Learn the right way to create, blog, and contribute to online communities
by brittany taylor | November 16, 2017
What I’m most afraid of isn’t being broke. It isn’t losing clients or my site being erased or going into debt. It isn’t my social accounts being hacked or my business being a failure.
What I’m most afraid of is disappointing people—and disappointing myself.
This fear of being a disappointment drives how strict I am about my behavior, how I treat other people, and how I execute my work. My lowest moments were accidents or mistakes that happened because I didn’t know what I was doing was wrong.
Each professional low point pushes me to educate myself not just on industry norms but on best practices, legal situations, and gray areas where you can argue both sides of a particular scenario.
And every time I do something wrong—even if it’s just a tiny little thing that sits in the back of my mind, wagging a finger at me—I always think about what I would do differently next time.
Here’s everything I’ve learned in the 4 years I’ve been running my own business, the decade I’ve spent creating content professionally, and the (gulp) 17 years I’ve been a member of a slew of different online communities.
The Creative Entrepreneur Code of Ethics
I know I’m a glass-half-full person, but I believe with all my being that every creative entrepreneur I know wants to operate their business ethically.
Every mistake I’ve seen my friends, my peers, and the people I look up to make have come from a place of “I didn’t know that was a thing until it was” rather than “I knew what I was doing was wrong and I did it anyway.”
My goal is that once you read this post, you’ll know—or you’ll have the tools you need to find out what you know you don’t know. Remember: Google is your friend, Facebook groups are helpful, and if you want to email a boss you admire for their input, do that!
And now, the Creative Entrepreneur Code of Ethics:
Some people are true originals. Most of us—me included—draw inspiration from a slew of different sources. Name those bosses and creators who have contributed to you becoming the creative entrepreneur you are now, and the creative entrepreneur you want to become in the future. Trust me: Someone will notice the similarities. It’s best to wave your fan flag up-front.
Social media has encouraged us to share the work others have created indiscriminately. But for us creative entrepreneurs who rely on our intellectual property for income, sharing without thinking about it toes the line of plagiarism or out-right theft.
If you tend to curate a lot of content (particularly on Instagram), you want to create content or product based on a philosophy or phrase, you want to build on a signature exercise or idea, or you want to excerpt significant chunks of content, you should always reach out. And if you don’t get a response, take that as a “nope, sorry,” and move on.
Citation rules, plagiarism guidelines, and etiquette can’t keep up with the constantly changing tech scene. That’s why it’s essential to go into any situation where you’re using any bit of anyone else’s content, philosophy, or business intending to over-attribute. That means tagging them on social media, linking out on blog posts, and citing in-text.
There’s always an Oz-style curtain that part of us—and part of our businesses—hide behind. Nobody expects us to tear the curtain down and toss it in the trash.
However, there are areas where you can and should be honest about topics like making money, gaining followers, and increasing traffic. Are those product shout-outs coming with affiliate links? Say so every time. Are you using tools or bots to boost your stats? Cop to it. Have you hired a press representative? Are you working with a business coach? Does a ghostwriter pen your greatest hits? Own it.
Bring the best of you, your talent, and your ideas to the table every single time you sit down. If the content and products you’re creating are going live to suit a schedule and aren’t achieving the standards you expect of yourself, don’t put them up. Your community doesn’t need more stuff that’s just OK. Your blog doesn’t need “meh” posts. Your Facebook page doesn’t need “blah” posts.
If you need to do less (or take a break) to boost your quality, give yourself whatever you need to do that.
Generosity is a hallmark of online communities. Whether you’re on Reddit or Facebook or Instagram or an old-school forum, there are always people there who have your back.
And you know what? Everyone knows exactly who they are. Your goal is to be one of those people. To achieve that goal, you have to give as much as you can. The more you give, the more you’ll get in return—and the more good will you’ll generate.
When you run your own business, it’s important for you to understand exactly what you’re capable of. Confidence is an essential quality, and if you have to work hard every day to achieve it and maintain, do that. But you should never promise potential clients and customers work or results that you cannot guarantee.
If telling the truth means fewer sales, then so be it.
It’s nice if you can open your wallet and invest money in the products and people you admire, but technology makes it so easy to support other creative entrepreneurs without spending a dime.
Here are bunch of ways to do that, right now:
Legal gobbledygook is thrown as us 24/7, and most of the time, we scroll to the end of the fine print, check a box, and click “ok.” When it comes to business stuff, though, you actually need to know what you’re agreeing to so that you don’t run afoul of any terms you commit to abide by.
Google is your friend here and so is a lawyer. Dig (and ask) until you’re clear on every little thing.
What can you quote? What images can you use? Can you make a product with that quote on it? Can you use that phrase? Is your brand name kosher?
There are a lot of technicalities that are governed by your country’s laws. If you’re in the United States, there’s a national trademark database you can dig through from the comfort of your couch. For copyright and usage questions, an IP lawyer is always your best bet.
Everything you do should contribute to making the group you’re a part of better in some way. Bring a new perspective, a unique background, a different skill-set, an unusual approach, a fresh voice—something that is without a doubt you, and without a doubt a positive force.
Resist the urge to do the same thing that others are doing. Mimicry can be a useful way to learn, but making it your own is what will make you shine and put you on the path to greatness.
What to do if you fall short
I’m not a perfect person, and I know you’re not, either. That’s why it’s important to have a plan in place for when failure inevitably smacks you in the face.
It’s OK to lean back on your haunches and take a breath, to lick your wounds in private. What’s not OK is pretending that the bad thing never happened.
So what should you do when things don’t go according to plan? Here are the three steps you should follow whenever you mess up:
This is the hardest part. Not only are you potentially opening yourself up to the public for criticism and flak, you’re also denting your own pride. Once you raise your hand and confess, though, you’ll feel relieved. You won’t be carrying around a secret anymore. You won’t be worried that people will find you out. You won’t be waiting for the other idiomatic shoe to drop.
Take this step as soon as you can. You’ll feel better, you’ll heal faster, and you’ll gain more respect from your peers, your mentors, your clients and customers, and your followers.
Sometimes, there isn’t anything you can do other than apologize. But other times, there are actions you can take to make amends. It could be a public apology or stepping down from a leadership position. It could be correcting a piece of content or taking content down. It could be paying a licensing fee or refunding a payment.
If there’s an obvious correction, be the first to bring it up. If you’re not sure what to do, ask. If you’ve wronged an individual, ask that person what you can do to make them feel better, to make them whole, or to rectify the situation. If you’ve injured a community, ask the leaders what the next best step is. If you’re still confused, consider speaking with a mentor or a lawyer.
Most of the mistakes we make are insignificant in the grand scheme of things. They might hurt now, and they might make you feel guilty or ashamed, but those scars will fade with time.
If you’re facing serious repercussions within your community or industry, it would be wise for you to consult a professional. If your reputation is taking a hit, hiring a business coach or a publicist specializing in rebuilding brand visibility is a wise move.
No matter what the mistake is, though, it’s essential that you work proactively to not make the same mistake again. You might need to reconsider your business model, write a code of behavior or a manifesto for your brand, rework your processes, or overhaul your content strategy. Whatever you do, do it thoughtfully and ask for input from those you trust and admire.