Building online community, one like at a time

How two St. Paul's students are reaching digital audiences

Most of us use social media to connect with our networks and to consume interesting content, but some members of the St. Paul’s community have figured out how to use social media platforms to build online communities and to influence very large digital audiences.

We can all cite examples of famous or powerful people using social media to further amplify their celebrity status or their messages. But what about those content creators and online influencers who are not famous in real life? How do ordinary people build online audiences on platforms that are already dominated by the Drakes, Trumps or Kardashians of the world?

With those questions in mind, we recently interviewed Jenna Phillips and Jacob Toldi, two St. Paul’s students – who are successfully building online community, one like at a time – to gain their insight.   

Jenna Phillips peeksout from behind a treeJenna is starting her 4th year of Environment, Resource, and Sustainability and is excited to begin her first term as a Don in September. She has been heavily involved in the St. Paul’s community since she lived with us in her first year. In her second year she was a peer-leader in the Environment Living-Learning Community and was the GreenHouse community animator.

Jenna began writing about climate change in a personal blog before coming to university, but expanded her online platform which she calls Clear the Air, while she participated in GreenHouse as an innovator in residence.

Clear the Air produces blog posts and podcasts featuring interviews with subject matter experts with an emphasis on educating, inspiring and mobilizing youth to take action on climate change.

Jacob Toldi is a recent graduate of Geography and Environmental Management. Like Jenna, Jacob was also very involved with the St. Paul’s community since living at the college in his first year. Jacob Toldi

Although he lived off campus for 2 years, he became close friends with many dons and often came back to participate in the life of the college through various clubs and activities. During his final year, Jacob decided to take as much in at St. Paul’s as he could, and became an upper-year fellow and peer-leader while finishing up his studies.

During all of that, Jacob somehow found the time to become a TikTok star. His recently certified account @jtolds2 has been liked 7 million times and currently boasts 315,000 followers. Since launching the account in 2018, his 220 or so posts have been viewed well over 30 million times.

Finding their niches

With Jenna and Jacob each having so much going on as actively engaged and successful students, we wanted to know how they got started in the social media space and managed to build their online communities.

Both said they began by conducting research, completing scans of the online platforms looking for their target audiences. Once they identified a niche in the digital sphere, they were able to expand their platforms from there.

Jenna Phillips speaks to an audience in front of a white board

Jenna noticed that few platforms in Canada are youth focused, or more specifically, that there are few examples of youth publishing about their own personal experiences to spur action on climate change. She also noticed that the majority of climate change research was written for academic purposes, and was often inaccessible to youth. Jenna knew that she could develop and expand an audience base if she focused on this underdeveloped area, by sharing the knowledge of experts in accessible blog posts and podcasts.

Similarly, Jacob was able to find his niche on TikTok, when he noticed that no one had posted a stop motion video. He never intended to become TikTok famous but when Jacob posted his first stop motion video of a lamp moving on a desk, it quickly generated over 2 million likes! This video not only started a new TikTok stop motion trend, but it had the effect of quickly increasing his fan base and viewership for his other video posts.

Building and maintaining an audience 

After finding their niche, Jenna and Jacob continued to navigate the digital sphere by building and maintaining their audience and increasing their online presence. They both continuously test their audience to see what content they like and what gets them the most traction on social media.

As expressed by Jacob “you have to find out what people like, and what types of content they are gravitating towards”. To do so, he posts different videos, and checks his comments and number of likes to determine what content is getting the most traction.

Jenna also tests her audience by posting varied content, with no specific audience subset in mind. She calls it the “Harry Potter method”, relating it to how J.K. Rowling did a great job of writing a novel that spoke to a wide variety of people, thus increasing her readership and fan-base.

Both Jacob and Jenna agree that in order to keep audiences engaged you must post original content often, but they also caution that posting too often may result in the audience feeling like they are being spammed. It is important they say, to regularly monitor follower comments and account analytics to get the correct balance.

Responding to negative feedback with kindness

Jacob Toldi and two other students wearing Waterloo Warriors gearIt’s no secret that social media has a dark side. Spammers, trolls and others who take advantage of online anonymity have been known to cause serious harm. We wanted to know if Jenna and Jacob have encountered anything like this and if so how they deal with it.

Not surprisingly, both said that they have received negative feedback, but that it has less impact and becomes easier to deal with over time. People may be inclined to hold off on sharing negative comments in person, but online, Jacob said “many people feel confident to speak their minds”. Jenna shared an example of when she posted about being a vegetarian and ended up being criticized for not being vegan.

Both agreed that it is best not to get angry and instead they try to respond with some sort of positive twist, even when the comment is negative. For example, when Jacob receives negative comments he responds by saying “thank you for your feedback, I will consider changing x…”. Jenna adds some great advice: “if you get negative feedback, you have to realize that those are not the people who will support what you’re doing, follow you, or see you as a role model. You need to focus on the positive!”

We were thrilled when Jenna and Jacob both mentioned that their roles as peer-leader at St. Paul’s helped them learn how to cope with social problems and to respond to individuals with kindness and understanding!

The pandemic age

As we remain in the midst of the pandemic, we wanted to know what affect the ‘new normal’ has had on their platforms. For Jenna, the pandemic resulted in several cancellations of conferences, workshops and events she planned on attending in order to develop more collaborative content. It has also allowed her more time to develop an inventory of interviews and digital content because more people are willing to “jump on a call”.

For Jacob, the pandemic has resulted in an increase in followers and views, simply because more people are online. With a little less effort required to grow his audience Jacob has found a little more time to be with his family and enjoy the outdoors.

What’s next?

Jenna Phillips seated on a stage with other panelistsJenna is currently completing a co-op placement with the Faculty of Environment and will be entering her fourth year of undergraduate studies this fall. She has been keeping very busy interviewing experts for her podcast and writing content for her blog, she hopes that what she learns at future conferences can be incorporated into online workshops offered through the Clear the Air platform. We may even see some sustainable DIY products sold by this environmental advocate in the near future!

Jacob on the other hand will attend Fleming College this fall to study in the Ecosystem Management and Technician program. Although he enjoys making TikTok videos and entertaining people on social media, he places his passion for the environment ahead of his online fame. He hopes to work with endangered species in the future, specifically in an area that will allow him to explore how humans and wildlife can sustain themselves in the face of habitat loss and ecosystem destruction.

Good luck Jenna and Jacob – we all look forward to following your journeys.