FinCon14 Wrap-Up: Building Community

Just yesterday I returned home from a week in New Orleans for the annual gathering of those of us on the bleeding edge of financial media, FinCon14.

My primary role at the conference is to produce the Plutus Awards ceremony. The ceremony entails more than just performance and fun on Saturday night; it generally takes about nine months of planning. This year, with the event increasing in magnitude, I solicited help from nearly fifty people.

The awards ceremony and post-ceremony happy hour were the culmination of a lot of work for a lot of people, all of whom I hope I was able to thank personally. The highlights of the night were Ashley Jacobs, who was the host and emcee, and Matt Giovanisci who orchestrated a fantastic musical performance that featured the return of Ashley’s rapping talents.

Thanks to Kevin Cash from Phroogal for the photographs; I’ll have the full gallery on the Plutus Awards website soon.

With the Plutus Awards scheduled to be the last official event at FinCon, save for a closing party, the pressure was on, and I felt inclined not to give myself a busy schedule during the days leading up to the big event.

I did, however, participate in a panel about building community, with J.D. Roth, Jim Wang, and Jeff Rose, moderated by Michael Delgado from Experian. I received great feedback after the panel, and it seemed like the standing-room-only audience enjoyed hearing our perspectives on building a community within and around one’s business.

There were lots of great tips offered during the panel, and most importantly, I believe we capably answered the questions we received at the time. Thank you so much to everyone who attended.

Scroll down below these tweets for more about building communities.

Why and how I build communities.

I tend to be enthusiastic about topics I like and important issues. I tend to naturally draw people into everything I get involved with.

I’ve installed modems in my friends’ parents’ computers so we could chat on online bulletin board systems when we were in junior high school. I’ve gotten a number of my friends addicted to classic Doctor Who in high school. I’ve encouraged hundreds of classmates to get excited about marching band. I’ve built websites to bring together communities of people together who were passion about random topics.

Community has been at the core of just about everything I’ve done since I was a teenager. It’s no surprise that after discovering a passion (even a need) for personal finance education and combining that with my passion for building online communities, that a group of bloggers numbering no more than 20 in 2004 now consists of thousands of bloggers. Newer bloggers may not be aware of the history that’s preceded them, but the work that we “Godfathers” started paved the way for the community today.

How we approached community-building, working together, knowledge-sharing, and camaraderie, directly resulted in the kind of community of bloggers you see today at FinCon. The MoneyBlogNetwork was the first “mastermind group” in the personal finance blogging niche. But we also pay our respect to today’s bloggers who have much stronger and stickier brands and communities than what we’d been able to establish for ourselves, in a shorter amount of time.

One thing we didn’t get into during the panel was some of the practical details about building community around your brand. Keep reading for my thoughts on how building a community is possible.

There was certainly more to FinCon than my panel and the Plutus Awards. I particularly enjoyed the keynotes by Jeff Goins and Daniel Crosby. It was great to spend some time talking with current and future business partners about new projects, one of which I’ll mention at the bottom of this article, after the section about building community. And I met my girlfriend at FinCon, so you can be sure I’ve found the conferences to be personally worthwhile!

For several days, New Orleans was the location for so many intelligent and passionate people that the city could hardly handle it. Oh, and that food, though.

Here are more of my thoughts on building community, which didn’t fully get expressed during the panel.

1. Get into a community mindset: it’s not all about you. There’s a lot that can be said for creating a brand that is so contrary to convention that it’s possible to ignore that you are part of a community of people who are interested in the same goals you are.

But 99 percent of the time, any blogger or business owner needs to recognize that he or she is part of a group. There are colleagues that can help you, and you can help your colleagues. That’s one of the reasons FinCon is so great; everyone recognizes that while we may occasionally compete against one another for advertising dollars (or eyeballs, or whatever), the more we work to support each other, the more advertising dollars (or eyeballs, or whatever) will come to the group as a whole.

2. Have a strong, recognizable identity. There are many ways to brand yourself, so the way you choose to do so can be a deeply personal choice. In 2003, “personal finance” was enough of a niche to stand out from a topic perspective, but today that might not be enough. You can stand out by having a strong voice. You could have a strong opinion. You could be someone who’s known for mixing comic art with personal finance. You could be someone who’s known for making rap videos about money. You could be known as someone who takes Suze Orman down a few notches. But be known for something.

3. Know your mission statement by heart. Every business and every blog should have a mission statement. That helps define your audience and answers the question of why someone should follow you. It also keeps you focused on what’s really important. If your mission statement involves helping graduates eliminating student loan debt, why are you writing about how much money you earned last month from selling ads on other people’s blogs? Now, there’s a clear tie-in if you think about it, but only if you make that connection. Many people do not.

4. Seek conflicting ideas. I pointed out in the panel that some of the bloggers most successful with building their own communities are often those with the strongest opinions and an unwillingness to back down when faced with dissenting views. The internet is so large that every crazy idea can find a cult following. This results in a strong community but not a lot of respect from outside that community. If that doesn’t matter for you, you could be Daily Kos or The Drudge Report. That’s not the approach I took, nor is it the approach any of the other panelists took when building their own communities. But only associating with people who constantly agree with you is a surefire recipe for long-term disaster, even if you have “rabid fans.” (That’s the whole point… they’ll do anything for you… but they have rabies!)

5. Be social. As you solidify your brand, don’t be the elitist on the hill, looking down on all your loyal subjects. Respond to comments. Email people who participate in discussions on your site. Be thankful. Put yourself out there and be seen. Go to events like FinCon instead of hiding in your mom’s basement.

6. Be a model member of your own community. Along those lines, every community is a reflection of that community’s leader. If you are open and welcoming, you will attract a community composed of open and welcoming people. If you are bitter and angry, you will find that the community that grows around you is also bitter and angry. You can use that to your advantage if you like, but whatever personality you project the most will be what you will receive in return. With that in mind, I like to suggest that people closely monitor the discussions within their communities, such as comment sections or discussion forums. You lead these discussions, so if you want your community to be taken seriously, you need to model good behavior and make sure your community members understand your rules of discourse.

7. Beware the echo chamber. I already mentioned it’s important to seek conflicting ideas, but this is a different point. Over the last few years, more and more bloggers have been working together to promote each other’s websites, and this can be a positive way of increasing everyone’s audiences. But the results have not always been good. If your community only consists of other bloggers, particularly those whose communities you actively participate in as part of an arrangement, you’re not really growing your community. This could be helpful for jump-starting a site’s popularity, but it can’t end there. You need to reach out beyond your colleagues. Most of the readers on Consumerism Commentary have not historically been other bloggers. And over the course of the last five years, I may have written about blogging twice or three times at most. I’m always happy when other bloggers support what I write, and I’m always happy to support the work of other bloggers, but a community needs to reach beyond colleagues.

I’m about to embark on some new projects. The first, and possibly my sole, new project is a nonprofit organization that takes a new approach to financial literacy. The financial literacy efforts, both those mandated by the government and those designed by the financial industry, have failed. It’s time to take an approach that relies more heavily on what we’ve learned from research in behavioral finance and behavioral economics. It’s time to realize that just giving people information about money or even training them doesn’t make them more likely to increase their wealth.

I’ve starting putting together the Board of Trustees (or Board of Directors) for this new organization.

If you’re interested in learning more, reach out to me. I won’t be offering the details publicly until the official launch.

About Luke Landes

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary, the premier personal finance blog, and has been building online communities since 1990. Luke has contributed to PC World Magazine, US News, Forbes, and other publications, and appears on radio and television to discuss personal finance issues.