When I explain what I’m working on to my peers with traditional business backgrounds, a common phrase I hear as a community professional is that won’t scale.

I’ve heard that won’t scale countless times. I nod politely, agree with them, and carry on my merry way. They’re not wrong. I am not going to clone myself, nor are you.

As an entrepreneur, you are in the business of community building. The one-to-one effort and energy you put in with your core customers has a cap. What you do for your diehard clientele can’t be replicated or scaled beyond a certain point. However, the energy you put in here can absolutely scale your business. The secret to growth, whether you’re a bakery, dance instructor or massive tech organization, is caring about how you make people feel.

Women wrapping their arms around each other harmoniously.
Photo by Vonecia Carswell

Let go of phrases like growth hack or secret sauce. We’re talking about the meaningful work of human connection. Thinking of fostering community from a sales or marketing perspective can diminish the deep, personal work you’re doing.

The mom who comes in day-after-day and spends part of her precious budget on you. The client that gave you a try once and not only returns, but also told all of his friends about you. These are your people, and they didn’t become that way because you sent them a canned email with a promo code. You care about them, and in turn, they care about you.

The circle of life

Community life cycles are natural. Nothing is forever. Your main community’s faces will change slowly over time, but the soul of the ecosystem you’ve created will not.

It’s very likely you have a target audience for your main offering, and as you add revenue streams like subscription plans, it’s important to know who exactly your true blues are. There’s probably one, very specific type of person who will most benefit from your work, the work that would translate well to a subscription or membership plan. As you track your customers, you’ll notice patterns and be able to tweak to and target your ideal clientele. In turn, those people will likely be connected to similar people and their word of mouth will help you grow.

Word of mouth marketing

In today’s world of marketing options, from ads to social influencers to SEO tricks, there is one marketing channel that rules them all: word of mouth. It will always be a powerful way to grow an engaged community.

A multi-pronged approach is smart, and you shouldn’t put all of your eggs in one marketing basket. A worthy place to invest your time is in one-to-one care of your community, which leads to word of mouth. Investing in your own caring community will always be worth the work and has a high chance of having a lasting impact. How could it not? If a referral comes from a friend (whether for a product, service, restaurant, etc), then one instantly feels a sense of trust in the business, and trust is the best foundation for all relationships.

It’s easy enough to say word of mouth marketing is king, but here are some practical ways to get it going:

+Take a little extra one-to-one time with your best customers and clients
+Take the time to follow them on social and make them feel special
+Regularly request and be open to feedback from your community (in real life, in email surveys, in instagram polls, etc.)
+Show gratitude regularly and sincerely
+Use a SaaS platform with referral programs (like Subkit)
+Remind these caring customers every-so-often that their word of mouth keeps your small business afloat, and ask them to continue sharing

CRM best practices

Community is firmly rooted in individual connections and challenging to automate, but employing some big business marketing and sales techniques can help. CRMs, or Customer Relationship Management tools, serve many purposes. Their main functionality is tracking interactions with potential and current clientele to help you with data and growth. Am I suggesting solopreneurs and small businesses spend thousands on a CRM? Hell no. But you can piecemeal their most important functions. For entrepreneurs, I believe those to be their notes sections and communications metrics.

Notes sections are exactly what they sound like, a sales rep takes a few moments to write down a note about the last interaction or about the individual in question. This sounds cold, but it doesn’t have to be. If your core community is growing it’s nice to keep track of them. For example, you might remember most things about your favourite customer but be bad with names, you should keep a list of your members and have a column for notes such as “Patrick’s cute dog’s name is Theo” or "Simon recommended you to Molly, she subscribed to the gold coffee plan on her birthday in June." Remembering details can go a long way to making people feel special.

Communications metrics are also pretty straight forward. Regularly audit your social posts and newsletters. See what got a lot of opens, likes and clicks. That’s the goodness that’s working in your community and you should keep going with that type of content. This also doesn’t have to be pricey, for example instagram has these analytics in your settings for free and other awesome SaaS, like Subkit, tracks these email metrics for you.

Is your community missing anyone important?

It's 2022 and big businesses are trying to do better. Your small business should be doing the same. If you're not focusing on diversity, inclusion and belonging, it's time to wake up. By opening your heart and mind to the unfair systems around you, you'll become more empathetic and grow your core community (and your bottom line).

+Who are the people in your neighbourhood?
+Who do you serve?
+Who don't you serve yet, but want to?
+Are you participating in your community in a way that makes it better for everyone in it?
+Does your clientele represent the world you stand for?

Those were all questions, as they should be. Belonging work is asking yourself hard questions and growing for the better.

Local marketing to grow your core community

When you imagine your ideal subscriber or community member, what about them are you picturing? If you haven’t considered geography, please do! Local marketing is exactly what it sounds like, it's about marketing in your own backyard. Usually, within a radius of 50km, but sometimes it's even narrower. It usually comes pretty naturally, too, because you understand the people in your neighbourhood very well... you are one. And those people just down the street, can tell other people just down the street through word of mouth. Local marketing is a killer way to community build.

Here are some helpful examples of how to grow through local marketing:

+Spend time engaging with local businesses you'd love to be associated with online and off
+Put posters or business cards with QR codes linking to your biz in community hubs that make sense for your business. (If you're a nutritionist, maybe your local Yoga studio would be a good place, etc.)
+Support community events. Sponsor local festivals + fairs and make your authentic self front and centre at these events
+Offer a Backyard Bonus. Something like an extra first session or a gift shipped locally to new subscribers in your area, a lil' something sweet to make your local community feel extra loved
+If you have a sandwich sign, consider a hilarious joke, drawing or love note! People adore posting pics of a good sandwich sign
+Host launch events. Examples: free ice cream, coffee or small gift to all of your subscribers... including those who subscribe at the event
+Join your local Business Improvement Association or Chamber of Commerce, entrepreneurs love spreading love for other entrepreneurs

You can’t scale, but because you care your business will

Entrepreneurs are amongst the most empathetic and authentic people on the planet. You saw a need for something that didn’t exist, stood up and started building it to make other peoples’ lives a little bit better. Continue to care about those individual people and your community relationships will continue to deepen and your customer and client base will continue to grow.