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Building a Contact List Into a Community

Enlist the power of others to make your idea stand out


by Janice Holly Booth

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So you’ve got the next big idea, but no clue how to get it to the masses. How do you make your start-up idea into a household name? Branding expert Dorie Clark, who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and is the author of Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It, talks to Life Reimagined about using the power of relationships to build a brand and a following.

You can have the greatest, most transformative idea in the world, but if you can’t get others on board, it goes nowhere, right?

It’s true. If you aren’t communicating your ideas to the world, it’s almost as if they don’t exist. People who want to make a difference have to get others to listen and pay attention, which is increasingly challenging in today’s frenetic, social media-saturated world. In Stand Out, my goal is to share strategies people can use to break through the noise.

     See also: Put Peer Pressure to Work

You say it’s just as important to connect with people we don’t know as to leverage relationships we already have.  How do we go about it?

If you’re connecting with someone you don’t know—and especially someone who is prominent—you have to expect that they’re barraged by dozens or even hundreds of requests for their time per week. You need to give them a compelling reason to say yes to you, when they’re turning so many others down. In Stand Out, I profile John Corcoran, a Bay Area attorney who built a powerful network through inviting prominent guests on his podcast. He realized that an interview request would always be prioritized higher than a general “can I take you out for coffee and pick your brain?” query. As a result, he shot to the front of the line and was able to cultivate influential contacts. The main takeaway is that you should lead by offering some kind of value (an interview, an offer to connect them to someone they’d like to meet, an invitation to a desirable event), and you’ll stand out from the crowd.

Can you talk about the magic of commonality.

Professor Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University told me about a powerful technique for getting someone to like you immediately: finding a commonality as quickly as possible. Even if it’s a minor connection—a shared hobby, living in the same neighborhood, or the same alma mater—it gets them on your side and thinking of you as someone on their team.

     See also: Luck? No. It's Called the Winner Effect

You’re a big fan of blogging. Is it worth it, even if you only have a few hundred followers?

In blogging, the quality of your readers matters much more than the quantity. Let’s say you own a photography business. You could have 300,000 people read your article, but if none are prospective customers, then the overall impact is quite small. On the other hand, you could write a post about “Five Tips for Getting a Great Headshot,” and then send out a link to your small email newsletter list. If you’re able to land even a handful of new client engagements because of that post, it’s worth thousands of dollars in your pocket.

How do you figure out where your audience is?

The easiest way to find out where you audience spends its time is by asking. When you’re speaking with customers, strike up an informal conversation to see what social networks they’re using, or how they get most of their information about services like yours. You could also do an online survey in your next email newsletter, or post a question through a social media channel you already know they use heavily. (For instance, you might know your audience loves Facebook, and post a question there to find out what other platforms they spend time on.)

What are some smart and non-exhausting ways to use social media to share your great idea?

One entrepreneur I profile in Stand Out, Mark Fidelman, spends a ridiculously long time writing very detailed, information-rich blog posts. But he makes that time count by leveraging the content he’s created in many different ways. He’ll turn a blog post into a Slideshare presentation, and many different tweets. If he’s written a post, he’ll sometimes create an e-book of follow-up tips from people that he’s included. Then they’ll help promote the e-book, driving downloads and allowing him to collect more email addresses. Creating content takes time upfront, but there are many ways you can make it pay off over time.

What’s the difference between contacts and community?

Contacts are the people you know and have some relationship with, whether it’s a light connection (such as following you on Twitter) or a deeper one. A community, on the other hand, is a more profound form of connection. They believe in your idea, and are excited to talk to others about it. (One example I cite in Stand Out is Eric Ries’ Lean Startup movement, which has spawned worldwide Meetup groups to discuss it, now with more than 750,000 people participating.) Generally, you can turn contacts into a community by sharing your ideas publicly so that others can discover them, and ensuring that your idea has real benefits for other people, not just yourself (no one wants to share a sales pitch, but they’re dying to tell their friends about useful information).

     See also:  Build Yourself a Better Sounding Board

You say it’s important to create something that “people can’t wait to get into.”  What if your topic doesn’t lend itself to fun?

Not every individual event needs to be fun. But you can certainly enable people to have fun around an overall cause or idea. Improving nonprofit collaboration doesn’t sound like the sexiest topic, but Robbie Samuels, a case study in Stand Out, made it fun when he created Socializing for Justice, a Meetup group for Boston area nonprofit advocates to relax and have fun with activities like Bowling for Justice and Cocktails for Justice. If your goal is improving the broken mental health care system, there’s a place for serious policy meetings and conferences. But it’s also OK to organize comedy benefits and spa retreats for hardworking board members. 

Photo Credit: Noel Hendrickson/Getty