How to grow your community by writing great content

How to grow your community by writing great content

👋 Hello everyone. I'm Matthew and I will be your guide in Rosieland today.

You can’t write for everyone, every time.

“You can please some of the people all of the time,” wrote the poet John Lydgate over 500 years ago, “you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

And so it goes when writing for your community. It’s a good thing if what you write isn’t for everyone—as long as it is for someone.

Your community should be cohesive, focused on common goals and interests. Yet even in such a group, you’re not clones—you’re each individuals with unique wants and needs. You’re at different stages of your journey. Your photography community, say, might have both professional photographers with prints hung in galleries, and new photographers still unsure what makes a lens fast. You share the love of photography, of capturing light with a lens, but that’s the only common assumption that holds true of everyone in your community.

When I began writing content for Capiche, the software-focused community I helped start, those differences quickly became clear. The articles that brought in new community members, often, were not the articles that were most popular with existing community members. We needed to meet each community member at their current stage in the software journey—and as such, our articles that performed best focused on a specific community segment, without worrying that they wouldn’t be read by everyone.

Here’s how to grow your community with content that’s great for some people, some of the time.

Search-focused content that brings in beginners

Screenshot of Answer The Public's suggested questions about Figma
Google Search-focused tools like Answer The Public can help you find content ideas to bring in new community members.

"What’s a fast lens?" wouldn’t be interesting to an advanced photographer, and "How do you import Illustrator files in Figma?" wouldn’t be needed by someone who uses Figma every day. But those were exactly the types of questions the experts also had when they were starting out, and they’re the things beginners are searching for today.

Communities are fueled not by content as much as by communication, by the questions and comments and replies that make the website feel like a third place, somewhere to hang out with like-minded folks. But do the questions come first, or the answers? It’s a chicken and egg problem, and you have to start somewhere.

That’s where the simpler questions make the most sense. Ask the things in your community that you wondered when you were starting out, the questions that Ahrefs and Google Trends and other search data says people are looking for. An easy hack is to Google what you’re writing about, and see the searches Google suggests—or use an app like AnswerThePublic to find common questions about that topic. Then answer them yourself (use a fake name, if you must), and question by answer, fill out your community with the knowledge that will help beginners.

They might be too shy to actually ask the question in public with their name attached to it, but they’d absolutely Google those questions. When your answer pops up in their search result and helps them make that next step in progressing towards being an expert, they’ll be likely to look around at what else your community has to offer—and hopefully, they’ll stick around.

Your default inclination will likely be to share everything you publish. The more readers, the merrier. But with these foundational topics, perhaps hold off. Publish and find ways to promote them elsewhere; perhaps find questions on Quora and Twitter, answer them in your community, then share the answer with the person who first asked it. But don’t promote those posts to your entire community, or you’ll bore the experts with the things they already know.

Substantive content that attracts experts

A screenshot showing "The History of Command Palettes" blog post alongside the Hacker News discussions about it.
If your post can drive community discussions elsewhere, it can also bring new members into your community.

Questions are easier to rank on Google search.

Longform content—deep dives, data-driven research, stories about the history of your industry, and other investigative journalism-adjacent writing—is much easier to share in a community and get traction on social media. That’s how you attract the experts to your community.

A photography community might want to attract people who chat on DPreview and the r/photography subreddit. A software community like Capiche wanted to bring people over from Hacker News. For the latter, we researched software trends. Command palettes—the search interfaces inside software like Arc and Superhuman—were a new design trend, so we researched their history in a piece that trended on Hacker News. We pulled historic pricing data on 100 popular business tools and found the software inflation rate over the past decade—which ranked on Google, after driving buzz on Twitter.

Those pieces, broadly, brought in less search traffic than the how-to tutorials. But they brought in far more social and community traffic—and more importantly, brought new users who were deeply interested in the ins and outs of software. They also were content we could easily share with our existing community members. Everyone might not find a tutorial equally interesting, but your average geeky person will find the history of something in tech to be interesting.

Sustaining content that keeps people coming back

A screenshot of a discussion on the Capiche community about Figma versus Roam Research, where a community member says "strong opinions may follow"
“Warning: Strong opinions may follow,” wrote one community member—which is exactly what you want.

Then there are the discussions where everyone’s welcome. Chats about your favorite workflow, or tools. Questions about problems everyone faces, novice and expert alike. Discussions where you’d want everyone’s opinion—and where everyone likely has a strong one to give.

Here, you’ll write less, promote more. You’ll spark the discussion; open-ended ones are best. One about your favorite time to shoot photos would get everyone’s interest; one about why Fuji cameras are great would segment your audience (good, too, but not if your goal is bringing everyone back). At Capiche, discussions around notes, email, and to-do list apps—tools where most professionals have some say over which app they use—got the most discussions, while those around, say, Salesforce or Stripe got only a segment of the audience.

And here’s where you can stroke controversy, and still win. At Capiche, one of our most-viewed discussions was a debate over Notion and Roam Research’s merits. It’s doubtful anyone won anyone over to their side, but everyone seemingly had fun cheering for their favorite, and the side discussions became the core of Capiche’s note-focused content. More recently at Reproof, my new startup, I wrote a piece about how notes apps are where ideas go to die, since so often I wrote notes and forget about them. Everyone didn’t like it equally—the top comment on Hacker News was “this is quite extreme”—but it drove the most discussion of any piece I’d published on Reproof, and found plenty of fans among the readers.

Your goal is to be the referee. Spark the conversation, share it around the community, and watch people come back in. Reply and upvote if relevant; remove anything that detracts from the community if anger flares. And watch for new ideas. The seeds of your next beginner-focused answers or expert-focused long-form blog posts might sprout from these more wide-ranging discussions.

Community ties it all together

For people are what really matter. Your community would just be a blog, a place to push ideas out into the world, without people talking about it. And people won’t keep coming back for long if they feel like they’re shouting into the abyss. You’ll have to interact with everyone in your site to turn your content into a community.

At first, you’ll focus on writing that initial seed content, the pieces that will bring in your earliest community members. Then you’ll shift to engaging them. Message them and thank them for signing up. Reply to every comment, even if “Thanks for joining in!” is all you can think to say.

You’ll have to talk and reply a ton to keep a community going, far more than you’d expect at first. Stop too soon, and your community will die out. As Sparktoro marketer Amanda Natividad recommends, “Grow your community through unscalable interactions, especially when it’s early days.” That’s the only way to get the community growing to the point where it takes on a life of its own.

And then you’ll get back to the basics, of writing new content that will attract your next cohort of community members.

How can we build better communities?

We are on a quest to learn and explore what makes great communities.


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