- Jonathan Frenkel
How to Build a Professional Community
If there is one trend I have noticed since the end of Labor Day, it’s been an avalanche of events marketed on social media. Networking events, cocktail receptions, happy hours, conferences… and everything in between. While we have been going to events for the past year or so, it’s not been the same, as Omicron definitely put a damper on event attendance earlier this year.
There is now a real zeal to attend events, but more than that… professionals are looking for connection. And in particular young members of Gen Z, whose formative work experience was sitting in isolation and working remotely from a laptop.
“Networking”, is a bit of a transactional term, but developing relationships is a key part of any business professional’s journey. Good form for networking is figuring out how you can solve someone’s (business) problem… and then keeping your word, following up, and doing it.
In thinking about a strategy on how you can build a community to support your efforts, events are only one part of the equation. It’s not just about adding value to others’ lives (your goal) but it can be rewarding for you emotionally, socially, and financially. I will caveat that statement with the fact that it is a lot of work… but work you put in the front end will pay later on.
Relationships I developed during my years running around and “hustling” (you know I had to use that word!) around New York, I still maintain, even years after we met.
But back then, I was so self-absorbed, and didn’t listen enough. If I conducted my meetings by listening more (my silver bullet was the coffee meetings), I believe I would have been able to build even stronger relationships. But I did keep my word, and that did go far in building credibility. So, learn from my mistakes, and use my hard lessons learned for your benefit.
In 2022, the use of digital has made creating a community something very accessible, and while I would love to tout the idea that we can all create relationships online… we still need to connect with people in person.
Community is that foundational, as Harvard Business Review writes on its importance: “While communities generate tangible value for businesses — such as content, events, online advocacy and marketing, technology production, customer support, and education — it is the intangible value that members derive from the experience that makes these environments truly “sticky.”
And that “Human beings are fundamentally social animals. Behavioral economics and psychological research have taught us that we fundamentally crave a sense of connectedness, belonging, mission, and meaning, particularly when performing our work.”
So, there is a reason we are social beings and feel good when we connect with others.
Why even create community?
For an activity which is a ton of work… this is a relevant question.
Creating a professional community offers the opportunity to network and connect with other professionals… this does not need to be just business development, but also sharing knowledge.
Also, organizing community (and if you’re truly providing value) gives you the opportunity to be a connector of information, people, and opportunities. It positions you in a flywheel; the more people you meet and know, the bigger your reputation grows as someone who knows lots of people, and as someone worthwhile to connect with.
Ultimately, if you’re actively facilitating, connecting, and helping other people, opportunities will present themselves. And you’ll often be the first one to hear about them… and when the time comes for you to make an Ask, your community will be responsive.
Hybrid but not in the way you think… you need BOTH online and IRL to build and develop a community. They work in tandem, when you create an event, you can promote it through an online platform… and when you have that in-person event you can create content at the event itself. So, it works as a flywheel.
There are some aspects you need to have, in order to be successful:
An online platform, and this can be something like LinkedIn or a Facebook group in which you manage the group… and know this will take work. Ideally, I would suggest a WhatsApp group, and a Slack group as a second option.
I had great feedback when I created a WhatsApp group for a networking event I hosted in the past. When someone bought a ticket (I highly suggest you charge something for those who attend, so they are at least bought in), I added them to the group, where they were able to see who was attending, and to connect before the event.
You could feel the crackle of energy in the air before the event even started as the WhatsApp group was on fire. Also, a private group could give you another way to raise sponsorship money from sponsors.
For in-person engagement, you should consider hosting an event or a conference. This does not have to be something big or fancy.
A simple meetup will do.
If you want to plan a flagship event that works as well, there are plenty of opportunities to build community, and to engage your community in the lead up to the event itself.
Adding additional content platforms such as blog posts, or newsletters is key in keeping people engaged. I’ve used a newsletter to communicate with my community for the last few years, and having someone’s email is more important than any social media following.
In-person versus scale
There are situations where meeting someone in person is more effective. I can state that, without asking for coffee meetings during the years I was in New York I would have never been able to build anything.
It helps if you go to a meeting with an idea of how you can add value to the other party, and really try and not talk too much (let the other side speak 80% of the time, but this is something I personally struggle with). And while not as “effective” as attending an event or creating content like an article or video… this is what life is about.
Face-to-face. Human connection.
We were put on this earth to be of service to others.
I don’t think there is any successful person who doesn’t attribute some level of their success to their relationships.
But when it comes to scale… I have found the most effective events for relationship building are small breakfasts, lunches, or small receptions such as a Shabbat dinner. But you need to have both, those large parties to plant the flag, touch your network, and get on people’s radars.
Personally, I enjoy attending both types of events, large and small, but the most impactful ones for relationship building are smaller gatherings.
You can only scale your reach so much in-person, so creating large networking events, an event series, or a conference is the way. Of course, you can create content, especially at conferences, of what takes place at the event, and that content you can scale digitally.
But you need both, in-person and online, to successfully engage people these days.
Why content matters
Content offers the ability to scale value and impact many people’s lives. I’ve stated that I don’t believe in this superconnector persona, as I don’t think it’s a skill, and often not scalable as it’s done one-on-one (unless it’s facilitation at an event).
Since COVID, content has become even more important, if you don’t have content, much less a content strategy, you just don’t exist. When looking to create content, especially in the context of helping your community, you need to think about what is that they are looking for, whether it’s job opportunities, insights, events to attend, etc.
Another thing content does is keep you top of mind, when you’re producing a newsletter or posting consistently on a social media platform such as LinkedIn. Also, it plays a key role when you’re marketing anything towards your community.
How to start
First, pick a niche that you want to build a community around. And please, don’t be a serial community person, or something like that, it’s all very soulless. Figure out a vertical you’re passionate about, and if there is an audience for it.
As an example, I’m in content marketing, and work with a lot of investors and startups. I want to build a community around marketers (not value creation people at VCs, but strictly marketers), for those who work with investors. I don’t know yet how big this group could be, but if it’s 20 highly engaged professionals, that’s fine for me.
Set out, and define what success looks like for you. Yes, we all want to make it rain and develop business, but you need to think about how you can add value first. And just by creating a group, sometimes that is enough value, as people can learn from each other and connect with one another.
Sometimes a group doesn’t exist. And that gives you an opportunity to create one.
And be honest with yourself how much time you are willing to devote to this… and if you feel this is a big time commitment. Personally, I love bringing people together, and would do it whether I was compensated or not.
I have found joy in bringing people together, and I’m sure if you’re reading this, you have some of that spark as well. But it does take time, and you’ll deal with some nonsense and people’s egos, so be prepared.
Managing your community
Like creating content, consistency is always the most important thing… and that’s what gets you on people’s radars. There is a fine line, however, as if you run a Slack or WhatsApp group you can go crazy being on it all day, so keep that in mind when you look to engage your audience.
From the content side I would suggest a newsletter, either every week or every other week, with relevant insights, articles, events, etc., that your community is interested in. And plan to host a larger event once a quarter, if you want to host it more often, fine, but just know that it’s a lot of work.
Ultimately, your intentions will shine through, and if you’re doing this to be “popular” or get the attention you never received in high school then ask yourself why you are doing this. And if you’re looking to build community to directly monetize, i.e., pitch them stuff right off the bat, then that will shine through as well.
Your goal should be to solve your community’s business problems, and if you believe that building community (or even hosting a limited event), around an interest offers a solution then by all means go ahead and do it.
The pandemic showed all of us how much human contact is so important for our mental health. So, when you embark on this journey of creating a professional community, and looking to not just solve someone’s professional, but personal need, then you’re doing good work.
If you’d like to learn more about how to parlay content to effectively build a community, and grow your business, reach out to me directly at email@example.com