Too many people see audience building as a means to an end: they expect to build a following of people that are just sitting there, waiting to be sold something. The goal of this very limited audience-building approach is to find as many potential sales targets as possible, sell to them, and that’s it.
I feel that is a minimal view of audience-building. A lot of people consider the term “audience” in that narrow, classical way. They imagine a stage, and there’s a band playing music. This concept of an audience looks at the people attending a concert as something very passive: they’re merely listening. They’re consumers. The only thing they do is cheer, but there’s no interaction beyond that. It’s a monodirectional approach: information flows from the band into the audience, they receive it, and they consume it. And while this is true for many creative workers like musicians and artists, we can expect more of a bi-directional kind of communication in the entrepreneurial world.
But building a business is not just yelling at people to buy something. This approach might work for some people, but I don’t think it should be the perspective we take to build sustainable and meaningful audience-driven businesses.
So what are the goals of audience-building beyond just building a following of passive consumers?
It’s important to understand that there are two goals in building an audience. It’s not just about your product or business. It is also about you as the entrepreneur behind the project. It’s about building a business brand with your name attached to it and building a personal brand that has your business attached to it.
There are many, many faceless corporations out there: gigantic enterprise businesses that build equally faceless audiences for their products. They only need to know that you belong to the target audience, their consumer base, to sell you their product.
Passionate founders that I’ve met and talked to in the founder community want their audience to be more than just a number in a spreadsheet. When they think about their customers, they want to understand them. They want to understand what drives and motivates the customer beyond just selling them a product. A founder’s mission is to solve their audience’s problems and make their lives better in a meaningful way. That alone makes audience-building a different endeavor for indie founders.
When we compare our efforts to build an audience as indie founders and indie hackers to the efforts of much larger enterprise businesses, we encounter wildly diverging amounts of entrepreneurial risk. Entrepreneurial risk in our case means that our startups, the businesses that we found, and the ideas that we have might not work out. And while this is not a big problem for an enterprise business (that, when one of their products doesn’t work out, they can just create and sell another product), for an indie founder, failing makes a significant and often financially catastrophic difference. Building an audience allows us not to lose everything when we start something new because our previous attempt didn’t work out.
This is one of the benefits that many indie hackers don’t see: when you think about building an audience, you build a personal brand that transcends the business you’re starting. Your business is one thing, but you, as a founder, are another equally valuable thing to follow on a social network or within a community. Your expertise, your contributions, and you as a person are all things that your community peers care about.
You still want to make people as interested as possible in the thing you’re building, though. It’s not just about you as a founder. It’s also about what you’re doing, how you are helping the community, your chosen audience, with the problems that they have. You want to have your own personal brand as the accomplished founder (or the founder on a journey to accomplishment), and you want to have the brand for your business, the idea, the actual solution to somebody’s problem. This is a balancing act, so let’s talk about the two main goals that we should follow to get there.
The first goal is becoming a trusted domain expert, and the second goal is building a product that your audience needs.
That’s all there is to it: become an expert personally and professionally. Build a product that comes from visible and verifiable needs from within your audience and solves their problem.
The First Goal: Become a Domain Expert in Your Community
Consider where you want to be a year from now. Wouldn’t it be great if you had a reputation in your community for knowing what you’re talking about? How about lots of people learning from your content, from your posts, and then thank you in public for your helpful insights?
A recognized domain expert is a person with leverage in the community. This doesn’t have to be purely selfish leverage: you can use that leverage for many things for your own success, furthering the success of the community and for eventually elevating other people into positions of success, where you can interact and partner with them and build something more significant.
You won’t become a recognized domain expert overnight. This is a long-term play, and it’s essential to understand that it is based on trust. Every expert in the community is recognized as an expert because people trust what they have said before. It’s really about exposing yourself to a community, sharing your learnings and insights in a meaningful way that helps other people. This, and only this, generates trust.
That trust will, over time, turn into a reputation in the community. Just look at the indie hacker and founder community. For people who are trusted and domain experts in this community, like Justin Jackson, Tyler Tringas, and KP, that’s because they’re consistently providing heaps of value and are earning the trust of their community every single day.
But these people didn’t start as experts. They began by being ambitious learners first.
They shared their learning journey, and they never stopped. This made them a trusted domain expert in the end: they started from nothing and had to learn how to learn. Then, they shared their learning journey with other people. They’re now recognized as teachers that improve their community.
The Second Goal: Building a Product That Your Audience Needs
Let’s take a look at the other side: at the product and your business. Nailing the audience-driven product approach is the second goal of audience-building. Try to achieve the second goal in parallel to your personal journey to domain expertise. Consider this to be an ongoing feedback loop that’s at the core of your audience-building process.
Here’s the loop: it starts with learning something from your community. Somebody complains about a challenge, or they ask for a recommendation. That’s how you learn about an underlying problem, and then you try to validate it. Is it really there? Is this person overreacting, or is there more to this? Are other people complaining about this too?
Based on this, you build something that can solve this for people who have this issue. You release it either just as a concept or as an actual tool. And then, you observe the community’s reactions, which will teach you something new, and the loop begins again. You learn, you validate, you build, you release, you observe.
The Three Pillars of Growth
Because you’re becoming an expert in your field’s challenges and requirements throughout this interaction, this creates personal growth in parallel to your professional growth. There are three fundamental pillars to audience-building growth, which affect your follower count, the quality of your work, and the impact it has on your community.
We’re talking about Engagement, Empowerment, and Content.
- Engage with people. Don’t just yell into the void.
- Empower people. You can lift them up and multiply the eyes that are on their content.
- Provide meaningful, valuable content regularly.
If you do these things, you will attract people interested in you, your work, and your opinions.
Without this kind of intentional interaction, you would never learn about people’s problems. That’s why it needs to happen in public. There’s a lot of talk about “Building in Public,” and I appreciate this because learning, teaching, and feedback are crucial to the entrepreneurial journey. Working in public makes this so much easier.
If you learn in public, other people learn with you. If you teach in public, they learn from you, and you learn from them. A feedback mechanism allows you to better understand people’s problems by interacting with them and seeing multiple perspectives. As founders, we often believe that we know something. Talk to a few of your prospective customers to see if your world view matches theirs. In many cases, you’ll find that your assumptions were highly biased. Only honest and truthful engagement will unearth these secrets for you.
Building (for) an audience in public is extremely valuable because now you’re not building an idea-first or a product-first business. You don’t just have “a great idea,” and you sit there for six months in complete isolation, build it and then throw it on the market. Now, you actually have a consistent validation opportunity when you’re engaging with your audience regularly.