Yelling into the void won’t get you anywhere. This is particularly clear while you have zero followers, but it remains true even when you have an audience. Talking about something that people don’t expect or want to talk about is just like speaking to them in a language they don’t understand: it’s a waste of their time as much as yours.
The easiest way to understand a community is to consider it to be one extensive narrative, an epic story, that consists of many smaller conversations. If you look at the Indie Hacker community, the narrative arc is the hero’s journey from nothing to financial security by building their own digitally-enabled business. Within that ever-repeating story, different themes appear every now and then, just like in a classical symphony. They harmonize with each other, they rhyme, but they are distinct and different from each other.
The moment you chime in, the moment you contribute to these narratives and themes, you become interesting. People will recognize your shared interests, and they will consider you as one of their own. Therefore, the goal of audience-building is to find your place in the grand orchestra that is your community by engaging with useful and thought-provoking content that your fellow community members expect and value. You will find this place by participating in all the conversations of your niche.
By doing this regularly, you will attract high-value followers. That’s great for you, but it has an additional favorable side-effect: it’s also community-building! You’re providing another node in the network, another perspective on content that was created by others. Community organizers recognize people who do this consciously and deliberately and reward them with benevolence and exposure.
As a helpful guide, consider maximizing the community’s positive impact in every interaction you have.
People look for many things in a conversation. Here are the main themes that I have run into and how I usually engage with them:
• People look for help. This can be a specific problem or a more general question, and it’s usually phrased as a direct complaint or a question. If I have something immediately helpful to say, I reply right there and then. If I can’t help but know someone who could, I try to get them involved in the conversation. When I don’t know anyone, in particular, I usually retweet the plea for help, hoping that someone among my followers can help out.
• People look for moral support. Usually, in the wake of a tough challenge or some sort of failure, people will seek a conversation. The best thing to do here is to show empathy and validate this person’s feelings and experiences. I am often tempted to help with actionable advice here, but this might actually be counterproductive. I’ve learned to listen for a while to determine if help is appreciated or if the original poster is just looking for a sympathetic ear.
• People look for distraction. They bring up conversation topics that are controversial or polarizing to avoid working on the things that actually matter. While I tend to avoid these conversations, they might spark interesting sub-conversations with people who are interested in a meaningful exchange about the subject. I engage when I see those people interacting and ignore the discussion otherwise.
• People ask for alternative viewpoints. While this is a rare conversation, it might be one of the most instructive. Whenever people share their position on an issue and ask for another perspective, I enjoy engaging with them. The important part is never to dismiss their perspective when presenting yours. These conversations make prime targets for sourcing interesting content ideas for yourself. After all, you’ll always find opposing concepts and ideas and the contentious battle between them. These points of friction are often central to the overarching narrative of the community: “Should founders bootstrap or take funding?” – “Tabs or spaces?” – “Is Solopreneurship better than having Co-Founders?”
Clearly, those questions have no objectively correct answer. The debates around these topics are instructive as they enable people to share their anecdotes and find common themes and interesting learnings.
• People want to refine their vague idea into something concrete. No matter if it’s a knitting project or a newly envisioned business idea, people seek help in their community when it comes to testing and validating ideas. I love those opportunities. It gives me the chance to think deeply about an idea, add my personal experience to it, and then present my conclusions not only to the person who asked but also to the community that’s watching. Insightful and creative replies to questions like this will help you quickly acquire a reputation as a thoughtful subject matter expert.
• People want to share their journey. Whether it’s reaching a certain amount of Monthly Recurring Revenue or a particularly nasty Customer Cancellation Email, I love to engage with a fellow entrepreneur when something meaningful happens in their lives. Bolstering another entrepreneur’s confidence is fun and generates good community vibes, establishing you as a team player.
These are the most common engagement targets that I regularly work with. To give you a well-rounded perspective, here are the things I try not to engage with:
• Fishing for compliments. There is a thin line between building in public and trying to get attention for attention’s sake. I only want to engage with people who build in public for the community’s sake as much as their own. Selfishly occupying other people’s time without giving back something useful is not something I will encourage or endorse. If you engage with these people too much, other community members will see you as an opportunist, just like the person you engaged with.
• Looking for pity without a way out. I will engage with people who need moral support. I will ignore those who want a shoulder to cry on without also considering ways to get back on track.
• Clear examples of unreflected cognitive biases. Particularly if a person gets defensive when people helpfully point out highly flawed arguments, I hold back for a few minutes. If the conversation derails into an argument instead of a healthy debate, I will not engage.
• Baiting and trolling. Clearly, these conversations don’t contribute to furthering the goals of your community. I often get mad about something, and I am very tempted to respond, but in the end, I try to step back and look at how much good this would do, and it’s usually not much. Find something better to spend your attention on.
The context of successful engagement is conversational.