Democratized media has made it possible for nearly anyone to lead change. All you need is an issue, social skills and the talent to apply them to the online world, and the time and patience to cultivate community.

Besides being a collaborator in building some hobby-based communities over the last six years, I’ve advised clients on creating a groundswell of their own for marketing, brand awareness and advocacy. Perhaps the best advice I can offer has been known for years so I can’t take credit for it: if you don’t need support, now is the time to prepare for it.

Here are three principles I’ve embraced in my community building activities.

OFFER VALUE

One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen made by community-managers is constantly making requests of or calling upon members to take action. I liken that to someone who only ever calls upon acquaintances to help with a move, offering pizza and beer at the end of the day. You don’t generate many friends if the entire relationship is about them going out of their way for a small reward. The helpers have to really value you and a long day of hard work and the “feast” to only ever interact with you once a year on your terms.

If you want an army of true champions who will help you when you most need it, you need to offer a steady diet of value based on what brought the community together, and you need to have the ability to introduce new ideas that help augment the relationship and advance the individuals. During a recent conversation, Adam Miron told me about a 5:1 rule he teaches his clients — give five pieces of value for every one you request.

BE AN ACTIVE MEMBER OF THE COMMUNITY

Taking on the responsibility of building a community means committing to taking care of it. It’s just like the working world where the best managers are present and visible almost all the time, they make a point of acknowledging members of the team and offer support and even levity to keep everyone connected. Political leaders don’t just get elected, they travel to speak and meet with the public, they shake hands and kiss babies.

Increasing membership and participation means demonstrating how it’s done. It’s a time investment, but it doesn’t have to consume your every waking moment. For some of the communities I’ve built I allocated 15 minutes each day in which I shared new ideas or responded to comments by others. For other communities I invested several hours each day kicking off new conversations and contributing to established ones, producing audio and video content and offering value to other like-minded communities. It really depends on the nature of the community you want to build and the work you’re doing in service to it. Don’t get caught up in the quantity of time versus the quality of the contribution.They don’t necessarily equate.

ASK ONLY WHEN YOU NEED

In many respects, community building is about managing social capital like a bank account. Every time you give, you make a deposit. The more you deposit, the more capital you have to leverage. The quality of your contributions can also lead to accrued value like interest. The more you give to the community, the more likely you are to have people who will take on your call to action when you make it.

It’s like my “move” example, above. If the only time you hear from a particular acquaintance is when they need help moving from one apartment or house to another, you have no problem finding something else to do the day you’re needed.

One final point… while a community comes together on a common element, say an issue, idea or geography, that doesn’t mean the community can only exist under those terms. Many of us have a relationship with our neighbours that extends beyond civic geo-political issues, we did more with our school friends than just attend classes and study, and we often socialize with colleagues and find ourselves talking about something other than work. Don’t overuse the common thread of the community to hold it together. Let current events and outside interests find their way into the mix if for no other reason than to add colour to the conversation.

Photo: Obama Rally uploaded to flickr by fensterbme.