In 2009, Chris Bonnello learned that he was on the autism spectrum. At the time, he was working as a primary school teacher and did his best to keep things quiet while he processed everything. But as time went on, he realized that traditional classroom teaching wasn’t his calling. As he explored new employment options in early 2015, he started a blog: “Autistic Not Weird” and its accompanying Facebook page.
“My diagnosis was very much a secret between me and the people who absolutely had to know while I was teaching. So obviously, the natural next step was to tell the whole internet,” he joked.
The purpose of his website was to share his experience both as a member of the autism community and as a primary school educator. The result was Chris’ down-to-earth, relatable writing that educated newcomers to the community.
As it grew, Chris supported himself with a part-time, “boring filing job” and his work as a special needs tutor. To his surprise, his page was rapidly shared around Facebook; after just one month, he had 1,000 followers. By the end of 2015, he had amassed 10,000 followers.
Today, his Facebook page hosts more than 82,000 followers.
Here’s how his monthly site visits look in comparison.
Over time, Chris leveraged his online success to become an international autism speaker and even an author (his book, What We Love Most About Life, compiles the outlook and opinions of 150 young people with autism). He even left his desk job behind thanks to the support of fans on Patreon.
In our discussion, Chris shared nine tips for building an audience on Facebook (without sacrificing your ideals in the process).
- April 2015: Launch of autisticnotweird.com
- May 2015: 1,000 followers.
- Aug 2015: First radio appearance.
- Dec 2015: 10,000 followers.
- Nov 2016: What We Love Most About Life is published.
- Dec 2016: Started Patreon page.
- Mar 2017: Website passed 1,000,000 page hits.
- Apr 2017: 50,000 followers.
- July 2017: Quit part-time job to focus on Autistic Not Weird.
- Nov 2017: Won “Top Journalism Award” for autism advocacy at the Autism Hero Awards.
- Apr 2018: First international speaking engagement (Sydney Opera House).
Note: Want to offer membership to your followers? Try Patreon.
“Everything you do needs to be genuine,” Chris emphasized. “The internet is full of pages that simply exist to get their follower counts as high as possible. People are savvy enough to know the difference between pages that just want followers and pages that have something to say.”
If you want your page to grow by reputation, as Chris’ did, each post needs to be appropriate for your desired audience. Chris believes his page was so successful in part because of the topic (“Everyone knows someone who is impacted in some way by autism,” he explained), but also because he was unafraid to be himself. “It was me writing unashamedly from a personal perspective as well as giving my professional perspective as a teacher,” he said.
His readers could tell. The content he put out was thoughtful, respectful, and relevant. If he were simply churning out posts related in some way to autism, his following wouldn’t be nearly as engaged as it is now.
In addition, authenticity matters just as much in managing his Facebook page as it does when he’s writing content. “Communities tend to follow the attitudes of their leaders. If you have a community leader who doesn't particularly care if people argue with each other, you'll get a community that argues. And if you get a community leader that is sincere and approachable, that tends to attract sincere, approachable followers,” he explained.
Want people to engage with and share your content? Make good content. It sounds simple, but in the glut of Facebook pages and groups, content quality is often overlooked in favor of quantity. Chris recommends using the following rule-of-thumb:
“Make sure that your content doesn't just benefit those in your community’s inner circle, but can also be accessible to those outside your community,” he shared.
In his case, that means drawing in people who aren’t part of the autistic community, those who were recently diagnosed, family members of autistic individuals, and more. He aims to make his content beneficial, written in a way that anyone can understand it.
“If it takes a week to publish a really good article, then I’d rather do that then spend a day writing an article that is simply okay. I do a lot of drafting and redrafting because there's so much variety of experience and perspectives in the autism community. There's lots of arguing going on in the autism community as a result of people having vastly different perspectives, often about very emotive topics. I try to make it as accessible to as many people as possible, including those who may disagree with me,” he explained.
From a mechanics perspective, it’s helpful to know what type of content people prefer to consume. According to Chris’ experience, the most popular format is pictures, followed by videos, and then links.
He often uses photos to share a sentiment and start a discussion, such as when he shared what schooling method is best for children with autism:
He tactfully answered a common question his audience has, while putting it in a format that was easy for them to engage within the comments and share. And when he needs to share an article, he makes sure that his post has a good feature image that will be attached along with the link.
Creating awesome content consistently isn’t easy. Chris finds it helpful to consider the question, “What impact do I want to have?”
Then, he writes around that goal. Perhaps he wants to help people understand that it’s OK not to be “normal.” Perhaps he wants parents to know that there’s more than one option for educating their children (and that it’s a good thing to have options). Whatever the goal is, it’s easier to craft a thoughtful piece once he knows what that piece is intended to achieve.
It’s a method that stems from his training as a teacher—crafting a good lesson plan involves knowing what objectives you want to accomplish during that time. Likewise, he’s able to work backwards from what he wants to achieve to the actual words he uses to achieve it.
Chris never thought of himself as a “positive” person until he heard from fans—over, and over again—about how much they appreciated his positivity.
Sometimes, people in the autism community focus exclusively on the ‘bad’ without stopping to encourage or build up others on the spectrum. Chris takes a different approach. While he acknowledges the difficulties that those on the spectrum face, he also works to build them up and help ‘neurotypical’ people better understand them.
He often posts commentaries (such as the one below) that both educate and uplift the members of his audience.
Is he sometimes criticized for his approach? Of course! You can’t please everyone on the internet. But he’s been overwhelmed by how grateful his fans are that he stays positive and works to help everyone understand the real human beings behind the ASD label.
“I'm very honest. Sometimes it sucks being autistic, sometimes it's completely awesome. I think it's helped a lot of people that the tone of the discussion has been one of positivity and hope whilst not ignoring the challenges, rather than spreading a message of doom and gloom,” he said.
While this tip may not work for every niche, the idea of lifting up the people around you resonates with many audiences.
Chris enjoys meeting page owners from other groups in his niche, and recommends doing so to anyone who starts a page.
“It's helped a lot that I'm not alone in the autism community. There are lots of other people who have their own pages. It’s good not just for building friendships with new people; pages can also help each other out and share each other's content,” he explained.
It’s like networking for a job, but with less pressure: most page owners respond quickly to Facebook messages, and they’re often eager to meet others in their niche.
When Chris hit about 10,000 followers on Facebook, he realized that he was spending more time responding to messages and moderating comments than he was producing content. Messaging was taking up all of his free time.
It’s a tricky balance that all page owners face as their pages grow. Responsiveness and availability are key to growing an authentic, engaged community. People like to interact with a real human being. But where do you draw the line?
Since he was holding down the filing job, tutoring children with special needs, volunteering with the Boy’s Brigade (similar to the Boy Scouts), AND pursuing his master’s degree—all in addition to his work with Autistic Not Weird—something had to give. As it turned out, Chris didn’t have to cut back on messaging so much as he needed to cut back on the other things in his life (like the boring, part-time job that paid his bills).
For that, he started a Patreon page. Fans of Autistic Not Weird gained membership benefits and supported Chris’ work so that he could quit his filing job and spend more time on them (which he did, six months after starting his Patreon campaign).
By finding a way to fund his work with Autistic Not Weird, Chris was able to make room in his schedule for more content and more interactions with his fans.
If you want to ask your fans for money, make sure they know why you’re asking and what they get in return.
“My Patreon adventure has never really been about getting more money. It's been about getting more time because I was making just as much money as I had six months earlier, except suddenly I was spending three days a week writing content for Autistic Not Weird and helping autistic people and answering questions. Suddenly I had more hours to spare and it was a lot less stressful,” he recalled.
So when he launched the Patreon, he made sure to explain why he was setting it up and tell his supporters about his goal to replace his income from his part-time job.
When he surveyed patrons about why they decided to support him, he learned that rewards were secondary (although not without consequence). The most important thing was that his patrons believed in him and the work he does. Supporting him financially was just the next step.
The transition wasn’t without hiccups, though. When he announced that his Patreon campaign replaced his part-time job, a number of supporters dropped their pledges, thinking they weren’t needed anymore.
“That was the time for me to be totally open and honest with my community,” Chris recounted. “I said I wasn’t going to blame anyone for withdrawing their support since it’s entirely their choice and their choice alone. But I explained the situation I was in, and that if I’d known this was in my future, I wouldn’t have handed in my notice as quickly as I did.”
“The community evidently realized I was having quite a considerable wobble, because in the following days I went from around $511/mo to $700/mo. That was largely people who didn't want me to lose out financially because I was leaving my job in order to support the autism community for a living. And that wouldn't have happened were I not honest with them about my situation,” he added.
One of the best consequences of Chris’ Patreon campaign (aside from being able to spend more time on Autistic Not Weird, of course) was the creation of a private Facebook group just for patrons.
“The private group, which is available to literally everyone for $1/mo, is almost unanimously viewed as by far the best reward available on my Patreon. And the reason for that is because it's a much smaller, intimate group that's made up entirely of people who will take the extra step to support an autistic person who wants to advocate for other autistic people,” he explained.
“That's helped me personally as well because the people who support me are more than just people who give me a certain amount of money each month in exchange for rewards. There's a very real community built around my patron group; even in the conversations that I'm not the least bit involved in, everyone supports each other. Everyone's gotten to know each other and, with no exaggeration, it’s the friendliest place I've ever seen on the Internet,” he added.
The group gives him emotional support as well as being a great testing bed for his ideas. They’re happy to provide feedback on his plans and help him grow Autistic Not Weird organically.
For his last piece of advice, Chris shared how he plans for the future.
“Think about the ‘What ifs,’ including the question, ‘What if this is even more successful than I planned?’ What happens if suddenly, overnight, a thousand people sign up for the monthly Skype level? Make sure what you offer is something that you can keep up with, even if it becomes amazingly successful,” he said.
Having a contingency plan for when things go exceptionally well or really poorly helps Chris manage the emotional and mental component that comes with being in charge of Autistic Not Weird.
Given the nature of Chris’ work, there is a heavy emotional toll associated with his efforts. He believes that any page manager will, to some extent, feel the way he does. Three times he’s been told that his work saved the life of another person with autism; that’s a lot to take in.
Some of his Patreon income now goes to a monthly therapy session, which he uses to ensure that he’s meeting his community’s needs without sacrificing his mental health (and his patrons LOVE that they’re funding the sessions).
As a parting message, he shared what “neurotypical” people can do if they’d like to be more inclusive of people who are on the spectrum.
“Learning about autism and how it affects people is a fantastic thing to do, but it can never be a substitute for learning about the person. The way that autism impacts me can be profoundly different from the way it impacts someone else.
Don't be afraid of asking questions, but ask them diplomatically and allow the other person to answer those questions on their terms. Make sure they're able to comfortably express themselves without the fear of being judged, because one very common part of the autism experience is the feeling that you're being judged by pretty much everyone else for not being normal or not experiencing the world in the ‘correct way.’
Those are the main two things: listen to people and respect that autistic people are individuals as well,” he said.*
Note: Feeling inspired by Chris’ success? Try Patreon.