How to build a powerful community online and offline

Building a community is still something relatively new, even though things evolved immensely on this matter. We have summits, job profiles, conferences, meetups, and everything in between that contribute to this industry’s growth. Thus, when it comes to nurturing a creative community, both online and offline, we still have plenty of things to learn.

September 18, 2019
Reading time 12 – 19 minutes
Katerina making great photos at our awesome office

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When I refer to creatives, I point out people who reach their potential and make money out of the intellectual property. Basically, they sell their ideas—designers, copywriters, photographers, marketers, interior designers, musicians, those who pack concepts into products or services. 

As a community builder myself (I’ve been wearing this hat since 2011), I’ve always been interested in maintaining and fostering meaningful dialogue with my community formed by creative entrepreneurs. Before diving deeper into this topic, let’s start with what a community means. One of the definitions I resonate most with is the following one:

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 who have a clear intent in building a tribe. Other times, a community can take shape naturally without kicking-off from any specific objective in the early days.

Let me shed some light.

Think about all the birdwatching lovers out there, for instance. Each of them admires the beauty of nature. Without any talk in advance, they find out they have similar beliefs and start acting like a group: they share knowledge, address relevant questions, manifest curiosity around the same topics.

This is just the beginning of building a community, but I genuinely encourage you to not take it for granted. Every tribe I encountered kicked off with a hand of people with similar values who wanted to spend time together.

Join me in this journey where I confess how I’ve been nurturing a community of creative souls and how it all started. I will lead by example since I believe in putting the skin in the game and being authentic from top to toe.

When you felt you belong to a community and what helped you?

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 creative entrepreneurs to work together and build meaningful experiences together. 

The simple act of gathering regularly, sharing struggles, and asking for help reinforced a feeling of belonging 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.

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

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

I was in charge of 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 the first-hand experience regarding their endeavors, frustrations, the way they understand communities, and how they’re keeping people engaged.

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

The way I captured all this knowledge was by listening to stories told by the speakers invited, but also from having a bunch of 1:1s with the people who attended. 

The format of the event was quite straightforward: a fireside chat where I invited an experienced entrepreneur who had a challenging journey that creatives could learn from, he told his lessons in a 20-30 minutes speech, and then we shared lessons learned, with all the ups-and-downs, during a friendly networking session.

People were more willing to connect and be genuine because they already had someone in front of them who broke the ice and manifested vulnerability.

Eager to hear how it helped me create a community out of a bunch of random people? Read next to find out.

I’ve been using those insights to help creatives initiate more authentic interactions with their audience and actually create a community out of their people.

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 (and naive?) connection with it. It what makes you-you.

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 keep doing it by the end of your life. You cannot imagine a different journey.

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

Second of all, 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 teammate 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 is everyone pushing you to network more if you don’t feel like?
  • Why not investing your creative energy in finishing the current project?

I bet that you’re already nodding your head.

You’ve been facing many of these situations, and most of the time, the conclusion you came at was that the person in front of you just doesn’t have enough empathy. He doesn’t understand you, your work, your creative process; how could he resonate with your beliefs?

Bear with me because you will learn quite a few valuable lessons that I experience on my own during the last ten years.

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 of how you feel every time you wake up in the morning and can’t wait to start doing creative stuff. When your work received the appreciation, you’ve been expected for quite a while. Or, on the opposite side of the spectrum, when it has been heavily critiqued. When you got all the pieces right, or they fell like a domino.

The beauty lies in these specific differences. The person who’s trying to offer another perspective can help you became a better creative freelancer, entrepreneur, solopreneur, small business — you name it. The lens he sees the world through isn’t accessible for you as yours is not available for him. 

Your personality traits oblige you to focus on other things. Take advantage of that because you have the immense chance to improve and get better.

Next, I give you a list of concrete ideas about how to explore the right digital tools to maximise your chance of creating a community. Ready to take the leap?

How to build an online community with the right digital tools?

Let’s start with the online, since it seems we heavily rely on the Internet in promoting our creative work, keeping in touch with other professionals from our field, and constantly reinforcing our vision.

Since we live in such a dynamic and digitalized world, you just can’t avoid communication channels such as social media networks (be it Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Product Hunt, YouTube etc.). What you can do is to choose one or two channels that fits your work best (if you’re a candle maker, stick to Instagram, for instance) and use them to share your creative process: 

  • How do you decide which pots fit your vision?
  • How about the most popular flavours? 
  • Why do you use a wick made of wood instead? 
  • What convinced you to use soy, how does that match your beliefs?

However, there’s more than that. Take, for instance, private groups. They tend to attract like-minded people who are familiar with your work, your way of doing things, your approach on various topics. Since there’s already a history there are bigger chances to stick to what you are trying to build and even contribute in any form they feel comfortable (sharing links, bragging about stuff, writing public reviews or testimonials).

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

Let me give you a relevant example in this sense.

I’m a constant listener of a podcast about creative entrepreneurs from Romania (Pe Bune), and a year ago, 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 since then I’ve been a silent yet grateful learner out there. I did not open a topic yet, but I’ve been reading quite a few, and I felt I got value out of them. It strengthens a pleasant feeling of being part of something authentic.

I must confess that this is the only group I’m part of and even here I miss plenty of the threads. Therefore, I have other suggestions of digital channels that you can explore. Maybe the next ones will fit you better too.

E‐mailing is also a helpful way to talk with your audience, especially if you are open and invite people to follow-up, ask questions, provide feedback. 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 act like a company of one or share the status of the current project you are working on. 

Anything that makes the relationship transparent and trustworthy will help your community feel confident that it matters, and there’s something relevant to learn from you.

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. Please don’t take it for granted and make sure you answer genuinely, no matter how close or far their ideas are from your core beliefs. 

Congrats for reading until here. Yaaay! Let’s find out how to make it right in the real world as well. 

How to foster an offline community by meeting people in person?

No matter how a big fan of the digital world you 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 entire spectrum of emotions.

If you’re the type of creative who profoundly 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 most significant ambitions or frustrations and how what you deliver improves their lives, no matter on what level.

If you don’t run an event on your own, you can start searching after relevant gatherings on dedicated websites, such as Meetup or filter on social media what happens in your proximity. Ask on your profile about meetings around topics that you find interesting 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. On the contrary, if you don’t like being on the stage, just genuinely connect with people through networking: tell them about what you do, your creative process, the challenges you face at the moment, ask for help, etc.

At Creative Coffee, I wanted to interact with my community as often as possible and lead by example to drive honest dialogue.

I’ve done that in several ways: from networking sessions after each event until running 1:1 interviews to hear more about how does my tribe bring value to particular individuals and how I can do a better job.

Don’t think that for me it is just natural because it fits me perfectly, and therefore there’s no stress. Not true. I am also a human being with a limited level of energy. 

Therefore, most of the time, these interactions are exhausting, even overwhelming because I am drained after actively listening creative entrepreneurs or freelancers. However, 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 super important because it gives you more context and depth about the person in front of you. Such lessons just can’t be learned online.

On the other hand, another way to foster a community in the offline world was to identify believers and reward contributors. I had two-three volunteers 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; others were eager to facilitate networking and introduce people in a kind yet efficient way. 

I not only told them a bunch of times how much I appreciate doing this type of work, caring so much about how everything works, how people feel after our event, but I also introduced them to other creatives for future projects or jobs. 

I gladly 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 learn more about this topic from two books I found highly meaningful and helpful along the way: Bred Feld — Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City and Priya Parker — How we Meet and Why it Matters.

Furthermore, 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 suggestions in any way. 

Gather data, capture everything they recommend, and make room to sleep on it and learn something from their insights. 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. It would help if you could found out instead of throwing conclusions too early and being opaque to any criticism. See if your interests as a creative fellow are aligned with people’s expectations. It’s a great chance to make valuable improvements and iterations.

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

Making room for these kinds of discussions means gaining clarity, and this leads you in increasing the engagement within your community but also brings the connection to the next level.

As a creative entrepreneur or freelancer, 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 close the gap with your community and inspire everyone to build a better future together.

Need the main takeaways at your fingertips?

  • Be an active listener and talk with the people who consume your work and buy your products or services. You will find actionable insights which will help you improve your skills and strategy as a creative entrepreneur or freelancer.
  • In the digital area, you can increase engagement with your audience through several tools and channels as long as you are authentic and provide meaningful information. No matter if it’s via your email or a closed group, lead by example and invite people to dialogue.
  • In the non-digital field, you need to get out of your comfort zone and meet your readers, customers, fans, in-person to find out more about their needs, their struggles, the reasons why they chose you and how you improve their lives. You will get plenty of ideas to accelerate your growth.
  • A community is more than a bunch of people under the same roof, be it a social media network, or an offline event. It is a group of people who share the same set of values and beliefs, and they want to work together to build something bigger than themselves.
  • As a creative entrepreneur or freelancer, you too need to belong to a community to share your ideas, find bridges to work with other peoples, get feedback, talk about your creative process, and so on. It’s part of becoming the best version of yourself.

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 when thinking about nurturing a robust community (online and offline). Once you do that, you will transform many creative entrepreneurs and freelancers into a solid tribe driven by the same beliefs and ambitions. From there, the sky’s the limit in terms of how you can impact the world.

This photo is taken by Katerina Nedelcu at our office.

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