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The Wonders of Building a Community From Scratch

June 18, 2019
May 19, 2023

I am celebrating a decade of remote work as a freelancer. I specialize in content, community, and SEO. I once held the title of Director of Community, working with a small team of moderators. At that time, the company only had 10 people. I grew our small community of a 1,000 people — there were 4,000 fans by the end of the year.I left that role to work with a company employing thousands globally. Now I was working with clients who had 5 million followers, and was responsible for moderation in their forums and social media as well as community engagement. All of this in a demanding environment where things can change at a moment's notice. It was exciting but also challenging.Last June, I started a blog of my own about my love of mathematics. I realized that growing a community around my blog was very different on a team of one person. I was running into many of the pitfalls community managers encounter on a daily basis.

Over Scoped

I created a social brief that I thought I could handle. I was doing all my promotional and community work in about 5 hours a week. Between work and social activities, I realized it was too much. I would get more traction from determining which outlets gave me the most bang for my buck.Community managers are feeling the pain of lack of resources. Key findings from the 2018 State of Community Management report is telling. “The average community team is 4.4 people and 50% of teams fulfill about 12 different community roles. That’s a lot to ask of anyone.”And if you are just one person, you are wearing a lot of hats.

Social Media Manager

Ugh, is anything more frustrating than when our supervisors think all we do is talk on social media? While social media is a tool that can help you reach community, it isn't the community. We know that building a community over social media is like building a foundation on sand. We can't rely on platforms that change on us with little to no transparency as to why. Social media promotion won't build a community by itself.I had to change my thinking away from the one too many approaches. This was all that I had known as a community manager from that point in my career. Things become apparent when you start building a community on your own for the first time. You need to focus on your one to one interactions. The smallest details can have larger consequences over time.There are five activities that I focus on in my daily work as I start building a community around my blog.

1. Building a Network

The most important work I do is email outreach. I was so scared to do this at first. Cold outreach is scary as heck. I don't want to spam anyone. This is such a defeatist attitude. Yes, I may face rejection, but the larger goal of connection makes it worth my time. I will admit, doing cold outreach has helped me with my impostor syndrome.[caption id="attachment_14835" align="alignright" width="300"]

"The most important work I do is email outreach."[/caption]Impostor syndrome is the feeling that we don’t deserve the credit we receive or our own expertise. For me, it manifests as a feeling that I am a fraud. That I shouldn’t share my opinions because people will realize I don’t know what I am talking about. At the worst, it prevents me from speaking up in important moments where my voice could make a difference.When I started doing outreach, I had to work through my own resistance. I wasn’t even sure what to write to people. I sent math teachers my piece on math anxiety and they all told me they were grateful to read it. I finally felt like people were listening. That I had the right to share my opinions. Children aren’t able to necessarily articulate their experiences. So sharing what I went through is very meaningful for people who teach math.What I do is use BuzzSumo to identify bloggers on Twitter for the audience that I want to target. I scrape their email addresses from their personal websites if they have them listed. I then send them an individualized email where I introduce myself and my blog. Surprisingly, this usually works and I receive a reply. Even if they don't convert to subscribers, most people are willing to help me out and remain part of my network.

2. Maintaining Relationships

I'm not always so good at following up with people. But that is key once you've made a connection with someone. For this, I use a tool where I can decide how frequently I want to communicate with someone in my network. It is a CRM called Nimble and it is one of my favorite tools of all time.If you connect your email it will allow you to track all your conversations in one easy-to-see place. It can also track your interactions over social media if you want to connect those networks as well. So you always have a complete timeline of your communications. You can also send an email straight from Nimble.This makes a huge difference when you don’t have an assistant who can help you with daily tasks. I don’t have a reminder service or someone who can do this work for me. Essentially, Nimble is my virtual assistant. Nudging me to keep on top of my most important work connections. My network has brought so many good things into my life. Staying in the loop with those contacts meets my needs for survival and social time.

3.Talk, Talk, Talk

I am not used to taking the spotlight. For a long time, I didn’t want anyone to notice me. I think that was because of my low self-esteem. When I started writing about mathematics, I gained a renewed self-confidence in myself. Now I will talk up anyone who will listen. I’m not afraid to bring up my work in conversations.[caption id="attachment_14836" align="alignleft" width="300"]

"I am not used to taking the spotlight."[/caption]What I have done is set up a listening post using Hootsuite and Twitter so that I can chat people up. I can create streams from Twitter Lists and hashtags. The one I respond to most is the #scicomm hashtag because that is essentially what my blog communications. That is the sort of role that I would like to transition into. There is a role for community managers in the sciences.I connected with Lou Woodly through CMX Pro. She works for The AAAS Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement (CSCCE) which runs a fellowship program for community managers in the sciences. Before I met Lou, I didn’t know this space even existed!Community managers in the sciences often work for associations of scientists. This requires community management skills, scientific knowledge, and experiences with a PhD program. Experience with grants and publications is also important. This is why I am returning to school in the fall to pursue an undergraduate degree in Mathematics. I also expect to go on to a graduate program.

4. Measure

[caption id="attachment_14834" align="alignright" width="300"]

"If I know what type of community I am building then I also know what to measure."[/caption]Now that you know a bit about me, it isn’t hard to believe that I’m into statistics, right? I think the most important thing we can do is measure our efforts. For this, I look to the SPACE model developed by CMX. I find that if I know what type of community I am building then I also know what to measure.I am building a community based on engagement. This is because my main goal is to build an author platform, one that I could use to launch a book. So I measure specific things:

  • Average time spent
  • Return %
  • Scroll %

These statistics tell me a story. If I know how long someone stays to read a blog post, then I know if I have captured their attention. A short period of time means they bounced quickly.I want to look at the percent of people returning, because not every reader is a subscriber. I know that some people view the blog through an RSS reader. So returning users gives me a better idea of how I am doing rather than unique page views.The scroll percentage is an event you can find in your Google Analytics. I love this statistic because it lets me know if people read my blogs all the way to the end.

5. Content Curation

Content curation is an important step in community management. What you share with your community says a lot about what your values are. What you support is very telling. I use content in many ways:

  • To network by sharing the work of my connections with the world.
  • To generate conversations by using the right hashtags.
  • To create reactionary blog posts.

Take Aways for Building a Community from Scratch

It is these five points which have allowed my community to grow. This year, I am only focusing on my email outreach and going beyond the audience I have now. They are mostly math teachers. I’m planning on connecting with mathematicians, journalists, and other scientists.These actions are still useful for community managers working with larger communities. We have to ask ourselves, in what ways can I add more intimacy to my interactions with my community? Can we preserve these feelings of connection at scale?Here are some ways that you could apply these methods to a larger community:

  1. Interact closely with a smaller circle of VIP members.
  2. Create a community ambassador program.
  3. Recruit moderators from the community.
  4. Hold office hours where you can talk one on one with community members.
  5. Approach specific community members to complete certain tasks.

When I think of my own community strategy I debate in my head what value I offer. Is it just the content? No. I have purposefully only focused on my feelings around mathematics, not the actual math. In this way I can connect better with a lay audience, who feel shocked that I have such deep emotions around mathematics.I think there is value in:

  • self-esteem
  • self-confidence
  • well-being
  • belonging
  • service

Building a community from nothing is a daunting task for anyone. Even experienced professionals. It is even more difficult if you are working solo. You are not alone in feeling overwhelmed. I hope in this blog post you have picked up on the important steps you need to take to find community members. This includes networking, maintaining those relationships, talking about your community, measurement, and a content strategy that includes curation.

June 18, 2019
May 19, 2023

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