Finding Authentic Engagement Online

I want to share three quick scenarios with you based on how I’ve been engaging in community at a personal level. These stories all have a through line of moving past crowded spaces and finding ways to actually connect, which is what social media and online communities are really supposed to be about. Let’s start with Twitter.

Making Twitter Usable Again (to Me)

I’ve had a Twitter account for several years now, though my relationship with the network has been on and off again. I had pretty much gotten to the point where I was only sending content there as a follow-up to posting on Google+. But, for all the advantages of Google+, I still know more people on Twitter.

The problem was with Twitter was that I wasn’t able to engage the people I knew or even the people I wanted to talk to. There was simply too much information flowing through the feed at once. I’ve tried HootSuite. I’ve tried Tweetdeck. I’ve tried a bunch of others that I don’t remember. There was still too much noise to signal, and I stopped using Twitter as a real means of communication.

This past week, I decided to make some changes. Now, mind you, I’m not any sort of social magnet on Twitter. At most, I had 1,150 followers (nearly all of whom I followed, as well), and that group was a real mix of folks.

My Phases of Twitter Usage

See, I went through several phases on Twitter. At one point, I wanted to get involved in creating comic books, so I had a slew of people in the comics industry and on comic book review sites in my feed. At another point, I wanted to be a novelist. Let me tell you, if you want to be a writer, Twitter has a ton of folks that will follow you. You won’t always get a lot of conversation from the “follow-back” type of activity, but there are a lot of people focused on that interest.

Through these phases, my day job was still in the SEO and web development industry. So, I slowly but surely followed more people in that space, too.

Last week, when I looked at the mix of reactions to new comics, Amazon novel promotions, and SEO industry news, I decided I was ready to cut it down to only people that I knew or really wanted to hear from. And cut I did — from 600 to 200.

I’m not saying anything about the quality of the folks that I removed from my feed. I simply was not involved in the same conversations they were, so I pulled back. I updated my profile description to more accurately reflect my current interests, and I looked for ways to engage the current group of people.

Follower Counts

My expectation following these moves was that my own follower count would plummet. Certainly, some of these people had only been following me because I had followed them, and it made our numbers “look good” when trying to demonstrate social proof. And people did “unfollow,” but the funny thing is that new people added me, too. In fact, the numbers offset one another, and my follower count didn’t really move.

Twitter follower analysis
Twitter follower analysis

Will these new followers stick around? I don’t know, and that’s not really the point.

I was a little concerned that making such drastic cuts would cause my follower counts to completely plummet, but it didn’t. In fact, Twitter is much more usable to me now than it has been in years, and I’m actually engaging with people.

I’m not recommending you "mass unfollow” people in some sort of bid to game the system. I’m saying to make your social networks usable. Look for people you actually want to talk with and build relationships.

In Twitter, I went from noise to actual engagement. Perhaps it was my involvement in some real communities online like the ones mentioned below that helped me realize the disconnect from the number of people to the number of actual conversations.

Why Paying for a Community Is Worth It

How many communities do you participate in?

I don't just mean the word "community" in the sense that you used the same hashtag as thousands of other people on the social network of your choice (although that can create community, too). I'm talking about a community where the conversation is limited to a fixed number of people in a closed, supportive network.

The Owners Group - Chris Brogan
The Owners Group - Chris Brogan

I've been a part of a handful over the past few years off and on, and I'd been without one for a while before ending up in Chris Brogan's "Owners" group. The Owners group (or, the Owner Mastery Foundation Group -- OMFG for short -- and yes, humor is intended there) is a paid community, though the cost is fairly minimal. As of this writing, I pay $10 per month to be a part of it.

Why Pay?

The question is, Why? Why pay anything at all to be a part of a group online when there are plenty that will let you in for free? Well, first of all, the material is good. I've found it to be quite helpful in my business mindset growth.


Secondly, because the group costs money to participate in, people go in with a mindset of truly adding something to the conversation. Granted, not everyone has to pay to have this sort of community, but this is the second paid-subscription community I've joined that had great discussions (the previous one being Puttytribe).

And though this may sound like a pitch for you to run off and pay to join the Owner's group, that's not necessarily my point. I like the group, and I think you might, too. But you might have another you enjoy more. I've read Brogan's stuff for years now, and I like the way he thinks. And there are plenty of others out there who think and share in excellent ways, as well.

Wherever that community may exist for you, participate in it. Even if you're -- gasp! -- talking in real life with people in the same room, find a way to surround yourself with people who are willing to challenge you and who are willing to chase after a similar goal.

Note that this is very different than finding a mentor who's already gotten past the challenges you're facing and who is patiently guiding you through the process.

I love talking with mentors, but you can begin to feel down about yourself if you only hear from people who have completely mastered everything you're trying to do. There are moments where encouraging messages from the super-pros put me in a worse funk, and I feel like I'll never be able to accomplish everything they have.

Participating in a community of people with similar goals allows you and your community to share the raw process of working towards what you want to achieve. We don't see a lot of the "top 5 ways to master everything!" kinds of posts. Rather, we are able to share the victories and setbacks along the way -- and there are plenty of both. Just because you're a part of a support group doesn't mean that you won't still struggle.

Taking It a Step Further

Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazi
Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazi

Though I am naturally quite bad at this next step, let me go ahead and point out the importance of taking time to connect with community members beyond the walled off garden of your conversations. You and I need allies in trying to achieve our business goals, and that type of mutual commitment takes more than just having a conversation in the same space. You need to take the risk of reaching out to someone. Be the one to initiate that conversation.

I normally have a thousand excuses to not take the risk, but Keith Ferrazi's Never Eat Alone is kicking my butt about the importance of engaging in conversation.

So, if you're reading this, and I've been pestering you to talk more, this is why. I'm ready to work with more allies.

A quick word of caution... not everyone is right for an ally. You need to have similar enough goals that you can encourage each other and understand one another's setbacks and victories. Be smart about it. But, you will have to take a risk at some point. Just find a smart risk.

How a Free Community Engaged Me

Though I’ve sung the praises of paid-access communities, I do want to quickly include a free community that reached out to involve me. This group really taught me something, and I’d like to show off their inclusive nature.

Over the past few months, I’ve started riding my bike home from work. Because of the public transportation available here in New Orleans, I can ride my bike to the bus stop, load my bike onto a rack on the front of the bus, ride into town, and then ride the last mile from the bus stop to work. In the afternoons, I just ride my bike the whole way home.

The ride proves to be a great exercise, and it gives me a much-needed mental buffer zone that separates the work day from my time at home with my family. (Thirteen miles on a bike will do that for you!)

In any case, my riding was quite irregular. I wanted to do it on a more steady basis, but I just couldn’t quite work up the motivation.

Then April hit. April, apparently, came with a 30-day challenge to ride your bike every day and to post pictures of your ride online. I had never heard of the challenge before April 2nd, but some folks on Google+ saw that I had posted some notes about bike-riding previously and sent me a message inviting me to participate. It wasn’t a hard sell. There wasn’t money to be made in the deal or anything like that, but I could participate in the community.

So I tried it.

Here’s what happened:

nail in bike tire
nail in bike tire

Mind you, I got some more positive photos in before the nail in my tire cut my ride short, but I wasn’t thrilled with the results.

I went ahead and shared my misadventure with the group, feeling discouraged and not knowing if I would bother to fix the tire in a timely manner. The response was more than encouraging.

In case you can't see the embed from Google+ above, you can see the conversation here. If you can see it, be sure to extend the post to see the comments.

I was all down about it, but people jumped in and shared in the experience with me. People I didn’t even know yet. But I learned that we were in this together, even though I had literally just started.

I haven’t ridden everyday since then, but I’ve more than doubled the amount of time I spend on my bike each week. I’m up to about 45 to 60 miles per week, and I’ll slowly edge up the mileage through the year.

I’m hooked, and it’s the power of community that got me there.

Mind you, even though the community was free to join, it still required effort. I had to actually get on my bike, take some photos, and post them online. Perhaps we more naturally value the communities that we have to pay for or give real effort to in some way.

Engage Your Community, Wherever You Find It

Whether you pick Twitter, Google+, a walled-off community, or whatever suits your business and / or personal needs, find a way to engage. I talk about data a lot, and I love the power of what studying behavior can do. But it’s equally important to interact for new experiences, for inspiration, and for a chance to contribute.

Be mindful of your numbers. You need to find enough people to be able to have a conversation, but focus on the interaction instead of amassing “followers” (a term I grow less and less fond of, by the way).

As a way of closing, let me know where you find community online. I didn’t really bring up Facebook at all in this post, but I know that groups and family members online also provide a great means of interaction. What works for you?