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Greg Meyer of Gist: Finding your true fans in every city

Editor’s Note: In early May, we put out the call for guest posts about topics that would be of interest to our audience. Soon after that post, Greg Meyer of Seattle-based Gist, who was also a Big Omaha attendee and sponsor, contacted me with his idea for a post. We’re excited to publish Greg’s post today as his topic, building communities for your startup outside of your home base, comes at a time when were seeing startups with headquarters or offices in the Silicon Prairie work to accomplish this goal, such as Dwolla in Omaha and Zaarly in major U.S. cities.

After reading Greg’s post, if you have an idea (or many ideas) for a guest post, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at danny@siliconprairienews.com.

Danny Schreiber

Greg Meyer is the customer experience manager and listening post for Gist. His past experience includes Expedia, where he led the Agent Tools Team in Global Customer Operations supporting a world-wide Customer Service and Sales team. Prior to Expedia, Greg built and delivered e-learning content and applications for service and sales representatives at T-Mobile USA. He is a startup veteran of several early stage companies including Netegrity (now part of CA Technologies), eRoom (now part of EMC) and Allaire (now part of Adobe). Find Greg on Twitter at @gregatgist or @grmeyer

If you’re in the business of building a community, part of the strategy probably sounds like this: “go to [anchor city] and [another anchor city]. Have a meetup and get to know our users there. Then, we’ll be able to depend upon them to spread the word, just like in Kevin Kelly‘s 1000 True Fans article.” The reality, as you probably know, is a bit different.

Getting the Word Out

As part of our effort to launch Gist, we talked to hundreds of people in small and large companies about the way that they use social media, both to learn more about the problems and challenges they face and to learn more about the kinds of communities that they value. We hoped that in engaging with individuals we would quicken our ability to achieve a solid product-market fit for our offering – a web service to put all of your contacts in one place and to access those contacts from email, web, and mobile device.

It was fun! We learned a few key insights about community building by talking to so many people and by visiting various cities and talking to users face to face. We also learned that the basic goal of trying to meet users and engaging them didn’t work automatically in every city we visited. In a few venues (especially Chicago) something really neat happened – we met people and added to a dialog that was already happening, and made some new friends we didn’t expect to find.

A Few Key Insights to Remember

If you want to really engage with your community and to help that community emerge as something more than just a bunch of people who are looking for the newest, coolest thing, you need to do a few things:

  • Find true “anchor” talent – this is the person who can not only bring a group of people together to meet you and learn about your product or service, but who genuinely enjoy connecting and engaging with other people (for us, this happened in Chicago when we met Nicole Yeary and Leyla Arsan – who handled not only the effort of finding a venue but filled with fantastic new peeps who we wanted to hang out with, not just talk to about our interests).
  • Connect online to connect offline – you’ll know you’re succeeding in reaching a genuine community (not just hangers-on) when you meet small business people with social media followings that span communities. Mitch Byrne is a great example of someone who owns a small business (he runs a heating and cooling company that caters to businesses in the greater Chicagoland area) and who has extended his business through his social media handle @refrigeration. Mitch doesn’t need Twitter or Facebook to survive – they are marketing channels to him, and ways to meet new people – he uses these sources to make real business relationships.
  • Be real – your community will tell you when you’re doing a great job, and when you do something that is less beneficial to that company. Frankly, when you screw up, your true fans will tell you (with love) how you should change. And you should listen, because your not-so-true fans are thinking the same thing (they just aren’t telling you.)

So, what did we learn about helping your community to help you? First, that your community is a living and breathing thing – if you help it to grow by engaging key members in a city or in an affinity group, they’ll help you to be interesting, and help you avoid the trap of “try my product” instead of the true goal of “get to know me and my team as people.” Secondly, that anything can happen, and that having more interesting and diverse people in the mix makes it more likely for the anything to be interesting. And finally, that the learning is an ongoing process, and although it would be nice if it were programmatically easy to duplicate your results in every city, it’s much more satisfying to use the opportunity to engage with your community and build lasting relationships.

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