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How to build community online


Social media gurus spew jargon. If you attempt to quantify such statements as “Build Your Community Online” you may become frustrated because no-one tells you what building community actually means and how to build community around your skills or your brand.

I’ve done all this for a while and I’m an expert in how people behave, so I’ll let you in on what, physically and mentally, “Building Community Online” really means. First, we’ll see what “Community” is defined as, and second, we’ll talk about how to build community.


“Community” is a broad term, but surprisingly, it is NOT the people you want to sell to. Let me repeat: “COMMUNITY” IS NOT YOUR CUSTOMERS.

That deafening gasp you hear is coming from the multitudes of online charlatans who call themselves “social media experts.” [Here’s an aside: There are very few social media experts around. There is absolutely no certification or recognized degree program in “Social Media,” and for the generally accepted term “expert” to apply, a person must have at least a Masters level degree or successful passing of nationally recognized standardized certification tests (or both). 20 years of experience may substitute in some cases, but otherwise those are the minimum requirements for “expert.”] OK, back to the gasping. Don’t worry, those social media gurus will get their breath back just in time to leave me flame comments.

Here’s the revolutionary secret that those lightheaded masses won’t tell you: COMMUNITY IS YOUR FELLOW BELIEVERS. Any true community is already sold on you, your brand, your profession or your product. You do not have to sell to these people; they already believe in you and/or what you do. Your community is made up of people who will find you customers. They will refer their own friends and contacts to you. Why will they do this? Because, as I said, they’re believers. You need to find these believers. When you find them, don’t sell, sell, sell. Don’t pitch. You don’t need to sell to them, and doing so will just make you seem disingenuous. I will get to what you should do in a minute.

OK, to lay it out plainly,

YOUR COMMUNITY is made up of:

  1. Professionals In Your Field
  2. Some Professionals In Closely Related Fields
  3. People Who Use Or Identify With Your Brand/Product Already
  4. Personal Contacts Who Believe In You, Your Brand/Product

Get it? COMMUNITY IS NOT MADE UP OF CUSTOMERS. COMMUNITY IS MADE UP OF BELIEVERS. A new customer may become a believer, but when setting up and trying to find your community, you DO NOT reach out to new customers. That is a novice move that makes you look like a snake oil salesman. Regular people are getting wise to the fake friending and other tactics that are just meant to sell stuff. The snake oil is growing snakes and they are coming back to bite those amateurs in the ass. Find your believers, and they will find you customers.

Ok. Now that we’ve established that we want to find like-minded people to contact online to build a community around you or your brand/product, I’ll tell you how you can start doing this.

HOW TO BUILD COMMUNITY: The 3S Approach: Search, Share, Support.

1. SEARCH. Search is your friend. You will do this, physically (online), in many different ways. Set up a Google Alert (see the end of the post for links) for your product and its keywords, or if you are an individual contractor, your name and your company name. Set up lots of alerts. Include separate alerts with common typos (e.g. “teh” for “the”). Google will send you a notification for each time it indexes an incident of your keyword. Check out each one of these links. Comment or post on the blog or whatever web page it is. If there is no comment section, send a simple email (e.g. I saw this and it really made me LOL! Thanks!). Make sure your full signature with URL, etc., is in the email. Another useful search for keywords is Twitter. Find someone who mentions you or your brand/product and reply to them. Snarky and self-deprecating humor goes far on Twitter, especially if responding to negative tweets. Keep it light, keep it fun, always. Don’t sell. Don’t sell. Don’t sell. Be a person, even if you are representing a brand. You can search Facebook and Yahoo groups for keywords, etc. Join any professional group in your field that is interesting. Don’t sell in the forums. Just go participate. I meet a lot of other writers, even local Philadelphia ones, by participating in the Nanowrimo forums and by being on the poetry review board of Philadelphia Stories. For me, community is finding other writers, not finding customers in search of a freelancer. Search forums, use Google Blog search. Drill down. Get off the first general Web Google search results page. Make or find a Facebook group. Once you find your believers, move on to Step 2.

2. SHARE. There are many different levels to sharing. You can share your experiences in your profession via a blog, or share your experiences working for a brand via Twitter. Big and small businesses can let users download different logos or other branded media (e.g., here’s the logo that you can print on sticker paper or iron-on transfers). Give the believers some branded products that can be downloaded so they may freely show their personal identification with your brand. This is easy to understand if you have a product. If you are an independent contractor, your product is your skills. For me, I share not my fiction but sometimes my poetry, I write articles like this one, and I have a Twitter stream that is mixed with my one-liners, writerly links or social media musings. I have a Friendfeed account where I share my reads, I have a bunch of people on Goodreads, and I have a “Scribes” group where I keep a list of all the writers I know on Facebook. I also support my local writers by attending local events, etc. Selling just doesn’t fit into this picture. They know what I write and I know what they write. I refer customers to these people according to their skill set. Believers like me are connectors. Share with your believers and they will find you more customers. Once you’ve searched out your believers or like-minded people and you’ve released some of yourself or your work out into the world, then move on to Step 3.

3. SUPPORT. Leave comments on your believer’s blogs. Re-Tweet some of your believers’ tweets (just not the ones mentioning your product/brand). Be active in forums and groups. DO NOT SELL. When interacting with your believers, the extent of your selling should be limited to your bio and your email signature. That’s it. Nada mas. Answer questions, be helpful. Refer people to experts or articles written by experts. You can stick within your professional realm (in other words, I won’t be linking many people to articles on, say, Rocket Surgery, because I have no idea about it nor do I work in that field), but you should spend a little social media time each day sending an email with a link, or answering a question, or posing new topics in forums. This won’t be work; it’ll be fun. The best way to build community online is to participate. Selling is not participating. Selling is spewing. Participation is the combination of production and consumption. Comment. Email. Re-Tweet. Like. Keep it in your small(ish) circle of believers. Don’t worry about selling or contacting new customers when building your community. The goal is to find a trusted group of people who will refer their contacts to you.

Keep participating, and before you know it, you will have a virtual professional conference online every day. Your professional peers and your believers will be there with you, like you are with them. You will find them customers, and they will find you customers. Now, don’t get me wrong, I realize that major brands and even small businesses need to find new customers daily, and they need to make a concerted effort towards that goal to survive. But that goal and those strategies are NOT related to Building Community. You want to build a community that will support you and your goals, and you will support other community members with their goals. Once you build this structure of like-minded believers, word will spread that you are a part of a broader community, and that leads to trust and more believers. It isn’t complicated. The brands/people who fail at building community online are those who think a community is something you sell to. Those campaigns crash and burn, as they should. Community is Identity. People build their views of themselves by the choices they make, just as you have built an impression of yourself. Find the people like yourself. You need them and they need you. And when you move from your current position or business endeavor (which you will), they will be there. As long as you don’t sell to them, that is.


Anything to add? The comment section is for you! And thanks in advance!

-Christine Cavalier


Google Alerts: http://www.google.com/alerts

Twitter Search: http://search.twitter.com/

The Extreme Internet Searcher’s Handbook by Randolph Hock: (no idea if this is an affiliate link or not) Find it on Indie Bound

My Goodreads Account: http://www.goodreads.com/user/show/1726198

Philadelphia Stories (where I’m a Poetry Board Member): http://www.philadelphiastories.org/

Google Groups: http://groups.google.com/

Yahoo Groups: http://groups.yahoo.com/

YouTube: Also fantastic for searching for keywords, etc.: http://www.youtube.com/

Picture of my Twitter People provided by Twilk: http://twilk.com/

By the way, I have a bunch of people who do social media well and are considered experts (because they have GREAT communities and are always very helpful!). Two famous ones come to mind right now: Chris Brogan and Don Lafferty. http://www.chrisbrogan.com/ and http://donaldlafferty.com/

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Don Lafferty 8 November 2010, 10:03 pm

    Happy to commune. I’m a believer.

    • PurpleCar 8 November 2010, 10:09 pm


      You can come moon with me anytime.

      Our first hit will be stuck-in-the-past publishing houses and writers
      conferences. 😉


      • Don Lafferty 9 November 2010, 10:02 pm

        Stand by for news on that front. Big board meeting of the PWC this Saturday.

  • Brian 15 November 2010, 6:08 pm

    Thank you for saying this. I’ve been beating this drum for years, but as you said, the guru-experts just don’t get it.

    • PurpleCar 15 November 2010, 8:24 pm

      doesn’t it seem like a no-brainer? Make users into believers, believers into
      evangelists. That’s building community. Looking for new customers is a different
      thing. Sooner or later there will be some sort of professional organization and
      qualification test for social media, OR, what I prefer, is that the PR community
      will wake up, adopt the skills and tasks, and regulate the field. Why those
      people are stuck in “let’s buy a magazine spot” or “buy some space on NBC” is
      beyond me.


  • Steven L. Johnson 6 March 2011, 11:15 am

    I assigned this blog post as the basis of a discussion question in my undergraduate course MIS3538: Social Media Innovation at Temple University.

    Over the next two weeks students will post their responses at: http://community.mis.temple.edu/mis3538a/2011/03/06/what-does-community-mean-online/

    • PurpleCar 6 March 2011, 11:23 am

      Wow, I should post a follow up, then. I’ve learned a few more things since I
      wrote this.

      Thanks for letting me know. I look forward to the discussion.

      -Christine Cavalier