Have you ever visited a tiny resort town in the middle of winter?
I live in one—on an island, a 20-minute ferry ride away from the closest Starbucks.
I am writing this blog post at the dining room table, in my sweats, with thick winter coat and knit gloves, pen and yellow legal pad.
It’s forty-six degrees, feels like thirty.
At 4:00 this morning, the power went out. It surged on for five minutes at 9am, long enough to get eggs in the pan and coffee started before it went out again.
So here I sit, battery in laptop, uncharged, thinking about all my freakin’ deadlines, all the things I promised would be in clients’ in-boxes bright and early Monday morning.
When I didn’t have lights by 10am, I drove down to the island market to find something to eat.
The little store was full. A long line of frazzled, unshowered islanders waited their turn for hot coffee at the deli counter.
But as I looked around, I was amazed at the camaraderie and encouraging smiles I saw. There was a continuous buzz, a kind of hum, interspersed with raucous laughter.
And people being flexible with the only breakfast choices this small, generator-powered store could offer.
A toasted bagel with cream cheese?
No, sorry, just cold. The microwave isn’t working.
A bold flavor of coffee?
No. We just have breakfast blend and decaf.
Sure, that’ll be fine.
A Jimmy Dean sausage sandwich for this hungry vegetarian?
Well, okay, not that one. That one was gross.
It struck me as I drove home.
This little community hangs together. We know, like and trust each other, enjoy helping each other out, never expecting something in return.
The market is our hub. When a crisis hits, like the ice storm two years ago, or even today’s minor power emergency, that’s where you find out what’s going on—what matters. It’s the circle you don’t want to be left outside of.
It’s the same way with online communities. It’s all about building relationships. Whether it’s isolated islanders meeting at the market or solopreneurs hanging out together online, it’s important to:
1. Stay connected.
Don’t just pick up your quart of milk and run. Stop in the aisle to chat—on normal days, not just when an ice storm hits.
And don’t just jump online when you have a problem or something to sell. Engage your community in meaningful conversations.
Have you ever had a problem and felt like the person you were confiding in didn’t even hear you?
“ The movie starts at 7:00. Want to meet me there?
“My doctor diagnosed me with a form of minor depression today and I have to go on medication.”
“Oh. Want to see the movie tomorrow instead?”
Okay. That was an exaggeration. But you get the idea. At our island store, people stop what they are doing and listen to you.
Someone’s son was just shipped to Iraq. Someone’s daughter got married. Somebody else died.
Don’t always talk about yourself and your needs on the forums, or in your blog, or on twitter. Ask questions and listen to the answers. It’s the best way to be valued. To be viewed as a contributor.
3. Be genuinely interested.
At our store, someone will offer a ride to someone who needs a lift to the ferry landing. The clerk will recommend a new movie that just arrived.
The lady in the post office, who you’ve chatted with about her son who’s in college, mails the oversized birthday card you dropped in the mailbox without the proper postage—and calls to tell you to just drop the extra 21 cents by next time you are in.
Because, you see, if you show interest in the members of your online community before a crisis
hits, you’ll already be connected to their network if and when you ever need a helping hand.
4. Show empathy.
I overheard a comment at the store:
“Yeah, this power thing sucks. Is it warm enough at your house?”
One of the best ways to connect with people in very real ways is to recognize what they are going through. When you are talking to your blog readers or responding to a topic on a forum, show that you understand the problem, feel the pain. Just that one expression tells them that you “get it.”
5. Support your peers.
I could have gone off-island for breakfast. But, you know, I wanted to purchase from our community market. The place that always made me feel good, even when I was just stopping by for a bottle of V-8 and some yogurt.
If you have had a good experience with someone you met online, spread the word to other members of the community. And if you need their particular product or service, go to them. It’s what a community does.