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6 Easy Steps and One Big Secret to Growing a Self-Sustaining Online Community
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Last Updated on November 24, 2021
Editor’s note: This post is written by guest author Austin W. Gunter, the Brand Ambassador for WP Engine’s WordPress Hosting Platform. Austin started his career in technology startups before joining WP Engine earlier this year to help them grow the community around their hosting.
I’ve been building communities since 2009. I started with a small technology incubator in Austin, Texas and had the opportunity to recruit and work with more than 120 tech startups during that time. I had just graduated from college with a degree in Rhetoric, so I felt completely out of my depth in attempting to build a community of startups in a brand new technology incubator.
In order to survive, I had to learn how to quickly attract new people to my community and then find ways to keep them engaged long-term. Clearly what I had learned in my Rhetoric degree was not going to be practical for this job. I had to learn the principles of the community quickly if we were going to grow a successful business.
Your job to draw traffic to a blog and build a community is the exact same challenge that I faced. It’s no small task, particularly when you have tied your income to the community you’re building! Fortunately, if you’re using WordPress, there is no shortage of tools at your disposal that will help you grow your community.
However, there is a huge misconception about building a community. It’s a misconception that I had to release myself from at age 22 in order to make my incubator work. If you don’t free yourself from this misconception, it will destroy your blog before you ever install your theme or point your DNS.
The Misconception that will destroy your community
The misconception: Community is not the product of attracting huge numbers of people from Reddit or Lifehacker to your site. In fact, that is practically worthless. Huge numbers of random people from those sites will not grow your site’s community because those people don’t want to pay attention to what you’re building.
Attention is one of the most precious commodities on the Internet. It’s more valuable than dollar bills, and communities are built on the attention of every single individual in the community. Reddit and Lifehacker aren’t sources of long-term attention for your site, but there is a secret ingredient that I want to share with you.
If you can add this key ingredient, your site will have enormous traffic, and you’ll have the opportunity to build a vibrant community around your website.
But if you can’t figure out how to add this ingredient, your website will languish in the Internet’s waiting room, hoping to one day hear them call your number. You’ll spend hours in front of your computer, in your mom’s basement, thinking that tomorrow will finally be the day that the internet pays attention to your site.
I don’t want you to sit in your mom’s basement shouting at the ceiling. I want you to learn the same secret that I learned at 22 that helped me build the startup incubator and that I still use today.
In order to ignite your community into a wildfire, you need this crucial ingredient.
It may not seem like much at first, but it’s a powerful secret to have on your side.
Influencers are the only people that matter to your community. Without influencers, your community will never achieve critical mass or become a self-sustaining entity.
Influencers are the only ones who have the power to put your site on Reddit or HackerNews.
Influencers are the only ones who will increase your Twitter followers and your Facebook Likes.
If you can draw Influencers to your website, your community will follow. Bringing Influencers to your site will bring an avalanche of visitors and a community will naturally form without you having to do anything.
So who are these Influencers, and why do they matter so much?
Influencers matter because when they recommend a website, people pay attention. Remember how attention is more valuable than money?
Influencers are the most visible people in any community. They’ve earned the right to their opinions, and when they say something, people listen. Their opinion carries weight with hundreds and thousands of people. They’re the people you want to visit your site because they will bring their audience with them.
Influencers have a gravitational pull, and if you attract influencers, you will attract their followers.
Chances are, you probably already know exactly who your influencers are. If you’ve done your research, you know how important influencers are to your traffic, and you have a strategy for getting to know them and getting them to become regular visitors for your blog.
Do you want some examples of influencers?
Matt Mullenweg is an Influencer in the WordPress community as well as the startup community. Ryan Imel is an Influencer for WordPress Bloggers. Syed Balkhi is an Influencer for affiliates and WordPress. Clark Wimberly is an influencer for Android and Developers.
Each of those people has built a community around their work. When they publish something, people pay attention. They’ve earned the right to have well-respected opinions.
TechCrunch is not an influencer. PandoDaily (as much as I love PandoDaily) is not an influencer. WP Candy isn’t even an influencer. Ryan Imel created his influence by building WP Candy, which is influential, but only Ryan is an Influencer. He can read your blog, but his site can’t.
I hope you’re starting to see where I’m going with this. Influencers are *people,* not websites. Furthermore, influencers are people who are active in the market that you’re going after. If you’re blogging about WordPress, talk with Ryan Imel and find out what it would take for him to write about your site. Later in the post, I’ll show you exactly how to start a conversation with
Here’s an example
In the Fall of 2011, two big blogs covered WP Engine. One was a *massive* tech blog that covered startup funding events and kept the pulse of the entire startup community. The other blog was a well-trafficked niche blog that covered startups and life hacking, and also covered elements of growing online websites, including hosting platforms and WordPress.
One of the blogs generated an amazing amount of traffic for WP Engine and had high conversion rates, a dream scenario. Months later, we still see referral traffic from this site. The other blog sent a modicum of traffic but didn’t convert much, and ultimately was a small blip for our community. Nobody became part of our community.
This blog was important and it was powerful, but it wasn’t an influencer that would help us grow. This site sent visitors who weren’t part of our community and therefore didn’t arrive with any desire to join our community.
Which blog made the most difference?
If you guessed that the well-trafficked niche blog, the “smaller” blog, written by an actual person, was the one that grew our community, you’re right. This blogger had spent time growing his own audience and community that had substantial overlap with our community. Because they trusted his opinions, he had a great deal of influence on where they were willing to spend their precious attention online.
I wish I could show you the Google Analytics from his site. His blog post about WP Engine continues to drive significant traffic to our homepage.
When you’re building your community, you want to think about who will be influential in building it with you. Community building is collaborative.
Who are the influential people in your industry? What social networks are they active on? What sort of things do they normally talk about and share? Who influences them? Who do they trust?
Those questions lead to a simple model for connecting with influencers (if you don’t have relationships with them already) and earning their trust. You see, influencers are incredibly careful who they pay attention to and support. They know their power. You have to earn your way into their circles using an old secret from psychology textbooks and social engineering.
Connecting with Influencers in 6 Steps
The secret is social proof. Prove your own social value in the influencer’s circle of friends, earn social proof, and you will earn trust with the influencer.
Here’s how in 6 Steps.
- Identify 10 influencers you want to develop a relationship with. Make sure you actually want to develop a relationship with these folks. They are people too!
- Identify their preferred social networks: Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, etc, and set up your own profile.
- Make a list of 10 topics they like to talk about and find 10 people the influencer trusts on the social network. Again, be genuine. If you’re fake, you’re doing it wrong.
- Start developing relationships with the trusted circle around your influencer, focusing on the topics they like to talk about.
- Rinse and repeat. Trust takes time to earn, and if you push for trust too early, you’re going to be left out in the cold. Wait until you have a real relationship with the whole circle of people before you start
- Engage the influencer. Maybe this means offering a guest post. Maybe it means requesting one. Tell them you have a project you’re working on, and you think they would appreciate it because it matches their interests. Once you have a relationship, you have the right to ask for their attention. If they like you, they’ll give it to you.
Creating a Forum
Do you already have a small but loyal group of contributors and readers? In that case, you could be looking at the simplest, self-sustaining option to create a new layer of community engagement in the form of a forum.
While launching a forum is great for engagement, don’t rush it. If you haven’t got enough users, a patchy, empty or inactive forum can look hugely off-putting, often resulting on the loss of visitors.
Wrapping it all up
This isn’t a “get rich quick” process. It takes time and discipline to implement, and it’s not for everyone. If you’re looking for a simple route to build a “community,” these steps aren’t for you.
But if you are ready to build a community that will last a long time, follow those 6 steps and watch your community catch fire.
Since you’ve taken the time to read this post, I want to hear what you think. Was this valuable to you? Did it suck? Do you want your 20 minutes back? Let’s have a conversation in the comments about how you’re building a community? What questions do you have about connecting with *your* influencers? How can I help you be successful?
Hope this helps.
Austin W. Gunter
Disclosure: Some links on this page may be affiliate links. In some cases, we may receive compensation from the companies whose products we review.