How David Garland built a community of 100,000 followers in 24 months

This is a guest post by David Garland, author of a new book: Smarter, Faster, Cheaper: Non-Boring, Fluff-Free Strategies For Marketing & Promoting Your Business.

Some of this advice is new, some sounds obvious in retrospect, but it’s always good hearing what works from someone who came from nowhere and making it happen.

Two years ago I started my website The Rise To The Top in October 2008. The goal was to create a non-boring resource for entrepreneurs centered around a combination of video interviews (RISE…the web show) with successful entrepreneurs, big thinkers and “doers” (as opposed to people that just talk about doing) as well as blog posts, videos and other goodies.

Of course, like many of us, I really had no idea what I was doing. I constantly tried different things, had some lonely days (weeks, months) in the beginning, but eventually things started to click. I want to share this story with you to show you that this can be done by any hustling entrepreneur looking to grow a community and following. I’m no more special than you (even though my mom told me so) and the principles below I bet you can apply to your business and online strategy.

Here’s the raw facts, then I’ll explain exactly how I did it.

A Snapshot Of The Beginning In Fall 2008:

  • Total viewership: My dad, mom and grandma. Maybe a few random friends.
  • About 500 Facebook friends, mostly folks from high school, college and random friends.
  • Every post I would put up would have an average of one comment.
  • Zero media appearances in traditional media. None. Zippo. Or really any connections for media.
  • I’d never really hosted an offline event before.
  • I invested my own money to get everything going…basically funded by my Bar Mitzvah plus some random savings.
  • I didn’t know any influential entrepreneurs, authors or really anyone that interesting in the business world.
  • I had just started with Twitter and had 4 followers.
  • No connections with big bloggers or online influencers.
  • My marketing “budget” was a whopping $0.

Fast Forward To The End Of 2010 (Two Years Later):

  • RISE now gets over 100,000 viewers per month on the website, iTunes and other formats (including a TV app) plus thousands of subscribers who subscribe to daily and weekly updates.
  • Facebook has ballooned to over 5,500 friends/fans (on a personal page and fan page)
  • Most RISE posts now averages thousands of views plus tons of comments, shares on Facebook/Twitter, etc.
  • I’ve been blessed to have snuck into the media over 100 times including ABC, CNN, CBC, The Wall Street Journal, Bnet and more.
  • Since 2008, I’ve hosted 25 events ranging from Dinners and Discussions to Lunch & Learns bringing people I’ve met in the online world to offline.
  • The website became profitable in less than one year (top revenue source: sponsorships) and other opportunities also popped up including speaking gigs, consulting and a book deal with Wiley Publishing.
  • I’ve been fortunate to interview over 275 interesting people ranging from marketing master Seth Godin to the author of The 4-Hour Workweek Tim Ferriss and a whole slew of others. More important than the interviews, I’ve been able to strike up real relationships with all the guests.
  • Although numbers aren’t everything (obviously), I’m VERY fortunate (and flattered) to have over 25,000 people follow me on Twitter and more important than pure numbers, interactions with hundreds on a daily basis.
  • I’ve had the opportunity to write a monthly column for Small Biz Trends as well as periodic guest posts on sites such as Personal Branding Blog and Hubspot’s Internet Marketing Blog.
  • My marketing budget is still $0.

Why did I tell you this? Is it shameless bragging? (Well, yes, that too.)

Did I get really lucky? Not really.

Spend a lot of money? Nope.

Bribe people? Nope.

Most importantly, can you do something like this in your own way? Absolutely. Here are some of the lessons learned:

#1: It Starts With Being A Media Source & Creating Interesting Content

It all starts with the content you create and post on your home base (blog, interactive website). And keeping in mind what spreads and what doesn’t. Think about what you share with others on a daily basis. What do you pass on it? Normally it falls into three overlapping categories:

  • Educational aka “Interesstttingggggg….”
  • Entertaining aka “LOL”
  • Inspiring aka “I’m pumped up to take on the world.”

These might seem obvious, but look at most blog posts (from unsuccessful blogs) and you’ll notice how almost none fo the posts manages to be one of these three things.  It’s rarer than it should be.

What do people not share?

  • Overt marketing messages (when is the last time you passed on a banner ad to friends or some kind of sales crap?)
  • Boring content: “Hey Jim, check out this blog post…really boring!”
  • Stuff that is hard to share: You can’t expect people to take too many steps to share something. One or two clicks maximum will increase the ability for others to share 1000% or more. Make it painless.
  • Walled Content: Nothing wrong with paid content, but when it comes to building an audience and community, it is hard to spread content behind a paywall or any kind of wall.

Here again, perhaps the most important part is not being boring. Heck, even overt ads will, in fact, be shared when they’re not boring (for example the Old Spice guy). And again, it’s amazing how difficult it is to not be boring — saying something new “enough” that it’s interesting, a writing style that moves along and entertains, relatable stories, and so on.

Put it this way, instead of asking “How wide the audience for this post,” ask “Will some people find this super-interesting.”  Instead of asking “Is this post long (or short) enough,” ask “Will some people find this immensely compelling.”  Instead of asking “Is this content unique enough,” ask “Will some people be swayed by my arguments here.”

My strategy was pretty simple with RISE: Create interesting video interviews with unique people. Plus supplementing with non-boring articles, video blogs and other content. And focus design on simplicity of sharing. Over time, like Novocain, it works.

#2: Unique Positioning:

I get this question a lot: “If everyone can create content, how do you stick out from the pack?”

Fair question. How do you stick out?

Here are a few ways:

#1: It’s cliche I know, but the more passionate you are, the better. And passion makes you stick out. A person who is “just creating content because it is their job” will lose to the person who actually gives a crap. Because creating a community and audience takes effort (as well as a tiny bit of blood, a lot of sweat and tears). Passion and excitement are consistent and infectious.

#2: Personality. People gravitate to personalities much more than faceless brands. And I’m not talking about “holier than thou gurus” or some other queeze-worthy phrase of the moment. I’m talking about people that educate, entertain and or inspire. A human face. We are in the midst of the rise of personal publishing and people latch on to people and ideas.

#3: Video. Creating video separates you from the pack, especially authentic “real” video as opposed to scripted garbage. Why? Because next to face-to-face nothing can create a “know, like, trust” relationship (vitally important) as video. And no need to fret over the technology or fear of being on camera. The tech is getting easier by the day and the fear goes away with practice.

Bottom line is worry less about what the competition is doing and focus on what you want to do.

It’s not about how much better you are than X, or whether you’re different enough from Y, but just whether you are doing something compelling yourself.

#3: Consistency & Commitment Wins

This is a important and something that might be the most critical aspect of building an audience. Consistent effort and commit effort wins over time. You can create your own rules of engagement as long as they are consistent to some extent.

For example, Seth Godin posts EVERY single day of the week. It is a short thought-provoking post usually, in text. He also answers every single non-anonymous email sent to him.

Gary Vaynerchuk posts a new episode of Wine Library TV every Monday-Friday. He also is feverish in social media and in the comments section being helpful, answering questions, etc.

Chris Guillebeau posts thoughts on travel and not-conforming every Tuesday and Saturday. You can also hunt him down easily on Twitter where you can find him interacting.

[Editor’s note: And I, different from each of those guys, publish 0.5 to 1 times per week, and long articles instead of short. The format can literally be anything.]

Heck, even “being inconsistent” can be consistent. Tim Ferriss posts on the The 4-Hour Workweek Blog at seemingly random times and random frequencies (trust me, Tim has a reason for everything he does). But, each post is long and just jam packed with information (super meaty and as Tim told me in an interview, his goal is to create “evergreen” content that is as useful a month or a year from now than it is the moment he posts it). Plus, Tim DOES share interesting links/content almost everyday on Twitter. That is consistent.

Here are some of my “rules” which have been tweaked and adjusted over time.

  1. Post great stuff five days a week: M-F
  2. Tuesday and Thursday are new web shows/interviews. Monday, Wednesday, Friday are blog posts, videos and other random stuff.
  3. Every post is posted to Twitter and Facebook.
  4. I do my very best to answer every email that comes to me, every @reply on Twitter, every note on Facebook. I understand this is not scalable, but this is how I’ve done it.
  5. I also do my best to respond to all comments on each post.
  6. I try to comment on at least 2-3 blogs a day in my niche and share other people’s great content as well.
  7. If I mention someone in a post, I make sure to email them and tell them about it (I never ask that they help promote it, but they often do).

Is this time consuming? Absolutely. Is it worth it? You bet.

The thing is, it does take some patience. Sort of like a weight loss program, it isn’t about a quick fix, but effort over time. You can’t see the results right away just like you don’t lost 50 pounds right away, but if you keep plugging away and going at it… good things happen.

In fact, this one point alone is often what separates the successful folks from the rest. When you’re not seeing progress, when you’ve been at it for months and months, it’s easy to get discouraged and stop, so that’s what almost everyone does.

4: One-On-One Human Relationships

This is another element of the secret sauce to building a community. Getting in the trenches and getting to know people. Who do you need to know?

Examples might include:

  • People that would be interested in the content you create (aka enthusiasts).
  • Bloggers and other media creators in your niche (could be opportunities to team up and help each other, guest blogging and other goodies).
  • Traditional media that covers your area of interest broadly and specifically.

The nice thing about technology is it is bringing us closer together and you are probably just a few clicks away from meeting anyone you want. But, you have make the conscious effort especially early on to get yourself out there. Shoot emails to people and introduce yourself. Help people out by sharing THEIR content. Become a part of other communities in your niche. Whatever it takes.

The people that do this the best don’t have a manipulative hidden agenda (I will make you my friend and then use you…muhahahaha) and also build relationships before they need them. Meaning, it is a bad idea to email someone and say, “Hi, Jake. Love your blog. I have a new product coming out next week called ‘The World’s Awesomest E-Book Ever In The History Of Ever…Ever’ can you promote it for me? Thanks!”

Yuck. Get out there. Online and off. Get to know people. Help them. And karma comes back along. Remember, content creators and those walking and talking have a special place in people’s hearts and earn a lot of respect.

[Editor’s note: In the comments on this blog and in general, people are constantly saying “I have this business idea but I don’t have a network so I can’t get advice and I can’t get my first 20 customers. What do I do?” There’re many answers, but one of the most obvious is what David is saying here — build your network before you need it, because it takes time!  You have the power to not be in that situation.]

#5: Taking It Offline

Has social media and Internet completely changed the game when it comes to connected with people and building a community? You betcha. Is it the end-all-be-all and can we forget about “offline” and “face-to-face”… no way.

Still, nothing quite beats face to face relationships. Sure, you can’t have them with everyone you meet online, but you have to get out from behind the computer and bring those online relationships offline and offline relationships online.

Why?

Getting to hang out with someone face-to-face is memorable. And you can continually stay in touch with people online afterward.

How might you do this? Besides of course hanging out at conferences and events in your niche (the hallways are where the real relationships are formed), why not bring people together in your home town for a lunch or dinner? There is massive brand building power in bringing people together.

Since 2008, I’ve hosted 25 events ranging from 20-150 people and while it took a fair amount of effort, the overhead was minimal (meaning it wasn’t like putting on a massive conference) and results were more solid relationships. This past year I hosted lunches for 50-or-so forward-thinkers to come together, hang out, enjoy some food and take in and participate in three interactive mini-talks with special guests. It was a lot of fun. And photos, videos and live tweets from the event made it much more than just a two hour experience. The Internet never forgets.

#6: Respecting The Blogger & Traditional Media By Positioning Yourself As A Trusted Resource

Positioning yourself as a trusted resource on a variety of topics can do a whole heck of a lot of good when it comes to building a following. Why? Because you can create a fantastic triangle.

  1. The blogger or new media source gets great content from you (makes their job easier).
  2. You get your smiling face in front of THEIR audience/community.
  3. If your content is great, you will attract new people into your community.

Sweet.

The key to think about as you create your own content is WHAT topics can you talk about with confidence? What are a few broad topics (remember traditional media is a bit more broad) and what are some uber-specific topics? Here is the (partial) way I would answer that myself:

Broad Topics:

  • Business
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Marketing
  • Online Marketing
  • Generating Buzz
  • Social Media

Specific Topics:

  • Building An Audience/Community
  • Becoming Your Own Media Source
  • Maximizing Online Video
  • Turning Passion/Interests Into Money

The next step is finding needs to reach out to reporters/bloggers as a trusted resource and not a product pusher. Again, this isn’t about press releases but knowing the source and offering up something helpful. A guest post works equally well with online and offline sources because journalists, editors, and bloggers are always under the gun to produce more content, and if you’re supplying them with something good you’re making their jobs easier.

Wrapping It Up & Learning More:

Of course like on those annoying infomercials (Lose 20 Pounds In 3 Minutes!!!!) there is that fine print: Your results might vary.

Unlike those infomercials, this is realistic. We all have opportunities now to create communities, audiences and a following. And you can start right now.

Happy building!  And let’s continue talking about this in the comments section.

And finally, a tiny pitch: Looking to build your own passionate, engaged community? Check out my new book Smarter, Faster, Cheaper: Non-Boring, Fluff-Free Strategies For Marketing & Promoting Your Business (out today!)

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  • http://www.chuckrylant.com Chuck Rylant

    A lot of great detailed info here. Thank you.

    I’m intrigued by your in person lunches. Are they all local people? Do you live in a big community where there are a lot of similarly minded people?

    More specifically, are these loosely gathered groups like a chamber function or more like an intimate group of tight friends? Does that make sense?

    • http://www.therisetothetop.com David Siteman Garland

      Hey Chuck-

      I like in St. Louis, Missouri and there isn’t a MASSIVE group of people. What has instead happened is we get a mix of cool people who then pass it on. I would say it goes more towards the friends side, but every lunch this year had about 50% new people which was awesome.

      Hope that helps!

      Here is an example of how it worked: http://decriselunch.eventbrite.com/

  • http://matthewm.org Matt

    Commitment is where it’s at.

    When I started blogging it was the hard part. It was also the hardest part of when I started running outside.

    Soon enough 1 mile turned to 2 miles – 2 miles to 4 miles and so on.

    Thanks for sharing your efforts – it’s a benefit to everyone!

    • http://www.therisetothetop.com David Siteman Garland

      Darn right, Matt! Commitment. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • http://understanding.uservoice.com Evan Hamilton

      Absolutely. The first months (which I’m still deep in) are depressing, but you slowly make progress if you actually commit.

  • http://www.therscproject.com Dr. Jason Ulsrud

    David’s an awesome dude and one of the very few blogs I follow in the world. The reason I follow David over so many other awesome blogs? Because he constantly engages me through Twitter, his blog, and email. If I say something or ask a question, David responds in no time.

    Like I said, he’s an awesome dude, and I highly recommend his site all the time.

    • http://www.therisetothetop.com David Siteman Garland

      Thanks, Jason. That means a lot!

  • Gregg Sporar

    Good stuff.

    Just one comment. This seems inaccurate: “My marketing budget is still $0.”

    Agreed, you’re not buying banner ads and spending money on email lists, etc. But you’re spending significant time on marketing. And time is money.

    • http://www.therisetothetop.com David Siteman Garland

      Geoff – I’d absolutely agree that it does take a LOT of time. However, I’m perfectly happy with it as my focus is on long term relationships as opposed to quick traffic.

      I’m still able to leverage out time as needed for speaking gigs, etc.

      Great point and thanks for the comment.

      • http://www.marketingtactician.com/ Scott Harris

        I had the same thought. Also, in my mind, putting together all of these events would typically come out of a marketing budget.

        Were you able to get sponsors for these events / call in favors?? In other words, how did you go about moving from online to offline networking? Any recommendations?
        Thanks for the post!

        • http://www.therisetothetop.com David Siteman Garland

          Hey Scott-

          1. For the events, I charged admission (nothing crazy…$30 that included lunch and 3 presentations).

          2. I had sponsors for the event.

          Hope that helps a bit. I saw more of the events as a brand building/relationship opportunity as opposed to directly monetizing too much.

  • http://blog.claritylawgroup.com Sue Wang

    An inspiring and useful post. You’ve sold me on your book!

    • http://www.therisetothetop.com David Siteman Garland

      Thanks, Sue. Glad you enjoyed it!

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  • http://www.corporatepreneur.com Dale

    David,

    Just testing to see if you REALLY respond to every comment. :)

    Just kidding. My question for you: You mention stats on how you started and how you are currently. I’m assuming it wasn’t a linear curve, but rather a “tipping point” type s-curve. I’d be interested in hear all the stuff you did prior to that tipping point to get you there, how long it took to tip, and what were some of the things that happened that told you it was hitting the tipping point.

    • http://www.therisetothetop.com David Siteman Garland

      Test passed? ;)

      Great questions. I’m not sure if there is 100% a “tipping point” or “flipping point.” But, I can say one of the major ones was this year once I got on a VERY regular publishing schedule. Consistent.

      And there were certain articles/interviews that brought in all kinds of new viewers. Example: Seth Godin, Tim Ferriss. Example of the article: 10 Big Marketing Predictions For 2010 (which was end of 2009).

      If I were to choose ONE thing. it would be that article. But, as you can probably guess it is more of a sum of a lot of little things…if that makes sense.

      • http://corporatepreneur.com Dale

        Passed with flying colors. Thanks!

  • A-ron

    Yawn.

    Wake me when someone really has something interesting to say about blogging. But I am very proud of you for not including “post useless comments on more popular blogs.” Of course, I quit reading after the list started, so maybe you did.

    Guest posts like this are probably the most effective. How ’bout you write part two about how many new readers you gained from writing this drivel.

    • http://www.therisetothetop.com David Siteman Garland

      A-ron: A lot of ironic things in your comment, haha.

      To answer your question: Probably some ;o)

  • http://www.famzoo.com Bill at FamZoo

    David,

    Your work ethic and positive attitude are inspiring. Congratulations on your well deserved success.

    Bill

    • http://www.therisetothetop.com David Siteman Garland

      Thanks so much, Bill. That means a lot.

    • Qing

      I totally agree with Bill. And you’ve got a strong personality that shines through your writings, no doubt you’ll be as successful as those writers you mentioned in future.

      Thanks for being such an inspiration, all the best!

      • http://www.therisetothetop.com David Siteman Garland

        Thanks so much Qing!

  • http://twitter.com/timsoulo Tim Soulo

    Thanks, David. That was a great guestpost!

    I’ve even copied the tip to e-mail ppl, who you reference in a post to my “remember” list.

    After reading your post I now understand why some of my projects are not moving further – I’m just no longer passionate about them. I think I’ll sell them all and think of some new great thing that I am passionate about :)

    Thanks!

    • http://www.therisetothetop.com David Siteman Garland

      Tim – So glad you found it helpful. I’m a passion junkie so I understand :)

  • http://statgirlskewer.blogspot.com Stat Girl

    David,
    Thanks for your post. I have recently started a blog simply because I finally reached a point where I cared enough about something (in my case misused statistics) that I HAD to say something. You are spot on about the importance of passion in any endeavor. I’ve never been able to do anything that I didn’t care about.
    SG

    • http://www.therisetothetop.com David Siteman Garland

      Absolutely and passion is often an overused term that is under utilized. It is the driving force.

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com Mark Essel

    Great tips from David, appreciate the share.

    What stands out to me (as a daily blogger since Feb 2009) is the importance of taking it offline. Each time I meet a person offline that I’ve conversed with at length online it’s a little magical.

    I comment much more often on others blogs than David, and it’s part of my personal shtick.

    • http://www.therisetothetop.com David Siteman Garland

      Absolutely. The magic comes from BOTH! :)

  • http://www.startupinception.com Henry Martz

    Great post. Actually, exactly what I was looking for. It’s nice to have a system where if you plug in interesting content and commitment you get results. I’m about where you were in 2008, as I am just getting started. See ya in 2 years hopefully!

    Any advice on getting in position to write / receive guest posts? Is my site too “young” for that?

  • http://www.laterdog.com Jessica Chapman

    Interesting site, good post.
    But, Jason, we miss you! Here’s to hoping WP Engine takes off so you’ll get to blog again.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      I hear you — a few guest posts in a row! No worries, I have plenty in the queue. Thanks!

  • http://www.theloudfew.com Lisa Keller

    Thanks for all the meat in this post David! Great point when you say to ask yourself before every post:

    Put it this way, instead of asking “How wide the audience for this post,” ask “Will some people find this super-interesting.” Instead of asking “Is this post long (or short) enough,” ask “Will some people find this immensely compelling.” Instead of asking “Is this content unique enough,” ask “Will some people be swayed by my arguments here.”

    I think a key point for people here is to make sure they are associating that “some people” to their target audience(s). Building personas off your target audiences can be an even better way to think about how your content may affect them. E.g., “Would Jimmy the Product Manager find this super interesting and pass it along?”, etc. If no, don’t post “meh”.

    • http://www.therisetothetop.com David Siteman Garland

      VERY good points, Lisa.

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  • http://understanding.uservoice.com Evan Hamilton

    Great post, though I question the tactic of responding to every comment. Engaging is good, being accessible is good, but aren’t you snuffing out potential community member connections? Obviously your goal is to grow readers, but you obviously are interested in fostering a community. I wonder if you might be better served in that respect by not answering all comments. After all, you said yourself that having discussions in other people’s blog comment sections helped you grow your readership. :)

    • http://www.therisetothetop.com David Siteman Garland

      Yeah, I probably shouldn’t respond to everything (and honestly I don’t) but sometimes I just get the urge :)

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  • http://www.thewindowtheatre.com Joseph Duemig

    Great article David!

    These tips are helpful for anyone starting any type of business in this new technological age driven by social networking. I myself am a musician, and I treat my band as a business. I read lots of music industry-specific blogs about how to better promote my band, so it was pleasantly surprising to find helpful tips in an article that wasn’t necessarily industry-specific!

    I’ve found that creating a memorable experience for your audience/customers/clients is paramount. The success of fan-funding websites like Kickstarter (http://www.kickstarter.com) attest to that. Though these types of websites still are mainly grounded in the art world, I think the idea of fan-funding or popular investment in exchange for personal rewards will soon catch on in the broader realm of business. Definitely worth checking out if you haven’t already!

    Again, Great article!

  • http://www.thebigpropertylist.co.uk James

    Thanks for sharing this David. You’re right, its often easier to give up than carry on, especially if results don’t come as quick as you’d like. But you can never win if you give up eh!

  • http://www.sales-training-for-business.com Kathy

    Wonderful advice. I have really taken to heart the advice on unique positioning. It is important to translate what we teach and say into the written word and let “me” show through

  • http://www.lourceyphoto.com Larry Lourcey

    Hey David- thanks for all the info. I’ve been blogging for a few years now, but I know I need to get a little more organized about it. I setup a YouTube channel this year – next year I’m shooting for regularly scheduled blog posts. One thing at a time!!!

    Best of luck in 2011!
    Larry
    @larryphoto

  • http://www.bulkseocontent.com/ Bulk SEO Content

    Great advice! Its very tough to build a strong online presence for your business, but if you have passion enough to melt the sun, then you can get there. To build a strong online community is like building a better chance of port and effective network of communication is the key to open it. Thanks for the insight.

  • http://austintechgeeks.com Ricardo

    David, thank you for the post and insights. I specially like the point about taking things offline. While this might be difficult for a lot of people (including myself and most geeks), it is absolutely necessary when building a community around your blog or company.

    There is so much to learn from people around us and I have yet to see an online social network site that beats meeting people in person.

  • http://thecheapautoinsurancezone.com/feed/ Gerry

    What a great article. Imagine, focusing on content that adds value, is entertaining and interesting;ie, not boring. A concept I wish more bloggers would take to heart.

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  • http://www.kjvox.com Karl Jenkinson

    A truly excellent and salient article.
    To my mind, it embodies all that’s great about social media. I’ve had some really terrific interactions with people on Twitter and I would agree that a little and often, really works. As with everything else in life, you get out what you put in.
    If you’re polite and courteous it’s amazing how generous people can be with their time. Two interviews on my website came about by simply asking in the right way. I can also confirm that Seth Godin does reply.

    Thanks, muchly.

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