Seth Godin blogged years ago about growing your community by "finding the others." This felt like an important insight at the time, but I failed to completely grasp the meaning of it. Now, several years older and with more experience working and connecting with others online, I'm starting to get it.

You can't build a thriving business today without also building a network of customers and supporters. And the benefits of online communities go beyond increased revenue and word-of-mouth marketing. The people in your community may or may not buy from you but they will encourage you, give you essential product/service feedback, and reduce the loneliness that is so common among solopreneurs and start-up founders .

The problem I believe many of us face is that building a community isn't easy and it certainly can't be done overnight. Once you realize you need a community, you want it yesterday.

So this time-consuming challenge we face in our businesses was on my mind recently when I had the chance to talk with Stacey Ferguson. Stacey is the co-creator of the annual Blogalicious conference and an expert online community builder. Under her leadership, Blogalicious has gone from 177 participants in their first year to a huge community influencer and sponsor magnet ten years later. I admired her mission and focus, and wanted to find out how she did it.

I asked Stacey what one thing she'd recommend to people seeking to build their business or brand online. "Find the others," she said. Like Seth Godin, Stacey believes that the "others" are your community. They're a group of people with interests and aspirations similar to yours who, like you, are looking for ways to connect, learn, and grow. They're people who will support you and provide the opportunity to give back in return.

But what if you're starting from zero? I wanted her advice on how to get started. After talking with her, I decided to make finding "the others" my Just One Thing for a day. Just One Thing is my series of articles and videos that each suggest just one simple action step that will increase your productivity, expand your network, or make your life easier. I try it out and then report back on whether or not it worked.

Here's what happened and what I'd recommend.

First, I had to think about who I am online. I had to look at how I describe myself currently on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. I was looking for key terms that might be used as a starting point in my search for others like me. For me, those terms included "entrepreneur," "independent consultant," "meeting facilitator," "writer," "runner," and "mom." English is my native language and I live in the good ol' US of A.

Next, I had to think about who I enjoy following online. There are half a dozen funny mom bloggers who I love. I look up anything by Seth Godin or Tim Ferriss. And, of course, I read gobs of excellent content from fellow Inc.com columnists including Justin Bariso, Jessica Stillman, Minda Zetlin, and Bill Murphy Jr. because they're awesome and always have lots of useful information.

Then, I thought about what is common among these folks. Not surprisingly, they talk about issues that I'm interested in: business, human behavior/motivations, emotional intelligence, productivity, motherhood, and writing. From this step, I got a couple other keywords to use in my search for the others: "DC-area," "blogger," "social media marketing," and "funny."

This next part was fun. I used my new keywords on Twitter to find and follow the people who popped up and seemed interesting. I only picked ten terms, but I think that 10-12 terms a day for a week would be a fantastic goal. The commitment level of following somebody on Twitter is pretty low, so it doesn't have to be a perfect match -- just intriguing enough to see what they're all about for a week or so. On Facebook, I "liked" a handful of people offering online programs that I enjoy, including Heroic Public Speaking and anything put out by Vendeve. On Instagram, I looked through the profiles of the people who were either "heart-ing" my pictures or who'd hearted other people's pictures that I liked too. This way, I found another dozen local mom bloggers who are now rocking my world with great ideas of stuff to do with kids and what to make for dinner.

With all these new people I was following, my next step was to create a couple of Twitter lists. I suggest creating no more than three Twitter lists, or you'll ignore them. Used intelligently, lists are an essential feature to filter out all of the noise and reduce the risk of missing something from the people you're really interested in. You can't create filtering lists in Instagram directly, but there are other tools like this one you can use to sort. What invariably happens is that a handful of these people rise to the top. They're either posting on a frequency that jives with my level of interest, or they say something entertaining, or they give out a tip that is immediately helpful. I've had to get comfortable with my "like" button, because I'm using it a lot more these days since that I've found more people that I actually do like.

What I'm planning to do next is to reach out to these people by commenting on something they posted. I've done this in the past and have learned not to start off with a random question, a request for a follow back, or a request of any other kind. It's too much, too soon. You need someone on the receiving end to recognize your handle as someone familiar before you jump into anything more serious. There are exceptions to this rule. In fact, Stacey said that one of the key tactics that worked for her early on was leaving comments in blogs she was following with links and invitations to participate in the Blogalcious event. Seeing clear and immediate value, those she was reaching out to actually responded. If you have something that someone else will benefit from, by all means, go ahead and share it. Just don't make it a play to get them to buy something or lend you any of their star power.

After a little time- at least a week- I plan to reach out and begin to engage on a more personal level with these new follows. This step might include a direct message or an email. As with all correspondence, being respectful of your "others'" time and desire to avoid distractions is key. If someone doesn't respond, you can't get upset. As Tim Ferriss says, "Don't attribute malice to what can be explained by busyness." It's not about you. Unless you were rude or too forward, in which case they might be turned off. No worries. You take the lesson learned and move on to the next person.

Stacey's advice was really helpful and it helped kick-start my community building efforts. To keep this going, I know I need to be consistent and carve out time each day or week to continue adding and engaging with others online.

This can help you too to get clear on who you are online. You can ensure that your profiles from one platform to the next are consistent. The immediate return on your time invested is one of the biggest benefits. Interacting with new potential friends and customers can be just moments away when you find them and reach out. Building your online community is an important and necessary way to establish yourself and grow your business. If I could do it, you can too. Give this one a try!

Published on: Oct 14, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.