5 Steps To Build A Sustainable Online Community
Online Communities drive business, but let’s be honest, they can be so much more than that.
The people that connect and join my wild journey online have taken up space in my heart and become an important part of my life. I know that may be cliche to say, but I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. They have been there when I felt alone, driven me to remain inspired to express myself, and remind me why I love making an impact on the world.
Sure, some people purchase followers online, but that isn’t lasting and that often doesn’t translate into a true community. For me, community is a collection of people coming together rooted in a shared goal, need, and desire. And building this beautiful collection of individuals online is all about creating methods to grow, serve, and nourish others based on a recipe of authenticity and heartfelt intention.
I’m not alone in this method. I recently sat down with Tyler Oakley, an online content creator (with more than 7.5 million subscribers on YouTube!), activist and author who has been building community for nearly 15 years. His personality is powerful and much of his activism has been dedicated to LGBTQ+ causes, rights, and awareness. Together we dive into his best practices that have helped him create a successful and sustainable life online.
Here are his top five tips:
1. Pick what aspects of yourself you choose to share.
Whether you are starting a community for dog lovers, to provide financial guidance, or to connect online business owners, what you choose to discuss and share is key. The best way to go about building your community is picking topics that you could talk about for hours on end without coming up for air. These are the aspects of yourself, and the areas of life, that truly light you up.
Here’s the truth: your audience will know whether you are excited about the topic at hand or not. So don’t think you can trick them into thinking you’re passionate about building spreadsheets when, the truth is, they are your worst nightmare.
While some topics may offer higher monetization right out of the gate, don’t forget that what you share doesn’t always have to be monetized. It can be easy to get caught up in finding the best topics that will bring in monetization and make you go viral. But, again, if that topic isn’t at the core of what you care about, pass on it. Building community and an online business is a long game, so don’t jump at the flashy, yet fleeting, moment of reward.
Exercise: Take a moment now, and write out all the passions and interests that you have. For me this ranges from fashion and poetry to career growth, traveling, and wellness. Once this list feels complete, go back and place a star next to the topics you know others crave to learn about. Now, narrow this list down to three main themes, and begin to list out all the different sub-topics within each theme you could further dive into. Which topics or list brings you the most energy? This is likely where you could begin.
2. Use breaks for inspiration.
To succeed online, you often need the support of algorithms, especially on YouTube where Oakley started out. More than 70% of views on videos come from algorithm recommendation mechanics. What this often means is that content creators are compelled to consistently produce content, even if it compromises their health.
Burnout is no joke, even when you enjoy building an online community. In 2020, 75% of US workers experienced burnout symptoms and the impact is more devastating than we originally thought. Burnout and chronic stress actually changes your brain chemistry, sometimes, for good. Working long grueling hours, or working in an environment that isn’t supportive for your natural state of being can damage your cognitive ability to function on a daily basis.
Oakley created consistent content online for nearly 13 years before he took his first step away from YouTube. What happened when he took a break was pure magic. Not only was he able to reconnect more deeply to himself, but he was able to recharge and reassess what to bring back to his community when he returned.
If you have started to experience brain fog, chronic fatigue, lack of enthusiasm or other burnout symptoms , do what you can to take some serious time away. If that isn’t possible just yet, plan specific timeblocks in your day and week to get out and experience life. This will not only help you recharge, but it will give you more to share and connect with based upon what you explore. If you still can’t bring yourself to step away, get this — the majority of great ideas are actually found while employees are away from the office. For me, I keep a waterproof white board in my shower, as this tends to be when moments of inspiration strike.
The online world has become quite savvy and they know when things aren’t sparkling with inspiration any longer. So don’t think you can fool them through your burnout phases. Be honest, step away and come back a more evolved you.
Exercise: Burnt out or not, pull out your calendar and pick a few hours each week to take for yourself to explore or experience something new. I like to call these Burn Breaks, so don’t bring your vlogging camera or your notebook—simply allow yourself to be present, and experience whatever is in front of you. Give your brain an actual rest.
3. Have your own external community.
Life online can be consuming. Before you know it you’ve spent your entire day creating content, responding to positive and negative comments, and going live all within the confines of your room — alone. If you want to build an online community that lasts, you must be willing to build an in-person community for yourself as well.
Make a point to intentionally curate community in person, within close proximity to you. Focus equally on the personal relationships you have in your daily life as much as you do those online. Whether or not you may have millions of followers like Oakley, if you are void of physical touch, be it a hug or even a hand shake, your body takes a hit . Physical contact with other humans has been proven to actually improve immunity, calm your stress responses and help you sleep better. Don’t let your life online become your only life and means to connect.
Exercise: Find your personal lifelines. Within your life identify the person, or people, who enjoy you for the person you are, not just the presence you create online. My best friend Nicole is this lifeline for me, she is someone who doesn’t necessarily live in my online community, however she appreciates and understands what I do. When we spend time together, my brain is in such a flow state and the pressure is off.
4. Honor yourself, not just who your audience wants you to be.
In order to serve your audience you must first and foremost honor yourself. In the past, sharing your full name online was something parents warned their children not to do. But now, we’ve flipped the coin and are on the verge of oversharing content. It has become pretty hard to decipher what is personal versus private information. The best advice Oakley and I can give is this: Only share the aspects of yourself you feel innately inclined to be open about. Sometimes a vacation, a professional win or loss, or a relationship update is meant for only you, and that is completely okay.
For Oakley, it all comes down to finding the balance between the reason his viewers subscribed in the first place and allowing himself to grow in the new directions he cares about. After all, he started his community at the age of 18, it would be strange to assume he wouldn’t grow and evolve by 32. Amongst your core content, sprinkle in what you love or are exploring. This newness will make others even more interested in what you are up to on a consistent basis.
Exercise: Come back to why you started in the first place. Reflect on your mission, as well as your intentions and the feelings you wish to create. If you have been at it for awhile, spend some time revisiting that original intention. You can even send a message out to a few of your die hard audience members, those people who have been with you since day one.
Ask them in a private message this question: What part of me and this community do you love the most and wish to never change? This is a great gauge to determine whether you have veered far from your original self. And don’t worry — if it has changed, you have the power to make your community what you want it to be.
5. Don’t do it alone.
Find people who see your vision, understand your mission’s roots and can actually see a better version of it for you. Once you identify these people, take the leap and delegate out the tasks they are better at than you. The African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together” always rings strongly in my ears. When it comes to community, there isn’t a better place to replay this in your head.
One of my greatest strengths and joys in life is writing, and once my business and online community grew to a point where I couldn’t manage all the sales writing any longer, I had to hire someone. They came on and began to manage customer service emails and correspondence with guests and clients. This was hard for me to do at first, but it freed up a massive amount of my time to focus on creating new ideas, products, and offerings. I am so grateful for spreading the tasks and welcoming others to live within their zone of genius as well.
Exercise: Take a moment to consider what tasks take up the most amount of your time, but produce the least results or return on investment. Now, outsource this task for one to two months. Sure, it may be an upfront investment, but take note of how it changes your day to day life. Are you more clear minded to create content for your community? Are you able to focus more on what you do best? Do you avoid work less?
I will leave you with this: everyone has something handed to them in life, whether that is fame and fortune, a niche skill set, or an amazing network of people. Realize that this gift wasn’t handed to you by mistake. Share this with the world, and welcome those who connect and want to join along. Before you know it, a community will be present.