How To Build A Community Of 100,000 Followers In 24 Months

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Photo: JOE MARINARO via Flickr

This is a guest post by David Garland, author of a new book: Smarter, Faster, Cheaper: Non-Boring, Fluff-Free Strategies For Marketing & Promoting Your Business. It has been republished with permission.
Some of this advice is new, some sounds obvious in retrospect, but it’s always good hearing what works from someone who came from nowhere and it making it happen.

Two years ago I started my website The Rise To The Top in October 2008. The goal was to create a non-boring resource for entrepreneurs centered around a combination of video interviews (RISE…the web show) with successful entrepreneurs, big thinkers and “doers” (as opposed to people that just talk about doing) as well as blog posts, videos and other goodies.

Of course, like many of us, I really had no idea what I was doing. I constantly tried different things, had some lonely days (weeks, months) in the beginning, but eventually things started to click. I want to share this story with you to show you that this can be done by any hustling entrepreneur looking to grow a community and following. I’m no more special than you (even though my mum told me so) and the principles below I bet you can apply to your business and online strategy.

A Snapshot Of The Beginning In Fall 2008:

Here's the raw facts, then I'll explain exactly how I did it.

  • Total viewership: My dad, mum and grandma. Maybe a few random friends.
  • About 500 Facebook friends, mostly folks from high school, college and random friends.
  • Every post I would put up would have an average of one comment.
  • Zero media appearances in traditional media. None. Zippo. Or really any connections for media.
  • I'd never really hosted an offline event before.
  • I invested my own money to get everything going...basically funded by my Bar Mitzvah plus some random savings.
  • I didn't know any influential entrepreneurs, authors or really anyone that interesting in the business world.
  • I had just started with Twitter and had 4 followers.
  • No connections with big bloggers or online influencers.
  • My marketing 'budget' was a whopping $0.

Fast Forward To The End Of 2010 (Two Years Later):

  • RISE now gets over 100,000 viewers per month on the website, iTunes and other formats (including a TV app) plus thousands of subscribers who subscribe to daily and weekly updates.
  • Facebook has ballooned to over 5,500 friends/fans (on a personal page and fan page).
  • Most RISE posts now averages thousands of views plus tons of comments, shares on Facebook/Twitter, etc.
  • I've been blessed to have snuck into the media over 100 times including ABC, CNN, CBC, The Wall Street Journal, Bnet and more.
  • Since 2008, I've hosted 25 events ranging from Dinners and Discussions to Lunch & Learns bringing people I've met in the online world to offline.
  • The website became profitable in less than one year (top revenue source: sponsorships) and other opportunities also popped up including speaking gigs, consulting and a book deal with Wiley Publishing.
  • I've been fortunate to interview over 275 interesting people ranging from marketing master Seth Godin to the author of The 4-Hour Workweek Tim Ferriss and a whole slew of others. More important than the interviews, I've been able to strike up real relationships with all the guests.
  • Although numbers aren't everything (obviously), I'm VERY fortunate (and flattered) to have over 25,000 people follow me on Twitter and more important than pure numbers, interactions with hundreds on a daily basis.
  • I've had the opportunity to write a monthly column for Small Biz Trends as well as periodic guest posts on sites such as Personal Branding Blog and Hubspot's Internet Marketing Blog.
  • My marketing budget is still $0.

Why did I tell you this? Is it shameless bragging? (Well, yes, that too.)

Did I get really lucky? Not really.

Spend a lot of money? Nope.

Bribe people? Nope.

Most importantly, can you do something like this in your own way? Absolutely. Here are some of the lessons learned:

Lesson 1: It Starts With Being A Media Source & Creating Interesting Content

It all starts with the content you create and post on your home base (blog, interactive website). And keeping in mind what spreads and what doesn't. Think about what you share with others on a daily basis. What do you pass on it? Normally it falls into three overlapping categories:

  • Educational aka 'Interesstttingggggg....'
  • Entertaining aka 'LOL'
  • Inspiring aka 'I'm pumped up to take on the world.'

These might seem obvious, but look at most blog posts (from unsuccessful blogs) and you'll notice how almost none of the posts manages to be one of these three things. It's rarer than it should be.

What do people not share?

  • Overt marketing messages (when is the last time you passed on a banner ad to friends or some kind of sales crap?)
  • Boring content: 'Hey Jim, check out this blog post...really boring!'
  • Stuff that is hard to share: You can't expect people to take too many steps to share something. One or two clicks maximum will increase the ability for others to share 1000% or more. Make it painless.
  • Walled Content: Nothing wrong with paid content, but when it comes to building an audience and community, it is hard to spread content behind a paywall or any kind of wall.

Here again, perhaps the most important part is not being boring. Heck, even overt ads will, in fact, be shared when they're not boring (for example the Old Spice guy). And again, it's amazing how difficult it is to not be boring -- saying something new 'enough' that it's interesting, a writing style that moves along and entertains, relatable stories, and so on.

Put it this way, instead of asking 'How wide the audience for this post,' ask 'Will some people find this super-interesting.' Instead of asking 'Is this post long (or short) enough,' ask 'Will some people find this immensely compelling.' Instead of asking 'Is this content unique enough,' ask 'Will some people be swayed by my arguments here.'

My strategy was pretty simple with RISE: Create interesting video interviews with unique people. Plus supplementing with non-boring articles, video blogs and other content. And focus design on simplicity of sharing. Over time, like Novocain, it works.

Lesson 2: Unique Positioning

I get this question a lot: 'If everyone can create content, how do you stick out from the pack?'

Fair question. How do you stick out?

Here are a few ways:

#1: It's cliche I know, but the more passionate you are, the better. And passion makes you stick out. A person who is 'just creating content because it is their job' will lose to the person who actually gives a crap. Because creating a community and audience takes effort (as well as a tiny bit of blood, a lot of sweat and tears). Passion and excitement are consistent and infectious.

#2: Personality. People gravitate to personalities much more than faceless brands. And I'm not talking about 'holier than thou gurus' or some other queeze-worthy phrase of the moment. I'm talking about people that educate, entertain and or inspire. A human face. We are in the midst of the rise of personal publishing and people latch on to people and ideas.

#3: Video. Creating video separates you from the pack, especially authentic 'real' video as opposed to scripted garbage. Why? Because next to face-to-face nothing can create a 'know, like, trust' relationship (vitally important) as video. And no need to fret over the technology or fear of being on camera. The tech is getting easier by the day and the fear goes away with practice.

Bottom line is worry less about what the competition is doing and focus on what you want to do.

It's not about how much better you are than X, or whether you're different enough from Y, but just whether you are doing something compelling yourself.

Lesson 3: Consistency & Commitment Wins

Lesson 4: One-On-One Human Relationships

Lesson 5: Taking It Offline

Has social media and Internet completely changed the game when it comes to connected with people and building a community? You betcha. Is it the end-all-be-all and can we forget about 'offline' and 'face-to-face'... no way.

Still, nothing quite beats face to face relationships. Sure, you can't have them with everyone you meet online, but you have to get out from behind the computer and bring those online relationships offline and offline relationships online.

Why?

Getting to hang out with someone face-to-face is memorable. And you can continually stay in touch with people online afterward.

How might you do this? Besides of course hanging out at conferences and events in your niche (the hallways are where the real relationships are formed), why not bring people together in your home town for a lunch or dinner? There is massive brand building power in bringing people together.

Since 2008, I've hosted 25 events ranging from 20-150 people and while it took a fair amount of effort, the overhead was minimal (meaning it wasn't like putting on a massive conference) and results were more solid relationships. This past year I hosted lunches for 50-or-so forward-thinkers to come together, hang out, enjoy some food and take in and participate in three interactive mini-talks with special guests. It was a lot of fun. And photos, videos and live tweets from the event made it much more than just a two hour experience. The Internet never forgets.

Lesson 6: Respecting The Blogger & Traditional Media By Positioning Yourself As A Trusted Resource

Positioning yourself as a trusted resource on a variety of topics can do a whole heck of a lot of good when it comes to building a following. Why? Because you can create a fantastic triangle.

  1. The blogger or new media source gets great content from you (makes their job easier).
  2. You get your smiling face in front of THEIR audience/community.
  3. If your content is great, you will attract new people into your community.

Sweet.

The key to think about as you create your own content is WHAT topics can you talk about with confidence? What are a few broad topics (remember traditional media is a bit more broad) and what are some uber-specific topics? Here is the (partial) way I would answer that myself:

Broad Topics:

  • Business
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Marketing
  • Online Marketing
  • Generating Buzz
  • Social Media

Specific Topics:

  • Building An Audience/Community
  • Becoming Your Own Media Source
  • Maximizing Online Video
  • Turning Passion/Interests Into Money

The next step is finding needs to reach out to reporters/bloggers as a trusted resource and not a product pusher. Again, this isn't about press releases but knowing the source and offering up something helpful. A guest post works equally well with online and offline sources because journalists, editors, and bloggers are always under the gun to produce more content, and if you're supplying them with something good you're making their jobs easier.

Wrapping It Up & Learning More:

Of course like on those annoying infomercials (Lose 20 Pounds In 3 Minutes!!!!) there is that fine print: Your results might vary.

Unlike those infomercials, this is realistic. We all have opportunities now to create communities, audiences and a following. And you can start right now.

Happy building! And let's continue talking about this in the comments section.

And finally, a tiny pitch: Looking to build your own passionate, engaged community? Check out my new book Smarter, Faster, Cheaper: Non-Boring, Fluff-Free Strategies For Marketing & Promoting Your Business (out today!)

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