Turning Readers into a Thriving Community

Jodi Ettenberg Annemarie Dooling Tbex 2013

Last weekend I spoke with Annemarie Dooling about audience and community at  TBEX 2013, emphasizing that while site traffic is relevant, what matters more is creating a thriving community. By this we meant a place where readers feel a part of your trajectory and are encouraged to interact fruitfully with each other. Given that Annemarie worked for Huffington Post in a community role, we were able to tackle this issue from the brand side and the blogger side. Happily, we were also able to leave 20 minutes for questions and they were great – case studies about specific problems to troubleshoot, thoughtful queries about platforms to use online and more. I wish that our session had been taped so that I could share the video since the audience made the panel that much more enjoyable, but instead I can only offer up our slides and resources for learning more.

Successful Branding and Building a Thriving Community of Readers

The crux of the presentation centred around the idea that readers are great, but community — a group of people who are loyal to and excited by the work you do, and about meeting each other — are more important. The slides were a small accessory as most of the practical parts of the presentation (tips and tools) were verbal,  but hopefully they convey the message that we advocated: that it is not just about you broadcasting to a community, but rather you communicating with readers, and then connecting them with each other. (I experienced this firsthand when two readers who met at one of my reader meetups started dating. “I didn’t realize there were likeminded people out there!” they said. Yay, a Legal Nomads love story!) Essentially, we talked about fostering interaction between everyone, something that occasionally gets overlooked in the drive to build a branded travel blog.

The tools you use to do this centre around offering extreme value to your audience. If you’re a narrative writer, improving the writing and trying to listen to the cues you’re getting about what resonates and what doesn’t. If you’re a photographer, valuable lessons in photos posted and a constant desire to get better at capturing moments. You get the idea. As we noted in the talk, it also means not sacrificing your integrity for the sake of short-term gain and focusing instead of the longtail approach. Community-building as a process requires your readers to believe in you, and believe that you also have them in mind. Practically, when weighing opportunities, this means thinking about how these provide value to your readers. Do they get you somewhere you would be unable to go on an independent basis? Does a trip provide a storyline that would otherwise be inaccessible to you? Do relationships with companies in your space provide advantages to your readers? These are all sensitive, tangled questions, but they crop up in almost every other industry where online and offline community-building collide.  I think of Steve Kamb (who will be my copresenter for a community talk in Portland this summer). I connected him with Jordan’s tourism board for a potential trip and he declined, saying it was not in the best interests of his readers.

That’s not to say we should all turn down the opportunities that come our way.  There are great opportunities — trips or partnerships or promotions — that can make sense with any of our brands. It is merely a reminder to think of our readers and the values that we want our brands to convey when any of these opportunities come our way.  This isn’t about ‘anti-monetization’, just about judicious pruning and prudent brand-building with a community in mind.

For those looking for stories about travel, more soon! It’s rare for me to post on the business of blogging, but I wanted to take this opportunity to share because the idea of community isn’t limited to the travel space. The examples we give in our slides include other fields for that reason.

Hope you enjoy, and thanks to everyone who came out and joined us for the presentation. We had a great time.



Resources  – Please see my resources page for Social Media for further reading.


22 thoughts on “Turning Readers into a Thriving Community”

  1. As a blogger (newbie) i really appreciate the value of this kind of posts Jodi.
    Very nice information that will help me to (i hope) grow my community.
    My blog is about food, and is in spanish, but this knowlegde is universal.

    So, for me, it’s ok to read this kind of post alternated with you awesome travel adventures :D

  2. Thanks for this Jodi. I love how you build community among your readers. Quite honestly, I need to do a much much much better job at this but don’t always know how. You’ve given me some ideas but it’s hard to get readers engaged. Maybe you need to know the right questions to ask or how to ask it. I try to ask readers questions at the end of posts but they end up being one time engagement questions. I don’t feel that I have an engaged community. I’m going to read some of the links you posted here and see if I can get more ideas. Would love any feedback or suggestions.

    1. Hey Jer, in the presentation we talked about how the questions you ask should be ones that are valuable to you, too. That’s not to say that yours are not! But in terms of the presentation, we were speaking to the philosophy behind question-asking. That is, being very selective about when you ask and why you’re asking too, not just ” ‘like’ this photo if you want to go to Spain too!” kind of thing on Facebook. That might work in the short term, but I don’t think it’s instructive long-term because it’s not asking valuable questions. I used the JodiEats question as a case study – I don’t tend to ask questions after every post, but I really really DID need my readers’ help for choosing a logo. So in that case, they (and you) responded in spades and I think part of it was because it was obvious I wasn’t just throwing something up there for the sake of engagement, but because I needed help. Without going back to your posts, I would say to focus on specific questions that you need answers to, not that you’re asking just for the sake of asking. In terms of community, as Annemarie noted it is a back and forth, not an engagement-generation tool – the engagement comes in part from the mutual desire and curiosity for answers.

  3. Jodi, thanks so much for posting this. Your session was the one I most regretted missing. Creating community is definitely something many of us need to spend more time on. I appreciate all the resources.

  4. My site is still fairly young (just hit the 14-month mark), but from the beginning, all I’ve really been interested in has been reaching out to and engaging with readers. I’ve found this is a much better metric of whether I’m on the right track than Google Analytics or other site stats; it’s more meaningful & more rewarding for all parties involved, I think. I poked through your slides, but I really wish I could have attended TBEX and the talk itself. Of course, the year that TBEX is in Toronto (my hometown!), I am, of course, finally traveling through Asia!

  5. I love that that was the focus of your presentation. I hate thinking about the numbers and analytics that go with blogging and I’ve learned that inevitably, they don’t matter anyhow. What does it matter if you have 100,000 visitors if none of them are interacting with you and each other. I think this is especially true about the travel community, because people are so important on your travels. Thanks for sharing this here. I’m not much for conferences, but I really did want to see your presentation after I read some comments on Twitter.

  6. Jodi, I have always appreciated the grace with which you foster community through the site without flooding your readers with ads and promotions. It is a delicate balance, and you are a phenomenal example of how to strike it. I am looking forward to hearing more TBEX stories (certainly less depressing than the stories I was narrating at my own conference in Toronto!), and I’m still kicking myself that we were unable to meet up. Big hugs from Boston!

  7. Loved your presentation Jodi. I think you made so many great comments and tips. I am happy to have a moderate level of community on my blog, but often struggle with social media. Hope to take some of your tips home and do better. So many fascinating people out there!

  8. paul | walkflypinoy

    I’m so glad to have stumbled upon this! Earlier this year, I started to get more and more requests to advertise and buy links or invites to sponsored trips, but I realized I could do more with the travel blog (like you, maybe use it as a springboard to something else, a travel writing career perhaps). So I started declining emails. I realized the high value of trust that readers’ put in a travel blog. I just go back to my own blog reading habits as an example, how sponsored posts and trips easily put me off. Not that I’m totally against them. It’s just that maybe I’m no longer the target audience of this or that travel blog with them accepting those comps. And that’s alright. We all have our own paths to success. And I may just have enough patience to see mine all the way through.

  9. Pingback: Taiwan, here I come! (plus a few fun Travel Interludes!) | The Travel Spotlight

  10. Really glad I stumbled upon this post, Jodi! Trying to build up a travel blog right now, and this might be one of the more important piece of knowledge to keep in mind as I continue to grow the site. Thanks for the awesome insight!

  11. Roxanne Rockett

    “…it is not just about you broadcasting to a community, but rather you communicating with readers, and then connecting them with each other.” Well said Jodi!!! As a former digital marketing specialist for a global brand & a current (newbie) blogger, I so appreciate this articulate and caring perspective. Thank you for this post & for always making an effort to craft the content you produce – quality we notice!

  12. It’s cool that blogging really allows this to happen. It’s a step forward from the days of the physical book.

  13. Fantastic presentation and pointers. As a newbie travel blogger, creating a community where it’s followers can speak freely and feel united is really important. I definitely take this to heart and would love to see more pointers. Thank you!

  14. Hi Jodi –
    I’m so grateful to have attended your workshop at WDS yesterday. THANK YOU. I suspended blogging a few years ago because I had a nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right but I wasn’t able to articulate the ‘what.’ I kept the blog online and only posted here and there over the last couple of years. But two months ago, with the help of a friend, we identified that I was seeking to build ‘community.’ Your workshop has given me the inspiration and tools I need to make the changes I so desperately have been craving. It’s not about me anymore!!! (And when it was it was boring and never quite felt right.) Thank you again, especially for the precise definition of broadcast vs community-building.

    1. Hi Anna, so glad you enjoyed the WDS session. It was great fun to present to a room full of curious and engaged people. The questions at the end were an interesting way to tie it together with real case studies too. Best of luck with blogging and feel free to let me know if you have any questions!

  15. Shame I couldn’t make this talk or WDS because both sound like they had plenty to learn from. Still, the post makes great points anyway and love the reading list! :)

  16. This is great Jodi. I’m am working very hard to turn my readers into a community that interacts with one another. I don’t just want build readers, but a group of friends and peers that have the same love of traveling that I do.

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