6 Easy Steps and One Big Secret to Growing a Self-Sustaining Online Community

6 Steps and One Secret to Building a Community

Editor’s note: This post is written by guest author Austin W. Gunter,  the Brand Ambassador for WP Engine’s WordPress Hosting Platform. Austin started his career in technology startups before joining WP Engine earlier this year to help them grow the community around their hosting.

I’ve been building communities since 2009. I started with a small technology incubator in Austin, Texas and had the opportunity to recruit and work with more than 120 tech startups in that time.  I had just graduated from college with a degree in Rhetoric, so I felt completely out of my depth attempting to build a community of startups in a brand new technology incubator.

In order to survive, I had to learn how to quickly attract new people to my community and then find ways to keep them engaged long-term. Clearly what I had learned in my Rhetoric degree was not going to be practical for this job. I had to learn the principles of community quickly if we were going to grow a successful business.

Your job to draw traffic to a blog and build a community is the exact same challenge that I faced. It’s no small task, particularly when you have tied your income to the community you’re building!  Fortunately, if you’re using WordPress, there is no shortage of tools at your disposal that will help you grow your community.

However, there is a huge misconception about building a community. It’s a misconception that I had to release myself from at age 22 in order to make my incubator work.  If you don’t free yourself from this misconception, it will destroy your blog before you ever install your theme or point your DNS.

The Misconception that will destroy your community

The misconception: Community is not the product of attracting huge numbers of people from Reddit or Lifehacker to your site. In fact, that is practically worthless. Huge numbers of random people from those sites will not grow your site’s community because those people don’t want to pay attention to what you’re building.

Attention is one of the most precious commodities on the Internet. It’s more valuable than dollar bills, and communities are built on the attention of every single individual in the community. Reddit and Lifehacker aren’t sources of long-term attention for your site, but there is a secret ingredient that I want to share with you.

If you can add this key ingredient, your site will have enormous traffic, and you’ll have the opportunity to build a vibrant community around your website.

But if you can’t figure out how to add this ingredient, your website will languish in the Internet’s waiting room, hoping to one day hear them call your number.  You’ll spend hours in front of your computer, in your mom’s basement, thinking that tomorrow will finally be the day that the internet pays attention to your site.

I don’t want you to sit in your mom’s basement shouting at the ceiling.  I want you to learn the same secret that I learned at 22 that helped me build the startup incubator and that I still use today.

In order to ignite your community into a wildfire, you need this crucial ingredient.

It may not seem like much at first, but it’s a powerful secret to have on your side.

The Secret

Influencers are the only people that matter to your community. Without influencers, your community will never achieve critical mass or become a self-sustaining entity.

Influencers are the only ones who have the power to put your site on Reddit or HackerNews.

Influencers are the only ones who will increase your Twitter followers and your Facebook Likes.

If you can draw Influencers to your website, your community will follow. Bringing Influencers to your site will bring an avalanche of visitors and a community will naturally form without you having to do anything.

So who are these Influencers, and why do they matter so much?

Influencers matter because when they recommend a website, people pay attention. Remember how attention is more valuable than money?

Influencers are the most visible people in any community. They’ve earned the right to their opinions, and when they say something, people listen. Their opinion carries weight with hundreds and thousands of people. They’re the people you want to visit your site because they will bring their audience with them.

Influencers have a gravitational pull, and if you attract influencers, you will attract their followers.

Chances are, you probably already know exactly who your influencers are. If you’ve done your research, you know how important influencers are to your traffic, and you have a strategy for getting to know them and getting them to become regular visitors for your blog.

Do you want some examples of influencers?

Matt Mullenweg is an Influencer in the WordPress community as well as the startup community. Ryan Imel is an Influencer for WordPress Bloggers. Syed Balkhi is an Influencer for affiliates and WordPress. Clark Wimberly is an influencer for Android and Developers.

Each of those people has built a community around their work. When they publish something, people pay attention. They’ve earned the right to have well-respected opinions.

TechCrunch is not an influencer. PandoDaily (as much as I love PandoDaily) is not an influencer.  WP Candy isn’t even an influencer.  Ryan Imel created his influence by building WP Candy, which is influential, but only Ryan is an Influencer. He can read your blog, but his site can’t.

I hope you’re starting to see where I’m going with this.  Influencers are *people,* not websites.  Furthermore, influencers are people who are active in the market that you’re going after. If you’re blogging about WordPress, talk with Ryan Imel and find out what it would take for him to write about your site. Later in the post, I’ll show you exactly how to start a conversation with

Here’s an example

In the Fall of 2011, two big blogs covered WP Engine.  One was a *massive* tech blog that covered startup funding events and kept the pulse of the entire startup community. The other blog was an well-trafficked niche blog that covered startups and life hacking, and also covered elements of growing online websites, including hosting platforms and WordPress.

One of the blogs generated an amazing amount of traffic for WP Engine and had high conversion rates, a dream scenario. Months later, we still see referral traffic from this site.  The other blog sent a modicum of traffic, but didn’t convert much, and ultimately was a small blip for our community. Nobody became part of our community.

This blog was important and it was powerful, but it wasn’t an influencer that would help us grow. This site sent visitors who weren’t part of our community and therefore didn’t arrive with any desire to join our community.

Which blog made the most difference?

If you guessed that the well-trafficked niche blog, the “smaller” blog, written by an actual person, was the one that grew our community, you’re right. This blogger had spent time growing his own audience and community that had substantial overlap to our community. Because they trusted his opinions, he had a great deal of influence on where they were willing to spend their precious attention online.

I wish I could show you the Google Analytics from his site. His blog post about WP Engine continues to drive significant traffic to our homepage.

When you’re building your community, you want to think about who will be influential in building itwith you. Community building is collaborative.

Who are the influential people in your industry? What social networks are they active on? What sort of things do they normally talk about and share? Who influences them? Who do they trust?

Those questions lead into a simple model for connecting with influencers (if you don’t have relationships with them already), and earning their trust.  You see, influencers are incredibly careful who they pay attention to and support. They know their power. You have to earn your way into their circles using an old secret from psychology textbooks and social engineering.

Connecting with Influencers in 6 Steps

The secret is social proof.  Prove your own social value in the influencer’s circle of friends, earn social proof, and you will earn trust with the influencer.

Here’s how in 6 Steps.

  1. Identify 10 influencers you want to develop a relationship with. Make sure you actually want to develop a relationship with these folks.  They are people too!
  2. Identify their preferred social networks: Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, etc, and set up your own profile.
  3. Make a list of 10 topics they like to talk about, and find 10 people the influencer trusts on the social network. Again, be genuine. If you’re fake, you’re doing it wrong.
  4. Start developing relationships with the trusted circle around your influencer, focusing on the topics they like to talk about.
  5. Rinse and repeat. Trust takes time to earn, and if you push for trust too early, you’re going to be left out in the cold. Wait until you have a real relationship with the whole circle of people before you start
  6. Engage the influencer. Maybe this means offering a guest post. Maybe it means requesting one. Tell them you have a project you’re working on, and you think they would appreciate it because it matches their interests. Once you have a relationship, you have the right to ask for their attention.  If they like you, they’ll give it to you.

Wrapping it all up

This isn’t a “get rich quick” process.  It takes time and discipline to implement, and it’s not for everyone. If you’re looking for a simple route to build a “community,” these steps aren’t for you.

But if you are ready to build a community that will last a long time, follow those 6 steps and watch your community catch fire.

Since you’ve taken the time to read this post, I want to hear what you think. Was this valuable for you? Did it suck? Do you want your 20 minuts back?  Let’s have a conversation in the comments about how you’re building a community?  What questions do you have about connecting with *your* influencers?  How can I help you be successful?

Hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter

Disclosure: Some links on this page may be affiliate links. In some cases, we may receive compensation from the companies whose products we review. See Disclosure Policy.

Written by Austin Gunter

This post is written by guest author Austin W. Gunter, the Brand Ambassador for WP Engine’s WordPress Hosting Platform. Austin started his career in technology startups before joining WP Engine earlier this year to help them grow the community around their hosting.



  • Wait, you mean building relationships online takes work?

    Great post — great ideas. Thanks.

    • Haha, Wesley. I should have just said that and published it ;-)

      You’re right, any sort of relationship takes work. I wanted to call out a particular sort of online relationship and point to a strategy I employ when I am building new communities.

      I’m actually blown away by how much time it takes to pay attention to all the various networks we have online. That’s part of why I always tell people “less is more” when it comes to social networks. I stick to less than 6 unless I absolutely have to, and only 2-3 of those get the care they deserve.

  • Abdallah Al-Hakim says:

    This is one of the best posts that I have read about power of influencers. The real life example you provided was terrific. I completely agree with main points that building relationships with key influencer takes time and you need to be authentic, genuine and know who you are engaging with.

    • Adallah, thanks for the response! I really appreciate the feedback and your kind words.

      I think it comes down to simple human nature. We like working with people we like, so how can we create genuine relationships with the people we want to be around, for our benefit, and theirs as well? No relationship is one-directional.

  • John Greathouse says:

    Thanks for the great post, Austin. I am beginning work with a friend of mine on an endeavor centered around growing your own food in your backyard. Ultimately my friend and I hope to build a community of people dedicated to weaning themselves off of the mega-farming approach to food production. Your post is an extremely valuable piece of information with regard to our business venture.

    • Hey John,

      I support that venture! If you can find community support where you live, you’ll find a way to build a successful business out of your cause.

      Keep me posted on how things go!


  • Zach @TruthInMarketing says:

    Hi Austin.

    This was a great read, but it seems very intimidating to new start ups. I’ve only just recently started my own site, and as of right now I’m simply working on creating some decent content. I have not at all started to focus on trying to get my name out there or connect with other people.

    So, my question is, at what point in your start up process would you recommend reaching out to influencers? Right away? Once you’ve attained some decent traffic? If right away, then how do you prove yourself to them since your site is basically unknown?

    Thanks for any advice you can give!

    • Abdallah says:

      Hey Zach……..I would say that you should start interacting through comments and conversations with the influencers and their communities right away. You will be surprised how many ‘big shot’ influencers will respond to your comments and engage you in a conversations. As long as you are honest, authentic and not doing too much self-promotion – you should be fine. One of the free tools that I use to track conversations and build online relationships is Engagio (www.engag.io). I think it is a great tool (FYI. I am bit biased since I work for them but I do think it is a great product :) and it has helped me to connect with several bloggers and influencers.

  • Jeni says:

    Hi Austin,

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. My question is: how do you broach the subject with influencers in the first place? What are the first steps to *starting* that conversation? This can be especially hard when there’s perceived overlap in subject matter – the “higher ups” not wanting to engage in dialogue with someone they might feel would detract from their fan base. What do you think?


    • Jeni,

      If you’re doing something unique, you probably won’t run into folks who are worries about you stealing their slice of the pie. People who have influenced my life have usually had an undying belief that there was infinite opportunity around them, and supported other entrepreneurs in their projects because they knew there was enough opportunity to go around.

      Don’t approach the conversation from a place of “scarcity.” You’ll be fearful and defensive. Rather, start the conversation like you would with someone you respect, but you also *identify* with. Then you’ll speak to them like a real human being.

      Earlier this year there was a dude in our offices talking to our CEO. This guy is internationally known, and a tech celebrity in Austin, Texas. He’s done awesome things like make a skateboard you control with your mind. Seriously.

      He was leaving the office and I literally stopped him and started chatting him up, just like I’d talk to one of my friends. He ended up buying me dinner a week later and said, “Austin, we’re talking tonight because I knew you just wanted to hang out. You didn’t want me to invest in your startup or anything, you just wanted to be my friend. I respect that, AND if you had an idea for a company, I’d be more likely to listen to you because of it.”

      I spoke to him like he was a normal human being (most of us alive are just that), and he was open to a friendship.

      We over think these conversations sometimes ;-)

  • Zach,,

    That’s a really great question, actually. Reaching out to influencers is something you’ve got to do very intentionally, and it’s a slow burn process. By that, I mean that developing relationships with influential people happens over time. There are folks that I looked up to and admired in the Austin Startup community that wouldn’t give me the time of day for years. I remember recently having a personal conversation recently with one of these men and thinking to myself, “you’ve achieved something here.”

    The key is that successful people work hard for their success, and they like being around other people who are working hard to be successful. In my experience, you’ll find that it can initially be very hard to join those circles, but the best way to do that is to have something you’re working hard on that is actually valuable. That will be your currency. Even if you’re not successful yet, the entrepreneurial spirit of what you’re doing will be honored by those who share it.

    Thing is, you have to start sharing now. Nobody will care for a while, but by the time your content starts getting good, you’ll have a name for yourself and you’ll have those relationships started. Don’t wait until things are perfect. You’ll wait forever. If you’re intimidated, that’s good. If you’re immobilized by fear, then that’s holding you back.

  • Noah Blough says:

    Have had my site up and going for about a month. It’s humor and have had some good reactions from friends. Especially my college age son and his friends. I was looking to spread out and you have put to words what I was seeing. Thanks.