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How to Use Content to Grow Your Online Community

19 min read

Listen in as MarketMuse Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer Jeff Coyle talks shop with Black + White Zebra Co-founder Ben Aston on using content to grow your community and vice versa. After the show, he spent some time in an ask-me-anything session in our Slack Community, The Content Strategy Collective (join here). Here are highlights followed by a transcript of the AMA.

Jeff Coyle: [00:00:00] Hello, welcome to another MarketMuse content strategy webinar. Today’s discussion is called “How to Use Content to Grow Your Online Community and Vice Versa. And today’s special guest has experience in building his own communities, running his own podcast, and really everything under the sun that we’re going to talk about related to content building, thought leadership, and really using your community as inspiration to develop content.

He is the founder of Black and White Zebra. He’s also the founder and host of the Indie Media Club podcast, which I was just recently on. And I had such a good time. And it’s such a great reporting. Ben Aston, thanks for joining us today.

Ben Aston: [00:00:37] Hey Jeff. Thanks for having me. Good to be here.

Jeff Coyle: [00:00:39] Awesome. Awesome. So, tell me a couple of things, a little bit about Black and White Zebra, a little bit about Indie Media Club podcast, some recent guests you’ve had in the spirit of that.

Ben Aston: [00:00:48] We call ourselves a media company. And what we talk about is being on a mission to make boring things understandable and fun.

And really that’s the heart of what we’re doing. We’re picking things that other people might not think of, particularly sexy, but we’re trying to inject some fun into it. You’re trying to make it understandable and accessible. And so, as part of our family of sites that we have, we have a site called The Digital Project Manager, which is our biggest site.

We launched that back in 2011, 2012, and we have a bunch of other sites as well, including and you’ll get the hang of what we’re doing in a second – The Product manager, The E-Comm Manager, the CX Lead, People Managing People, the CX while we’ve got about eight different sites, and each of these sites have a bunch of content in them.

And what we’re rolling out and creating in each one of these or for each one of these sites is a community and we have so community training and then we also monetize through advertising. We create a bunch of content and we monetize through content and community. And yeah, you mentioned there the Indie Media Club podcasts, which is something I started last year.

We’ve had a great, some great guests on that including Jeff Coyle himself.

And there’s a whole bunch of other podcasts. If you’re interested in creating content and monetizing content. And then combining that with community, the things that we’re excited about are content and community.

So check out indie where you can find out more about that. But yeah, that’s what we’re doing. We’re building community and for our largest community, it’s called The Digital Project Manager, we have about 30,000 subscribers until just on the end of the year.

And for us that saw that’s our secret sauce, which I just shared.

Jeff Coyle: [00:02:37] What are those scenarios for your community? And that can inspire exciting, how to content or, frankly, just, selling the community, the community starts to sell itself. That’s really cool.

Ben Aston: [00:02:48] I think one of the things that we try. That’s trying to do more and more is like we think about content in two kind of streams that are parallel to one another. But we know, as content strategists, what people are searching for. We’ve got this kind of top-level down view of what we should be writing about. But we’re using the community to originate and develop what we call passion posts and this, these are not directly, we’re not trying to directly target a keyword.

But what trying to, but it’s more topical relevance is topical relevance. It’s completely original and we’re reducing the friction to publishing. Our pillar content can be stuff that we write, but it can be supported by stuff that people want to write about. So in the forum, if someone has sent, written something really interesting that we think is cool, we say, “Hey, can we republish that? Or can we turn this into a post on our website?”

And then we publish it and we’ve got this. We’re there. We’re thinking about the topic cluster. We’re thinking about the keywords that are in there. We’re maybe doing some tweaking adding in a few words here and there, but then we’ve got, then our homepage is filled with content that actually looks like and reflects the community that we want to build rather than being going to the homepage and it looking like a list of keywords.

So, I think the, doing these things in parallel with one another helps cultivate that community as well, and helps really helps us develop those things that are bubbling up organically within the community. It gives that some likes as well.

Jeff Coyle: [00:04:30] That is worth the price of admission. I’ve been doing that for over 10 years. It’s a secret weapon. What you just described. It works and not only works because it’s getting direct to those pages are getting direct traffic. The membership feels good because you put shine the spotlight on them. For you it grows authority. Like you said, it expands those clusters.

It drives legitimate expertise-driven topical authority. And it works. Yeah, you just described something that’s worth a tremendous amount for anyone that has access to an to a community. It also is one thing that I give advice on for folks, if they’re looking to buy forums. Right Ben, outside of that, outside of this topic, but how many of those things can you see would be inspiration because that’s a great way to connect to as a site that exists to a forum.

What are the, do you look at, do you do competitive analysis? Do you look at other cohort for communities, or ones that aren’t doing the things that we just described, to inspire or is that part of your process?

Ben Aston: [00:05:33] It is but we, I think it can be very easy to get distracted. I think copycatting is dangerous because if someone is doing something well, just trying to emulate what they do and do it better, there’s a lot of catching up to do. So, I think our strategy has really been to pioneer what we think works. To test, to build test them ourselves and iterate without worrying too much about what’s going on elsewhere.

Because I think otherwise, we can get pulled in a million different directions. We see what they’re doing over there, and I know it’s like it’s working and they’re doing something different. And then we end up just with a smorgasbord of stuff and ideas and half-baked tactics. Yeah, we try and not get too distracted with that, but find inspiration from other communities.

So not necessarily within our niches, but hey what a community is doing that seems to be super effective. What can we learn from that? But I think, and I think this has been my experience of Gurus in general, is that if you read for example, like Neil Patel or, you read and consume some of the advice that people are giving out, generic kind of advice.

It will often not work in your environment because of various reasons. And I think the temptation can be these people are super successful. I’ve got to, I’ve got to do what they’re telling me to do because they’ve, they’re super rich, they’re really successful. And it doesn’t take into consideration the nuance of your community or the nuance of what you’ve created, which is special and different.

And so I think embracing the special snowflake that you have and just working out. Yeah, what is it, what is your differentiator? And rather than trying to become something that’s generic to be different, become like leverage or differentiation, whatever that might be. And that becomes your competitive advantage.

And I think as we try and copy other people, we lose that competitive advantage. We lose what’s individual and different about us. So, find what’s different and make that your, yeah, make that your playing card. And rather than trying to copy people.

Jeff Coyle: [00:07:54] So how do you think about, or how do you get inspiration for the more high-level pillar content? So, the thought leadership content that you’re going to do is that you had mentioned some kind of, some of your search volume old school keyword difficulty. I know we’ve had heart to hearts about personalizing your difficulty and shooting bullets that you know, can hit the target.

And that’s where you are crushing it, frankly.

Ben Aston: [00:08:16] Yeah. So, it comes from conversations. And I think this is why having. Yeah, the danger of being stuck in tools, looking at these things is that it disconnects you from the people, the community part of it. And yeah, we spend a lot of time talking to people, just having conversations with practitioners to try and understand what their challenges are, what their pain points are.

What are the things that they are struggling with? What are the things that they’re finding super easy? What are their lessons learned? And actually, the podcast for us is a great way of uncovering some of that because we’re in having that conversation, we’re recording it and then we’re repurposing it as a podcast, as a video.

So, we’re doing our customer research and we’re using that to drive editorial plan. Now, there are some things that we know, like kind of evergreen challenges for people. So, things like they’re trying to find a new job. They’re trying to find a promotion. They are feeling they’ve got imposter syndrome when they’ve just landed that new job.

They’re managing people for the first time or they’ve got a boss who is a pain in the ass. Yeah, these kinds of things are like evergreen. So, we know that we can write about them and they’re always going to be super relevant. Then we can just iterate on that content, but what we’re trying to find are the, particularly because we’re in the, we’re focused on digital disciplines.

So, this means that, as for example, people start working more with artificial intelligence or data warehousing, for example, it means that we can then begin to build content around the topics that are emerging and become increasingly relevant. So, we’ve got an eye on trends. We’ve got an eye on technology, we’ve got a conversation going on with the community and we’re trying to marry these things together.

So, for example, we’re exploring what is artificial intelligence in project management? What does it mean for project managers? How can we use data to make better decisions, things like that? So, we’re trying to marry these two things together.

Jeff Coyle: [00:10:27] So how do you talk about passion content? I think that was the word you used. No passion posts. You’re talking about passion posts. How do you, how would you Internally make the case for writing content on long tail or passion posts. That’s a good way to phrase that. Yeah.

Ben Aston: [00:10:44] Yeah. And for me that it goes, back to the brands piece, which is actually just parking the tools for a second.

And if you were thinking about writing a book, would you be doing it by finding all the keywords and just plopping them all together and trying to sell a book that way. I think you’d be thinking about a topic you’d be writing about what you know is relevant as an expert. And I think. Sometimes we’ll have a couple of things like the volumes are wrong, so that’s,

Jeff Coyle: [00:11:20] Make sure everybody knows this. The volumes are all wrong. Just so you know.

Ben Aston: [00:11:26] Especially at the lower levels. When something has a volume of 10 or it’s their volume, like whatever.

There are people searching for it. If people, if you know it’s relevant, then write about it. And I think the tools, I think we can rely too heavily on tools and think, okay, the tool says this, I must follow the, what the tool says. Like the tool is just a tool. It’s not, you still need to use your brain.

And I think as we’re thinking about, okay, what should we write about. That’s where our subject matter expertise comes into it. And if you haven’t got the subject matter expertise, you need to hire a subject matter expert to map out in their mind what the topic looks like and what the clusters could be, how these content topics relate to one another.

Algorithmically, yeah, we can look at data and we can see people also search for; we can do all these things. But actually, a subject matter expert is going to have a better idea than what Google has been able to piece together, like at this point.  I’d say, think of it more like you’re trying to write a book.

I’m like, what would the chapters of the book be? Rather than necessarily relying on the data, relying on the numbers because cause you, because it will be wrong. And you’ll have, you’ll find that you get a bunch of traffic for stuff that you shouldn’t theoretically, based on the tools. And you’ll find, you write about something and it’s no one’s looking at it.

So, use, use the tools as a guide and use your subject matter expertise. And that’s where passion posts come in. It’s because if we’re covering a topic comprehensively and where we know that this. This topic or this post means that we’re covering it more comprehensively, like it matters.

Yeah. So, try and use your brain rather than the tools a bit.

Jeff Coyle: [00:13:14] What other things would you say after having run communities, what would be the hit list for someone who’s starting a brand-new community and that you would say, “Do these things, do not do these things,” and then we can end on that.

Ben Aston: [00:13:28] Yeah. So, I think, we’re in the process of doing this ourselves, launching new communities. And I think the most important thing is just, it has to be based on the community, has to be based on some kind of insight. Just deciding to start a community as a “Hey, I’m I going to start a community? I’m going to start a Slack group,” and think that’s it. That’s not really going to work.

Like it has to be, there has to be a common challenge, a common problem that you’re solving, something that you’re addressing. Just spinning up a Slack group is not really going to do it. And I think part of that is and there’s a great book.

The name is now, I think it’s called, I think it’s called “Together” the book. But it all talks about the importance of building community with people, not for people. And I think often when we’re trying to do things like build community, we are doing it for people. We’re doing it because we have a motive.

Obviously, we have a motive. There’s, it’s not entirely altruistic.  There’s a reason why we build in this community, but if we can find a way to do that in parallel or in conjunction with people so that we get their buy in, right from the start, we understand their pain points and we’re meeting those pain points in some way.

Then we’re going to have something that lasts. I think if. There are so many examples of people spending millions of dollars, trying to start communities for people for that audience, and then not succeeding because that audience weren’t engaged. They weren’t involved. Get your users, get your people. Get their insights. Do it in collaboration with them together with them so that it’s useful rather than just as a resource because the community isn’t the technology. It’s not Circle or Slack. It’s the people and it’s their challenges and helping one another. So, bringing those people together in a meaningful way is what’s going to make it sink or swim.

Jeff Coyle: [00:15:23] Yeah, that’s a great way to end. As always, we really appreciate you watching this live or listening to the recording. Thanks again, Ben. Cheers.



Why did you choose Cirlce over Mighty Networks for your community platform?

We tried Mighty Networks, but it was a bit complicated – the UX and UI was pretty but the different spaces for discussions was confusing for people. I liked that Circle was just trying to do one thing – be a forum, and that we could integrate it better with our site.

Why is project management critical, especially in the lens of content and SEO?

You need a solid plan, you need to track progress and you need to manage the team to get there. Having a solid publishing workflow that’s project managed effectively (we use a kanban system) is what allows you to scale production.

Do you consider FOMO in your community management and as part of your strategy to convert members?  How do you use content to create FOMO?

100% FOMO is a Big D. For all our member content and events, we evangelize them as publicly as we can – almost with the assumption that everyone who’s reading it is a member. And then we combine it with hosting some events live on FB so that people who are unsure get a look under the hood.

Where do you see fractures in digital media today? Where do you see digital media heading in the next year?

The fractures I see are in thin content which until now has had a pretty easy ride. I see that changing as Google’s getting better at differentiating what really good content looks like. I think the days of content mills are over! I think the bar is getting higher as google wants fast, rich, ux driven content experiences. In some ways though it makes it easier; just do less, better.

Do you have any advice for starting off on the right foot with cross functional projects?

A few things to think about:

  • Having really clear briefs that articulate why you’re doing the project, what you want to achieve and how
  • A plan for how to get from A to B -having a plan is essential, even though the plan will change, it’ll give them team direction and alignment
  • Clearly defined roles and responsibilities – ideally with just one person as the ultimate decision maker
  • Tracking your time and progress is essential so you can begin to figure out how long things take, and where exactly you are on the project

What advice do you have for starting a community from scratch?

As I said earlier, do it with the community not for them. You need them to actively participate from the start for it to be sustainable. It’s better to be small and good and grow slowly and evolve as you better understand people’s needs rather than going all out from the start. Find your heroes and build with them – creating an event is a great way to do that.

What advice do you have for getting early community members to be active participants to get the ball rolling for later members?

This is tough. But it’s important to have early community members who are truly engaged and who have skin in the game.  So, focus on that small core, meet with them to work out what they need and play the role as the power-facilitator to make that happen. It’s more of a case of listening and responding than it is doing things for people. We want to be doing things with them and releasing them to do it better. Early on it also helps to develop regular rituals that people can count on. Whether that’s every Monday we share our goals for the week, or every Friday we share wins or something – create a regular cadence for interaction so there’s always something new.

Do you have any advice for marketers who want to engage more in other communities and provide value to those members without seeming to pushy/product-focused?

I think the key is in what you said – providing value. Part of that is in recognizing your tool or product isn’t the answer to everything. I think people who can consistently provide value – over time become people can be trusted, so that when they do refer to their product, the message is better received. But it’s a long game. People definitely don’t want to see you pop up just to tell them about your latest webinar or survey. So, provide value first, concentrate on the communities that you’re a really good fit for and try not to talk about yourself too much!

What are your thoughts on creating and driving virality?

I haven’t successfully done it yet. Apart from once when I was working at an ad agency and we created an ad with the intention of it being ‘viral.’ In that instance we paid for it to go viral, and it did. But did it generate results? No, not really. It got awareness and everyone felt good about themselves, but it didn’t have a long-term impact. So, the lesson learned for me at least is that chasing virality is a rich man’s game. Rather than trying to crack the nut with something that’s viral, I’d rather slog on with building the audience of people who are going to be in it with me for the long haul; I don’t want one-time visitors, I want to build a community.


Ben Aston (LinkedIn)

Black & White Zebra

Buzzing Communities: How to Build Bigger, Better, and More Active Online Communities

Get Together: How to build a community with your people

How To Build Thriving Online Communities (with Richard Millington from FeverBee)

The Digital Project Manager

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Stephen leads the content strategy blog for MarketMuse, an AI-powered Content Intelligence and Strategy Platform. You can connect with him on social or his personal blog.