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  • Writer's pictureTessa May Marr

Case Study: Playing The Long Game & Building A Community

This is a story of community. This is a story of success. This is a story of patience.

Gluten Free Calgary (@gfyyc) was born nearly five years ago and now commands an audience of over 30,000 engaged fans. With this community, they’ve been able to sell advertising, host events and even launch a product of their own (GFYYC Goodie Bags). I’m going to tell you how they got there.

The key to it is patience. When you get started with social media (as with most businesses) you can’t expect results overnight. Successful entrepreneurs know - you’ve gotta be prepared to hustle. To work hard - morning to night, seven days a week and at times, give a few freebies away, until you build a solid customer database, prove your value and collect your testimonials! You’ve gotta pay your dues. But if you do, one day it’ll be easier. One day you’ll have steady cash flow, conversions you can count on and a business that runs without you.

Same goes for social. You’ve gotta take it step by step. In the right order.

  1. Build a community.

  2. Do something with it.

If you expect it to go like this, you’re off your rocker.

  1. Send out a tweet and get a few followers.

  2. Convert like mad because your tweet is just SO compelling and make money.

Nope. Not gonna happen.

Now, let me give you an example of how I--they did this really effectively. (Ready for a twist?)

I actually started this organization called Gluten Free Calgary (Surprise! It was me!) back in 2012… sort of by accident. To be 100% honest, I already had Mad Media on the brain, but with no work experience in social, I decided I needed to create some results to showcase. So I started a little Twitter account called @gfyyc aimed at sharing recipes and resources that help people live gluten-free in Calgary, AB (where I lived at the time). I thought if I could offer value, join conversations and encourage community we could then redirect our community to local products and restaurants - bringing them business. I also just wanted to create a source of resources and a network of support as I had just gone gluten-free and… it was kind of hard.

Well, boy did it work.

How did I get to 30,000 fans?

  1. Consistent posts. We followed a structure with a mix of scheduled content and daily live posts. While the strategy varied slightly over the years and across various networks, there was content going out daily. So people could come to depend on us for new info.

  2. Authenticity. We weren’t afraid to play with long-form and short-form. We offered perspectives. We asked the community questions to get their insight. We were honest and real and relatable. Not stuffy and professional.

  3. User-generated content. I didn’t rely on just my posts or worry too much about promoting my own blogs. Our mandate was any tweet we were tagged in that offered relevant, brand-aligned info, we’d re-share. So everyone got a little airtime on our networks. The other reason this was awesome: it saved me from having to dig up all the info myself. Our community had it. I just had to give them a voice and a forum.

  4. Engagement. We weren’t all about pumping content or generating sales. We responded to our messages and comments on a daily basis - often hourly. We had conversations with our audience. And that promoted trust and again, that sense of community.

  5. Community growth. I used various tools throughout the years that helped me target and reach new fans and followers. Not the “buy these followers” bots. They don’t work except for vanity metrics which, sure, have some value in klout, but the buck stops there. Bots don’t buy or engage back. But the tools we did use were really effective in helping us reach a new audience within our target market.

How did I activate this community?

Here’s the story. What started out as a passion to build a community and offer value (and of course, prove my own skills) became time consuming after a couple of years. This wasn’t my day job and I wasn’t making any money here, so I had to figure out what to do. The audience was too large to walk away from entirely, but ultimately time has value, so we had to find a way to activate this audience and drive some revenue. At least to cover costs.

We started out with advertising. With major metrics like 10,000 Twitter followers… and most concentrated in Calgary, AB, local businesses were keen to pay attention when I offered them a route to reach this audience. And with the gluten-free movement growing (or the awareness of what had for years been causing people discomfort growing), it was becoming a major pain point for people; where could they go out to eat trusting that there would be options for them on the menu? The good news is as I dug around, I actually found a lot of options. Restaurants in Calgary were very supportive and receptive to the idea of making accomodations for this particular dietary restriction. It was already happening. So it was just a matter of connecting the skeptical audience with the restaurants ready to serve them. And collect a few dollars along the way.

A few years following that, I came up with yet another concept: GFYYC Goodie Bags. At this point, Mad Media was a few years underway and my team was managing social for the GFYYC brand, and it continued to boom. Clearly doing a hell of a job! (It’s okay to swear in Case Studies right?) So I figured, let’s monetize this further! The mandate had always been to connect gluten-free people with gluten-free products, services and restaurants that could serve them. And with the idea of subscription boxes on the rise, I thought this would be the perfect way. For $29, subscribers would receive a curated box of products, coupons, gift cards and so on ultimately offering them more options for food that they could safely enjoy!

I ran this for about one year, before I decided it was time to let Gluten Free Calgary go. It had kept growing, and needed someone who could dedicate more time and attention to it to really help it shine. I needed my focus to remain here - with Mad Media (as it was also growing steadily!). I put together a Prospectus that detailed the large community we had grown and the business model we had developed via both advertising and our subscription boxes, along with the projections of the potential with more time and dedication.

It was an easy sell when you laid it all out like that.

Communities like this have value.

And guess where I found my buyer? My oh so very engaged community.

"Having an engaged community is invaluable! One person can’t know everything and the beauty of having people dialed into your cause means unlimited access to info and resources! Simply posing the question “looking for a gluten friendly Italian restaurant” opens the door to new possibilities! Although the gluten-free industry has grown by leaps and bounds, it can still be difficult to navigate. And sometimes you don’t know where to start. That phrase “it takes a village” - I saw how supportive and encouraging the GFYYC community is and that’s what drew me to the opportunity." - Jillian MacDonald, Owner/Operator of Gluten Free Calgary

The moral? There’s a TONNE of value in a large, engaged community. So take the time. Build it up. Offer value first. Don’t go begging for money right off the bat. Build trust. Build a brand reputation. Build awareness. Talk to your audience. And whether you have a game plan for the future or not, you’ll have something of value.

Patience. Consistency. Success.

Play the long game.

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