Selfish vs. Selfless: Self-Promotion in Communities

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I used to think all self-promotion was wrong — at all times.

Being raised in Germany, I developed a severe case of tall poppy syndrome — the phenomenon of people holding back so they wouldn’t stand out from the rest. It’s an eclectic mix of jealousy and self-limitation, and I have realized just how destructive it can be not to promote yourself for this reason. Self-promotion is a necessary part of building something meaningful in public. People won’t find you or your work when you don’t share it with the world.

But not all self-promotion is right, either. Too many times have I seen people join a community only to immediately blast their advertisements into the activity feeds and comment boxes of the platform they just became a part of. Shortly after, a disgruntled community administrator will have booted the spammer out of the community, leaving nothing but a bitter aftertaste and a lot of cleanup work.

There is a line between self-empowerment and enraging a community. There is a way to self-promote without causing the recipients to frown at what you have to say. Two methods of self-promotion exist: selfish and selfless self-promotion. Let’s talk about both, how they are received, and which one you can reliably use for your own entrepreneurial ambitions.

There is one defining difference between the two: a selfish self-promoter says, “I made this!”, while the selfless self-promoter says, “I made this for you!

Selfless Self-Promotion

If you have been part of a community for a while, listened to their conversations, understood the challenges they face by participating in the community, and are working on a solution with and for the people in it, talking about your work will always happen within the context of your previous engagement with the community. It will never be seen as an aimless advertisement.

This context is vital: if people understand that you’re not promoting yourself alone but are actually promoting something for them, they will meet your messages with encouragement and support.

You can witness this on Twitter all the time. An entrepreneur who has been sharing their knowledge for weeks and months compiles their expertise into a course or an ebook. They launch their product which is met with resounding approval by the community, often being significantly amplified.

People support creators in their marketing efforts because they want them to succeed. The creator’s success is their success because there is a certain level of identification between the creator and their audience. This relationship removes any notion of selfishness from public perception. A product created with and for a community of real people experiencing real problems can’t be the result of a selfish act.

It is this quality of selflessness that makes community-friendly self-promotion possible. Instead of climbing on a stage, having all the lights pointed at you, and loudly proclaiming what a genius founder you are for having created this product, you are a peer among the other people in your community, and you contribute a solution to a critical problem that is widely felt in the community. Your contribution is all about them.

Selfish Self-Promotion

Now, let’s look at the exact opposite. Selfish self-promotion is the rotten apple that spoils the bunch for the rest of us. If all you care about is making a quick buck by spamming your affiliate links into a community, you’ll quickly find that people will promptly boo you off their stage.

It’s just disrespectful. You joined a community that took years to establish. People have been building social structures and formed long-term relationships there. Who are you to break open the door, yell about your product that nobody knows about, and expect to be responded to kindly?

Without context, people will always be skeptical. Particularly when defending their communities, they’ll be cautious. You are obligated to show that you’re benign and have good intentions before you can talk about your work. This takes time and effort — both of these are at the core of community-building.

If you don’t put in the work, you won’t see any results.

If you don’t make your promotion about the people it’s actually for, you will earn distrust. You will be considered a danger to the integrity of the community you’re advertising in.

If you make your self-promotion about yourself and not your peers, you leave no chance for them to find themselves in your story.

The only way to self-promote in a world of tight-knit communities is to selflessly self-promote.

Communities and Self-Promotion

Now that you can focus on being selfless in your marketing efforts, a word of warning: many communities still consider all self-promotion to be selfish. They have witnessed too many veiled attempts by marketers trying to subvert their communities into an advertisement channel.

Reddit is the archetype of a “no self-promotion” platform. Most Reddit communities have stringent rules and will quickly ban people who promote their products or services. In fact, Reddit is known to apply these rules strictly to the very administrators who enforce those rules.

Here’s a tip:

  1. Reach out to moderators long before you even start talking about your stuff.
  2. Ask them how you can talk about your work without sounding selfish.
  3. Explain to them what motivates you and how you want to help their community.

Every community treats this differently, so you will need to do your research and talk to the people protecting the community from harm.

You’ll see diverging levels of acceptance and understanding for self-promotion depending on the platform you’re using. Where Reddit is very extreme in suppressing self-promotion, platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter will be much more forgiving.

A rule of thumb is the presence of invite-only groups or self-governance. Once you’re in an exclusive group or a community governed not by a central platform but by the community members, be wary: retribution for selfish self-promotion without context will be swift.

We live in a world of tribal communities that are very protective of the structures they have built. Don’t expect to be able to market your business without contributing to communities first. Understand that it will take time and significant effort to establish a reputation within a community — but the rewards are plentiful. Once people understand the context of your self-promotion to be about them, they will amplify and support your efforts in ways you never imagined before.

“I built this FOR YOU!” is the core of every selfless self-promotion approach. Make everything about your audience, and they will make it happen for you.

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