Bootstrapped Founder #47: The Problem With Audience-First — October 1st, 2020

Dear founder,

I want to share a few thoughts about the concept of audience-first today. There is noticable confusion surrounding the term “audience.” That is a rather new phenomenon, and I think it is very much related to the “audience-first” movement.

There are a lot of different definitions for the word audience, so let me list a few just to show how different they can be in scope and precision.

To some people, an audience is everyone who follows them on Twitter. To others, it’s everyone who could be buying their product. Some see whole markets as their audience, others restrict it to their potential and existing customers. And then, of course, there is the “artist” perspective, where your audience is an ever-changing group of people who you are performing for, right now.

Audience gets conflated with terms like market, customers, users, followers, fans, prospects, and many more. Some people talk about audiences as humans, some as a consolidation of demand or a visible willingness to purchase. From real people to abstract concepts, everything goes.

Whenever two founders talk about who their audience is, they might mean completely different groups of people — different kinds of people even.

I’ve been thinking about this a bit, and I believe that while every entrepreneur will eventually have slightly different definitions of terms like “audience”, there is value in defining them better. So, here is my distilled version of trying to balance all those conflicting versions.

I believe that an audience is the group of people who should be paying attention to you, your product, and your business.

Your audience is part of a larger market that includes not only all your potential, current, and past customers, but also your competition and partners.

Your audience is limited to the people who you can serve with your product. You are solving a problem for a specific group of people. Those who don’t have that problem are not part of your audience.

Your audience is not limited to who you are serving right now. It also includes people you might be serving in the future, and those who you have served in the past. That’s the “should” part of the definition. People who have not yet found you but could benefit from what you offer. They should learn what that is. Once they are your customers, they should interact with your because your product is providing benefits.

Your audience are people who interact with you, your product, or your business. They use your product, they rely on your business, or they just find you interesting as a founder. They follow, purchase, use, transact, communicate, they pay their invoices and they pay attention: in short, they interact with you in some way.

Your audience is not limited to your social media following. The trend to “build an audience” and then sell them something has distorted the term “audience” to mean “following,” but that’s too simplistic. Even if you have a following, it will only ever be your audience if you actually listen to them, find and solve their problems, and build meaningful relationships.

And this is the secret of the “audience-first” approach: relationships are the foundation of building sustainable businesses. Validating your product every step of the way with the help of the people you’re willing to serve is the audience-first path to success.

Too often, these important steps are severly neglected to make a few quick dollars. People building a following quickly, growth-hacking their Twitter followers just to throw any product at them, and calling this their audience. That’s not “audience-first.” It is another variation of the old “product-first” approach, just with a different sales model. Instead of throwing cash at marketing efforts, paid advertising and the like, you’ll end up spending a much more valuable currency: your reputation. Selling people an overhyped product might work a few times, but it won’t build a sustainable long-term business.

Have you ever wondered why many of the most successful accounts on Money Twitter (who promise the quick and easy path to becoming a millionaire) don’t use their real names? They know that their days are numbered, and they know that an anonymous brand can be burned and discarded when needed.

An audience will listen and observe. They will remember, and they will punish you for failing them. That makes the audience-first approach a risky endevour, but it is also extremely rewarding. I remember the days of running FeedbackPanda fondly. We were an audience-first business, constantly in contact with our customers and prospects, observing their community chatter and talking to them ourselves on social media and through our product messaging. People noticed that we were listening, and they talked to us about how much that meant to them. We were serving a severely underserved group of professionals, and they felt the impact our business made. They showed us, and whenever they did, my heart was filled with joy. More than anything, that was what drove us. Not money, not fame, but making a real difference in the lives of real people with real problems.

That’s why I think it should still be called “audience-first,” and not customer-first, market-first, demand-first, or anything else.

Because it is about people. People who need something. It’s about listening to them, figuring out what they are challenged by, and then making their lives easier. The word “audience” is derived from the Latin word “audentia”, which means “hearing, listening.”

Louis Nicholls said something very fitting this week: he said that “the important difference [between a market and your audience] (in practice) is that it’s useful to understand your audience (and a waste of time trying to understand your market).”

That works for me. An audience listens to me, and I should be listening to them. It’s a two-sided relationship.

I am also working on a framework that makes finding that ever-so-important audience easier for founder who are just starting out. I published a blog post on this topic this week and also recorded a 44-minute walkthrough podcast episode. As this is my audience-first approach to creating an audience-first framework, any and all feedback is highly appreciated and most welcome.

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See you next week!

Warm Regards from Berlin,