What founders can learn from Twitch streamers about building in public

Reading Time: 7 minutes

I’m an avid Twitch viewer. While writing, coding, or just researching, I quite often watch someone playing video games. I could play those games myself, but I wanted to spend time on my projects without dedicating my full attention to a game. Twitch allows me to participate in the gaming experience without losing my focus.

I’ve been watching streamers play games in public for many years now. They don’t only provide enjoyable entertainment, but you can also see them build a community and — quite literally — an engaged audience day after day. Today, I want to share a few insights that you can leverage in your own audience-building efforts.

The video game-streaming platform Twitch grew by 83% in 2020. Viewers watched 17 billion hours of gamers playing their games in front of their audience that year. Many streamers are trying to make it, but — just like in any other field — not everyone who starts streaming turns it into a full-time occupation. But there are more than 27.000 Twitch partners and 150k affiliates at this point, all streamers who are making money from playing games in front of a virtual live audience. Let’s look at what they do, how they do it, and why it works.

It all starts with persistence. Streamers like Lirik or Summit1G are prolific. They often stream six days a week, on a regular schedule. They show up relentlessly because they have to. On Twitch, streamers make money by having viewers subscribe to their channels for a few bucks a month. These subscribers have high expectations. The moment a streamer skips a few days of streaming, their subscriber numbers start to dwindle quickly. If they take a few weeks off, they might go from thousands of subscribers to just a handful. Twitch is a platform that rewards consistency and persistence. The most successful streamers are the ones that show up every day.

Subscription revenue is not the only way to make money on Twitch, though. The streamers with an engaged audience — that they built over many years — employ a few alternative off-platform methods to make money off their content. They accept donations through Paypal and in crypto-currencies, they have sponsoring contracts with the likes of Monster Energy Drinks or Razer gaming hardware. Some of the most popular streamers run sponsored streams where they’re paid to play a particular game, and many have affiliate links to gaming equipment on their Twitch bio page.

These solopreneurs have understood that multiple streams of income are the best way to monetize their personal brand. There is a lot of platform risk in streaming: Twitch effectively owns your followers and subscribers. If they close your account — which they could do for any reason — you’ll lose access to your audience. That’s why you’ll see most streamers offer a variety of ways to follow and support them. The gamer Rogue has links to his Twitter, Instagram, YouTube Channel, and even a Discord server on his Twitch Bio. There is also an affiliate link to a VPN provider and multiple ways to support him through subscriptions and donations. At over 360.000 followers, this streamer is painfully aware of how quickly he could be de-platformed and has worked diligently to build followings on alternative platforms.

Rogue is also consistently playing with several other Twitch streamers. Since he plays multiplayer first-person-shooter games, the quality of his gameplay improves when he’s working with a highly skilled team. Not only does this produce superior gameplay content, but it also adds another layer to the stream: the chatter between professional players. It’s a mix of professional sports commentary and in-the-trenches gameplay insight, spiced up with personal banter between friends. This makes many Twitch streamers and their daily streams so relatable: here is another human being, enjoying an activity that takes skill to execute well, and they’re playing their games with others. This creates an incredibly strong following, as the viewer becomes part of that bond by merely watching the players interact over time.

But it’s not all passive consumption. In fact, this is the one thing that I have always admired about the medium: the streamer is fully aware that an engaged audience can only appear when streamers actually engage with their viewers. Twitch offers a chat functionality for every stream, and entire microcosms have developed in those chat boxes. The ability to type something for a streamer to read immediately is powerful. If streamers respond to these messages, viewers feel incredibly empowered. Just a few seconds of attention can turn a follower into a subscriber. Successful streamers often have dozens of long-time followers help them with administrative work, and they recall hundreds of names from followers that have been with them for many years.

While Twitch is all about gameplay on the surface, it’s the interaction between the streamer and their viewers that creates the sense of community. In the early days of every stream, only a few followers will regularly tune in. But the ones that do will do it purposefully, and they’ll often engage in lively conversations with the streamer. Over time, the audience grows, and longer conversations become rare, but no successful streamer will ever completely ignore their chat. It is there that subscriber retention happens. People tune in, they feel heard, they feel seen, and they come back.

Chat is central to feeling appreciated. It allows for communication at all times, both synchronously and asynchronously, depending on when the streamer checks or how distracted they are by the game. But no matter how popular streamers get, they always gravitate back to their chat, either while gaming or often even as “let’s have a few minutes to chat” segments sprinkled between gaming sessions.

Interaction with a streamer’s chat is also an often hilarious source of emergent content: unplanned conversations, jokes, musings, anything can happen. Some streamers take this beyond the chat and invite their followers to play with them. The ability to do so depends on the game that’s being played, but it often leads to hours of fun-to-watch gameplay that also strengthens the bonds within the community.

In fact, the best streamers have understood that any action that furthers the sense of kinship in their community is a good one to take. They celebrate subscription anniversaries, highlight particularly funny or helpful chat contributions, and show gratitude for supporting the stream in any way. Every streamer has a distinct personality, sometimes rough and arrogant, sometimes kind and inviting. But they all foster community wherever they can.

They even foster community outside of their own stream. Many streamers end their daily stream by “donating” their current viewers to another ongoing stream in what is called a “viewer raid.” They ask their viewers to give another streamer a chance. This often is a much less popular streamer, getting a mighty influx of new potential followers. While Twitch is a zero-sum-game — a viewer usually watches one stream at a time and no more — people will still help each other build a business because they understand that every streamer has something unique to contribute to the entertainment of many viewers.

This uniqueness of streamer personality is not an accident. In a world of thousands of videogames to play, finding a niche is essential. While there is a spectrum between streamers who only play a single game and others who choose to play a variety, the most successful streamers limit themselves to either a genre or a handful of games they regularly play. Simultaneously, since many other streamers will play popular games, standing out as a unique personality is extremely helpful to build a personal streamer brand. Some gamers dress up in a particular way, and some use specific kinds of jargon. You’ll never find a generic streamer in the top echelon of professional gamers. Streamers understand that they won’t check the boxes for every single viewer out there. But for their niche audience — which can often scale into millions of viewers — they are a perfect combination of player and personality.

Often, streamers use their own slang or lingo within their communities. They create a name for their followers. They work hard to create a cohesive brand around their content. The streamer MANvsGAME calls his community MANkind and titles every stream as “MAN vs “. This is not just a person playing video games in public. It’s a one-person media company creating an immersive experience for an ever-growing audience.

A quick sidenote: Twitch is not just for videogames. People are streaming cooking tutorials right from their kitchens. There is a live stream of a duck pond where subscribers can feed the duck through a remotely activated feeder. Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park streams his music-making efforts regularly. Others paint miniatures. People dance, sing, play chess, just hang out and chat. Every niche has its viewers, no matter how small.

Many of those niches didn’t exist when Twitch was first created. Over time, people found the platform, recognized something unique about themselves that people could relate to, and started streaming. From pole-dancing classes to live streaming a Trans-European Truck haul, there is nothing that wouldn’t attract an audience. Every streamer with a sizeable audience started out with zero viewers. They focused on one particular target audience and built content to attract and retain them.

Streamers are well aware that they are performing in public. While most of them have a webcam set up that shows their face while they play, most successful streamers work with pseudonyms and keep their private life out of their streaming content. They have clear boundaries between their public performance and the business behind their work. Many streamers use OBS, the Open Broadcaster Software, to show multiple scenes with different arrangements of their screens and video streams. When they need to take care of something personal, they often switch to a “Be Right Back” scene that mutes all audio, hides their webcam and screen feeds, and just displays the chat to their viewers. Streamers understand that sometimes, you just have to tune out the audience and focus on what you need to do yourself. From bathroom breaks to important phone calls, there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed even when you work in public.

Some developers stream their coding work in public, too. Accidentally sharing secrets as usernames and passwords has resulted in editor extensions being developed that blur particular files by default. When you create in public, you still need to be careful not to overshare.

Now, let’s take another look at what successful Twitch streamers have been doing and how you can leverage similar activities as an indie hacker and a bootstrapped entrepreneur:

  • Show up every day. No matter if you’re live-streaming a game, marketing your SaaS, or writing for your blog, consistency is the key to reliable results. Your audience will grow naturally once you work persistently.
  • Diversify your income streams. Platforms come and go, and they can arbitrarily remove access to your audiences. Encourage your followers to follow you on multiple platforms. Even better, have them hand you their email address, through a purchase or an email list signup. Reduce the platform risk for your audience.
  • Team up and communicate in public. Other founders are a great source of insight, and they bring their own audiences. Build relationships, discuss your thoughts and strategies in public, and you will find that people find that particularly interesting.
  • Interact with your audience. If you can make the people you interact with feel heard and seen, they will understand that you care about them beyond just having them as a passive consumer audience. This is the kind of relationship you want with your followers: a bond that goes both ways.
  • Pick a niche and be yourself. Don’t try to appeal to everyone. Be your unique self and embrace the people who resonate with that.
  • Defend your boundaries. Building in public means sharing the good and the bad, but it doesn’t mean sharing everything. When you need time for yourself, take it.

I highly recommend you check out a few Twitch streams to see how those digital entrepreneurs interact with their audience and create community. At the worst, you’ll have some fun watching people play games. At best, you’ll see an audience- and community-building master at work.

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