If you build it, they will come. Well, maybe.
I’m increasingly sensitive to ‘experts’ giving the impression that if you show up – through a website, social media, ebook, networking event or whatever – an audience will appear as if by magic and bear you along on the wings of success.
It could happen. But for most of us, the alchemy isn’t that simple. And that can leave us wondering what we’ve done wrong.
Most of us need a way to close the gap and create a powerful enough spark to jump across it. We need to create interest and connection in a world full of competition for those things. We need to create fans who like our work so much they promote it on our behalf.
I’ve been trying to get more visible and build an audience for quite a while now, and I clearly don’t know how to do it. More accurately and less self-beaty-up: there are some bits I’m good at and some big holes that I didn’t see until I got up close.
But do you know that saying, “Do as I say, not as I do”? There are things I’ve picked up along the way that would have been useful to my earlier self. So I’ve collected them here in the hope that they’ll help you.
Start with a small cloud
Lots of people talk about how you should find your purpose/niche and your target audience. If you can get a really clear, focused picture of those it will help immensely.
But for a lot of us it’s not that easy – for instance if we are interested in lots of things, or our interests are blocked by mental scar tissue.
If that’s you, try to condense a cloud instead. You can identify things that are definitely outside it, and things that are ‘in there somewhere’. Then maybe you can gradually make the cloud smaller by getting clearer about what’s really important.
You can let it sit for a while then come back with fresh perspective and set aside more bits that aren’t central. Think about what gets you off your bum, and where your unique combinations of perspective and skills come together.
Tad Hargrave’s ‘Niching Spiral‘ work on this process may help. He talks about niche as your role in the community.
You might also be interested in Violeta Nedkova‘s resources for ‘multipassionate’ people on niche and branding.
Sometimes distilling our cloud happens through a long journey with lots of diversions and dead ends. That’s OK, but it can be stressful (not least financially). So give yourself a commitment to be aware of the process and get as smart about it as you can.
Find something people want, and build outward
I’ve produced a lot of good-quality resources that tell people things I think they need to know. But I haven’t yet found an audience that thinks they need to know them!
So here’s a strategic perspective for you to use from the early stages. Do think about the things you want people to have or to know, and note them down somewhere, but be prepared to treat them as longer-term possibilities as part of a plan. You can have them waiting in the wings and hopefully earn the right to bring them out.
If you can do it, a better start would be to hear what people need that you can do and would like to do, and provide that, and get fans.
Can you join Facebook groups, go to live events, have conversations with folks you know? Is there something that will really please them that you could make or do? It can be very simple and practical, especially to start with – ‘Hey, everyone was puzzled about that thing yesterday so I’ve made a 2-page PDF guide.’
What you’re after is that spark. People may think of you as a good person and have vague supportive feelings toward a fuzzy idea of what you do. But that won’t lead them to even share your posts, let alone recommend you. You’ll just be part of the background.
The way to come out of the background is to get them to attach importance to you so that their brain will allocate processing time to what you say, and maybe eventually seek it out. And importance is measured against their own needs and interests.
You need a website so people searching online can find you. But it might only need to be one or two pages, at least to start with.
If you’ve got lots of stuff to show or blogging is important to what you do, of course the site will be bigger. But you can start with a minimal site that tells people a little about what you do, a little about who you are, and how people can contact you.
If you want to build a following, it’s crucial to have a sign-up box for an email list so people can give you permission to contact them and tell them more. Obviously that means checking out email list service providers.
Even with a minimal site, it’s important to put the effort into making it look good, do a good job of attracting readers, and give the right feel for your brand. Which means you need to have worked through what messages you want to give out. (Perhaps using my Website foundations product!) Good design is not about being pretty, fancy or flashy – it’s about being effective.
Blogging expert Jon Morrow says it’s a waste of time to put a lot of work into your site and blog posts until after you’ve built up an interested audience. (He advocates guest posts at high-traffic sites.) I think you need at least a couple of posts or pages on your site to show your perspective and skills, but it’s certainly easy to plough a lot of time into work that nobody will see. I’ve tested that one. ;)
Consider doing one or two really good blog posts about key aspects of your area of interest. Show that you know your material and have your own contribution to make. You want readers to feel like you’ve given them new information or perspective that they can use.
Hook your site up so search engines can find it: get links from other sites (considerately!), and if you use Google+ make a post about it there. Then don’t fiddle with the site too much!
Don’t think you have to be everywhere and spend lots of time on it.
Most people should show up somewhere to boost connection, but pick one or two networks that you get on with and where your audience is likely to hang out.
(You can also maintain a token presence on others if you want, for instance posting when you have something new on your blog but not getting into conversations.)
Also, use the available tools to be smarter about it. I use Buffer to queue up tweets a day or two ahead, which means I don’t need to go on Twitter at lots of times to appear present. Buffer is pretty simple to use, integrates with other software like your web browser, and free for the basic version that connects with just one social network. There are other tools like Hootsuite.
You can sidestep some heartache by realising early on that it’s actually pretty unusual for people to share your posts. They have to be watching when the post goes past, and it has to connect with their emotional or intellectual concerns of the moment so they stop and pay attention, and they have to be people with the instinct to boost signals, which as far as I can tell most people aren’t.
If you have a post that’s good and attractive and important, give it a bit of a push. If you’ve built a relationship with someone whose interests overlap with the post, maybe drop them a line and ask if their community would find it useful.
You can also try Facebook or Twitter advertising. I only dipped into this recently. Facebook in particular is easy to set up, and you can spend as little as a pound a day for three days to get some extra interest. The key is to get the audience targeting right. You can target audience interests by topic, but you can also target by high-profile people – whose audience would you love to share your message with?
I recommend 500 Social Media Marketing Tips: Essential Advice, Hints and Strategy for Business by Andrew Macarthy for easily digestible introductory advice on a range of social networks (including the tips that led me to try social ads). If you get the ebook version he updates it regularly.
Hang out where people are
When you’re unknown, trying to get people to come to your space is really hard. You need to go to where they already are – physically or online – and build connections.
Meeting in person can give you that advantage of ‘putting the face to the name’ – social reinforcement. But events bring their own challenges. For those of us who are more introvert types, just going along can be a mental hump to get over.
There’s also the practical consideration of where to spend your time and energy for best effect. You could probably go to lots of meetings and seminars, but where will you find the people who are open to connecting with who you are and what you do? I think you have to build in a willingness to re-examine repeat events every so often: you may enjoy going, but is it a good use of your energy?
Events can be particularly useful if you have an opportunity to speak – and can say something useful to the people there – or if you have a print book that you can sell from a stall or give away as an extended business card. These give you extra authority as an expert people might want to approach, rather than just one of the people they exchanged pleasantries with. (Some people base their business model on ‘selling from the stage’.)
Online, if there’s a hot topic that connects to your thing, make an input there. Maybe it’s something lots of people suddenly need to know about, or a busy Twitter hashtag. If you make useful contributions, some people will follow you or go and look at your website. If you make genuinely useful comments on other people’s posts, some of their followers might check you out. Guest blogging on a site with a sizeable audience interested in your topic can get you a good stream of visitors.
Side story: the one thing I’ve done that got significant interest in my website was a blog post explaining the basics of EU digital VAT. New rules arrived out of the blue and I needed to work through so I knew how it would affect me. Lots of other people found they needed to know that too! Unfortunately it’s got little to do with my work so it hasn’t helped me in terms of customers or subscribers. If I were doing it now, strategically, I might put it on a platform like Medium where it could increase my overall reputation. (But I am glad the post helped people.)
Last year (2015) I tried to run a workshop and a webinar, and had to cancel them due to lack of interest. The main problem was that I didn’t have a community of people interested in my work and primed to check out new things.
I’m a decent socialiser, but not an instinctive one: it isn’t always turned on! I can talk to pretty much anybody and love making connections, but as an introvert sometimes I don’t want to, and as a highly sensitive person I have a strong sense of personal space and an aversion to being intrusive. Sometimes it seems mysterious how other people seem to grow their tribe much more easily.
Maybe you have your own combo of internal stuff that interferes with easy community-building. If so, it may be worth exploring what’s going on there. If you know yourself you can work with what you’ve got.
The core of community-building is a big idea that people are actually interested in because it relates to what’s important to them. Then those small-scale useful contributions about parts of the picture draw people in.
If you can get to the point where you’re getting positive feedback and conversations, think about creating a space where they can hang out and talk to each other as well as you. A Facebook group is the most obvious one online, as much as anything because people are likely to already be on FB. (A Google+ Community would work, but people tend to have an unfairly poor view of G+ and fewer use it.) You can also use events like Twitter chats, Google Hangouts and Blab, the hot new video chat tool.
Of course, there’s also getting together in real life! But that requires being in the same place at the same time, so unless you have a local focus it’s probably best saved for when your community is well built up.
Once people feel part of a community, they give you momentum as the embodiment of the thing that brought them together. You’ll have authority in their eyes, and the conversations will give you ideas for ways to help them.
You may even find you have fans! That’s an odd realisation for many of us – we have to learn to be grateful for that appreciation. If people like what you’re doing so much that they do promotion for you, that can be a huge help.
That’s some of the ideas and approaches I’ve picked up along the way. Mostly by listening to people who are better at it than I am!
Do you have your own obstacles about this, or your own tips for doing it better? Please use the comments to share them.