Episode 445

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Online communities are quickly becoming one of the most powerful biz dev tools out there, but there’s etiquette to starting and maintaining one. It’s not for everyone, but for those who are ready, an online community could be your ticket to selling without ever having to actually sell.

This week, we’re continuing the conversation about online communities vs. online audiences, and the vast benefits they can offer to agency owners. Now that we’ve established the differences between an audience and a community, it’s time to ask ourselves deeper questions about why and how we should start one.

The main purpose of starting an online community shouldn’t be selling or profiting from its members. But if you’re in it to genuinely help others and create an avenue for collective thought leadership and connection, increased sales are just part of the benefits.

If you think starting an online community could be the right move for your agency, tune in to this week’s episode of Build a Better Agency.

For 30+ years, Drew McLellan has been in the advertising industry. He started his career at Y&R, worked in boutique-sized agencies, and then started his own (which he still owns and runs) agency in 1995. Additionally, Drew owns and leads the Agency Management Institute, which advises hundreds of small to mid-sized agencies on how to grow their agency and its profitability through agency owner peer groups, consulting, coaching, workshops and more.

A big thank you to our podcast’s presenting sponsor, White Label IQ. They’re an amazing resource for agencies who want to outsource their design, dev, or PPC work at wholesale prices. Check out their special offer (10 free hours!) for podcast listeners here.

online communities

In This Episode:

  • How to start an online community (who, what, where, why)
  • Are you starting a community for the right reasons?
  • Why you should expect nothing in return from online communities
  • Identifying your target audience
  • What a community leader should provide to community members, and vice versa
  • The main difference between a community and an audience
  • 3 questions to ask yourself before creating a community
  • Consistency wins over complexity in online community building
  • How to benefit from a community without starting one yourself
  • Using online communities as a powerful biz dev tool
  • Qualifying your community members

“It is tough to build an audience or a community of everybody. Why? Because there is no common connective tissue, no common thread, no socially significant characteristic of place, norms, or values.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet
“They will actively tell you what they want to buy from you, which is a beautiful thing. And it’s a proof point that you should make the changes in your business that you've been thinking about making, but haven't done yet.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet
“The number one benefit of this, besides your big ‘why,’ is that it makes biz dev faster and easier, and your win rate will skyrocket.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet
“If you run the community well, everybody adds fuel, and the light gets brighter and brighter. If you don't do it well, things will go south, and people will start dimming that light.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet
“The role of the community creator is to inspire the members to care as much as you do about the building, growing, and protecting of that community.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Drew:


Hey everybody. Drew here. You know, we are always looking for more ways to be helpful and meet you wherever you’re at to help you grow your agency. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve produced this podcast for so long, and I’m super grateful that you listen as often as you do. However, there are some topics that are better suited for quick hyper-focused answers in under 10 minutes. That’s where our YouTube channel really comes in. For quick doses of inspiration, best practices, tips and tricks, head over to youtube.com/the at sign agency management Institute. Again, that’s youtube.com/the at sign or symbol.

And then agency management Institute, all one word. Subscribe and search the existing video database for all sorts of actionable topics that you can implement in your shop today. Alright, let’s get to the show.

It doesn’t matter what kind of agency you run, traditional digital media buying, web dev, PRR brand, whatever your focus, you still need to run a profitable business. The Build, a Better, Agency Podcast, presented by a White Label IQ will expose you to the best practices that drive growth, client and employee retention and profitability, bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant. Please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Hey everybody. Drew McLellan here from Agency Management Institute. Glad to be back with you again, This week. Thanks for joining us. If you were with us about five weeks ago, I did a solo cast on building and caring for a community. Well, I got so worked up and so excited about the content that the solo cast was really long and so about an hour and a half. And so we decided after I recorded it to cut it into two episodes. So if you didn’t hear that one, you may want to go back to the early March episode. So it would’ve been March 11th that it came out. And listen to part one before you jump into this, which is now part two.

If you did already listen to that. Then where we’re gonna pick up is from where I left off, where we were talking about the power of communities and how from a business perspective, they can really make a huge difference in terms of sales and repeat business and marketing spend. Because in a lot of cases, a strong community does a lot of the marketing for you. So we’re gonna pick up from there and talk a little more about how to create and nurture a community. And if you don’t want to be a part of a community, then how you participate in one. So with that said, we’re gonna get started in just a second. But first, a little bit of housekeeping. So every solo cast, as you know, we give away a free seat to one of our workshops.

The way you get in, the way you get into the drawing for the workshop is to leave us a rating or review on the podcast. So wherever you download the podcast. So it could be Apple Podcasts, it could be Google, could be iHeart, wherever it is, go and leave us a rating and a review. Take a screenshot. Why the screenshot? Because, and most of those platforms, they ask you to create a username, and the username is rarely your name, and it’s never your name and your agency name. So if it’s, you know, beach or Die 22, I don’t know who that is. I, I think that’s a great, I’m all about beach or die, but I don’t know who you are and I don’t know how to get ahold of you.

So take a screenshot, email it to me at Drew at agency management Institute dot com, and we will put you in the drawing. Your name stays in the drawing until you win. So sooner or later you’re gonna win a $2,000 workshop seat just for leaving a rating and review, which seems like pretty good trade for a few minutes of time. So this month’s winner is Kimberly Rudd. Kim is the president of Rudd Resources. So Kim, I’ll be reaching out to you and letting you know how to get a hold of one of the workshop seats. So thank you very much for listening, Kim and all of you.

So, all right, let’s get to the episode or the back half of the episode and talk a little bit more about community. All right, so let’s say you’re like, you know what, Drew, this sounds pretty good. I, I might wanna create a community. How do I do that? So if we wanna create a community, we have to ask ourselves a few questions. Who, what, where, and most important why, and this is the deal breaker, I think for a lot of folks. You cannot create a community to monetize it. Yes, you may monetize it, but that cannot be the main reason why you communicate why you create this community.

The money that you make by creating this community has to be a byproduct, not the product. And this is really hard to wrap your head and heart around. And even if intellectually you’re like, totally get it, I’m in. We’re gonna do it for all the right reasons. It’s hard to break the habit of rushing for a sale when you start gathering people together. Who are your prospects? Where are your per your perfect prospects? So why would you do it if you can’t make a dime? And this again, is where I think it’ll, this, this may be where you decide, nope, I don’t wanna com create a community, I wanna create an audience. I’ll argue the same thing for an audience, by the way, is if they feel like you’re doing it just to monetize them, you’re not gonna keep them.

You have to have a bigger, more giving reason for your why. So again, when you ask yourself, why would I do this if I can’t make a dime? That’s the, that’s the question you have to ask yourself and have an answer for. And this again may be the deal breaker for a lot of you. So let’s look at a MI. Why did we create the a AMI community if we were not gonna make a dime from it? And the reality is owning an agency is hard and is lonely. And our goal is to be the most trusted source of industry specific information to make it easier, a little less lonely and more profitable.

So again, we want to be the go-to place for agency owners all over the globe because we would like to help them make it easier, less lonely, and more profitable. So would I do it if we couldn’t make a dime? Okay, I will admit I probably would not spend 10 to 12 hours a day on it like I do now. But I do have a passion around this and, and Danielle does too. We want to help. And so would we write a book about it? Yeah, probably. Or teach a class or take some phone calls from people who are frustrated. Heck, we do that seven days a week from people that are paying us. Some people aren’t.

Or we might mentor some young owners, which we have done on our own dime. So for us, this is bigger than making money. It’s a passion. It is a commitment to the industry. It’s a commitment to our peers that we know some secrets, we know some ways that you can make it easier, that you can make more money, that you don’t have to do it all by yourself. And we are committed to sharing that. So for us, it’s bigger than the money. But you know what? Don’t freak out. You’re going to make money too. If you do this, if you build an audience or a community, you absolutely will make money as well. If you think about your audience and then you build a smart value ladder of products and services that they actually need or want.

If when somebody buys something from you, you deliver it with the same level of commitment and excellence that really aligns with the values that you’ve shared in the community and out to the world so that there’s no sense of like a disconnect between, oh, well, when, when I was listening to his podcast, he said, you know, we lead with love, but when we went to the workshop, I didn’t feel any love or you know, whatever you, it’s gotta match, right? Another way that will help you make money is if you keep serving the community whether they buy from you or not. And this is a key that you keep giving your knowledge. You keep sharing, you keep teaching.

And knowing that a big part of the audience or the community depending on what you build, is never gonna buy from you. And you have to be okay with that. You know, a subset of people will, but the vast majority won’t. And that’s okay. And the way you keep serving that community is you keep asking yourself what else would be valuable to them? When I think about how a MI has grown over the years that I have owned it, quite honestly, I would love to tell you it was some grandiose plan, but it wasn’t. It was me either thinking proactively, boy, I bet they would really value a workshop on this.

Or Boy, I really need to get this person on the podcast ’cause they have a lot to teach. Or it was an agency owner or leader saying to me, Hey, do you have a podcast episode on fill in the blank? And me going, no, I don’t. But that would be a really great topic. I need to go find an expert and invite them on the show. Or no, I need to write a blog post. Or no, we should, that should be the focus of our research. Or no, we should do a salary and benefit survey. Whatever it is. Much of am i’s growth has come from people needing something and us saying, yeah, we should do that for them. They do need that. We should figure out a way to get that for them. And you’ll keep making money if you never lose sight of why you built the community that bigger.

Why? Because that always has to trump making money. And by the way, it has to be authentic. You can’t fake that. You can’t dial that in. And if you do, the audience is gonna figure it out and they’re gonna bail on you. If they think you’re just doing it to make money. They don’t begrudge you making money, they don’t begrudge that you have things to sell them, that you have services that they might be interested in buying. They don’t. That’s not a problem at all. As long as you’re really doing it for the bigger why, why you want to be helpful while you want to gather them together and teach, that’s what matters. Alright, so let’s assume you’ve identified the why.

And feel free if you’re listening to this, to hit this, you know, pause button, pull your team together, have a conversation, and not listen to the rest of the podcast until you’ve figured out the why. All right? So I’m gonna assume you figured it out whether you paused me or not. So the next question is, who, if you had to fill a room of people that would be excited to learn what you know, who would be in that audience? It is really, really hard to build an audience or a community of everybody. Why? Because there is no common connective tissue, there is no common thread, there is no socially significant characteristic of place or norms or values or all the things that I read to you before that that’s not, that’s not enough.

That they’re humans who think you’re funny or think you’re interesting or whatever, that’s not enough for them to keep coming back. There has to be a reason for them to keep coming back and to continue to find value in what you know and what you’re willing to teach them. So who would be in that audience? So obviously for a MI, the audience is small to mid-sized agency owners and leaders, right? Okay, but what if you had to fill three rooms with people, not the same people who would be excited to learn what you know, who would be in that audience? And now what I’m not suggesting is you say, oh, doctors and then chiropractors and then medical device manufacturers.

I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is think about the audience you identified and can you slice that audience even thinner? So again, using the AMI example, if my one audience is small to mid sized agency owners and leaders, what would my three rooms be filled with? So my three rooms, if I’m thinking about how would I thin slice the small to mid-sized agency owner and leader, what I might say is the first room would be filled with new agency owners, whether they bought their agency from the founder or they just started an agency from scratch. But they’ve been doing this for five years or less.

And they are freaking out because for a couple years things were going great. They were small, they were nimble, they didn’t have to make a lot of money, they were probably doing it outta their parents’ basement or they were doing it outta their house. But all of a sudden now they have an office or they have some employees and it’s getting harder and they don’t want, they, they don’t have enough margin, they have enough room to make a mistake ’cause they don’t have three months of retained earnings or anything like that ’cause they’re brand new. So that would be room number one. Room number two would be agency owners who have been stuck in the same place. They’ve been at 15 people or 20 people for the last five or six years and they can’t figure out, or they’ve been at, you know, 2 million a GI or 3 million a GI and they can’t figure out how to get over the hump.

They can’t figure out how to scale. And they’re frustrated because they know there’s opportunity on the other side of that hump if they can get over it, but they can’t figure out how to get over it. All right? That that’s two rooms. Number three would be an agency owner who’s in his fifties or in her fifties and she’s thinking about selling her agency and she’s not sure how to go about that. She’s not sure if any of her employees are interested. If they could afford it and she needs someone to walk alongside her or him to help them figure out how to exit gracefully making some money. How do they find the right buyer? How do they navigate all of that?

So those might be my three rooms. So you can see what I did. I took an audience and then I looked at that audience and said, well, there’s a lot of different interests inside that one audience that I could really focus on as a subject matter expert. These are things that we help people with every day. We have a lot to teach and share around that. So it begins to inform the products and services we sell. It begins to inform our content strategy. It begins to inform how we attract people to the community. In the example of my three rooms, we might decide that’s all one community, which is what we’ve decided, right? The A MI community, we might decide that it’s three communities.

So we might sub parse out and put all the people who wanna sell their agency together and let them learn and teach each other as they’re going through it together. We might put it almost like a, I wanna sell my agency support group together and and let them support each other and learn. So again, it’s a dialogue. It’s not just us teaching, but they’re teaching each other as well. So gotta figure out your why and then you have to figure out your who and what. Then what I want you to do is once you’ve identified your who, I want you to think about how do I break that who into smaller subsets that I can really think about how that is sort of the bones of what I’m gonna construct when it comes to the community.

Then I want you to think about once you’ve figured out who, so we figured out the why, we figured out the who. Now let’s talk about the what. What does the community or the audience need from you? And we’re gonna talk about some things that they might need and which ones are audience. So again, that monologue and which ones are community dialogue. So the first thing that probably pops into your head is they need educational content and resources, piece of cake. So we might do webinars or film tutorials or write guides. So all of those, for the most part are more monologue. Yes, a webinar people can ask questions, but for the most part, it’s more the teacher talking than the audience talking.

We might create podcasts or videos or courses. Again, more monologue, right? So this is super helpful and it’s great for an audience and it’s also great for a community, but we have to create more dialogue sooner or later on the community side if we’re gonna shift from audience to community. But we might create some documents that show best practices or case studies that they can learn from or checklists or tips, tip sheets, things like that. All of that is more monologue, all of that is more audience. And by the way, a community has to also be an audience. An audience doesn’t necessarily have to be a community, but of course a community is an audience.

It’s just a more interactive audience because they have relationship with each other as well as with you. Another thing you might do for educational content and resources are, you know, industry news trends, updates. Again, more audience, more monologue than dialogue. Alright, so let’s think about support or client services. So you might create a bunch of FAQs or knowledge-based articles or blog posts. Again, kind of monologue, but you might also bring together, so one of the things that one of our, one of our agencies did during COVID was they, they serve a specific industry.

And so during covid, when nobody was traveling to conferences, they couldn’t learn from each other. This agency convened a monthly sort of think tank of their clients and prospects who all had basically the same title in organizations across the us and they brought them together to sort of strategize and think how they were gonna survive covid and how they were gonna be ready once Covid lifted to sort of reengage with their customer base. So they created this peer-to-peer sort of support forum or support group to problem solve together, which by the way has now long lived past covid because it was so valuable.

That’s a great example of a community thing, right? Because now these people are forming relationship with each other. You’re the conduit for that, right? You’re the subject matter expert, the teacher, the coach, but they’re also learning from each other. They’re also creating ideas together. They’re, they’re teaching and learning, right? So another thing that you, that your community or audience needs, and again, this is something you could sell, is direct access to you or your team members. So they wanna build a strategy, they want some counsel on whether or not their website needs to be updated, whatever it may be. This is an opportunity for you either to teach and talk about it or to have a dialogue about it.

But it also creates a sales opportunity for you. And of course for many of you, consulting and building strategy is absolutely part of the support and client service that you provide. So you can begin to see how some of this is around content, some of it’s around products and services. And again, some of it’s more of a monologue or some of it’s more of a dialogue. So another thing your community might need from you is networking and collaboration. So you might, like I gave you the example, you might bring people together who have a common interest or title or they all work in the same industry together to kind of create a user group, if you will. So again, very community focused, right?

You could create networking events. So one of the things that a lot of agencies do is they will host social events pre, pre an industry conference and they will bring their pro, their clients and their prospects together for a couple reasons. One, so that the clients can tell the prospects how awesome they are, but two, because these are people who should know each other. And so you become the, the introduction bridge between these people. So it’s basically a networking event, you know, virtually or in person. But that’s a great way to build community is by creating connections between people. And you can even sort of lead collaborative projects or challenges.

You could lead a nonprofit challenge or project inside your client group or inside a prospect and client group that the community would kind of rally around together, which would be great for you, it’s great for them and it’s great to start to build again that community. So, all right, what else does the community need from me? You can see how this goes. You could just keep asking yourself questions. So for it to be a community, one of the things you could think about is are there ways for members to, of this community, so again, probably clients and prospects to teach or cont