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How I Built a Community

 

When I cycled around the world I assumed that once I was done I’d have to get a proper job. And that’s what I did. For a bit.

Then I decided I fancied more adventures, and that I’d like to do more writing. So I had a think about how to get my hands on some cash. There’s less than 50% chance of a bank robbery working out. Winning the lottery was about 1 in 14 million. So I turned to a less instantaneous avenue: building an audience and gradually encouraging them to buy my books or ask me to give a talk.

I have written often about turning your hobby into your career. What I haven’t really talked about is how I went about growing a substantial online community when I began encouraging folk to bust out of their offices and go sleep on hills! The Microadventures Facebook group and crowd-run regional groups, the #microadventure hashtag on various platforms, the Summer Solstice Microadventure Challenges all buzzed with the enjoyment of a community.

If you are trying to grow an audience for your project, your business, your cause, how can you generate some of this enthusiasm and rally people to take action?

Here are some of the key things that worked for me in growing an online community.

  1. I enjoyed it. I have to put that at the start, because if I had not enjoyed it I would not have put in SO many hours of time and effort into all this.
  2. I had a purpose for doing it. I needed to grow an audience to make my fledgling career viable. I WANTED to grow an audience because I got a kick out of seeing loads of people do things they had never done before and have memorable experiences in the outdoors.
  3. There are many ways to lead a tribe. One thing I could definitely have done was say, “hey everyone, meet me at X station on Saturday morning and I’ll lead you all on a weekend microadventure.” That’s the fabulous way that the Yes Tribe, Explorers Connect, Project Awesome, and the Adventure Queens operate. But I personally would hate doing that! I am far too shy to want to meet a load of people in the real world! I far prefer sitting in my shed by myself, putting stuff online to grow a community that way. So think hard about what works personally for you before diving in too deep.
  4. You need to be a heretic. You have to challenge convention and do something different. Find a problem in the world and address it. Answer a question or need in people’s lives. For me it was “Adventure does not have to be epic. Adventure does not have to be the exclusive domain of fit, young, middle class, white men. Adventure can be local, cheap, simple, short, and relevant to YOU.”
  5. Simplify your message. I began with all sorts of convoluted microadventure messages and ideas. Only once I distilled the idea down to something as small as the 5 to 9 idea and the mantra of “go sleep on a hill” did I start to gain much traction.
  6. Repeat your message. Simplify it some more. Then repeat it again. Go sleep on a hill. Go jump in a river.
  7. Make your message interesting. The world of expeditions is often very dull. “Base Camp was reached at 1700 hours. Dinner was cooked and eaten.” I tried really hard to make my adventure stories fun, honest, relevant, and accessible. We are all extremely savvy visual people these days, getting bombarded daily with bazillions of messages. So an audience responds better if your photos are good, your words are crisp, your videos are slick, your social media updates are personable, and that you are personally available to answer questions (even if only from your shed).
  8. Give people something concrete to do. Loads of people knew deep down that they wanted to bust out of town and howl at the moon. But they are busy. They are scared. They are embarrassed. They need someone to say “next weekend is the summer solstice. Go sleep on a hill.” Once it is quantifiable, simple, and in the diary then loads of people become galvanised.
  9. The patron saint of building communities, Seth, taught me that I needed to focus on providing three things:
    1. A Manifesto: “hey folks, go sleep on a hill. It makes life better.”
    2. A way for people to connect with me: I answered every email, responded to every Tweet, tried to make myself available to help everyone who was interested.
    3. A way for people to connect with each other: I made a big effort to make Microadventures about everyone, not just me. I shared other people’s stories as much as possible, using my platforms to amplify other’s anecdotes. I wanted to show that ‘normal’ people with normal lives were getting out and doing this stuff, not just me. The upshot of that was that it grew a sense of online community. I loved watching quietly as people answered each other’s questions in the comments sections or chatted about plans. All I did was amplify this conversation and let it run wherever it wanted to go. (A small downside of deliberately not trying to ‘own’ an idea — after all I did not invent ‘camping out’ — was occasionally seeing brands rip off my work. By and large I think a very wise approach to online life is to see imitation as flattery and just crack on with what you are doing. If you don’t you are on the road to madness!)
  10. Heed the wisdom of that notable blogger and all-round cheerful chap, Adolf Hitler: “But the most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over. Here, as so often in this world, persistence is the first and most important requirement for success.”
  11. Give away everything for free. I wrote tens of thousands of words about ‘how to do’ all this microadventure stuff. I gave it all away for free. People used it, enjoyed it, shared it. The community grew. By the time my Microadventures book came out pretty much every word of the book was available for free on this website. But the book still sold very well.
  12. And finally, only once you’ve taken all this to heart, do I mention a word about HOW to build a community. That’s because starting with why is the most important part. What did I do? I worked really hard at building a blog. I treated it as a half-time job, for years, even when nobody read it. I did this 31 day blogger course every few months, and tried to blog about 4 times a week. I built up masses of content and shared it across all the social media platforms.
  13. A word of caution for anyone who thinks blogs are passé: Facebook was THE key social media website for me when I grew microadventures. Now, in late 2018, when my latest book was released, Facebook had effectively zero impact. Who knows what will happen to different social media sites. The only thing certain online is your own website. Protect and cherish your own little corner of the internet.
  14. In the same vein, grow an email list. It’s a longterm project but one you should begin immediately. My list of 27,000 email addresses is by far my most precious community tool.
  15. Write a book. It might not sell much. It won’t make you rich. It will make you seem more of an authority in your niche. It will also cement your thinking and give you masses of ideas. And it will make your mum proud.
  16. Don’t think you need a million fans. Don’t think you can make anything happen if only your family and best mates know what you are up to. You need to reach out and find those people online who are excited in the same thing that you are. But you do not need to find a million of them. The most useful thing I read was 1000 True Fans. Pretty much everything I ever do online is based around trying to find 1000 people who really, really like what I will do. If I can find 1000 people who will buy every book I write and come to one talk a year, then I have enough of a community to make my life financially viable. Even more exciting: that will be 1000 people who love the idea of sleeping on hills so much that they are going to evangelise about the idea to their friends and family. Once you get that happening, you’re flying!

What do you think? Do you agree with this? What have I forgotten? Have your say in the comments below. (You see – I’m trying to encourage and nurture a sense of community right here, too… 😂)

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Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your ideas on growing your platform. You made it look so easy. And thanks for making me believe I can do it too

    Reply
  2. Laurence Woodcock Posted

    Super thorough Al and makes a lot of sense. I guess your advice regarding building a community is similar to going out on microadventures. Start small but do start…..

    Reply
  3. The hardest thing I find is transmitting blind, not knowing if there is an audience that one day might become a community. Finding some early engagement might help get some momentum, to have something to cling to when all I hear is crickets …and mixed metaphors.

    Reply
    • Alastair Posted

      Don’t worry about an audience. Transmit to 10 people who care. (If there are not 10, then you need a new idea!). Those 10 will tell another 10.
      All I ever write on this blog is aimed at an imaginary 10 people…

      Reply
  4. Des Tinney Posted

    Go to talks and buy books! That’s me!

    For me, you seem genuine, a talented writer and hard working. A bit old school in this world of Instagram and influencers, some creative and new ideas, not just quoting the same old quotes while wearing *insert brand*
    I now know you can’t get rid of them but including the dvd for free in an order I received was also just great.
    Asking for feedback on your newsletters etc, made me feel involved not just a number you can negotiate ‘deals’ with.

    Reply

 
 

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