A third-grade math teacher is particularly good at teaching one specific audience: third-grade math students. Every year, a new group of students appears, and they receive a top-notch math education.
Private math tutors, however, have to teach students of all ages. They have to educate a very diverse group of people, using many different educational approaches to ensure every member of their audience comes out of the experience with improved skills. Tutors often stick with their students for long times.
The third-grade teacher sees no problem in teaching different kids every year. That’s their job. For a private tutor, that looks very different: they’d prefer to have a long-term relationship with all of their students, no matter what grade they’re in. One audience is highly fluctuating; the other one is sticky for as long as possible.
When you build an audience, you will run into this phenomenon as well.
Some audiences are more permanent than others. Over time, you will experience churn in your follower numbers: some people just move on. They graduate from you. You’ve taught them everything you know, and they now need something — and someone — else.
Audience Graduation happens in every audience, with varying degrees. It depends on how transient your audience is — how likely they are to move on — and that has a lot to do with their most immediate goals.
If you build a brand around teaching people how to get their first marketing gig at an agency, you will experience some churn. After all, your audience only needs your input to accomplish their goal, and they will look for other sources of more advanced knowledge soon after. If you help coders find their first freelancing clients, they will quickly develop the skills to locate clients themselves.
These are short-term goals that have a clear accomplishment threshold. You either find a client, or you don’t. If your audience consists of people who learn how to do this from you, they will eventually move on. They’ll graduate and look for teachers who help them with the new problems they’re facing.
Short-term goals will cause short-lived audiences.
Now take a look at Seth Godin‘s audience. Millions of people — marketers, founders, developers, writers — hang on his every word, often having been a follower for decades already. They have wildly different goals and come from equally diverse backgrounds. Why don’t they “graduate” from Seth?
It’s because Seth moves the needle. Every week, he explores a concept on his podcast that many of his followers might never have thought about before. Every week, he enriches the lives of those who listen with something interesting, meaningful, and novel.
Before this turns into a “be-more-like-Seth” piece, let me make one thing absolutely clear: the world needs all kinds of teachers, and Seth would very likely agree with this, as he has spoken about this at length in his work. If you want to get your foot in the door as a novice marketer, the concepts that Seth talks about won’t be immediately helpful, but “Ten Things to Do to Get the Attention of an Agency” will be.
We need both high-school math teachers teaching our kids and math professors solving breakthrough problems. In fact, we need many more high-school teachers than academics, and the same is true for social media audiences. There are many more people out there trying to take their first steps than already established industry experts. And few of those notable experts take the time to educate the novices.
You don’t have to make a permanent choice here. Starting out with a transient audience doesn’t mean you’ll see them graduate from you forever. Every permanent audience was at some point transient, and only hard work and a structured approach can shift an audience from high graduation rates into low ones.
So what can you do to keep your audience retention high and churn low?
Surprisingly, it all starts with accepting that Audience Graduation happens and that it’s fine. It’s expected — and commendable — that people become better at what they do and look for more.
There are a few ways of dealing with this:
- Grow with your audience. Adjust the themes you talk about to the expectations of your followers. Stay ahead of their journey and teach them as you go. Plenty of founders do that on Twitter: they build in public, sharing their journey, learnings, and grow alongside their followers. That’s an intriguing path: you get to grow yourself, and your audience tags along for the ride.
- Carve out your expert niche and be consistent. If you can provide novel and interesting content that makes a difference for your audience, people will stick around. They are essentially subscribers to your knowledge output. Operate on the bleeding edge of your space and attract people who want to stay informed as well.
- Build an audience funnel. If you are serving a transient audience, it’s clear that people will leave. You’ll need to compensate for that by getting new followers coming in. Get your existing followers to share your content with their peers that would benefit from your insights. Focus on finding new and rising accounts on social media that are part of your target audience. Engage with them, attracting their existing audiences of similar people — people that need your knowledge right now. Actively work on finding “fresh” accounts that can fill your funnel. It’s fine if some of your followers graduate as long as new ones take their place in your audience.
- Understand your cohorts. Any audience will include people at different stages. Try to understand the progression from one cohort to another, investigate what people talk about most in each cohort — and what they stop mentioning, particularly in the later cohorts. This will allow you to adjust your content strategy to their needs and expectations.
- Look at other influential people and investigate their audience. With some digging, you will see how their content has changed over time to serve their audience. You can infer a lot from those shifts.
No matter if you have a wildly fluctuating audience or high retention, it’s essential to understand who you are talking to. The remedy for any lack of knowledge is to constantly engage with your audience beyond your own content. Join conversations where they happen, participate in them, and take a mental picture of the conversational landscape every time you find yourself in it.
Follow other thinkers in your space and catalog what they talk about. Have genuine conversations with your followers about where they are and where they are going. Instead of trying to cling to them, find out how you can help them get there.
If you approach empowerment that way, an Audience Graduation is an event you can celebrate. Having helped a person so much that they don’t need help anymore is one of the best feelings you’ll ever have. It is a true reflection of the abundance mindset put into practice.