“Audience-First” Is Not Just “Building an Audience”

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We live in overly practical times. More and more entrepreneurs have been conditioned to look for the quick fix, the growth hack that will get them months’ worth of success within a single day. Many founders are looking for immediately actionable tactics, ignoring the long-term strategies in which those should be embedded.

That approach has resulted in skewed perceptions of concepts, and definitions have been muddled. The term “audience” has suffered this fate, and I want to offer a fresh perspective on the term and the entrepreneurial strategy that relies on it: the “audience-first” approach.

Right now, “audience-first” is mostly used to describe the strategy of building a following before you build a product. The audience here is an actual audience as you’d imagine them at a rock concert: a group of people, eagerly listening to the artist on stage, approving of the performance of the music they love to hear, spending money on tickets and merchandising. They are consumers, targets of a one-directional service. The rock star stands on stage, performs his magic, and their audience cheers and sings along with songs that only the virtuoso musician can perform.

Translated into business terms, this is understood to mean that you need to drum up a large group of people first to build a successful business. You’re supposed to get them onto an email list or have them assemble around you on social media. Then, at some nebulous point in the future, will you be able to sell them whatever you want.

And that is where the approach often is completely misunderstood. “Audience-first” doesn’t mean that you should “build an audience first”; it means that you should “build with and build for an audience first.” It’s not just that one actionable step of building a following. It’s much more than that.

Of course, building a following first is a great start. It definitely will help you sell things later on. But suppose you’re trying to sell the wrong things. In that case, you’re just ending up with another version of the product-first approach that leaves many entrepreneurs disillusioned and disappointed: if you build something that no one needs, it doesn’t matter how large your Twitter following is. People won’t buy it. A few might because they want to support you. But it won’t turn into a sustainable business.

That’s the problem with a product-first approach. If you have a great idea, you start building, and only later ask who this could be for and who would buy it, you’re front-loading all the risk and delaying all the validation. You build your product for months, only to find out within a few days that a couple of sincere and honest phone calls could have shown you that you’re solving a problem that people would never budget for.

It is validation that lies at the heart of the true meaning of “audience-first.” It’s not enough to gather people around you. You also need to talk to them from the start. Continuous validation needs to occur on every level, over the lifetime of your business. Is their problem still critical? Does your solution still provide the value they need? Does your audience even have this problem still? Do you have to react to changes in the industry?

And it is here where the rock concert definition of an audience falls short: a concert is a performance, a product. It doesn’t involve talking to the audience. It’s talking at an audience. Talking at people is the hallmark of the product-first approach, which yielded massive numbers of products that don’t solve real problems for real people. If you have built something that few people want, you need to market your product heavily, and you need to spend outrageous amounts of money on paid advertising, trying to stuff your work into someone’s path.

The audience-first approach does not require heavy after-the-fact marketing pushes. Start by understanding your audience as a group of people you want to empower. The audience comes first. Their needs come first. Their problems come first. Your idea, your solutions, your products, they come second.

If you approach building a business like that, it offers you the opportunity of figuring out your audience’s actual problems without assuming anything. When you observe their communities, engage with them there, and ask questions, you will soon understand their challenges and roadblocks. Those are the things they need help with, and they’re most likely to pay for solutions to those problems. Your “great idea” can wait until you have truly understood the problem space of any particular audience.

Your idea is a result, not the starting point. Going “audience-first” means giving up the belief that you know best. It means that once you have selected an audience you want to support with your business, you need to do research and validate your findings every step of the way. This will take time and serious effort.

Building a following is also an essential part of this, but by no means does it cover the full extent of an audience-first approach. If you genuinely care to empower and serve your audience, you have to involve them from the start. Instead of looking at your audience as a group of fans that you can sell something to, consider them to be people you truly want to help and empower. Consider them to be friends, people you care about, people you want to connect with. People you can talk to, and more importantly, listen to.

A sustainable business is built on strong relationships. These relationships are built on trust; something won’t be able to establish with paid advertising. People will try your product, some might stay, but many will not. Trust is a result of genuine connection. By being part of your audience, by becoming a subject matter expert within their communities, you will be able to build that reputation. This will happen slowly, over time. It can not be rushed, no matter how many growth-hacks you’re encouraged to execute. You can’t build a meaningful relationship with hundreds or thousands of people within a day.

Relationships that are based on trust are bidirectional. Again, the rock concert definition falls short here. No musician can know all of their fans. But you can know your customers. Embed yourself in their communities, become one of the tribe, and connect with the real people you’re planning to support. Give selflessly without asking for anything, help people, respond to their questions, amplify their messages. Over time, they will consider you a source of support. Building a product to serve their needs will be a logical consequence of your relationships within the community. They’re not just an audience that must listen to you. You should listen to them even more. The opportunity of being heard should not only be yours but theirs just as much.

Your audience needs to be the reason for your product to exist, not the reason why it’s selling. This is the core principle of the audience-first approach.

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