How to Create an Active Community - Startacus

Earlier this month I had the privilege of being interviewed by Startacus, a website based in Ireland that helps entrepreneurs take their ideas to reality through knowledge-sharing and its support community.

I've republished the interview below.

Last week Andrew Zarick was guest speaking at the Big Ideas session at CultureTECH festival, in Derry, Northern Ireland. Discussing how Digital DUMBO grew from a small happy hour meetup into a much bigger idea, Startacus caught up with Andrew, and asked him to pass on his experience to Startacus, on this very subject.

Digital DUMBO - like the name, can you explain a little bit about Digital DUMBO and the reasoning behind the name?

DUMBO is actually an acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. Dumbo is a neighborhood in between the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges in Brooklyn. In the 1800s Dumbo was an industrial area. Robert Gair, the inventor of cardboard, owned many of the warehouses that have since been converted to commercial and residential space.

In the late 1980's, artists began moving to Dumbo and illegally squatting in some of the buildings. Eventually real estate developers caught wind of Dumbo and the combination of artists and investment in the area's infrastructure paved way for small businesses and now, digital businesses. The cost per square foot is cheaper in Dumbo than Manhattan, yet it's just one subway stop away from the city.

Today, there are over 100 digital companies and start-ups in the neighborhood. We originally started Digital DUMBO as a social gathering to bring together like-minded people from our local community. We've since moved well beyond that. We now define our mission as cultivating and connecting communities at the intersection of digital and culture - everywhere. We've hosted events in London, UK and Valencia, Spain. Our first event in Boston will happen later this year. We're sticking with our brand because we're taking the stance that DUMBO is synonymous with digital innovation and creativity.

Why do you think Digital Dumbo as a community has grown so quickly. 40 members 4 years ago to over 10,000 now - its not bad growth! But why?

Frequency, consistency, quality of product, and timing.

We literally started with $0. Our first event was in a private room at a local bar. At our early events, a couple of companies offered to sponsor a round or two of drinks. In our second event, we invited a videographer and animator from our community to showcase his work. The combination of free drinks and the showcase of work planted the seeds of what we now call our dd:SOCIAL event. We provide drinks for all attendees and give one company the opportunity to reach, disrupt, and engage our audience in whatever creative way they want.

For anyone that's done event planning, you know its not easy to do an event each and every month. After some deliberation, we decided to do the event monthly, on the last Thursday of each month. This consistency made Digital DUMBO one of the few community-centric, networking-centric events in NYC. It has been a grind, but also highly rewarding. We've been doing our event consistently for 3 years and 8 months. We've only missed dates for major holidays.

We've also had the opportunity to work with some amazing brands and communities that also have their own followings. We try to make an effort to cross-pollinate our community with existing communities in different fields like music, art, design, and fashion. We've done events with music companies, gaming companies, and fashion companies. This leads to interactions and conversations that wouldn't have otherwise been possible and helps to grow community.

Finally, we think we're in the midst of a broader movement. Creativity and ideas are valued more now than ever before. The workforce is changing with co-working spaces and dynamic teams. Education is being disrupted as people seek to find new skills on their own with Skillshare and new institutions like General Assembly. Events like Digital DUMBO are fueling the creative ecosystem by facilitating connections amongst people, leading to increased social capital (and not the kind you build on Twitter). We're living in exciting times.

Any tips for someone looking to grow a community of people organically (or otherwise) online?

Think Different. Experiment. Don't give up.

Create an event with its own feel, it's own style. Give it a voice and keep your community engaged. If they walk away feeling something, whether that means they were inspired by a presentation, met someone amazing, or simply enjoyed the atmosphere, you'll be successful. You have to keep at it, though. It took us at least a year to build up meaningful momentum.

Finally, there is an art to properly managing and communicating with your community with tools like EventBrite, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Meetup, and more. However, we'll be here for days if I get into that.

Andrew, you are a wee bit of an expert in SEO and affiliate marketing tactics. What would be your top piece of advice be for a beginner to drive and convert traffic on their online site into sales and leads?

Content is King. Links are Queen. For content websites on a budget, focus on building valuable content and community. Seed the content with the community and make it good enough to be make people want to share it. Reap the benefits of inbound link activity.

Businesses with budgets can spend money on media buys, giving them immediate data to utilize in their other marketing efforts. For example, does the phrase "Lil Wayne Music" result in sales of Lil Wayne music from paid search? If so, maybe we should optimize for that phrase to benefit from free, organic traffic.

Finally, understand your success metrics and have analytics in place to be able to know if things are working or not. I've worked with so many companies who don't have a solid grasp on what metrics matter to them. It's not just about measuring revenue and ROI, either. Pay attention to both micro and macro conversion events so that you can properly optimize your campaigns and conversion funnels. A micro conversion event might be a Like on a piece of content on Facebook. A macro conversion event would be a sale or a download of a white paper. How did that like on Facebook effect the download of the white paper 4 steps later?

So, inside info...what do you think is the next big emerging trend in the digital and cultural arena that Startacus members should keep an eye out for?

Professional exchange & co-working. The concept of co-working is still relatively new in many parts of the world. However, this is influencing work and the team dynamic in general. I think we'll see more professional exchanges across communities and across geography, not only amongst freelancers, but also established employees of large companies.