How We Built an Online Community…That’s Actually A Community

Today's guest post comes to you courtesy of my good friend, Todd Bumgardner. He is the co-founder of an impressive online community called The Strength Faction, which I’ve had the pleasure of working with on many occasions during the past three years. What he and his colleagues have created is special, which is why I’m excited to share this post. Enjoy!

If you Google “community” you’ll find two definitions listed:

First, “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.”

Second, “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.”

When building an online community, the first definition doesn’t do all that much for you—save for having a particular characteristic in common. But that second definition, that’s the one. For those looking for true human connection in an effort at producing positive, life-improving outcomes, it’s bathed in a golden glow and beckons like a muse calling to a greater cause.

It’s what we’ve built in Strength Faction.

Community has become the Frank’s Red Hot of fitness industry buzzwords—people are putting that shit on everything. But a sincere, enduring, online community isn’t just some forum where people that bought the same product hang out and is framed in by clever word choice. It’s, well, definition number two from above. We’ve been running ours for four years. I’m going to share with you a little about how we’ve built it.

SF.jpeg

We Didn’t Treat it like an “Online” Community

Online is just a means of access—and we have to remember that. I think the main mistake that we avoided when we started what would become Strength Faction in September 2015 is that we didn’t start out all online business-y. Maybe it was just lack of skill, and it was likely to our short-term monetary detriment, but the foundation of our community was built with real human connection.

We began with folks that we already knew, liked, and trusted. Typically, you hear that conversely stated—that your marketing should invite people to know, like, and trust you. That’s true. But when building a true community, you have to start with people that you have a sincere and strong connection with. Those folks have experience with you and know that you’ll be offering something of value. More importantly, in the context of community, you share the same values—and you’ve had opportunities to demonstrate that to each other in world outside the internet. These were people that we were friends with, that we had previously taught in our workshops, that we sat across the table from and listened to.

After a short trial that gave us the opportunity to teach ourselves the initial logistics of how the program would work, we started inviting these folks into the Faction. How did we do it? I actually talked to them. Through personal emails that led to phone calls, or phone calls the led to descriptive emails, I actually had real conversations with the people that we were asking to join us in this experiment in online, community learning. The whole thing started with real connection. I don’t thing that can be overstated or overvalued.

When we gave these folks a clear picture of what Strength Faction would be, we asked if they knew anyone like them that they thought would love to be a part of it. And wouldn’t you know it, they sure did.

I continued on with that process—reaching out to folks that I know, like, and trust and asking them to introduce me to folks that they share the same sentiments for. It worked. We finished our trial with two people out of twenty that were willing to pay for Strength Faction (and they both had met, and had positive experiences with us, in person). After my personal operation to connect with everyone I knew, we started the very first full round of Strength Faction (the program runs in seventeen-week cycles) with forty-seven members.

We Made it Safe…And Fun

On the first day of each new Strength Faction semester (the term semester affectionately coined by the Faction Family members) we do an introduction post. Folks introduce themselves in the standard way, but then there’s also a question that does a bit guard lowering. We ask something silly—often in the form of a would you rather question. 

Our Vets lead the charge, introducing themselves in seriously and silly ways, and welcoming the new members by saying that they are here to help, while also encouraging the new ladies and gents to participate and reminding them that they made a good choice. New members immediately feel welcome, and they start to introduce themselves. Inevitably, members old and new find common threads running through their lives and instant connections are made.

cellphone-device-electronics-699122.jpg

The coaches and mentors—there are five of us in total—follow suit in a similar-silly-yet-serious fashion. I often quote Dr. Evil’s soliloquy about “summers and Rangoon, luge lessons, and making meat helmets in the spring” and pass it off as my childhood. It’s not that far from the truth.

Guards are immediately lowered, and the tone is set. We’re here to help, we know what we’re doing, but goddamn it we aren’t dealing with grenades. Let’s not take ourselves too seriously.

This same tone resonates through the interactions in our Open Forum where anyone can post truly anything they want—as long as they aren’t being an asshole (that gets you a talking to from me). It’s mostly questions and offers to help. As well as during our bi-weekly QnAs, where we meet up on ZOOM and chat face-to-face…well, through a computer screen…bullshitting and working through each other’s day-to-day problems of life as a coach. And shit gets weird sometimes…in the most fun yet productive way possible.

Dan John’s Intentional Community in Action

It’s impossible to be a quality-minded fitness industry coach and escape the positive influence of Dan John. He’s the godfather of the industry. As with many others, he’s profoundly impacted how we think about, and carryout, our coaching—in our gym (BSP NOVA) and in Strength Faction. His idea of intentional community had to be manifest if we were to be successful in creating an actual community-based coaching program. I think we nailed it.

If you’ve never heard Dan talk about intentional community, he describes it in terms of vertical and horizontal axis. Descending down the vertical axis is the mythology, story, education, and leadership of the community. The horizontal axis represents the peer connections. We made a webbing, connecting each person in as many ways possible on each axis.

Vertically, we have our coaching structure, the education that we offer, and the stories of how we’ve gotten to where we are in our lives and careers. There are the coaches—Chris, Mike, and me—and then the mentors, three coaches that have successfully completed multiple semesters of our program before we asked them to help guide newcomers. All of the coaches and the mentors “sing in the same key”, so to speak. While we all have unique experiences, we all use the shared experience of the curriculum to guide the Strength Faction members. We’re connected to each other, we’re connected to the story of the program and what it teaches.

The curriculum and story are important, but it’s the true, human connection that makes it work. This isn’t some figurehead-type-shit-rife with nice ideas a no action. Our mentors actually interact and guide their mentees. Mike, Chris, and I actually coach—whether that’s during one-on-one phone calls, our ZOOM QnAs, or in our Facebook Open Forum. We didn’t just set up the program and then step back and let it run, we’re still in there, connecting, coaching, helping. That creates a strong vertical pillar.

Horizontally, we create tons of opportunities for our folks to genuinely connect…and help each other. There’s this crazy thing about people—we don’t want to just take, we also inherently feel a need to give. And when you give folks the opportunity to give to each other, and connect them via a common goal and language, they end up forging strong bonds.

I mentioned the introductions, the ZOOM QnAs, the Open Forum. Our members don’t just sit back and listen to the coaches and mentors in these spaces, they actively converse with each other, coaching each other based on their personal experience and what they’ve learned from us. We do our best just to sit back and facilitate.

Members are connected to each other, they’re connected to their mentors and coaches, and they’re connected via a shared story from the history and education of the program. It’s all genuine. It binds them all together into a true, intentional community.

Pete jumps in on the occasional Faction Q&A.

Pete jumps in on the occasional Faction Q&A.

Fellowship, Common Attitudes, Common Goals

I’ll leave you with a few thoughts—mostly words of warning so that you can avoid floundering.

First, we didn’t create a community because a business guru told us it was the best way to run a business. In fact, quite a few folks tried to talk us out of doing things the way we did because it would be too labor intensive and not profitable enough. They were right that it’s been a lot of work, but they were wrong about sustainability and profitability. Very wrong. It’s been worth all of the effort—for all involved.

We created a community because we sincerely knew that it would be the best way to positively affect change in a lot of lives. And we’ve held that idea dearly to our chests as we’ve continued to evolve Strength Faction and improve it. That genuine feeling is palpable. It’s like glue. If your goal is to build an online community, the foundation is the genuine motivation to connect people because you know it’s the best thing to do. Start there, or you’re lost.

Be about the community, not just the freedom and reach that the internet provides. If you put the latter in front of the former, you’ll stall quickly. It’s easy to get excited about growth and scalability, but if you don’t have something genuine and of value to offer the folks you want to serve, you can forget about growth and scalability.

Build the community you want to build. As I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, we had quite a few folks telling us quite a few things about how we should build and manage this community. While we were sincerely appreciative of their input, we didn’t listen. We smiled, nodded our heads, and did whatever the fuck we were going to do anyway. Because we knew it was right. Because we were being guided by our own values. And there’s nothing that’s going to foundationally support, and bind a community together, more than genuine value and values.

 

Enrollment for the Fall ’19 Strength Faction is currently open. Click the link below to learn more or to enroll: 

Fall ’19 Strength Faction Enrollment

 

 

Todd Bumgardner, MS, LMT is a strength coach and business owner located in Northern Virginia where he operates Beyond Strength Performance NOVA with his partner Chris Merritt and is the Director of Staff Development and Internship Coordinator. He’s also the co-founder of Strength Faction, a personal and professional development company for personal trainers that he’s owned and operated with Chris Merritt and Mike Connelly since 2015. Apart from these two great gigs, Todd does the strength programming for the new recruits of a full-time, Federal tactical law enforcement group. When he’s not working, Todd’s fishing, hunting, playing one of his guitars, or gallivanting through the mountains somewhere.