The Art of Building and Nurturing an Online Community

If you want to build an online community, you’re going to need to do more than share a few tweets or create a blog. Mackenzie Fogelson explains why engaged communities are creations of both on and offline efforts.

There are plenty of advantages of building an online community: lower customer acquisition costs, increased brand awareness, loyal lifetime customer groups. But those long-run benefits are no products of overnight success. Mackenzie Fogelson, founder and CEO of Mack Web Solutions, stresses it’s not enough to simply be active on social media. Engaged online communities are built on nurtured relationships, patience, and a passionate offline team.

In this week’s Labcast, Mack outlines the steps to building an online community, identifies common pitfalls, and offers tips for developing sustainable influence.

For even more tips, be sure to download Mack Web’s “The Truly Monumental Guide to Building Online Communities.”

Truly Monumental Guide to Building Online Communities

This Week’s Guest

Mack FogelsonIn the beginning you feel like nothing happens. You have no engagement, nobody’s commenting on your blog, you feel like you’re just doing this for nothing and then all of the sudden you gain some traction. It’s being consistent and really just starting. Saying, “Okay I’m going to start small by doing one or two blog posts on our blog a month that gear towards this specific thing that would help us reach these goals and also help usf help our audience.”

— Mackenzie Fogelson, Mack Web Solutions

Key Takeaways

  • It’s an online and offline effort. [2:10]
  • Advantages of building an online community = lower customer acquisition costs and creating a lifetime customer group. [ 5:20]
  • 4 key steps to build your online community:
      1. Set your target revenue and community/brand building goals. How many subscribers do you want in a month? What type of resource would you like to be for your customers? What’s your brand personality? [8:20]
      2. Determine your success indicators. [10:35]
      3. Brainstorm the means to accomplish your goals (hint: it all starts with content). [11:20]
      4. Execute your campaign, analyze your data every week, and use your success indicators to lead you in the right direction. [12:25]
  • Don’t just broadcast your message; build relationships. [14:45]
  • Building an online community is a team effort. Don’t let it fall strictly on marketing and your social media person. [17:45]
  • Download Mack Web’sTruly Monumental Guide to Building Online Communities” for more tips and examples.


Labcast 123: Mack Fogelson Explain Why and How to Build an Online Community

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Kevin Cain: Hi there, welcome to another edition of Labcast. I’m your host, Kevin Cain and today I’m joined by Mack Fogelson to talk about community building. For those of you who don’t know Mack, she’s an expert in building online communities and is also the Founder and CEO of Mack Web Solutions, an organic web marketing agency that helps clients create the virtual presence they need in today’s web-driven world.

Hey Mack, welcome to Labcast, thanks for joining me today. How are you doing?

Mackenzie Fogelson: Hi Kevin, good, thank you, thanks for having me.

Kevin: Absolutely, it’s a pleasure to have you on the show. As I mentioned in my introduction earlier, today we’re talking about community building and its importance for small businesses and expansion stage companies in particular. I was wondering if you could start us off by giving an explanation of what community building really means and why it’s important.

Mack: Sure. Community building is really just a fancy term for talking about how you would grow an engaged audience around your brand. There’s been a big shift in marketing. Obviously, in the search industry, the SEO industry, but certainly in marketing in general. It’s more about the customer than it is about you. Building community is really a part of that focus, where you’re looking to do what you can to add value to your customers and to people who would be attracted to your brand and be engaged in that audience. Over a lifetime you cultivate a relationship that brings all kinds of benefits.

Kevin: Would that primarily be an online community, or are there other forms of community that you are talking about here?

Mackenzie Fogelson

“At the heart of building community is building a business that people are going to care about and they want to be a part of.” Tweet this.

Mack: Essentially, you are working to build that online reach so that you have a sphere of influence. Once you are working to share things online that you have people who are actually listening. That when you’re writing content that you have people engaging and having a conversation with you, and things like that. Ultimately when you’re building a community online you have to have the offline element. It’s really coming back to thinking about the human relationship and the fact that the game has changed in the sense that people use online tools to communicate and build relationships, but it’s all humans behind that.

In order for your efforts online to be successful, you really have to be doing things in person like going to meet up, going to conferences, using serendipity in terms of meeting people for coffee and helping them out. Those kind of things are definitely a part of community building that affect how large your reach becomes online.

Kevin: You mentioned just a minute ago that there can be some long- term benefits to this. I can imagine they can take a variety of different forms. Maybe in some cases it’s building your brand, maybe in others it’s creating brand ambassadors for your company, product or organization. Are there any other long-term benefits that you see that really make this a business imperative?

Mack: Most certainly. To start to answer that question, the biggest thing about building community is to remember that it’s about the goals that you have for your business and not just for your marketing. Rather than taking it from the perspective of tools. For example, a lot of companies go straight to “Hey, I want to do this, what should I do on Facebook or should I be on Twitter or Google+?” That’s jumping straight to the tools. All of this starts from the goals that you have for your organization and then that’s what is going to help you catapult ahead and really accomplish big things for your company and for your brand. Getting to the benefits of that then, when you’re thinking about lowering the cost of customer acquisition.

Over time, you’re building this base, this sales force of people that really believe in what you do and want to support you and, of course, tell their friends about you. The online, digital space allows you to reach those people more quickly over time when you start to build that trust. Building that sales force is obviously a huge advantage. It’s also a matter of being very targeted in terms of the people that you are attracting because digital media allows for so much data and for people to investigate and figure out who they want their audience to be you can be strategic about who you’re attracting to your community so that it’s a value match for your company. It’s a culture match for the people you want to do business with and that’s obviously a huge advantage. Over time it becomes this huge conglomerate of people who tell other people who tell other people and it just builds from there.

I think the largest benefit that I can see now in addition to customer acquisition costs being lowered and having that brand advocacy and lifetime customer group is the competitive advantage that a company has if they’re investing in community building. Building a community and being on social media are two very different things. There are a lot of companies on social media that use that tool simply to broadcast and self promote quite a bit of the time. Community building is taking that very different perspective of being customer-centric. Working on your business and improving things that actually make your customers happy, things that they need. Really building stuff that serves them. Community building, in terms of being a competitive advantage, if you’re investing in that now, because it takes some time to build the momentum, in two years or so when you’ve built this base of mass of people who are all about you, you don’t have to make as much of an effort to get the word out anymore.

Kevin: Well it definitely sounds like there are a huge number of benefits and reasons why you would want to go about doing this. Can we switch gears for a minute and talk about how you actually do it? I can imagine it’s something that happens sort of organically over time, but what tips would you offer a company to systematically build up an online community if they’re starting from scratch?

Mack: I can give you a basic outline of how our process is structured, how we approach it. That will be more high level, and then I can give some more strategic tips. Things like being consistent and getting engaged in what you’re doing and all that good stuff. How does that sound?

Kevin: That would be fantastic.

Mack: OK. A lot of this information, actually, all of this information, is in an online guide that we’ve built and we can talk more about that at the end. This will give you an understanding. When you’re building community, it’s important to stress that you’re really using integrated marketing. You’re using a variety of tools like SEO, social media, content, the offline piece of being a human and doing outreach and building relationships that way, things like email marketing, PR, it could be paid channels as well. There’s all sorts of tools you can use and integrate all that together to build that inbound base. Essentially the way it works is you start with goals, and setting goals for your entire business, not just for your marketing. Although that seems a little bit vague, I’ll break that down a little bit.

Say that you want to set goals that are going to be putting forth accomplishments you would like to make for, let’s say for your revenue and sales. Let’s say that you’re a SaaS, a software as a service company, and you want to increase subscriptions by 100 a month. That’s the trend that you’ve been seeing that is attainable, you’re going to go and set that as your revenue goal. Let’s say that you also want to set goals for your brand that are more community building goals. Revenue goals really show what you want to accomplish in terms of attracting more business to your company, but that doesn’t always help you set goals that will help you really target on what you want your brand to be. That is a huge part of community building in terms of the company you want to be, the type of personality you want to have, what sort of resource you want to serve as for your customers. When you’re setting goals, make them for your company as a whole. Target revenue goals but also community building and brand building goals and essentially make sure that all of those goals are specific, measurable, attainable, time-sensitive, obviously ones that are…

Kevin: Are they repeatable? Is that one thing?

Mack: No, sorry, I think I’m drawing a blank on the R. They all kind of overlap a little bit, but they’re time-sensitive, you know. You’re able to actually accomplish them, right? So just making sure that they’re very specific and attainable in what you’re setting.

Kevin: Sure.

Mack: So that’s the feedback on the goals part. Once you start from there, then you’re marching up and looking at key performance indicators, then you’re going to be matching to those goals. When it’s all said and done and you’ve done all your efforts to build your community, what does success look like for you? You want to make sure that you set up those indicators and those KPIs so that you can actually measure this stuff. Now certainly, revenue goals are going to be easier to set indicators for than community building efforts, but regardless you want to make sure that you are setting forth the measurement that’s going to prove the success. From there, it goes up to strategy. Once you have your goals and your KPIs determined and you’ve had that discussion with your team or your clients our your boss, whoever is involved in that process, then you move on to decide how creatively you want to do this.

What kinds of things are we going to have to do in order to accomplish those goals? That all starts with content, so content in blogging, video, in-person content, trade shows, conferences, speaking gigs and things like that. Get very creative about how you’re going to accomplish those goals. In the strategy portion of this process is also where you select the tools that you would use. Are you going to be on Facebook and Twitter and Google+? That depends on the goals you’re trying to accomplish and the audience that you are trying to attract. In the strategy portion, that’s where you’re really doing all the brainstorming about how you would reach those goals.

When you move up from there, then you’re into execution and you’re actually doing all of the hard work it takes to build your community. For us, we’ve set those things up in campaigns that are about three months in length. At the high level, you might have a plan for 12 months what you really want to accomplish with those goals, but in terms of detail of how that’s going to be executed and what those creative campaigns look like, we’ve experienced a three-month time period is a good amount of time to get some momentum and collect some data but not too long where you feel like you can’t be agile and change course if something really isn’t proving to work.

So, in that execution phase, you’re looking at data every week to see that you’re key performance indicators are all moving in the right direction. You’re also at the end of the month saying look at what we accomplished this month, keeping people accountable, and showing exactly what you’ve been doing. Then at the end of three months, having that higher level overview of your last quarter’s consistent efforts to see the direction things are moving, we see that this is working, this isn’t, this needs more time and then you have actual data to say, “This is the direction we want to move forward with.” That part of the execution is also really integrated into the analysis. That’s the very top of the pyramid of this process, analyzing what you’ve done and using the data to make educated decisions to go where you need to go next.

Kevin: That’s a really good overview, I appreciate you providing that. Can you offer any more tactical tips of what people could actually do from a day to day basis to build and grow their communities?

Mack: That’s stepping into the execution part, right? The stuff that you really want to be aware of and things that help you grow and build your community.

Kevin: Exactly, yes.

Mack: Once you have that strategy outlined then it’s a matter of engaging and making sure on social media that you’re not just broadcasting your message, but you’re actually going out there to build relationships with people. That’s not a thing that happens over night, it’s really looking for great content from those people that you want to attract to your community. Go find them on social media and read the stuff that they’re writing, and retweet the stuff that they tweet. Again, you’ve got to find a balance, you can’t be a stalker or a weirdo and just kind of be overly aggressive with these efforts. It’s just like an in person friendship, taking that time. The engagement is a huge part, not making it about you. So when you’re trying to establish your presence on social media, make sure that you’re sharing other people’s content, other people’s value in addition to your own. It’s not about self-promotion it’s really about looking to that end person in that audience and thinking what would be valuable for them. That’s a little bit on the engagement side and a little bit on the social media, but it really comes down to being consistent.

Because community building takes a long time and it is a lot of hard work, it’s easy to feel like you’re never going to get there. In the beginning you feel like nothing happens. You have no engagement, nobody’s commenting on your blog, you feel like you’re just doing this for nothing and then all of the sudden you gain some traction. It’s being consistent and really just starting. Saying, “Okay I’m going to start small by doing one or two blog posts on our blog a month that gear towards this specific thing that would help us reach these goals and also help us help our audience.” Taking baby steps, starting small, but making sure that you’re investing in the effort and you will see a return.

Kevin: It sounds like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Mack: Definitely, and obviously in this short time that we have to top I’m barely scratching the high level surface, but it really takes an understanding of all those integrated marketing channels like SEO and content and email marketing and social. Really, the root of that is the human aspect and knowing that you’re building relationships and you want to be strategic about it and it’s not going to happen overnight.

Kevin: You mentioned some of the mistakes that people can make, such as being too focused on themselves and broadcasting too much. I think those are the types of issues that could be problematic over the long term. Are there any other pit-falls that people should watch out for that might be damning from the start, those types of things that you make that mistake once and it’s not going to be good for you?

Mack: I think a common pitfall that I often observe when working with clients but also just from the questions that we get is a lot of questions about siloing teams and not being able to get buy-in for this sort of thing. It’s certainly a matter of helping the perspective along of the group and helping them understand that this isn’t just marketing initiatives, this isn’t just your social media person that has to build this effort, but that it’s your whole company. And it’s not just your logo, it’s the people behind your brand, it’s the personality and the diversity that they bring to the table.

You’ve got to look for ways to involve the team in the community building process and help them feel ownership in that so that they can see on the other side the results of the effort and they’ll want to continue to put that effort forth. Things like, having them share with you what they’re reading so that you can share that information with your community. Maybe it’s something that they’re doing internally, a project they’re working on, that would be a great transparent type of window into the process of your company or a challenge that you’ve had. It’s really just trying to build that team effort internally and by doing that you can break those silos and help that come across on the exterior in terms of building your community.

Kevin: Once you have built that community, are there any best practices that you recommend to people how they should actually leverage it?

Mack: Sure. Your community at different sizes is going to require different efforts. A lot of the things we’ve talked about today are fundamentals to building and maintaining a community. As your community and your company grows, what that maintenance looks like and what it takes to then leverage it and get it to the next level is going to look very different. If you have somewhat of a base in your community and even if you’re kind of starting out, one of the things that we’ve found to work really well is to leverage other communities, of up and coming companies’ growing communities that also have a base but they have a reach. The best example I have of that is Wistia, a video hosting tool. We’ve become friends with them over the last few months, just watching them on social media, seeing them at conferences. They have such a robust personality and they get everybody on their team involved in their community building. You really get a feeling for the personality of their brand. They’re doing a lot of things right. We were kind of taking a look at them and saying, “Hey, you know, our community would really benefit from the product that they have and, obviously, from their personality and the fun that they bring.”

Also, possibly, their audience might benefit from the services that we provide as a company. It’s that value and culture match. Looking at how we could leverage their community and our community and in a sense, you blend those community or you leverage each other and you end up getting members from each of those communities into the respective community. Again, that’s a longer term process in the sense that it just doesn’t happen overnight, but now Wistia shares our content and we share theirs. Not because it’s a reciprocation of obligation, it’s because we each do great things that those audience would appreciate. It’s a long way of getting around to building relationships with those companies that you really respect, that do cool things and you want to kind of be like them. You can leverage those communities and accelerate your efforts.

Kevin: I can imagine it’s also a great way to sustain your community over time. I can imagine it’s sort of a challenge to keep the momentum going over the long term. If you’re doing this for two months it’s one thing, but if you’re doing it for two years it’s another. Working with other organizations and trying to play off of their communities might be a great way to kind of keep the momentum going.

Mack: That’s exactly it, is that, for me at least, in business, I’m not growing this company just because I want to make money. I mean, that would be great and nice, but the best part of it is working with people that you really like and doing things that you’re passionate about. That’s at the heart of building community, is building a business that people are going to care about and they want to be a part of. If you’re leveraging relationships with other people that are also doing that, then the work that you’re doing is very rich and meaningful. The community building aspect of it is just a by-product, it’s just a bonus. At the end of the day, it’s really thinking about building a better business and how that then bleeds into all the efforts that you make in your community building efforts.

Kevin: Definitely. Well, Mack, I really appreciate your time today. This has been really interesting. Before I let you go though, can you just let our listeners know where they can maybe reach out to you or get more information?

Mack: Yeah, sure. Obviously, we have a website. And you can get there by going to, and it’s spelled M-A-C-K. And on our website, we have a very live and valuable blog that we post content to at least once a week. There’s a ton of community building tips on there all the time, as well as other information about integrated marketing, all of the separate tools and things that it takes to build your brand online. That’s a super valuable resource. In addition to that, Mack Web has released a community building guide that’s free. It’s more than 85 pages packed with a lot of the stuff I talked about today, and really the step-by-step process of all of this stuff. So if you’re more of a do-it-yourselfer and you want to get this going for your company and you don’t have the money to employ other partners then you can use that guide as your guide. Go to our website and you’ll find that guide there and you can download it and have some fun community building.

Kevin: That’s great. Thanks again, I really appreciated it. This has been very interesting.

Mack: Okay, great, thanks for having me Kevin.

What is your best advice for building an online community and keeping your audience engaged? Share your tips with us below.


Photo by: David Dennis

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