Four hard truths about growing an audience

Sure, people want to hear from me about strategy.

But, if I’m honest, I know there’s a sizeable minority – perhaps even a majority – who really want to hear about how I went from 0 to 70,000 followers in 5 months.

It’s understandable, because in our current climate you’re sometimes made to feel that you can’t be successful without playing the content game.  Even if you’re a salaried employee there’s somehow an expectation that you need to be a minor celebrity in order to get ahead.

Until recently, this pressure to be “social-media-famous” was only thought to be present among teenagers who had grown up on Instagram.  I remember the hand-wringing that occurred when “influencer” became the number 1 thing kids wanted to be when they grew up.

Oh how we laughed, us “grown ups” who knew better.  But that was before these very same forces crept into the business world, and we started to wake up to what the teens have known for some time:

Audience is power.

The evidence in my case as a “consultant” is pretty stark:

  • I’ve probably gone from one enquiry per month, to one enquiry per day
  • I am now able to sell product (e.g. my book) in addition to advice
  • I’ve gone from chasing media attention (unsuccessfully) to it chasing me
  • And suddenly, miraculously, giant blue chip brands are knocking at my door, not just indies

Not gonna lie, it’s been pretty great.

But here’s the thing: you already knew that.  There’s a whole industry of people out there peddling the benefits of the game, and helping you excel at it.  And to be honest I have nothing to add to what they say, except this:

A dose of realism.

What most people won’t tell you are the hard truths about growing an audience.  The grimy dirty secrets which nobody seems to acknowledge, but which you need to know before embarking on this journey.

I don’t earn money by telling people how to do this.  I have no aspiration to pivot to being a “creator economy” expert.  I couldn’t care less if you decide to start posting or not.  And that’s why I can be honest with you, and lay out the slightly depressing facts as I’ve come to see them.

Here are my 4 hard truths about growing an audience.

I. If your buyers aren’t interested in your field, don’t bother

This is an insanely simple principle, which is hugely influential, but I’ve never seen anyone talk about it.  Put simply:

  • If your buyers are interested in your topic, you can grow an audience
  • If they aren’t, then you can’t

You see the issue for many people is that the thing they are selling is inherently uninteresting to their target customers.  They might need it, sure.  But this doesn’t mean they’re going to want to consume content about it, or follow some “guru” in the space.

They just want to get in and out of the market as quickly and painlessly as possible.

In such cases growing a profitable audience is extremely hard, because you’ll never be able to attract and hold the attention of buyers.  You might be able to build an audience of peers (other practitioners in your space) – but unless you’re going to sell them training products or something this won’t necessarily be monetisable.

This is why this game is best played by people who are selling something their buyers are casually interested in.  Where they would be prepared to read about it “for fun”, even when they aren’t in the purchase moment.

We shouldn’t forget that building an audience is not a panacea for all business types – it is in fact a niche marketing technique which is perfect for a few, but useless for others; just like SEO, or affiliate marketing, or TV advertising.

What is right for you is wholly dependent on what you’re selling.

II. If it feels like hard work, it won’t work

As you are probably aware, building an audience is a volume game.  You’ve got to put a lot of stuff out there in order to get traction and refine your voice.

What you are perhaps less aware of is the implication of this in terms of how you spend your days.  Quite simply, you need to spend a shit tonne of time churning out material.

Now, considering that this stuff is incremental to most people’s jobs, this means realistically that you’re going to have to squeeze it in at the edges.  You probably can’t dedicate half your time to it.  And that means you’re going to have to be fast.

Insanely fast.

The speed required means that you’ll only be able to succeed if there is a form of content creation that comes totally naturally to you, and that you’d enjoy doing for its own sake.

Indeed this is a general strategic principle: any business gets leverage from the things that it finds easy which other people find hard.  I find writing easier than the average person, so it’s a source of leverage for me.  But if the same thing isn’t true for you, then it’s extremely unlikely you’re going to be able to outcompete others at the writing game.

Now that’s OK, maybe there’s another skill where you do have leverage.  If so, lean into that.  What that thing “is” matters far less than it being something that feels effortless to you.

One things for sure, if you find the process hard, then you’ll find the results near impossible.

III. You must be prepared to kill your old self

The entire content creation process is one ongoing negotiation: between you, and the audience.

What you want to create and what they want to consumer are not the same things, and the only way you’ll get traction is to find an accommodation between the two.

If you focus too much on what you’re interested in, it will come off as uninteresting and self-indulgent.  And if you focus too much on what they want it will end up being generic clickbaity trash (“steal these secrets!” etc.).

Success only lies in the middle; where you identify the parts of your unique voice which happen to strike a chord with the market.

(Again, this is a general strategic principle that applies to all business endeavours).

Going through this negotiation will hurt.  Being real, you will have to change who you are.  You will have to shave off the parts of yourself that don’t have “market potential”, leaving only the high value sauce.

The good news however is that when you come out the other side of it, I think you will end up more authentic, not less.  The stuff you chip away will often be the inauthentic parts of yourself that you were using as a shield, rather than the stuff that’s really “you”.

This doesn’t make it any more pleasant, but it does at least mean that you don’t have to sell your soul.

IV. Even if you do everything right, you might still fail

OK, a real black pill opinion here, some may disagree, but it’s my experience:

When all’s said and done, success will come down to luck.

It all kicked off for me last August when I had one single viral Linkedin post which got me around 20,000 followers by itself.  Where would I be without that break?  Where would I be if I’d even published that same post on a different day, or if the early pattern of engagements had been slightly different and the algo hadn’t decided to back it?

It’s hard to say.

I’m sure that if I’d continued in the same vein I would still have recorded decent growth, and ended up with a solid based – but then without that single piece of encouragement, would I have even bothered?  Or would I have put in only half the effort, figuring that the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze?

Counter factuals which can’t be proved, but you see my point.  I needed that break not only from a numbers perspective, but a psychological one too.

And it easily may not have happened.

Bottom line here is that the results aren’t guaranteed.  Success isn’t distributed “fairly”, but rather is dependent on a number of factors far beyond your control.  Yes, I made my own luck, through strategy, volume, and constant improvement.  But that doesn’t change the fact that I did get lucky.

This is why you have to be careful of comparing your results with others.  The person with a million followers isn’t necessarily 1000x “better” than the person with a thousand.  The dice are responsible for a huge amount of that gap.


So that’s my take.

Are these points irrefutable?  Possibly not.  Perhaps people who are more expert in the game would disagree, and I’d be open to that.

But they are at least half true.  And I think they need to be discussed, in order to temper some of the hype out there.

The question now is: are you put off?

If so, maybe I’ve done you a favour.  There are so many other ways of getting leverage that there’s no sense in getting fixated on this one path if it’s not precisely right for you.

But if you’re still keen, and the above doesn’t concern you?  Then that’s a good sign.

Perhaps you are ready.

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