger there is that I get too digital with the real (as opposed to digital) pals. That said, it may be a nostalgic notion to combine the idea of community with the flow of ideas/information. GMP and so many other site brings people together around different sides of ideas. I don’t think it’s realistic to think of them as ever becoming the friend like amigos you’re referring to above. Maybe more of an intellectual community, sharing the love of chewing on the bone of an idea. Maybe the vocabulary for these associations hasn’t been invented yet. But, as you say, they’re not going to be cooking my burgers in the back yard.

  2. Many thanks for this amazing post. For someone who recently decided to step out into the world with his message of advocacy on behalf of boys, full of trepidation about how it might be received, or if anyone cares to receive it at all (!), your words have been very inspiring. I’ll be reading and re-reading the post many times over the coming days!

    Also, many thanks for The Good Man Project. I was thrilled to have discovered you recently; I’m only now beginning to digest the plethora of amazing articles and ideas. I don’t quite recall how I found you, but it’s the way my life has always worked when I make a brilliant discovery. (I believe I stumbled upon an article by Jayson Gaddis. You might be glad to hear Jayson and I are in touch—a connection made under the GMP community umbrella!)

    Not coincidentally, the name of The Good Man Project and my business have the word “Project” in common—THE BOYHOOD PROJECT. So I appreciate the way you defined the word “project” in the context of the company name. Truly succinct!

    If you’re interested in learning more about THE BOYHOOD PROJECT, please check our brand new Facebook page or our website . By the way, I just sent you a friend invitation on Facebook. So, when you see my name pop up, you’ll know who I am…well, sort of.

  3. As far as Dunbar’s number goes, the idea is that there is a limited amount of cognitive ability able to be directed toward effective (and that is the word) relationships. Yes, you can know a lot more than 150 people, but our brains can only effectively allocate a certain amount of time, energy, cognitive ability and effective interaction to the top 150 people in our lives.

    Doubt it? Try and name more than one hundred and fifty people you interact with regularly. List who they are, what they do for you and the depth of your relationship.

    Yes, there will be people who may be able to juggle more than 150 but those people are also likely to be people persons as well and able to deal with a greater number of relationships. The idea of the Dunbar number was to discuss how primates interact with each other and deal with quality relationships. That number was never designed to discuss our ephemeral relationships of the modern era, where we have extended our intellectual capacity using technology as an extension of our brains. Our technology is remembering what our relationships are so that Dunbar number could conceivably be higher.

    The question remains is the quality of the relationship BETTER for extending our Dunbar number through technology, or should we consider the Pareto Principle when we extend our relationships. Pareto’s Principle is better known as the 80/20 rule that says 80% of a result comes from 20% of the work put into it. This is the thinking behind the concept of diminishing returns which is familiar to most people. I would think our relationship quality would also be best defined this way. 80% of the qualities that improve my life, which come from relationships I have, comes from only 20% of the people I interact with.

    With all of the complexities of modern life, I am definitely a believer in:
    – Less is more
    – Quality not quantity
    – Smarter not harder
    – You can’t do more with less. You can only do less with less.
    – You want quality results, you have to put in more, not less.
    – You can have quick, fast or cheap, but never all three. This is one of those unwritten laws of the Universe.

    Dunbar’s number is just a concept, but there may be more hidden truth there than we realize. We have only a fixed amount of attention and time we can bring to bear on any topic, thing, or effort we undertake. Quality relationships allow us to have people help us extend our strength, abilities, and opportunities. Quality matters. Seek it out.

  4. Guys, stop having such great conversations without me! lol.

    I definitely think GMP is more a community than not. We’re better at some of those points than others, for sure. But then, some things are easier to do in real-world communities than online communities.

    • Lisa Hickey says:

      Hah! Join in the weekly conference calls, Heather. Fridays at noon. I think the call in number works internationally.

      It’s only been recently that I’ve really been able to see how to help GMP become more of a community. So I think it will continue to get better. Let me know if you have any other ideas from other community’s you’ve been a part of. And we’re working on that forum!

      • “I think the call in number works internationally.”

        Unfortunately it won’t be free internationally. At least, not on the cell phone plan I’ve got. 🙁 At the moment I’m still in the US, so it would be free…except that I’m literally never sure of my schedule since I’m still with my parents until I get my visa sorted for the UK. Once I’m in the UK again, my internet may make it so I can finally use Skype. So…yeah, you all can start having great conversations starting in mid-late August. 😉

        And I may e-mail you with a couple ideas. 🙂

  5. I’m just loving both being your Social Marketing student and watching you grow GMP into a real community. It’s exciting and even challenging for me. As a result of this specific conversation, I’ve been inspired to survey the almost 1000 subscribers to my Man-Making Blog to measure their degree of interest in different forms of dialogue. I also plan to explore which forms of digital tools for exchanges they’d prefer. I’m looking at conference calls, a topical bulletin board, Google+ or Skype “real time” meetings, the TalkShoe program you mentioned, and good old webinars.

    Your consistent message to engage my audience may just finally have fallen on fertile ground. Thanks for that.

    • Lisa Hickey says:

      That’s awesome Earl. It’s always so nice to hear when someone actually finds the information useful. Usually that only happens to me a year later, when people have had time to build up their networks themselves. And I’ll bump into them and they’ll say something to me like “Hey, you know all that stuff you taught me about social media? It all worked!”

      I have been mulling the idea of a survey for GMP readers also. I think it’s a great idea to get as much feedback as possible as to what you’re doing best and what is just not working.

      Thanks again for all your support!

  6. Great post.

    • Lisa Hickey says:

      Thanks Archy! You have been one of those people who has actively helped us turn GMP into a community rather than a collection of strangers. And I thank you for that!

      • I do what I can. I find it easier to talk online with my social anxiety disorder making it quite difficult to meet people face to face, it’s great to learn of other people though without having to see them face to face. It’s also great to meet such a variety of people so quick, from all over the world. I think that is the true power of online socializing. It’s very hard to find like-minded people where I live, but on here there seems to be quite a lot!

  7. Great story Lisa. Love the action list too altho I think you misinterpreted Dunbar’s number-lol.

    • Lisa Hickey says:

      REALLY! How would you have interpreted Dunbar’s number? I love being proven wrong. 🙂

      And thank you, Shawn, for being the one to ask me to write this. I never would have done it otherwise.

      • You are very welcome Lisa.

        I always thought of Dunbar’s number more about not just you knowing each person but being aware of how each person in the group knows each other. “these are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person.”

        So for example I know you and Tom Matlack. And I can remember that I know both of you from GMP but I may not be aware of how you know each other. (technically I do know but I am just using you and Tom as examples-lol).

        It’s sorta the difference between me knowing if my Uncle is either my mom’s brother or my dad’s brother. But I could be totally incorrect.

        Also you are an outlier in terms of ability to maintain social connections. If only all of us could be as gifted as you are Lisa.

        Again great post and some great ideas came out of the call as well.

        • Lisa Hickey says:

          Ahh, yes, well, technically I think you are right Shawn. Except that from what I understand from the definition, there is a “cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.” And the *reason* there’s a limit is because you need to be able to grasp the relationships you describe so well in your comment.

          When I am out at a party and run into someone I don’t recognize, the worst thing isn’t not knowing their name, the worst thing is trying to figure out “How do I know this person?” To me, the underlying concept of Dunbar’s Number is that when you are unable to answer that question, your social system starts to fall apart.

          It’s one of the reasons why the promise of social networks like Facebook and Twitter is so great. They do for social interactions and Dunbar’s number what Google did for sheer information. You don’t know whether Friend A knows Friend B? Go on Facebook to see how they are connected. Switch to LinkedIn and see where their jobs overlapped. Hop over to Twitter and see how much they talk to each other.

          In fact, the *reason* I am an outlier, as you say (and proud to be called one!) is that I do, in fact, spend hours of time studying just such a thing. When I get on the evangelist calls for GMP, I am always quick to ask people who they are. When I am naming people on the call, I give a sentence about who they are and why they are here. I try to give the “Dunbar Information” to everyone else on the call.

          I used to be really, really horrible at social connections. I used to not talk to people. The number of people that I could sustain “stable social relationships” with used to be about 5, and at times in my life it was 0. This was not a good thing. So this joy — this joy at being able to have such large amounts of relationships with people — relationships where we know how we met and why we met and what value we each bring to the table and, yes, how we are mutually connected and with whom — that joy is what I want to give to other people. That’s why I get so excited about this stuff.

          thanks for stopping by!

          • So Lisa you should turn this comment into a post. Describing how you give out Dunbar information is pretty great.

          • Lisa, great example of a great article written about and within the context of a living, breathing community. Not only did it offer great concepts, but followed up with action steps we can all take, then the discussion deepens the experience of the articles. Loved this little interaction between you and Shawn. Gives me a wonderful feel of how the GMP actually works.


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