Want to build a community around your personal brand? It starts with sharing the PIE.

Share the PIE – 3 Steps to Building a Community Around Your Personal Brand

Which comes first, the community or the brand? Or can they perhaps develop together organically? To answer that question, we dive into an unusual branding success story.

The Surprising Success of the Internet Monk

Michael Spencer was the last person you’d expect to have a powerful personal brand. The “Internet Monk” – as he called himself – was a country preacher who taught at a private Baptist school in the backwoods of the 3rd poorest county in America. He was an evangelical, backwoods hick with male pattern baldness and a weird accent.

He was the polar opposite of hip, the very antithesis of cool.  

And yet, Michael Spencer was “internet famous” before that even became a thing.  His personal brand as The Internet Monk was one of the first and biggest in the early internet age. And his brand was intimately connected with the community he created.

Back in early 2001, Michael started a blog called The Boar’s Head Tavern,  (or “The BHT.”)  At the height of his influence, Michael Spencer’s blog boasted hundreds of thousands of visitors a month.  

As the BHT grew in reach and influence, every phrase Michael published online was scrutinized, analyzed, dissected, criticised and quoted.  He was admired, reviled, fought with, deconstructed and hero-worshipped.

He’s been gone almost a decade now, (cancer cut his life short in 2010), but the legend of the Internet Monk lives on. There’s even a website called internetmonk.com that was inspired by his life and legacy.

That – my friends – is what a powerful personal brand looks like.

So the question for us is simple. How did Michael Spencer build one of the earliest successful online personal brands?

And – more to the point of this article – how did he build such a powerful community?

The answer? By sharing the same PIE.

No, really!

This PIE is not the kind that has a hot fruit filling. Let me explain.

Sharing the Same PIE

PIE is an acronym that stands for “Pain, Interest, Expectation.”

These three categories of experience are all time-based. Pain looks back at the past. Interest focuses on the present. Expectation directs its gaze into the future.

People who share a common past, a common present and common future won’t just become a community – they already are a community and just don’t know it yet.

The people who contributed to the BHT and made it an extraordinary online community all shared a common pain, a common interest and a common expectation.

Michael Spencer was the first to give voice to this shared PIE. The people who came together to create the community also shared that PIE. Michael was the leader of the community because he was the first one to articulate the pain, interest and expectation. The courage he expressed by speaking about his PIE gave others to courage to join his community. And they in turn propelled his personal brand to heights he never imagined.

The Role of Shared Pain

Pain is the universal constant. All humans experience pain. However, we feel even more connected to people who have experienced the same type of pain.

Cancer survivors relate instantly to other cancer survivors. Breast cancer survivors feel stronger a sense of kinship with other breast cancer survivors than with other sorts of cancer survivors. Breast cancer survivors who went through chemotherapy feel more connection with fellow survivors who went through chemotherapy than with breast cancer survivors who did not.

The more specific the pain we share, the more we feel a kinship with those who experienced that specific pain.

Shared pain draws people together. Nothing else has that sort of power. I’ve watched for years now as my uncle – a Vietnam war veteran – instantly creates strong emotional connections with fellow vets. Their shared pain transcends politics, religion and ethnicity.

(This is an important point: pain transcends beliefs.)

What You Must Do: For your community to coalesce, you must clearly identify the One Big Pain you share. For the members of the BHT, that big pain was “being a christian is hard and doesn’t make any sense sometimes.”

Now that you know you all have shared the same pain, what do you think about it?

The Role of Shared Interest

Pain is the catalyst that draws people together. But is it enough to bind them together once they have connected?

You’d think shared pain would be powerful enough to bind people together. It isn’t though. Shared pain will get the conversation started. But pain is in the past. And the past is a lousy foundation for building anything today. You need more. You need a shared interest.

At the BHT, we were all interested in how we could be “Christian” and still maintain our intellectual integrity. So much of being Christian seemed to fly in the face of reason, logic and science. And we all were interested in being reasonable, logical and – as much as we knew how – scientific.

What You Must Do: Ask yourself, “what am I interested in right now?” Remember, an interest has to do with the present. So your interest should be right now oriented. What answers do you want right now? Is that the same thing your customer wants right now? Articulate the common interest shared by all your customers and you will be perceived as a leader. You don’t even have to be an expert as long as you are the one with the courage to articulate the right now interest.

The Purpose of Shared Expectation

What is it we hope for in the future? At the BHT, we hoped to find our way to a form of Christianity that more accurately fit our (admittedly ideal) beliefs. We wanted the “IS” of our Future to conform to our “OUGHT” of the Present.

Your customers will have hopes for the future. In the same way that you articulate their Interests for the Present, you can give voice to their Expectation of the Future.

Hope is one of the most powerful emotions. Harness hope, and you can accomplish almost anything. But abuse hope, and people will never forgive you.

Like Fox Mulder, people want to believe. You do not have to be their Savior; you don’t have to deliver anything in terms of your shared Expectation. All you have to do is be One of Them. Your hope is their hope. Their hope is yours. You are striving towards it together.

What You Must Do: You’ll be tempted to make promises about the future if only people will buy your product or service. Do this and you will torpedo any chance you had to build a community. Do Not Sell. Instead, simply be the person with the courage to articulate your hope for the future. Speaking about your hope for the future has a magnetic – almost magical – attraction to people. They will be unable to resist the attraction they feel towards you.

A warning: A subset of potential community members will hate you rather than love you. If you get a lot of hate, you are probably “doing it right.”


What is the Purpose of Your Personal Brand Community?

Why even bother to build a community around your personal brand?

This question is both simple and deceptive.

You don’t create a community to promote your personal brand. (Although that will happen.)

You do build a community around your personal brand so you can share the PIE.

Now, there’s a happy by-product that comes with sharing the PIE. When you are the person who creates the community, the person who first gave voice to this Pain, these Interests and this Expectation, then your status will be raised.

You become the go-to expert.

People won’t join this sort of community to solve a problem. If you get into problem-solving mode, you’ll scare people off.

No, people join a community like this because they want to be around people who experienced the same pains, share the same interests and hold the same expectations for the future.

In other words – the purpose of such a community is the experience of community.

Community turns customers into advocates. Advocates spark word-of-mouth marketing, which bring more people into the community. It is a virtuous circle.

And when you are the leader, they will purchase anything you create. Don’t take my word for it, though.

“A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce. These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing; they will buy the hardback and paperback and audible versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine sight unseen; they will pay for the “best-of” DVD version of your free youtube channel; they will come to your chef’s table once a month. If you have roughly a thousand true fans like this (also known as super fans), you can make a living…”

Kevin Kelly
1000 True Fans


So, how do you intentionally create a community around your personal brand? Share those three elements with your audience.

Anyone with similar Pain, similar Interests and similar Expectations will almost magically find themselves identifying with your community.


(I became a contributor to the BHT in mid 2001 and was an active contributor for years. That’s why I know how it worked.)


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