We’ve all been there: after spending countless hours building something – a product, a new website, a piece of art – you release it into the world, put out the word on your social channels, hold your breath and... nothing. Crickets. Tumbleweeds.
Then you start looking at other creators or companies enviously, wondering how they manage to get so much traction for their work when yours – which is just as good if not better – struggles to get any attention.
You rewind the tape to look for mistakes, but there are no obvious ones. You did everything you were supposed to do according to all the industry gurus. You made an account on every social platform on the planet, used all the right hashtags, and went down every marketing checklist… so what happened? Why are they getting traction where you aren’t?
While it’s tempting to make excuses, pointing to perhaps their bigger budget, larger team or other resources you don’t have, that’s not the answer. Sure, those things are always helpful, but the magic ingredient for getting traction is in one simple yet poorly understood word: community. And more specifically, participating in that community.
Assemble your own personal army
By now most of us know that great things don’t sell themselves, that they need some marketing juice behind them to cut through the noise. That’s old news.
But what’s not yet widely understood is this: making something great and promoting it is only half of the equation.
The other 50 per cent of success comes from your community. From building authentic relationships with other humans who are passionate about the same things you’re passionate about such that when you put your work out there, it’s not just you – it’s you plus an army of evangelists and advocates, a massively powerful force multiplier for everything you do.
And the people and companies you looked at enviously, who seem to get a gigantic pop for everything they do? Community is in their DNA, at the core of everything they do. Whether it’s individuals like my friends Tim Ferriss and Gary Vaynerchuk or companies like Refinery 29 and Crossfit, the common thread is a deep and authentic connection to an incredibly engaged community.
Yes, their work is great – but that’s only 50 per cent of the equation. And if you’re struggling to get traction like they do, it’s almost certainly because you’re missing something here. You’ve created something great, you’ve promoted it, but without community you’re only halfway there.
And that brings us to the obvious next step: how you actually DO the other 50 per cent. There’s no one one-size-fits-all formula, but in my own career by far the most effective (and fun) vehicle for community-building is collaboration.
Collaborate with other humans
I generally avoid being prescriptive, but in this case I’m going to give some marching orders for all entrepreneurs, creatives, and anyone else who’s “doing everything but getting nowhere:” get out there, find the communities of other humans who are doing and passionate about the same things you are, and get involved.
Roll up your sleeves. Participate. Collaborate.
The operating principle here is reciprocity, and the tactics are very simple yet extremely effective: do for others what you want them to do for you. If you wish you had more comments and likes on your social channels, comment and like on their social channels. If you wish more people would come to your events, go to their events. You get the idea...
To make sure I’m really driving this home, I’ll lay out some very specific tactics you can (and probably should) be using to participate in both online and offline communities:
Go to local events and meet people. Whether you are an entrepreneur, artist, scuba diver or anything in between, there’s some kind of meetup, club or trade group for you. Young Professionals, AIGA, Toastmasters, conferences… the list goes on. Check them out, find the ones you like best and (here’s the most important part) TALK TO PEOPLE! Standing in the corner might be less scary, but it’s ultimately not helpful toward your goal of building community. If you’re an introvert and need a little help coming out of your shell, check out these 3 introvert-friendly networking tips from Vanessa Van Edwards and me.
Volunteer to help. The groups I mentioned above are generally small, resource-constrained, and will jump at the chance to get another set of helping hands. As part of the process, you’ll often end up working closely with the organisers (who are usually very well-connected), and getting the chance to meet guests, speakers and other VIPs – people who it’s otherwise difficult to get access to.
Engage in the digital community. Follow the top names in your field as well as your peers, then jump in and join the conversation. I really can’t emphasise this piece enough – this is an absolutely huge opportunity to expand your network at no cost other than a few minutes of your time. I promise you that thoughtful comments DO get noticed, even if time doesn’t permit a response to all of them – especially if you keep it up for a while. I’m friends with hundreds of people who I know from them following me online, commenting, and contributing to the discussion. “Hey, I’m so-and-so from the internet, nice to finally meet you in person” is a great icebreaker and the beginning of so many of my friendships and inspiring collaborations. The bottom line is this: it has never been easier to connect with other people than it is today – take advantage of this incredible opportunity. Don’t be shy.
Do this for just a few months and I guarantee you’ll see an upward tick in traction for your projects. Do it for years and you’ll have a mini-army at your side.
To use the previously mentioned Tim Ferriss as an example, the outside world only sees the results of his wildly successful book launches. What they don’t see is the years and years of insanely hard work Tim put into community-building beforehand – volunteering at events, befriending journalists, guest blogging, and so forth. And that community – in addition to his brilliant writing – is what makes his book launches blow up like a nuclear bomb (multiple-time NYT and WSJ bestsellers).
Is this a whole lot of work? A big investment of time and energy that can take years to pay off? Sure – but if you don’t put in that work, you’ll only get halfway to success.
If you’re telling yourself that you don’t have time, that it’s too expensive, that you’re an introvert, etc – I get it. I’ve heard it all a million times. But the honest truth is that those are just excuses, and the people who really want it won’t let any of those things stand in their way.
How badly do you want it?
Community is just as vital for brands
While so far I’ve been speaking about why individuals need to invest in collaborating with their community, the same is just as true for companies - maybe even moreso, given that suspicion is often the default view of any company that attempts to engage with a tightly-knit community.
Companies who want the support of communities must first show that they’re participating in and selflessly supporting the community. And while that support doesn’t have to be financial, understand that communities often expect companies to contribute materially – again operating from the principle of reciprocity: if you want the financial support of the community, you must first offer them your financial support.
A very important note: this does NOT mean simply paying to slap your logo on anything you can. To the contrary, it means making a genuine investment in helping the community do the thing it’s most passionate about. Communities can instantly see through clumsy attempts at buying friends – and sure, they’ll take your money, but you won’t get an ounce of their respect unless your money comes with a sincere, authentic passion for the thing they’re also passionate about.
The world of action sports – a community that’s notoriously difficult for brands to penetrate, yet extremely valuable for its power as a global tastemaker – is full of great examples of this principle in action, eg Nike’s free and largely unbranded popup skateparks. Want the support of skateboarders? Give them a free skate spot (and don’t try to sell them anything when they’re there). Simple, straightforward and effective.
Collaboration isn’t an event, it’s a mindset
Whether you’re an individual or representing a company, the fundamental principle is the same: putting out something great and promoting it is only 50% of the work. The other 50 per cent – the part that often makes the difference between a home run and a strikeout – is the support of the community.
And that support will come to those who live and breathe collaboration, who understand that even the most competitive niche is not a zero sum game, and that every hour or dollar spent participating in the community is an hour or dollar well spent.
What you give is what you get.