Why building an audience first might be bad advice for you
I recently came across this tweet:
A three-step process to starting an online business:
1) Build an audience.
2) Build a product for your audience.
3) Scale the business with plug-and-play software instead of hiring people.
The audience comes first. The product, second.
I've seen hundreds of people do this.— David Perell (@david_perell) January 3, 2020
First things first: I’m sure, David is a great guy. I have nothing against him. He frequently pops up in my Twitter feed with usually good nuggets of internet wisdom, but this one struck me as a little one-sided.
What I didn’t like about it was the fact that he made it look like building an audience first is the only way to start an online business. If you want to succeed, that is. And, on paper it makes a lot of sense.
- get a lot of people interested in you as a person and what you have to say
- ask those people what is missing in their lives or what problems they’re facing
- armed with insights you build a product that solves their pains
- market it to your audience, that is waiting for your solution
This works for some people, as David pointed out. I don’t deny that it’s a powerful way to make a living on the internet. Paul Jarvis does this exceptionally well and there are others with similar success. But, what if you’re not David Perrell, Paul Jarvis or Cal Newport?
Well, then you’re going to have a hard nut to crack.
A few gotchas
There are a few scenarios in which this approach might not work for you.
You might not have a lot to say and creating original content is not your strong suit.
You might end up building the wrong audience.
You might not want to create info products.
Let’s dig into each of these.
It’s hard to create content people want to consume
Building an audience works by putting content out there that people like to consume. It has to be either interesting, novel or dripping with personality. Ideally, of course, it has all three properties.
Surely, you have at least one of those properties. Or do you?
Putting something interesting out there sounds easier than it is. It has to be different from all the other content (at least slightly) and in this day and age, where everybody is flooding the internet with content, it gets harder and harder to do. If you’re simply repeating what everybody else is saying, you’re going to need something else going for you. Hint: personality.
You’re at the bleeding edge of some niche in your day job or hobby? Well, that’s great. You might actually have novel perspectives that your audience will come to you for. If you’re like me; unexciting freelance work, a scrappy side business like so many other people and a hand full of generic hobbies—that are written about to death—you’re going to have a hard time finding anything novel worth talking about.
Lastly, personality is a good way to make something, that’s not novel and not very different from everything else out there, interesting. People would turn to you to provide lighthearted commentary on things they could get from dozens of other sources. Corey Quinn does a great job at this. The thing is, you might not be this witty person, to make that a reality. I feel, non-native speakers have an especially tough time with this. It’s hard for your personality to shine through when you don’t get the nuances of the language right.
The danger of building the wrong audience
When you’re starting out you might be “just writing about stuff you’re interested in,” because this is how you build an audience, isn’t it?
Well, you’re building an audience—maybe. But this audience is around the topics you’re writing about. If you’re writing/talking about gaming, because that’s easiest for you, you better sell them something gaming related down the line. Otherwise you’re missing the whole point.
That means you should 1) know who your audience really is and what they’re interested in and 2) stick to the themes that audience comes to expect of you, religiously. People don’t subscribe to your newsletter if your writing is all over the place. Trust me, I know that for a fact.
What that also means, is, that once you have your audience locked in and growing, you can’t just branch into a different niche and hope to retain most of your followers unless those niches are closely related. I’m not saying you can never go another direction, just that you might not take your entire audience with you on your new journey. The rare exception being celebrities where it’s mostly about them and not specifically what they do. If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re not one.
This is mostly an info product play
This one might be controversial. It’s limited to what I’m seeing around the internets, but my feeling is building an audience first and product second is an approach that—for the most part—seems to work if you’re in the business of building info products. Info products being courses, e-books, workshops, old fashioned books, anything that’s intended to teach.
You might say “But Paul Jarvis built a privacy-respecting analytics tool. Your argument is invalid.” To which I would reply, I doubt he built the product with the learnings from his audience. He first started writing about privacy once his analytics SaaS was well on its way. And even then, I doubt he got a great many signups via his newsletter. Most of his products were, and still are, info products—and that’s perfectly fine.
Building a SaaS or physical product for your audience is by no means off the table, but it doesn’t seem to be the obvious choice once you have built your audience. I’m willing to go out on a limb here and say that the people who built an audience first and after some time decided to make something other than an info-product did so without their audience in mind.
A little bit of confirmation bias?
Coming back to David’s tweet. He said, he’s seen hundreds of people do it successfully which is supposed to show you that this is the way to do it and that you can do it too. What else are you to take away from it other than there’s staggering evidence for this approach?
The fact that he has seen hundreds of people do it sounds massive, but if you put it in perspective it’s not too overwhelming. Hundreds of people, even a couple of thousand are a rounding error with the number of self-employed people at roughly 25 million in the US alone That’s right, we’re talking about less than 0.01%. Even less, if you look at it globally.
Again, this is a proven way, if you’re the kind of person who can build an audience and monetise your writing or speaking this way.
What’s working for me
I, for example, have a hard time sticking to one topic on my blog. I’m writing about things that interest me or that I want to experiment with (e.g. writing posts that are only supposed to rank on Google). That’s why my articles are all over the place and I didn’t manage to build an audience as a result. I can’t get myself to stick to just one topic and I think info-products are not my cup of tea, so I simply don’t bother.
How am I making a living, then?
I have two major income streams. One is my freelance work / consulting. This is where most of the money comes from. The other thing is a SaaS business, that I’m running. It’s making much less than the consulting.
Now, the interesting thing is I landed on both through my network. You see, I make an effort to connect, and—most importantly—stay connected with people. It just comes naturally. My consulting gigs almost exclusively come from my network and they have for the past 10 years. The SaaS business came from a friend of mine, who gave me the idea and a customer who desperately needed it.
Obviously, I’m not telling you to ask your friends for business ideas and clients. I just want to show you that a network can be leveraged and increase your optionality, just as much as an audience—maybe even more. But only if you’re the kind of person who likes meeting new people and stays in touch with them.
I’m not bashing on the audience first approach. Not at all. What it has going for it is the fact that you’re not building products in a vacuum with no clue if anybody is willing to pay money for them. Nothing is worse than making a thing and then scrambling to find people to sell it to. However, building an audience first is not the only way to avoid that.
You can just as well do freelance work in that niche and pick up on problems you’re facing there. Then, sell it to your clients and others like them.
You can go to trade shows and meet-ups and chat with potential customers and see what their pains are. If you already have a product idea, use The Mom Test to find out if the idea has merit.
You could build small experiments and do direct sales.
You could jump on a new platform and build products that were already popular on an older platform. (e.g. taking successful WooCommerce plugins to Shopify when it was still new)
Or, you could start an affiliate marketing website; no audience required.
What I’m trying to say is this. Don’t fret if you’re not the person who is capable of pumping out blog posts and podcast episodes on a constant basis. There are a bunch of other approaches to business. Building an audience first is just one of them.
P.S. Don’t sign up for my newsletter. I have never sent one; there’s only three people on it anyway. You’d be disappointed if I wrote about something entirely different next and bug you about it. I, in turn, get to live in peace. Not having to worry about sending newsletters.