Steph Smith on Building Community Through Content

Hey yenizens!

I’ve got a growing backlog of content that I’ve been meaning to get through and so let’s just jump right into today’s issue!

But, before I go… let me know if you’d like to connect with a fellow yenizen for some bespoke, hand-selected matching! Just reply to the email.

To infinity & community,

β€” john


As I’ve done in my previous deep-dives, I’m tackling a lot of the great content that the Makerpad team is developing and breaking them down into more bite-sized, usable pieces, especially with Q&A-type workshops like the one with Steph Smith of Hustle & Trends.

The goal is to capture the best and most useful pieces of insight as well as to pull-out the actual questions and answers in bulleted-format for easy review.

Let’s go!


So, who’s Steph Smith?

Steph leads operations for the Hustle, a newsletter read by over 1 million people a day, and Trends, the premium research arm and private community associated with the Hustle. The Trends community is a 7,000+ (and growing) Facebook group.

It’s worth reminding folks, as Steph does, that this now-big business started out as a simple email newsletter.

And, it’s also worth noting that Steph (and the Hustle Team) felt like there was a definite “ceiling” to the size and scale of a newsletter, especially regarding monetization and business modeling.

This is something worth thinking about as some of us venture farther into the depths that is newsletter communities. Consequently, they built out a “premium” newsletter (“Trends”) which Steph also runs and it now has “a few thousand” subscribers and is growing strong.

It makes you wonder if multiple newsletters is an inevitable consequence of successful growth or whether it’s more related to financial modeling or something else in that frame (if you know, lmk!).

Moving from Content to Community

It’s hard to jump-start a brand new community, so, they focused on creating something that was easily shareable: Content.

This is still a big part of their strategy as folks will come for a particular piece of content but they will stay for the community once they get involved.

It’s difficult to showcase the “value” of a community β€” much easier to describe something of obvious (and clear) value.

Come for the content, stay for the community is a well-worn strategy.

“Good” Engagement Requires Intention

Something that Steph repeats many times is the focus on modeling and providing examples of what a “good” community member does β€” everyone on the team does this, especially the senior leaders.

One easy tactic is to simply call out folks who are showcasing the community values and doing positive things.

How Steph Launches a New Product

As you’re beginning to “move” people from one community into a new one, you have to know what the “perceived value” is and how to properly represent that well.

Direct conversion landing pages do not do well, in general, so it’s important to foster the new community by identifying new members and/or finding a working distribution channel that solves the right problem for the users (e.g. content via email newsletter).

Consider what they’re getting (and not getting) from their existing community and what information or tool they need. This will increase the likelihood of conversion and gaining traction.

Is Facebook a Good Place to Build Community?

Speaking just from the perspective of a tool, it’s just one of the best, despite views on the company itself. Questions that Steph considers:

  1. How big is this community going to get? If it’s small, Whatsapp or Telegram work. But, more than 100, that’ll break down.
  2. How likely are the community members going to engage? Sometimes, proximity (being logged into Facebook) is the reason that they engage, but, they wouldn’t have otherwise done so independently.
  3. What percentage of your audience has those applications already?

Focus on your audience, always.

How Does Email Build a Community?

When they started, they leveraged content via the email much more because no one else was creating posts. Now, moderation is a broader problem now that we’ve reached scale.

But, to start, posting content will be required from the early team and you’ll have to do it for a while to really jump-start the community around content.

Bottom-line: Create content worthy of attention. Create a space for it and then invite folks to use it and check it out.

Thoughts on Monetizing Email Newsletters

It’s really neat to hear Steph talk through email business models. Unlike Morning Brew, who decided to verticalize their newsletter, Steph and the team decided to do a more “classic” marketing funnel where there’s a big funnel at the top, monetized through advertising, and then below, Trends, a backend product for more in-depth guides and video on specific topics.

They built this because they listened to their readers and audience and what was missing is how to execute against the many ideas that Trends was giving them (i.e. valuable content) and now they are building “guides” that will help folks take those ideas all the way into production.

A really fantastic look at how they not only think through product development and design but also how they deploy them publicly.

Tactically, What Tools Does Steph Use?

Facebook makes it crazy-difficult to automate anything so that’s one of the major downsides to using Facebook for community. So, that’s a big part of Steph’s workflow and daily exercises.

Unlike many large communities, they don’t have structured days like other communities (e.g. Monday activities, Tuesday activities, etc.). They try to listen to the behaviors of their community and try to be like them.

Also, as a company and business, they are at the point where they are starting to build out more specific roles and responsibilities β€” in the beginning, everyone was posting all the time but now they are looking to hire for more specific roles enabling folks to not just be part of the community but also having to moderate and lead.

This is a critical juncture for Steph and the team β€” I wish them the best!

What is the Tech Stack for Trends?

They first started with Mailchimp because it was very easy to use (basic HTML templating and themes) but as they scaled they moved to Active Campaign that had more customizations available to them.

Now, they are moving to SailThru β€” but it’s worth noting that this is for a newsletter that has 1,000,000+ subscribers! So, it’s not something for newer or smaller newsletters.

Bonus: Steph uses Mailchimp for her own personal newsletter as well and she’s actively thinking about where she’s going to take her community next. Using something like a MightyNetworks or a Circle is possible, but, until she thinks through how big she wants this to get, she’s sticking with Telegram.

How Steph Manages Ideas and Execution

Steph first thinks about her goals and how she works, aligning the projects around her existing skills. She tries to tackle projects that she knows she can complete, end-to-end, in a very specific amount of time.

The level of self-awareness here needs to be appreciated as well because to be able to accurately estimate a project’s time-to-completion means that you’re only tackling things that you know you have the current skills to do.

Word up.

She uses her recent ebook launch as an example, she knew that she could finish that in two months and so that’s what she did.

Also, she has some amazing advice on developing projects and one’s career: She suggest to focus on something that you’re already doing naturally that no one has asked you to do β€” these are things that wouldn’t be as much of an “uphill battle” because you wouldn’t be fighting yourself on a consistent basis.

This might be a good place to start with what you enjoy naturally. Focus on your habits, your own behavior.

How Do You Get Other Folks To Talk About Your Project?

You have to first make sure that your users are getting extreme value. People only talk about the absolute best stuff.

And in terms of community, you have to be honest with yourself: Are you building the absolute best community? Or, are you just average.

Understand what your real edge is and what that is in a real concrete way. If you can build that, people will talk about it.


Finally, a few links mentioned throughout the entire show and workshop:

Have a great one folks!

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