October 09, 2020

First Study Your People

Rosie Sherry
All too often I see people dive in head first into building communities. Often on impulse without fully understanding what they are letting themselves into. They have come up with 'the solution' before understanding the people, or the problem that needs to be solved.

From my early days of community building I set up ways of understanding what was going on in the ecosystem before attempting to do anything around building an actual community. To me this just felt like common sense.

To build a community, you need to understand your people first.

This was core to founding Ministry of Testing.

It's a very different scenario for my work at Indie Hackers (as I came in to help after it had started), but I've been adopting a similar mindset. I need to study my indie people.

Again for Rosieland I've been doing similar. I'm not sure if I'll end up with a 'proper community' for Rosieland, I think I'd like to, but for now I'm studying, writing and evaluating the space to help me get a feel for what I actually want to do longer term.


It's not always clear who your people are


When it came to Ministry of Testing, it was much easier to identify who our people were. I could search out 'software testers'. Connect with them. Follow them. Easily identify them based on their job titles – software testers, test engineers, test automation engineers, etc.

It wasn't too hard.

I once ran a Girl Geek Dinners meetup in Brighton. Again, finding the relevant people was kind of easy. They had to be women, into tech and live close enough to Brighton to want to attend.

With Indie Hackers and community builders it's a bit less clear.

Indie hackers don't always call themselves that. We have to deal with multiple terms – founders, boostrappers, CEOs, developers, designers, etc. Though to my advantage we had a community that I could research and build upon.

With Rosieland it is equally challenging, as I want to reach people interested in community building. The obvious target is community managers, but I want to go a bit more broad and towards my indie roots. Many people are trying to build communities who don't have any kind of community in their title. They are founders, developers, designers...they can literally come from any background.

Either way, what I've realised: discovering and connecting with the right people takes time.


Create a process for keeping on top of who your people are


As a community builder you need to be there for people, at all parts of their journey. It's all about the give and take. You can't be there if you are not on top of what people are sharing and where people are at.

Creating a process for this is all you need to do. It's not rocket science, but it does take a bit of time and action. And it needs to become core to your regular/daily/weekly activities.

I get that this sounds vague. It will look different for everyone.

Following is what I do. Take the concepts and apply it to your situation.


Step 1: It's an overwhelming mess - start by lurking


Entering a market is overwhelming. No one knows you. They're talking about things you don't understand. It probably feels cliquey as you look in from the outside. You don't want to participate in fear of looking stupid.

The solution is to find places to lurk. Don't put too much pressure on yourself. Give yourself to get a feel of what you are letting yourself into. Look into the history of the people and the places they hang out.

Still happy to spend your time in this niche? Pick some tools…


Step 2: Choose your tools


You need to set up a system, essential tools for me are:

  • An RSS reader (I use Bazqux, horrible name but very fit for purpose)
  • somewhere to organize your thoughts/notes (I'm a Notion fan, the knowledge base I have shared with you is where I organize my stuff)
  • bookmarking process (I use a mixture of Notion, Pinboard.in, Twitter bookmarks)
  • subscribing to newsletters (only when I really have to, I know ironic with this being a newsletter. 😊)

This is a habit building technique and one that you should view to maintain for community life. You cannot rely on your brain, it just doesn’t work.🤘


Step 3: Collecting resources that you need


To build a great community you have to know what's going on, that's my theory at least. You have to gain an understanding of what is out there, what people are talking about and of course what they are interested in.

The moment you stop doing this is when you (and your community) start losing relevance.

Start searching with the obvious sources, then enjoy the rabbit holes

I cannot bear spending time researching, reading and going down rabbit holes without having anything to show for it afterwards.

It is so easily done.

I insist to myself that anytime I spend researching I:

  • bookmark things
  • take notes of things and new ideas
  • follow new people
  • create actions points
  • immediately add new RSS feeds to my collection

Start with the obvious sources:

  1. a popular community in your niche
  2. someone who tweets a lot on the topic, a Twitter hashtag or a Twitter list
  3. the most popular blogs
  4. newsletters, only when necessary

Keep repeating steps 1 - 4, then go deeper and elsewhere:

  1. follow those links that people share
  2. Set up Google Alerts on a few chosen keywords
  3. Go niche in Facebook groups, Reddits, Slack groups, private communities — see what people are talking about and follow the links.
  4. Pinboard.in has been great for me for finding random community stuff.
  5. Books and speakers, look these people up often they have gold waiting to be discovered.

Most people don't have the time to go into this much depth, it puts you at a significant advantage if you do.


Step 4: Whenever possible subscribe to content by RSS


Please don't rely on people sending newsletters.

RSS is gold. As soon as someone writes something you can see it. No need to wait for someone to Tweet it or send a newsletter telling you that they have written something.

RSS is simply a super efficient way to consume information. Any time you end up on a website or blog relevant to your field, subscribe to it via RSS.

Most websites have RSS, some don't and it really annoys me! 😡

Even some newsletters have the options to subscribe via RSS. Mailchimp definitely do, as does Substack.

As an example, you can subscribe to my newsletter via https://rosieland.substack.com/feed

You can even subscribe to YouTube channels via RSS. All you need is this - https://www.youtube.com/feeds/videos.xml?channel_id=[insert channel id here] 🤓

Oh, and podcasts too, mostly you can subscribe to them via RSS.

Like I said, gold! You can pull all this into one source.

Here's a screenshot of my 'community building' RSS feed. This is the foundation of my weekly curated newsletter.


Step 5 take action!


So this is where it gets fun, imho! 🎉

You've spent time learning. You know the space you are getting involved with better. You know where to hangout. You feel less like a noob.

It's time to start participating and making use of the information you have. You’ll probably never feel completely ready, so it’s best to just dive in.

At the end of the day, it is up to you to decide what to do with the information you have access to. Hopefully you’ll come up with some of your own creative ideas too.

Here are some things I've done:

  • comment on people's blogs
  • participate in discussions
  • follow them on Twitter, connect on LinkedIn (etc)
  • like, retweet and comment on Tweets
  • create a curated newsletter (like my free Rosieland issues)
  • take your curated RSS feed and automate the content into your Slack
  • or, build a tool to spit out the RSS feed onto a website, I did this for Ministry of Testing which is based on a Bazqux feed
  • at Indie Hackers Courtland built me a little Slackbot which posts the top links and Tweets indie hackers share on Twitter, I then review it manually for interesting things.
  • share interesting links to your network
  • connect people
  • raise new voices
  • develop your own thoughts and share them too!
  • make friends
  • build trust
  • (get known for) being useful to your people.

This is not rocket science or community building (yet)


Like I said, it’s not rocket science, but the system is efficient, which brings possibilities.

I did this for me and Rosieland, yes I have experience building communities, but I never participated nor was known for it specifically.

In less than a year:

  • I’ve done several podcast episodes
  • done some virtual conferences talks
  • people keep recommending me for all things community building 🔥
  • my name is popping up all over the place
  • the invites for doing things keep coming in
  • done 40+ weekly newsletter issues
  • started this amazing paid newsletter that actually has readers! (Thank you!)

One of the under rated and big advantages of this is that you are building trust in the person that you are. At this stage of the game there are no sales pitches. You are just trying to get to know everything and everyone as best as you can.

This is not specifically community building. It is more research and audience building. Which consequently helps you make the right decisions when you go to build a community.

Importantly, which respectable community builder is not an expert in their field? This helps you become that person.

🙏 Thank you for reading.

—Rosie Sherry