How to Build a Robust Online Community: Cliff Notes from CookingHawaiianStyle.com


As a former social media strategist working for digital agencies in NYC, I frequently ran, and still continue to run, into people and organizations with the ‘build it and they will come’ social media mentality.

What is a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality?

It’s a frame of mind in which a brand, usually with no or a very modest social media presence, seeks to create or expand its Facebook, Twitter, blog, or other social network. The brand says, “We’re going to create a Facebook page to broadcast all the latest news, and then fans will subscribe and like all our stories.” But what most brands forget to ask themselves is, “will these supposed fans even care or does the brand even know who these fans are”?

So brands build and sometimes they get lucky. Their audiences find them or they produce great content that hooks in new people; however, there is a darker side to this story: digital ghost towns with tumbleweed content that blows in but no people to admire the view.

Brands forget that community building, even in the digital realm, is often the result of hard-won relationships. As humans, we interact with people, groups, companies, and brands because we have a relationship—usually positive—with them.

It was through a very personal connection of my own that I first heard of Frank Abraham and CookingHawaiianStyle.com.

Building a Community—Hawaiian Style

My stepmother, Lori Ikeda, runs Guavarose.com, a food blog; it has always been her dream to publish a Hawaiian cake book, but the difficulty of finding a publisher led her to start a blog instead. She had been blogging for over a year when Frank [KI1] contacted her about including her recipes on CookingHawaiianStyle.com

On the surface, CookingHwaiianStyle.com is a site for sharing island-influenced recipes. In an interview, Abraham described his vision for the site, “I started CookingHawaiianStyle.com as a way to re-connect with people from Hawaii and to share some of the food and recipes that we all grew up with. Today . . . my mission is not only to re-connect with people from Hawaii, but to share that connection with the world.”

But behind the pretty pictures and ingredients, there is a robust online community. According to the Honolulu Star Advertiser, Abraham’s site already had 3,000 sign-ups just three months after launch. This exceeded all expectations as Abraham had thought it would take a year to build a community of 500. Today, nearly two years later, CookingHawaiianStyle.com receives over 5,000 unique visitors a day and has 40 contributors who have written over 3,000 recipes.

Abraham’s secret, I learned after talking to my stepmother, is his warmth and ability to connect easily with people. She told me, “I felt an immediate connection to Frank within the first couple of minutes of our first conversation—it was like talking story with someone back home.”

Fostering Connections Online and Offline

The strength of the connection caused my stepmother, a women who had never before participated in crowd funding, to donate to Abraham’s Kickstarter campaign in support of producing cooking video tutorials; if successfully funded, Cooking Hawaiian Style has the opportunity to create a television series in Hawaii and to have its cooking series featured in the in-flight entertainment offerings on Hawaiian Airlines.

Abraham has also learned that building a community is more than just setting up a website and Facebook page, “Build it and they will come—well, not really.  I thought that all I had to do was build the website and somehow people would find it.  For me, and I think for most people . . . that is far from the truth.  Building a community takes a lot of work.  I put in about 16 hours each day, constantly working at building/procuring content that people are interested in, building relationships with other content builders/contributors, finding ways to engage the audience and constantly finding ways to attract new visitors.”

Abraham is not afraid to pick up the phone if it means building a real connection, but he also affirms the power of social media to reach a greater number of people than interacting one-on-one, “I honestly don’t know what I would do without social media.  It gives me a way to interact with thousands of people simultaneously on a regular basis. It allows me to gauge my audience and the content that I’m posting.  I don’t think the site would have reached as many people without social media behind it.”

Using both on and offline tactics, Abraham hopes to keep growing his community,

“This year, I am trying a new idea which involves going to Hawaiian events to meet people that are interested in my site.  The idea is to go where the people are and bring them into my site using social media . . . I think its a great way of combining an old marketing technique with a new one to reach out to potential site visitors.”

Moving beyond ‘Build and They Will Come’

Cooking Hawaiian Style’s success underlines the importance of combining social media with real world relationships. If brands build digital outposts but do not take the time to explain to their constituents why the interaction matters, then no one will come. Oftentimes, to engage fans in one channel, say Facebook, means outreaching through a different channel first, perhaps email or mailings. But a brand cannot stop there. To truly engage people, a brand must engage in real relationship building.

Abraham understands the power of social media for outreach but also realizes it is a tool; Facebook doesn’t build the relationship, he does. Although he can use social media to monitor and improve the engagement, the end-all is that people stay around because they care about him and his vision to connect people through food. When I prodded my stepmother about why she had donated to the Kickstarter campaign, she came back with this sentiment, “I believe in his vision and really want to see him succeed.”

Shortly after meeting my stepmother, Abraham offered to run a giveaway on Guava Rose’s Facebook page. In a week’s time, her audience went from a mere 30 likes to over 100, and with frequent cross posts on the Cooking Hawaiian Style Facebook page, Guava Rose’s Facebook page has surpassed 300 likes. The best brands are those that empower others, and Abraham has built strong relationships with his contributors by strengthening their online presences. My stepmother would agree, “He really wanted to help me grow my site too, not just have some of my recipes on his site.”

Both Guava Rose and Cooking Hawaiian Style have thrived through a mutually beneficial relationship. This relationship makes them care about one another and contribute to the success of each other. When a brand has a group of people who do this for one another, then there is a true community.

Disclaimer: Lori Ikeda of Guavarose.com is the author’s stepmother, and the author currently does site maintenance for her website.