How to Leverage Virtual Communities in Your Business with Sumaya Owens

May 17, 2022

Join us for a conversation with Sumaya Owens, CEO and founder of Present Moment Media, where we talk all about how to scale your revenue with virtual communities. From Facebook Groups to MightyNetworks, we talk about the different forms virtual communities take. Then, Sumaya shares one of her biggest focuses that has driven the vast majority of her business growth: relationship-building.

Sumaya K. Owens is the CEO & founder of Present Moment Media, a digital marketing agency for changemakers. Sumaya is a queer unschooling parent, healing arts practitioner, social justice organizer, and holistic biz + marketing consultant. They are passionate about uplifting the voices of changemakers and visionaries.

She built her career from scratch, starting as a yoga and meditation teacher, then a corporate spa and retreat manager, now a thriving, wildly independent entrepreneur. After leaving her corporate management career four years ago, they packed their bags, traveled the world with their daughter, and started their own online biz supporting inspirational professionals across the globe. Sumaya is currently living in the mountains of Western North Carolina, traditional land of Cherokee peoples.

Connect with Sumaya:

 JACOB RATLIFF: Hello, and welcome to the Client Attractor Show, where we talk about concrete tactics and strategies that you can use to attract your ideal client. I'm your host, Jacob Ratliff, and we are joined today with a special guest Sumaya Owens, who is the CEO and founder of Present Moment Media, which is a digital marketing agency for changemakers. Sumaya is a queer unschooling parent, healing arts practitioner, social justice organizer, and holistic business and marketing consultant. They are passionate about uplifting the voices of changemakers and visionaries, and she built her career from scratch, starting as a yoga and meditation teacher, then a corporate spa and retreat manager, and now a thriving, wildly independent entrepreneur. 

JR: After leaving her corporate management career four years ago, they packed their bags, traveled the world with their daughter, and started their own online business, supporting inspirational professionals across the globe. Sumaya is currently right down the road from me, living in the mountains of western North Carolina, the traditional land of the Cherokee peoples. I am super, super excited to have you here today, and really excited to see where this conversation takes us.

SUMAYA OWENS: Hey, Jacob, thanks so much for hosting me. It's great to be here.

JR: Yeah, I'm really glad to have you here today. In this conversation, we're going to be talking about how to scale your revenue by leveraging virtual communities. This is a big topic. It's a hot topic, for sure. It's something that a lot of people are either already doing, or they might be thinking about starting a virtual community, but not sure where to start. I'm really excited to pick your brain today because this is, personally, an area where I tend to lack a little bit in my own knowledge and experience. I’m super excited—kind of selfishly—to hear what you have to say. To go ahead and get started, let's just start with talking about what we mean, in the first place, when we're talking about virtual communities. What does that actually mean?

SO: Absolutely. I am so glad you asked that because I think, as you said, it is a hot topic right now, and there are many different variations of virtual communities in the online space right now. One of the primary, foundational, core lessons I teach in my online courses and in my consulting with my clients is that my approach, personally, to sales is through building authentic relationships through a digital platform. 

SO: Whenever I talk about virtual community, I'm talking about all of the relationships that we have created and sustain online, just like my connection with you, Jacob. We've somehow crossed paths on the internet; you invited me to your Facebook group, and now I'm on your podcast. It can be any type of relationship, any type of group, and it could be your own, or it can belong to someone else. These virtual communities have been incredibly powerful in my own journey and building my online business.

JR: It can, like you said, look like a lot of different things. It could be your own Facebook group, someone else's Facebook group. What are those other types of virtual communities out there that you're seeing?

SO: Well, I'm a part of quite a few different virtual communities, and they take different shapes and forms. Obviously, Facebook groups are a big part of my own personal practice and routine in terms of just being really active in a small handful of Facebook groups. In addition, I'm a part of a virtual membership called the Lab, which is an exclusive membership for women who work online and travel. It was started by the founder of the Facebook group Digital Nomad Girls. 

SO: I'm also a part of a virtual community that also has an in-person component, but it has not really been as active the past couple of years. It is called AIGA, which is a local chapter of graphic artists and design professionals based here in Asheville. Those are just a few of the online spaces where I'm active right now.

JR: Certainly, and there is this big, not divide, but distinction, I guess, between online communities where you are the one holding the space and creating the container and the ones where you're not necessarily the one holding that space—you're part of the other community. In creating your own online communities—I'm thinking specifically about your Facebook group—what drove you to start that in the first place?

SO: Well, I have personally gained so much benefit in my own online business over the past few years by just building relationships online and joining these various Facebook groups and other virtual communities. In the past couple of years, I have reflected on what was missing from my own online business. I think, in March 2020, many of us paused and started to reflect on how our business needed to shift and transform in order for it to be sustainable for us. 

SO: In that period of reflection, I realized that up until that point, all of my work online was one-on-one consulting and done-for-you services. That community component, even though it had always been really important to me, was never really a part of my business model, so that was something that I really strived to change in the past year or so. I launched Present Moment Media in early 2021 after working for several years as a freelance consultant, and then I launched a small-group online course. It was live, small-group learning and coaching. 

SO: I started a free Facebook group called Holistic Digital Marketing Strategies. I started hosting free monthly workshops where I'm providing educational content, but then we can also have Q&A and discussion after. Then, I started building my own virtual membership called the Lounge. I've been working really hard to start building my own online community because it's something that I really believe in personally and professionally.

JR: Perfect, thank you. What I'm hearing is that you're building this really large online community, and within that, there are some sub communities: your small-group coaching, the Facebook group, these trainings that you're doing, weekly webinars and trainings. I'm listening to that and thinking, That is awesome and amazing, and it also sounds like so much to handle and manage and create. 

JR: I'm curious…we can use myself as an example: For someone who mostly does online or one-on-one coaching, one-on-one relationships, and wants to really start bringing people together to create a community, where would you recommend someone like that begin? Is it with a free Facebook group or is it with something else?

SO: Well, whenever my clients ask me about starting any kind of program, my recommendation is to start in your comfort zone. As entrepreneurs, we only have a certain window of tolerance of how far we're willing to push ourselves outside of that comfort zone before we shut down, and then we don't actually do the thing that we set out to do. 

SO: Instead of pushing ourselves way out of our comfort zone, I think it's sometimes helpful to think about where we already hang out online, where we feel comfortable online, what kind of content we feel comfortable creating. For me, as much as I love podcasts, for some reason, podcasts have never been in my comfort zone, so I might not start a podcast until way later, but I'm really comfortable teaching Zoom workshops. I have no idea why that's all that different, but you know what I'm saying: we all have our comfort areas of I think I can do this, and I'm comfortable with the technology, and I'm comfortable creating this type of content. 

SO: I say make it easy for yourself. If you really enjoy Facebook groups, and you really enjoy making a face on Facebook, maybe that's for you. Some of my clients really don't want to be on Facebook (for understandable reasons, right?), so to some of my clients, I recommend starting with a Mighty Networks group or hosting these Zoom workshops once a month. I try to work with my clients one-on-one to really figure out what kind of content they want to create and what space they really want to be a part of online.

JR: Thinking back to my own experience, and this is something that I talk about with my clients as well, I'm really latched on to what you said about your comfort zone: choose something that is maybe 10% outside of your comfort zone. For instance, two years ago, the idea of starting a podcast was 100% outside of my comfort zone, so I had to choose something else that was closer to 10% outside of my comfort zone.

JR: And slowly but surely, that got me to the point where not only was starting a podcast 10% outside of my comfort zone, but I actually also wanted to start a podcast. I really liked what you said about choosing something that's fairly close to your comfort zone and where you're already hanging out and spending time with your people. You mentioned briefly, if you hate Facebook, or you just really don't want to be on Facebook, start a Mighty Networks community. 

JR: I'm curious because this is, again, a really hot topic: should you have your community on Facebook or Mighty Networks or Circle (the other big one that's getting used these days)? There are obvious pros and cons to moving your community off Facebook, but I'm really interested in hearing your experience of how a community fundamentally changes or becomes different if it moves from Facebook to Mighty Networks, or vice versa. How does the actual platform impact the community, if at all?

SO: Absolutely. That's a great question. One of the memberships that I'm a part of is the Lab, and it is the home of the Digital Nomad Girls community, which was actually started as a Facebook group. I mean, I haven't checked recently, but last time I checked, it had something like 40,000 members in the Facebook group. Whenever they started their Mighty Networks group, I was really excited to join this community just to connect with other women who were also digital nomads and who were working online, and it felt like a really safe space. 

SO: Also, they had all these really amazing workshops and skill-shares and meet-and-greets, so there was a lot of opportunity for connection and relationship-building there. It goes so much further than what you can really experience, in my opinion, in a Facebook group, but one of the things that also shifts when you take Facebook groups and transition them into a different platform off of social media is that the audience member, the participant, is entirely focused on that space, and they can be 100% present with the space they're in. 

SO: Whereas on Facebook, if they go into a group, all of a sudden they're getting notifications from other people; they see other things in their feed; they're anxiously clicking everywhere and scrolling. There are a lot of distractions. Also, Facebook simply does not feel like a safe space for a lot of people, and so, I think, for people to feel calm and focused and centered while engaging with the community, moving them off of social media is a great long-term goal. 

SO: However, one of the reasons that I started with a Facebook group and one of the reasons I recommend to some of my clients that it can be a great way to start from scratch is that Facebook's free, and there's a lot of potential audience members already there. It takes a little bit more momentum to build a platform off of Facebook. What I recommend is that, if you want a platform off of Facebook, just make sure that you have an audience somewhere, whether that's your email list or Instagram. It can be any platform, but make sure you already have an established audience that you can pitch that membership to because it does take a little bit more effort and energy to build a platform off of Facebook.

JR: Exactly. I have a client who has a really amazing, lovely Facebook group. They've gotten so much good traction that they're not having to do anything, really, but they're still getting five or 10 new members a day because Facebook has seen people in this group are active and engaging, so it shows this group to more people. You have, in that way, the algorithm working in your favor to bring those members in for you. 

JR: This is a broad generalization, but what I've seen in this conversation about Facebook versus Mighty Networks or another off-Facebook platform is that Facebook tends to be great for quantity of people. If you want to get a large number of people in your group, that's where you want to go. Whereas, and this is kind of what you were saying, with people being way more focused and less distracted in Might Networks, for example, is quality. You're almost always going to have—at least initially—fewer people in Mighty Networks, but the quality of engagement is usually a lot higher from what I've seen.

SO: Absolutely. One of the reasons is because, especially if you're paying for a platform, or even if it's free, if it's a group that you simply really want to be a part of, then you're more proactive and more present in that group. For me, one of the reasons that I love being a part of the Lab, that Digital Nomad Girls group, is because we have these live Zoom chats called hot seats, where we get to go around the circle and pitch our new upcoming program, and then get feedback from the rest of the group. 

SO: There's nowhere on Facebook that that's happening with like-minded entrepreneurs from around the globe. I mean, I can maybe try to do a Live on my Facebook and have people pitching in the comments, but it's not the same as having that face-to-face interaction. 

SO: One of the other pieces I wanted to mention, too, is that it doesn't necessarily have to be a professional network. It can also be a network that is simply one of your passion areas. This is actually how I first got my online business off the ground. I want to put a bug in the ear of the listeners that, when you're out there building virtual community, it doesn't have to always be business-focused, that there's a lot of opportunities for amazing, authentic relationships, whether it's about business or it's about travel, it's about hobbies, so make sure that you're active and engaging with other communities of like-minded people out there.

JR: Yep, actually, just the other day, I did an interview with my good friend Brandon, who is the CEO of a multimillion dollar candle company, and he has really, really leveraged Facebook groups in an amazing way in that his Facebook group is not centered around candles. It's not centered around the product that he's selling. It's centered around one of his values, which is mental health, and it's now one of the largest online mental-health-focused communities in the world. I think it has either 16,000 members or 30,000 members. I can't remember, but he really focused on the interest, the value rather than the product, and I think that's almost exactly what you're talking about here.

SO: Absolutely. One of the reasons that I was able to start building my platform from scratch was because, as I said, I left my corporate career several years ago, and I didn't have a platform because I had spent my whole career working for someone else, so when I became an entrepreneur, it was essentially starting from scratch with my own online platform. One of the first virtual communities that I became a part of was the worldschooling community online, and it changed my life. It changed my business, changed everything, because I joined communities of other moms and other families who wanted to travel the world while homeschooling or unschooling their children. 

SO: That was actually just an interest of mine. It really had nothing to do with my business, but what happened, when I joined all these communities, is that I started meeting other like-minded people. We started talking online, and then I met all these people who had really similar visions, who wanted to be location independent, but also just wanted to be independent in their career and wanted to work online so that they could travel the world. All these moms I met, many of them were single moms like me, and they really inspired me. We just started talking and started exchanging resources, and then all of a sudden, I was building an online business simply because of a woman I met in a worldschooling Facebook group.

JR: Yeah, I think, myself included, it is really easy oftentimes to think about our business or whatever we're offering only in the context of our niche. If I want to sell motorcycles to someone, I'm going to go into Facebook groups that have to do with motorcycles. Well, in reality, people who ride motorcycles don't just have one interest. Their whole being and existence does not revolve around motorcycles. It’s so important to, like you said, remember that your ideal client is a real person; they are a whole person. You really have to start to dig deeper and to put yourself in places that interest you because those places oftentimes have your ideal client in them as well.

SO: Absolutely, and it was from exploring these worldschooling online communities and then the Digital Nomad online communities that I really became established as an online business owner. Again, these were just through interests and passions of mine. I met so many amazing people, the founder of the Digital Nomad Girls community that I'm a part of, and then there was another woman in the online space, who now lives in Asheville where Jacob and I both live, named Esther Inman, and she's the founder of an online course called 90 Day VA. 

SO: She talks a lot about starting an online business, but when I first stumbled upon her page and started following her, she was living in Bali, and I was living in Thailand. We were both working in the online business space and traveling the world with our kids, and now we're both back here in Asheville, so it's pretty awesome that our paths have crossed in so many different ways. All these people really inspired me, but also I just connected with so many amazing people and found so many resources. The possibilities are endless, really, when you start building online relationships. 

SO: One of my staff, my WordPress developer, Sarah, I met her through the Digital Nomad Girls group. Several of my clients have found me through my worldschooling community. People I know through the worldschooling and Digital Nomad space, they refer clients to me. These are some of the connections that I've made, and the way that I've been able to leverage those connections is just to have a relationship. There are no pitches. I'm not trying to sell to these people. I'm just building authentic relationships.

JR: Absolutely. There's a key word that you use in there that I really want to highlight. You said “explore.” You're exploring, and I think that's a really, really important piece to keep in mind because it can be easy to slip into a single-track mindset, where you're so focused on finding one type of connection or one type of relationship. You're looking, say, just for clients. Putting your blinders on can sometimes be helpful, but in this case, it seems to be about keeping that exploratory mindset, being open to finding relationships and connecting with people who you don't initially label as a prospective client, a referral partner, or a potential vendor. It’s about keeping it a little bit more open than that.

SO: Absolutely. That is truly how I have built my business from the ground up: to step into these online spaces to build relationships, and just to keep the possibilities open. One thing I wanted to mention is a tendency that I have seen over the years where, even with referral partners and networking, people have this tendency to want to keep score, if you will. Like, I'll refer you to someone, but then you need to refer me to someone, or I'll offer this discount to you, but I'm expecting a discount from you in the future. That kind of thing.

SO: When I started to notice this happening in the online space, I realized that it really didn't resonate with me at all, so that's something I've really tried to communicate in my classes about networking, community building. Just drop the need for it to be an equal exchange, and just build a relationship and think about it as This person could be my new best friend. This person could be my new client. They could also be my new coworker or colleague. Maybe we'll refer each other to some clients. It doesn't matter. Leave the door open for possibilities and just go into it with an open mind and open heart and let the possibilities unfold.

JR: I've run into that a lot myself, where I have done something for someone which seems small on my side but big to them, and then they came back with, “Okay, what can I do for you?” or, “Would you like me to do this or that?” I appreciate it, and I say, “Yeah, no. Thank you. I really appreciate that, but I just did it to do it.” It's hard, I think, for a lot of people to pull out of that transactional mindset when it comes to relationships and just approach it more along the lines of we're all humans, and we’ve got to help each other out.

SO: Absolutely. If the listeners are tuning in, and if they don't take anything else away from what I would say, the one point I want to drive home is that when I started this platform, I had nothing. I had no following. I had very little money. I was a single mom. I was no one special. And when I launched my agency a little over a year ago, we had a waitlist within a month of launching, and all of those people from my initial launch were from my current network, meaning people that already knew me, people that were already on my social media, people that were already from my community that I built online. 

SO: And recently, I did a poll with my audience, in my Facebook group and with some of my clients. They did a poll, and I just asked everyone else around me, “Hey, how many of your sales come from your current network, as in people that already know you?” 66% of the participants said nearly all of their sales come from their current network, and I said, “You know what? I'm going to check my own sales for the past year,” and 77% of my sales from the last year came from people in my current networks. This is why I'm driving home that it's so important to build these authentic relationships; again, you never know how opportunities will unfold.

JR: That’s really beautiful. I don't know the exact percentage, but I know that if I went and looked and saw what percentage of my sales came from my existing network, it would be around 75%, at least. I definitely want to highlight how important that is. Oftentimes, it's so easy to focus on “Okay, I need to get these new email subscribers, and then a day later, they'll book a call with me, and then the next day, there'll be my client.” That’s usually not how it works.

SO: Exactly. One of the things that I was telling a client the other day is that I've only posted somewhere in the range of three-to-five times in the past year that I was accepting new clients online. I haven't checked recently, but a couple months ago, I think I had 16 or 18 new client consultations booked on my website, and not because I was actually doing anything except engaging with my online community and content marketing, sharing my free workshop, sharing my blog, just sharing free educational content and building community—not pitching any sales, not DMing people, not sending out super salesy newsletters, none of that, because that’s not usually what I do. 

SO: I mean, if I have a launch coming up, if I have an online course or something, then I do have a sales strategy for that, but so much of our clientele and our sales is really from just people in our network that maybe see something I've posted in a Facebook group or read our blog or came to my workshop and said, “You know what? I really want to hire this team.”

JR: With that kind of thinking about this really vibrant online network and community that you've created and are continuing to create, as we wrap up, I'm curious if you could share a little bit about how people can connect with you, how people can connect with your community, and what that would look like for them.

SO: Absolutely. Everyone is welcome to join our free Facebook group. It's called Holistic Digital Marketing Strategies. If you search for it on Facebook, it will pop right up, and I post tons of free educational content there—free blogs, free workshops, all sorts of educational content for inspirational entrepreneurs. In addition, we are launching our own virtual membership called the Lounge, and the doors open June 1, but our waitlist just opened on our website. You can visit, and it's an amazing community. We actually handcrafted and customized this in the backend of my website, so it's totally our own platform, which I'm really excited about. 

SO: It will contain not only business and marketing workshops and professional development and networking opportunities, but we'll also have a full schedule of virtual wellness classes because our vision is to support the whole entrepreneur. As you said, we're all human, and the idea is to not only uplift our inspirational professionals in our network with business, marketing, sales, and that type of educational content, but to also provide them with a lot of resources for work-life balance and emotional and mental health, so that they can really stay focused and calm and centered and thrive as they continue to build their business.

JR: For entrepreneurs, those are always the big two things: what's going to get me results in my business, and how can I take care of myself while I do that? I can speak from experience as well. Those have been the two big things for me and my entire entrepreneurial journey. That's true for a lot of people. 

JR: Thank you so much for joining us. I'm definitely going to stick all those links in the show notes below, so that if you want to check out the Holistic Digital Marketing Strategies Facebook group or check out the Lounge membership community, you can just go down there and click those pretty easily. Sumaya, again, thank you so much. This has been a really, really amazing and insightful conversation.

SO: Absolutely. Thank you so much for hosting me. It was great to chat with you as always.

JR: Absolutely. Thanks to everyone for listening. This has been the Client Attractor Show. I'm your host, Jacob Ratliff, and I look forward to seeing you for our next episode. Take care.

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