Why you need to engage with your audience and create a community

From where I come, the concept of community building barely starts to get real traction. It’s valid especially in the creative industries area, where people understand that they need tribes to do better work and have a more meaningful impact.

When I mention creatives I point out people who reach their potential and make money out of what they’re doing: designers, copywriters, photographers, marketers, interior designers, musicians, those who sell ideas and concepts. 

As a community builder myself, I’ve always been interested in how to maintain and foster a meaningful dialogue with my community formed by entrepreneurs from a wide range of creative industries. But before diving deeper, let’s start with what a community means in my humble perception:

A group of people who share similar values and interests and are working together at something bigger than themselves.

Sometimes, a community can start with two people and other times, a community can take shape naturally as well, without kicking-off from any specific objective in the early days.

Think about all the birdwatching lovers out there for instance. Each of them admire the beauty of nature and without any talk in advance they find out they have similar beliefs and start acting like a tribe: sharing knowledge, addressing questions, manifesting curiosity.

When was the last time you experienced a similar feeling of belonging?

For me, it was definitely during Creative Coffee, a monthly event I run for three years in a row. I felt I’m part of a tribe of people who stand for the same things, such as connecting creatives to work together and build meaningful things togehter. The simple act of gathering on a regular basis, sharing struggles, and asking for help reinforced a feeling of belonging and safety that impacted my growth.

Let me provide a broader context about how this happened and how the effects are still alive even today, a few years later.

So, back in 2011, I kicked-off this project next to my mentor — Adriana Truong. At that time, she was the one knowledgeable about community building, creative entrepreneurship, and how people behave inside such tribes because she’s been heavily investing in this field long before people in Romania even heard about it.

After running 23 events in Iași and supporting a couple more worldwide (from San Francisco to Istanbul, from Cluj to Adelaide) I started to understand better what community building is all about, but mostly how creatives could connect, pay it forward, and build their tribes.

I was in charge with leading the local events of Creative Coffee, but also with expanding the network and keeping in touch with our chapter leaders (or organizers). This way, I had a first-hand experience regarding their endeavors, frustrations, the way they understand communities, and how they’re keeping people empowered.

During three years of being involved in developing this product, I learned a lot of valuable lessons about how creative freelancers and entrepreneurs could create better liaisons with similar people who might consume their work. By consume I mean read, listen, use, spend money on it.

The way I captured all this knowledge was by listening to stories told by the speakers invited. The format of the event was quite straightforward: I invited a creative who had a challenging journey that people could learn from, he shared his lessons in a 20-30 minutes speech, and then we had a drink and talked about our path, with all the ups-and-downs.

This way, people were more willing to connect and network because they already had someone in front of them who broke the ice.

Now, I’m using those insights to help creatives like you initiate more meaningful interactions with your communities.

Bear with me.

First of all, let’s face it: as a creative person you are kind of in love with your work. If you are genuinely passionate about what you do, then you most probably have a romantic connection with it.

You feel like the work you create says a lot about who you are as a person. It defines the values you stand for, what you aim to achieve, and how you’d like to impact the world. It keeps your wheels spinning, and you hope you will do it by the end of your life. You cannot image a different path.

This is one of the most beautiful things about creative people, both early-stage freelancers who are dealing with their first customers, and experienced entrepreneurs who succeeded to build a name out of their work.

You are super present in what you’re doing, and you want to become better. You are hard to settle. Because of that, you tend to forget about the real world. You are way too absorbed in finding the best colors for your website, the perfect design for your ceramics, the top-notch story around your products, a new comrade to work with you, that you tend to ignore the rest.

  • Why don’t people understand that your creative work means the world to you?
  • Why everyone is pushing you to network more if you don’t feel like?
  • Why not investing your creative fuel in finishing the current project?

I bet that you’re already nodding your head.

You’ve been facing a bunch of these situations and most of the time the conclusion you came at was that the person in front of you just doesn’t get it right. He doesn’t understand you, your work, your creative process, how could he emphasize with your beliefs?

The thing is that yes, you might be right. The person in front of you is not in your shoes. He can’t have a proper estimation on how you feel every single time you wake up in the morning and can’t wait to start creating. When the perfect idea struck you. When your work received the appreciation you aimed for or, at the opposite side of the spectrum, was heavily critiqued. When you got all the pieces right. The Eureka moment!

The beauty lies in these particular differences. The person who’s trying to offer another perspective can help you became a better creative freelancer or entrepreneur. The lens he sees the word through aren’t accessible for you. Your personality traits make you focus on other things. Take advantage of that.

Foster community engagement by leveraging the right digital tools

Since we live in such a dynamic and digitalized world, you simply can’t avoid communication channels such as social media (be it Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Product Hunt, YouTube etc.).

You can choose one or two channels that fits your work best (if you’re a candle maker, stick to Instagram, for instance) and use it to share your creative process: how do you choose the pots or the flavours, why do you use a wick made of wood, when’s the best time to pour the way, what convinced you to use soy?

But there’s more than that. Take for instance private groups, formed especially when there’s already a solid liaison between the members and a feeling of belonging.

Anything that makes the relationship authentic, transparent, and meaningful will help your community feel confident that they are in good company.

I’m a constant listener of a podcast about creative entrepreneurs (Pe Bune) and recently I was invited to a closed group on Facebook, together with other people from their audience.

Usually, I don’t join such groups since most of them are just noise, but because I had a background about the podcast, the guests and the host, it felt natural and now I am a silent yet grateful learner out there. I did not open a topic yet, but I read quite a few and I feel I get value out of it. It strengthens a nice feeling of being part of something authentic.

E‐mailing is also a helpful way to talk with your audience, especially if you succeed to balance the content and make room for people to follow‐up.

For instance, you could share your struggles and help your audience learn from how you do things. Or send an e‐mail with how do you manage to be a company of one or the status of the current project you are working on. Anything that makes the relationship authentic, transparent, and meaningful will help your community feel confident that they are in good company.

Comments on your blog are also one of the most popular ways to engage with your community. Even though they might seem like an old‐school tactic, people still leave their thoughts if you managed to touch them with your stories. Don’t take it for granted and make sure you answer genuinely, no matter how close or far those ideas are from your beliefs.

Get more value of your community by meeting in-person with its members

No matter how fans of the digital world your are, you still need to meet people in person. Nothing can beat the non‐verbal and preverbal gestures that say so much about a person’s feelings, emotions, and so on.

If you’re the kind of creative who deeply cares about who buys your stuff or consumes your content, you should go out and chat with those people. Try to find how they use your products or benefit of your services, what are their biggest ambitions or frustrations and how your work improves their lives, no matter on what level.

You can start searching after relevant events on dedicated websites, such as Meetup or simply filter on Facebook what happens in your proximity. Ask on your profile about gatherings around topics that you find interesting for you and take it from there. You can join a few to get a taste of them, begin as an attendee and move to a guest (speaker) if you feel like you can share know-how from your experience.

At Creative Coffee I needed to interact with my community and lead by example in order to drive honest dialogue.

I’ve done that in several ways: from networking sessions after each event running 1:1 interviews with them to hear more about how does my community bring value and how I can do a better work.

It was exhausting, most of the time overwhelming because I was drained of energy after actively listening with folks. But it paid off every single time. In face-to-face communication you can get far more than via e-mail, social media, blog or so. People can’t hide their emotions and that’s huge because it gives you more context about the person in front of you. Such lessons can’t be learned online.

Another way was to identify believers and reward contributors. I had two-three people who were actively involved in helping me create a better experience during Creative Coffee. Some were welcoming people and offering help with the logistics, others were taking photos, other were eager to facilitate networking. I not only told them how much I appreciate doing this, but I introduced them to other creatives for future projects or jobs. I put my time, connections and knowledge on the table to lend a hand.

This is how healthy communities work. People inside the tribe are keen to give back and provide help.

You can also invite people to express opinions by filling feedback forms after you showed them your work. Be open to receive their input and don’t label their suggestion. Gather data, capture everything they suggest, and make room to sleep on it. What they’re saying it will give you a sense about what matters for them.

Maybe what they want is not something you can provide, and that’s okay. But you need to find out, not throwing conclusions too early. See if your interests as a creative fellow are aligned with people’s expectations. It’s a great chance to make useful improvements and iterations.

It’s crucial to take some of the people who are active within your tribe and ask them specific questions about what keeps them engaged, what needs are not fulfilled yet, how would they want to be represented and so on.

Because making room for these kinds of discussions means gaining clarity and helps you not only engage with your community but also build upon and bring the impact to the next level.

As a creative person, you can’t hide behind your work and hope that people will knock on your door, be it digital or non‐digital. It’s part of your mission to get out your comfort zone and run actions which will close the gap with your community and inspire everyone to build a better future together.

There are no recipes out there, just experiments that could work or not so much. You need to take it one step at a time and try to find out what fits your style and aligns with your core values.

Once you do that, you will succeed to speed up your learning curve and engage with your community, but most importantly, you will deliver better work, which is something you’ve always been caring about, right?

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Oana Filip

Oana Filip is a digital storyteller @Pixelgrade and community builder for creative industries. A true believer in the power of making the world a better place.