David Cummings* wrote a post last night that hit on a subject I believe is paramount to the success of any organization, whether a startup, established business, or a student group at Georgia Tech.
The post is about the difference between inbound marketing and building a passionate community. In it, he sums his point up with this:
Inbound marketing is about relevant content while a passionate community comes from compelling leadership.
David posted his post to Twitter and I replied with this:
It was important to me to be able to elaborate on the concepts David touches on, which is why I’ve written this more in depth post/response/conversation starter. I hope you’ll join in.
I’ve structured this post in four parts, each of which corresponds to a quote from the post above. At the end of this post you’ll find a footnote that answers the question, “Who the heck is David Cummings?” in case you’re not from Atlanta or have not yet heard of him.
“Standard content, while keyword rich, often isn’t edgy or strongly opinionated.”
Inbound marketing can be so much more than relevant content, but the point is well taken. The average inbound marketing strategy uses content that is just “ok.” How many company blogs do you read religiously? Probably not very many, because most suck. (There are exceptions, of course.)
In order to bridge the gap between mediocre and truly great content, I believe you have to start thinking about content like a media company does. If you’re not willing to do that, then content is reduced to an SEO tactic, which is probably why David makes the point above.
Take a look at the content being produced by media companies like Fast Company or The Verge. The Verge’s Small Empires hosted by Alexis Ohanian could win awards for the production and entertainment value. Fast Company has multiple sites exclusively dedicated to serving different segments of their audience with compelling content.
What could you take away from these companies and apply to your inbound marketing strategy to create something more than SEO bait? I ask my self this questions constantly and we’re proactively pursuing ways to make our content more like a media platform and less like a simple inbound marketing strategy.
Think about the way RedBull, GoPro, Behance, and others approach content. They compete with media companies for educational and entertainment value. Whether we like it or not, everything on the internet is in competition for attention, including your inbound marketing strategy. The more delightful and remarkable we can make our content, the more we’ll be able to attract an audience that will lead to a passionate community
“Offline interaction and building personal rapport is an important ingredient in cultivating a community.”
I believe this is the most important point in the entire article. We’ve reached a point of near saturation in the content market. In MBA programs, they teach competitive strategy that covers topics like gaining market share in a saturated market. These are the kinds of challenges faced by companies like Coke and Pepsi. It’s also what opens the door for market disrupters.
Well, we’ve reached a point of market saturation for content. People have so much access to information that it’s distracting, so the early adopter crowd is starting to cut back their consumption. They go to a select few content outlets (if they read, watch, or listen to anything at all online) that they have carefully vetted over time. In this kind of market, your content has to be positively remarkable to stand out and win market share (like I said above).
However, I believe a key strategy for winning attention-share™ (kidding), is the ability to bridge the gap between online and offline communities. In fact, I believe in this strategy so much that we’ve essentially bet the company on it. That’s a strong statement, so let me explain why.
Last summer while working on the Krypton project with the team, Seth preached to us that real learning happens in person, face to face, when people have to get vulnerable with one another and hold each other accountable. We bet the future of Krypton on that fact, and the results we saw from the groups that embraced the concept were remarkable.
When I look across the business world, I consistently see examples of in-person community building exponentially accelerating the growth of “1,000 True Fan” bases, raving fans, and brand advocates. Attendees of the World Domination Summit leave Portland every summer singing the praise of Chris Guillebeau, the WDS team, and the speakers they select to be on stage. So many people talk about it that they can’t create enough spots for everyone who wants to attend to show up in person. There’s no space big enough in Portland to accomodate the number of people who want to attend.
CreativeLive brings in a small group of passionate learners to participate live as classes are filmed in studio in Seattle and San Francisco. Their growth trajectory has been absolutely astonishing. People rave about the value of being in person for a CreativeLive course or a Chase Jarvis Live Interview (Chase cofounded Creative Live).
And why not?
When you get to be a part of something live and in person, you feel a different kind of connection to it. Online, you can read a piece of content, X out of the page, and never remember the name of the site that provided the content. I’ve done it 1,000,000 times.
But if you overcome the fear to show up in person to an event that connects you to other people who make you better, you become a raving fan. (Of course this assumes a well-executed, well-targeted, and well-attended event.) You leave an event like that feeling energized and wanting more. Now, when you return home, you have a real and compelling reason to add the company’s blog, podcast, or video channel to your reading list because you’ve become a passionate member of the community.
There is NO substitute for offline connection. However, he parallel here is that greatness is key in the case of both content and events. Produce great content and you’re more likely to create dedicated readers. Create a great event that connects a thriving community and you create raving fans.
Final point: personal rapport does not have to come from one-on-one interaction with each person in the community. By putting on an event, each person who attends and gains value from having attended associates that value with you, whether they spoke directly to you or not.
“Audience engagement is readily measured based on number of comments, retweets, and follow-up emails.”
Yes, you can measure some online engagement through comments, retweets, and emails. In my experience, comments and tweets are a cheap and flaky currency. An article may spread far and wide on the wild west of the internet without delivering any real value to the creator. Commenters on Hacker News could care less about the creators of the content they are debating. People who share great content from Lifehacker will mostly never think twice about the author.
Further, the vocal minority will always be far louder than the silent majority that make up a loyal community, especially in public-facing forums. If you can grow the vocal minority consistently, then you’re really onto something. Think Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters.
I believe that a better measure of engagement begins with permission — permission to send content to a person’s inbox. The engagement of email subscribers through repeated clickthroughs is a good sign for keeping a community engaged. If that leads to a growing vocal minority, even better. But perhaps best is the conversion from an email subscriber to an in-person relationship via an event like I mentioned earlier.
The ideal “passioante community funnel” may, in fact, look like this: Site visitor –> email subscriber –> one-on-one virtual exchanges via comments/social/email –> in person relationship. This fortuitous cycle creates a core group of passionate people that will continue to drive the growth of a community.
“Amazing storytellers, like the best programmers, are 10x more effective than their colleagues.”
This point stands on it’s own in many ways. It’s been true throughout history that the best storytellers have an uncanny ability to gain influence. The loudest storytellers may win in the short-term, but the storytellers who hone their craft with an eye on the long game are the ones that end up growing a following over time.
A great storyteller can create an excellent piece of content that connects to a person’s deepest hopes, fears, or dreams. They can also craft an event that rallies individuals to a common cause around which a passionate community can be built. The best storytellers can be the best leaders because while facts may provide proof, people connect most deeply to stories.
I believe we’ve entered a new age where storytelling ultimately wins. As we move more and more to a service-based, post-industrial, technology-driven economy, we are in a race to win people’s hearts so that we can earn their permission to occupy their attention. The storytellers who can resonate with an audience most deeply are the ones who will build passionate communities.
Overall, this is a topic I am extremely passionate about. I believe community building may be one of the most underrated and understudied topics in the professional world. I hope we can keep the dialogue on this topic going as various organizations around Atlanta continue to work to build thriving communities of their own.
*I’ve referred to David a couple of times recently either on Twitter or here on this blog. If you aren’t from Atlanta or don’t know who he is, he co-founded Pardot, a B2B marketing automation startup, in 2007. He went on to sell Pardot to ExactTarget just before being named Ernst & Young’s entrepreneur of the year (I used to work for Ernst & Young). Since then, he has perhaps become best known for using a portion of his earnings to found Atlanta Tech Village, a 5-story, 100,000 square foot building I call the epicenter of the Atlanta startup community (also where Josh and I work and will continue to work as we grow the Living for Monday team).
David blogs daily at DavidCummings.org, where you can learn more about his story. I have mentioned him often in recent times because I have had the chance to meet him personally, in addition to the fact that he is part of a very small group of Atlantans putting out content worth reading on a regular basis. If you’re curious about other startup/tech/business bloggers out of Atlanta, here is a list to start with.
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