Scalzi, Whatever, and the Power of Building a Community

There’s a fun little corner of the internet that serves as a great example of how you build community, and it’s the stomping ground of a science fiction author in Ohio.

Whatever.scalzi.com is the personal blog of John Scalzi, Hugo Award winning author of a number of novels including Old Man’s War, Redshirts, and Locked-In. The community he has build at “Whatever” is the backbone on which he’s built a successful publishing career. In 2015, he signed a 10-year, $3.4 million book deal with his long-time publisher, Tor, to produce 13 books.

A recent review of his upcoming novel, The Collapsing Empire, describes Scalzi as “almost insufferably good at his brand of fun but think-y sci-fi adventure.” That pretty well sums Scalzi up as a an author. He liked that description enough to post about it here, which makes it a fair way to quickly sum his work up for our purposes.

Scalzi began his blog in 1998, making it just two years younger than this masterpiece of web development. In its nearly 20 years in existence “Whatever” has built a large and consistent community that engages with Scalzi and each other. They have turned into a large and devoted (paying) fan base for his novels. Large enough for Tor to enter into a 10-year contract with a genre author who has never had a New York Times #1.

How did that happen? How can your business build the type of community that will support you and, more importantly, tell their friends to support you?

Here are some of the keys to what Scalzi has done that you can replicate.

1. Consistency

Scalzi generally updates the site daily, frequently more than once per day. This consistency is the key to building his community. His readers know that if they check in on Whatever each day, there will be something to engage them. Woody Allen once said that 80% of success is just showing up. Scalzi just showing up every day with something to say played a huge role in building his community.

Of course, Scalzi may see me as Marshall McLuhan viewed that professor at the movies and say, “You know nothing of my work.”

2. Say What You’re About and then Be About That Thing

Scalzi named his blog “Whatever.” Announcing that his blog was going to be about whatever he felt like writing about that day. And that’s exactly what it’s been about.

It’s not important what your “what” is. I mean, it’s important to you, and if you do it right, it will be important to your community. But you can building a community about cajun cooking as easily as you can about Binghamton Bearcats basketball. You just need to tell people what your “what” is and then actually write about that “what” consistently.

Scalzi writes about politics, writing, the creationism museum, his family, the Oscars, his own work, and more. He’s posted pictures of the sunset and his cat. He’s also started a recurring segment called “The Big Idea” where authors can pitch their new projects to his community.

Now, some of this might not be interesting to you, or me, or any reader off the street, and he’s ok with that. He’s even ok if you’re offended by the things he says. As it says on his “About the Blog” section, “there is a reasonably good chance that at some point what he writes on Whatever may upset, offend or annoy you. The longer you read the site, the more likely this becomes.”

He tells you that up front and he delivers on it. This is crucial to building your community. People come to your site for the cajun cooking recipes. If they are greeted by your manifesto on why dogs are better than cats, they are going to be confused and turned off. You need to warn them up front that from time to time your site may skew very pro-dog.

Say who you are and then be who you said.

3. Encourage (Enforce) Respectful discourse

Communities are not just passive recipients of whatever you decide to give them. They are active. Communities are filled with real people. Sadly, sometimes people are awful to each other. Especially online.

Understanding this, Scalzi presented a Site Disclaimer and Comment Policy that lays out in pretty clear terms what will and won’t allowed on the comment section of his site. When people ignore these rules of decorum, he smacks them with a verbal rolled up newspaper of disdain and derision. He’s also better at being pointedly rude than most and uses that skill as needed.

Because of this, his comment section is large, diverse, and robust. It’s as safe a comments section as you’re likely to find online and this has helped his community thrive. They can even amuse themselves at times when he is unable to post for a few days.

4. Bacon

One September day in 2006, John Scalzi taped bacon to his cat and posted a picture of it online. Since that day, he has become synonymous with bacon on the internet. Now, whenever a bacon-related item appears online helpful members of the internet send it to him, making sure he’s seen it. Which, of course, he has.

Your business does not have to create a tie in with bacon, or affix it to any animals. But it’s the internet. And people like bacon.

5. Have Talent

This last one is, admittedly, much more difficult than item number 4, but without being a talented writer, the size of Scalzi’s online community would not have translated into book sales or a multi-million dollar publishing contract.

When he started Whatever in 1998, he’d been a professional writer for nearly a decade, but he was not a novelist. He didn’t post his serialized first novel Old Man’s War on his site until the site had been up and running for four years. His daily readers weren’t coming there for his fiction. But, because he was good at it, when he posted it, they read it. It got enough attention and he sold it to Tor for publication.

Your talent may not be writing novels. You may help people save money, or produce the best athletic apparel in the world, or provide health insurance, or just about anything else. But, you need to be good at that for your community to become loyal customers.

What’s Next?

Well, assuming you have talent and something that people will want, make sure that you’re leveraging the power of your WordPress site to build that community by consistently putting up content that is true to who you are as a company and commit to building a respectful and engaging way for your community to interact with one another.

And don’t forget the bacon.

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