Community Building 101: The Acid Test Every Message, Blog Post, Tweet and Idea Must Pass

If you’re in business, you understand value. You ensure every action adds value to your business goals or bottom line. But do you evaluate your community-building initiatives as stringently?

Why social communities are important

Social communities can make or break your business. Whether you’re in B2B or B2C, there’s no better way to “cut through the clutter” than having a community of customers, prospects and influencers that has your back.

Social communities are valuable and can be your brand’s strongest advocates. They can also be a big driver for bringing in new customers. CrossFit and SoulCycle are both great example of using the social aspect of their brands to differentiate themselves in an otherwise crowded market.

But social communities don’t happen overnight.

First, choose the right audience for your specific cause or topic. This is where customer service is crucial, no matter the business or industry. This is the group that should remain at the center of all your marketing and community initiatives. Some quick, but important, questions to ask include:

  • Is the audience appropriate for your business?
  • Has your audience changed since you first started building a community?

Keep in mind that irrelevant, legacy audiences can be a source of blind headaches when they voice their disappointment in the way the company has changed. On the flip side, relevant legacy audiences can be your best friends – especially in times of trouble.

Once you’ve nailed down your audience, you’re ready to nurture your budding community with these four methods:


If you’re not engaged in social media listening, you’re missing out on tons of insights about the people who are actively talking about your industry and brand. Keep track of what the top influencers and prospects in your industry are reading and sharing. What hashtags are they using? What types of content are they sharing? What do their bios look like? What are their pain points?


While you want to control every aspect of the community-building efforts, you can’t. Control what you can and act responsibly, but know that at time you need to let your community develop organically. Allow your newfound audience to build its own momentum.


Once you’ve kept an eye on the pulse of activity within the community, opportunities to engage will present themselves. Ask and answer questions, comment on their posts, like their activities, share their content and follow them back. Over time, they’ll notice your engagement and appreciate it – and they will likely return the favor.


People love rewards and they love validation of their actions. Go ahead and thank people for sharing your content. Invite them to company events and webinars. Use your social platforms to maximize brand loyalty by first engaging your social community. Let them be the first to know about your brand’s news, rewards programs and more. This creates an exclusivity that people naturally crave. In turn, you can make your social media platforms the place customers are encouraged to refer your business through different contents, recognition and more.

Great! Now What?

It’s easy to forget that your business is not the center of your customers’ universe. Their lives are filled with experiences, information, relationships and stories that have nothing to do with you.

To them, you are an occasional blip on a crowded radar screen — and if you can maintain some frequency to your blip and some relevance to the audience’s radar screen, you’ve done more than most.

Focus on how well you engage those you attract.

Maintain awareness of your audience and how you want it to change over time as you continue to engage your social community.

To do this, we believe every social initiative, down to each tweet, should pass a quick “acid test” to evaluate its strength.

The Community Acid Test Every Message, Blog Post, Tweet and Idea Must Pass

  • Do we believe it?
  • Will it interest at least 50 percent of our target audience members?
  • Will they believe it?
  • Does it in any way risk making an audience member feel disrespected?
  • Will they feel good passing it along?
  • Does it build on themes our audience has already discussed?
  • Do we mind if the audience runs with it?
  • Can it impact the company in any negative way?
  • Does it add value to our audience’s life?
  • Does it help advance our cause or mission?
  • Does it help audience members feel good about their relationship with us?
  • Does it help build positive bias towards our brand in some way?

Depending on the answers to these questions, teams can easily decide whether to move forward with a specific tactical initiative, such as a particular blog post or tweet.

For example, suppose you sell energy recovery ventilation (ERV) technology for HVAC systems. Over time, you’ve built a social community of salespeople, facilities managers, HVAC equipment suppliers and commercial real-estate owners. For these audiences, you can offer tremendous expertise about HVAC, ERV and a host of associated benefits and opinions. You can start discussions about technology, help your audiences understand the competitive landscape and trade-offs, and opine about a wealth of topics ranging from clean-energy installations to various energy efficiency strategies.

As you can imagine, such an acid test varies from industry to industry. Creating and using your own acid test to evaluate your social content will ensure that you add value to the all-important intersection of your organization and your audiences’ lives.

In return, the community will add value to your business for the long term.

Technology & Disruption: 5 Rules of Engagement

Today, innovations in technologies like virtual reality and artificial intelligence are poised to disrupt a number industries – content marketing included. As unprecedented as it sounds, we’ve seen this many times before.

In 1985, Adobe launched Pagemaker (now known as InDesign), THE app that led to the disruption of advertising, marketing and publishing. Pundits forecasted the death of the designer and writer, as entrepreneurs and marketers began preparing their own ads, brochures and newsletters.

In fact, many of today’s creative directors, content strategists and senior designers all got their start in desktop publishing.

Here’s the thing: the smart agencies adapted.

They mastered the tools and produced designs, content, video and interactive properties that the untrained could never match. Instead of killing professions, this is one of many examples of new technologies fueling the marketing industry with the power to create what had never been imagined.

Now, most of our day-to-day tasks can be automated. Need a mobile site? Google can create it at the push of a button. Need a new display advertising campaign? Push a button in your AdWords account and eight new ads appear – right-sized, well-designed, and likely well-messaged.

What’s left for the humans to do? First, take your head out of the sand. Ignoring reality never helped anyone keep a job. Second, follow these rules when it comes to marketing automation:

While most of us might not think that marketing technology should rule our world, we can benefit from a few rules of engagement. Here are our top five:

  1. Stop resisting: Regularly explore what’s new and how it might contribute to your business and, more importantly, your clients’ marketing goals.
  2. Understand the technology: If a client mentions a popular marketing technology (Marketo, WordStream, HubSpot, Silverpop, etc.) you should know it and be able to speak to its relevance and effectiveness for that client. Otherwise, you’re not doing your job.
  3. Use the technology: Manage a campaign for yourself using new technology. If you specialize in direct marketing, use HubSpot and Marketo, if only to understand how they work. If you help your clients advertise, then you’d better offer a keen understanding of Google AdWords and the technologies that have sprung up around AdWords.
  4. Figure out how your role is changing: For example, AdWords and search have made a huge impact on media planning and advertising. But managing an AdWords campaign, getting the right clicks and keeping your quality score high (among many considerations) isn’t easy. Master this and doors will open.
  5. Understand what the technology is NOT doing: Technology is mostly fact-fed. It lacks the emotional intelligence and empathy humans have and consumers want in the content they consume. 

The human role will never disappear. Mastering new technology will ensure that agencies stay relevant with clients and comfortable with our new marketing partner: the machine.

Max Power & Calculating Your Confidence


In Homer to the Max, Homer Simpson stumbles upon a television show character by the same name. After the character goes through a negative transformation, Homer gets ridiculed for being associated with such a person. In an effort to overcome this, Homer legally changes his name to Max Power. Garnished with compliments about his new identity, Homer embraces it. Improving his image by shopping in high-end retail and befriending the affluent Trent Steele, Homer has convinced himself that his new name improved his lifestyle.

Hubris was Homer’s real identity change. Which may not be as negative as it sounds.

Being overly-confident helps you set and achieve goals that were otherwise unthinkable and seemingly unattainable. Being realistic in your challenges can undermine your ability to meet goals. If you realistically viewed your challenges, there is strong possibility you’d never attempt to overcome them. Allowing yourself to overstate your own abilities can be beneficial in taking a risk you may not have even considered.

Jason Zweig, in his book Your Money and Your Brain, writes that 81% of entrepreneurs gave their own businesses a 7 to 10 chance of success. 33% of entrepreneurs say there is zero possibility their business would fail. Zweig goes on to note, “roughly 50% of new businesses fail within their first five years”. This shows a huge dissociation between perceived success and actual success. Being overconfident in their abilities and challenges allows them to deceive themselves of their own probability of success. Without this mindset, we may have been without such unicorns as Uber or Airbnb. Disrupting the taxi monopoly would have been unthinkable without a dash of over-confidence in Uber’s success. Airbnb was a failing startup before rocketing to success. Confidence in these projects success kept them afloat

Using this knowledge in your daily tasks may not be as reckless at it seems. Calculating your overconfidence is the key to avoiding failure. Do this by asking yourself such questions as: When can I take on more risk to push a project to succeed? When can I tell myself this will not fail (and if it does, not be destroyed along with it)? Being overly-confident can push you over the hills of “It won’t work” and “It’s not feasible”.

In the end, Homer eventually goes back to his original name. I’ll attribute this to a necessity of having the episode end where it started, rather than a lack of confidence.


What I Wish I Knew 20 Years Ago


Next month, Catherine Ahearn joins the HB PR department as an account coordinator. While this isn’t Catherine’s first job — she comes to us with experience working as a freelance editor — her new role prompted me to consider things that I wish I had known earlier in my career. It has taken me four employers and two decades to refine this list.

Pick a mentor, or three. In my nine years at HB, I have recognized that while all individuals bring a range of capabilities to the table, each of us have few specific skills that shine extra bright. Dawn, for example, can quickly assess a situation and immediately pose three questions that drive directly to the heart of the matter. While I work to channel my inner Dawn when asking questions, I try to emulate Christine and Molly when listening to the answers.

Know yourself and optimize accordingly. Anyone who has spent a workday with me knows two things: I am not a morning person and every day, like clockwork, I enjoy a 3:30 Diet Coke. Thanks to this combination, I often dig into a new project at 4:00 and come up for air around 6:00.

Get out of the office to network and learn. The magic doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Expose yourself to new ideas, perspectives and people as often as possible. A conversation at an alumni event or a fundraiser could lead to new business, or a fresh idea, for you, your client and your company.

Set goals to move forward. I like to walk; it’s fun and as they say, time flies when you are having fun. At the office, a month can whiz by and you haven’t moved the needle on an important, but not urgent project. Measurable goals ensure that I keep my eye on all important tasks, not just the biggest, and keep putting one meaningful step in front of the other.

Attitude. Attitude. Attitude. In the words of Cher, “If I could turn back time…” for a redo of the months that I wasted with a tainted attitude about my work environment (clearly, this predates my time at HB). In past chapters of my career, I found myself frustrated and let this attitude influence all aspects of my life. As corny as it sounds, “think happy, be happy.” Check your attitude and that of colleagues. Have a co-worker whose negative vibes form a toxic cloud? Help them turn that frown upside down. And be aware if you are bringing the toxins. Sometimes we get in a rut and never even realize it. Empower a colleague to be brutally honest with you. The HB Way, our company doctrine, guides behaviors internally and externally. One of my favorites is “we hold each other accountable.”

You need to ask. Speaking up — about your career path, a client challenge, a company practice you don’t quite get — is really the only good way to get answer. But before you ask a question, do your research. Do not make a move without checking with your friend and ally, the internet. Come across an acronym you don’t recognize? Not sure how to calculate something in Excel? Can’t get your video editing software to work? You will be surprised how much online content, including video, can help you move forward.

Any words of wisdom for Catherine as she embarks on a new adventure here at HB?

The Healthy Mind: Effectiveness Through Listening In and Listening Out

Launch Your Website in a Day

I have a few upcoming events I want to call your attention to. The first is a day-long program aimed at people who need to get their web presence in line.

“Create a Killer Web Strategy for Your Business & Launch Your Website in a Day” is taking place on Saturday, May 14, 2011 from 8:30am to 3:30pm, and I will be one of four speakers / workshop facilitators helping out. If you need to build a new site, or are not happy with the messaging, performance or traffic on your existing site, this is the program for you.

The full-day program will help you bring your business strategy to your website. We’ll work with you to determine the most effective design, message, tools and channels to achieve your business goals online. I’m helping with the section on promoting your site and building your community. Hope to see you there!

In this very hands-on program, we’ll translate your strategy into technical features, visual design, copy and audience acquisition channels–then start implementing. Mini-seminars alternate with open work sessions and one-on-one consulting to help you reach your goals.

What You Need: Bring your positioning statement and your laptop. Each registrant receives a hosted website that is set up and ready to be customized. If you have a website already running on a content management system (CMS), you can opt to pick up from where you are and improve its effectiveness.

What You Get: You leave with your business website online and with the practical skills needed for ongoing development. Registration includes lunch and two months of hosting and phone/email support.

Cost: $420 | members (10% discount) $378 | Students with valid ID (20% discount) $336

One Marina Park Drive (near S. Station and Courthouse T stops)
GPS: 55 Northern Ave., Boston, MA 02210


Business is Change

I have been a big Hugh MacLeod fan for years, and will often retweet his drawings (you can sign up for his mailing list at, but his May 10th piece hit home closely, especially after talking about the importance of change in my recent Marine Week writeup.

It took me years to admit to myself (and my father, a second-generation salesman) that PR is really just another word for sales. And it’s taken me some time now to come around to the realization that social media, if done right, is first and foremost an exercise in change management.

More specifically, my job is to help you change the culture of your organization. Here are some slides, derived from my recent session at NewComm Forum, that explore this a little more deeply (sorry for the small font, you can get a bigger version here):

View more presentations from vanhoosear.

Sree Sreenivasan on the “Tradigital Journalist”: Fresh Ground #2

Sree SreenivasanWelcome back to the Fresh Ground Podcast. Each week, we feature 10 minutes of insights from people driving change in today’s competitive business and media landscape. We talk about the evolving worlds of media, public relations, marketing and business, with a special focus on creating more social organizations.

In today’s episode #2, Chuck Tanowitz, principal at Fresh Ground Communications, talks with Sree Sreenivasan, professor of journalism and dean of student affairs at the Columbia Journalism School. Sree is among AdAge’s 25 media people to follow on Twitter and one of 22 professors named to the “Top 100 Twitterers in Academia” by

Sree and Chuck talk about the weakening divide between journalism and the corporate world, and specifically about the influence that corporate owners may have on the journalism process and the skills that newly minted journalism school grads need to leave with.

Some of the more interesting excerpts from Sree:

“Even today, any time there’s a light bulb story or anything else connected to GE, [NBC afilliates] make the disclaimer.”

“I presume any time a company owns you, the forces that are at work are much more subtle, and maybe even unspoken and unsaid… When I worked at WABC, we were owned by the Walt Disney Company, and we used get letters saying ‘dear fellow cast members’ from Michael Eisner.”

“I teach reporting, and reporting is something that you can use in a variety of fields. While most of our graduates still go into journalism today, there has been for decades people who’ve gone on to other fields…”

“We can either spend our time being orthodox about what should work and what doesn’t…, or we say ‘look, as long as someone like Saul Hansell is comfortable with the decisions he makes and the stories he tells and the contacts he makes, his ethics are far higher than most people’s, so I don’t worry about it.’”

“Every student must leave here with a new media mindset and a new media skill set.”

“[We use] a term called a ‘tradigital journalist‘ … that Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzer prizes, [coined that means] ‘a traditional journalist with a digital overlay.’ So we absolutely teach the eternal, if you think about it: truth, ethics, getting the story right, doing it in a timely manner, and then you put this digital overlay over the that traditional stuff.”

Subscribe to our podcast using our
RSS feed at


Our opening music is “D.I.Y.” by A Band Called Quinn from the album “Sun Moon Stars” and is available from Music Alley, the Podsafe Music Network.

Listen Now:

icon for podbean  Standard Podcasts [ 14:21m]: Play Now | Play in Popup | Download | Embeddable Player | Hits (0)

Saul Hansell on AOL's Fresh Ground #1

Saul HansellWelcome to the inaugural episode of the Fresh Ground Podcast. Each week, we feature 10 minutes of insights from people driving change in today’s competitive business and media landscape. We talk about the evolving worlds of media, public relations, marketing and business, with a special focus on creating more social organizations.

For our first episode, Chuck Tanowitz, principal at Fresh Ground Communications, talks with Saul Hansell. Saul is one of 74 people who recently accepted buyouts from The New York Times — and who, along with Jennifer 8. Lee, is one of the biggest names on the list. In addition to his work covering technology and telecommunications at the paper, he also started the Bits blog and was one of the more regular contributors there. In all he spent more than 17 years at the times, 12 of those covering AOL, the company that he now calls his employer.

Saul and Chuck talk about media relations, the future of The New York Times and AOL, transparency, scaling content and the new role of journalism.

Some of the more interesting excerpts from Saul:

“AOL is just as much a journalistic organization as The New York Times, as Bloomberg, as NBC News, as all kinds of organizations new and old.”

“In my experience as a journalist, [the relationship between companies and their PR agencies] is a deeply dysfunctional … relationship that … never served either the client or the agency…”

The New York Times has a bunch of people doing great work and will continue for centuries to come…”

“I think all that kinds of media — big and small — give you voices to understand, and I think that one of the things that everybody is trying to figure out is [to] make sure that when you’re reading something, you know where the person is coming from.”

“AOL has a brand that needs to mean something, and it needs to mean trust if they’re going to be in the content business…”

Subscribe to our podcast using our RSS feed at


Listen Now:

icon for podbean  Standard Podcasts [ 14:31m]: Play Now | Play in Popup | Download | Embeddable Player | Hits (0)

Our opening music is “D.I.Y.” by A Band Called Quinn from the album “Sun Moon Stars” and is available from Music Alley, the Podsafe Music Network.