Over the years, I've tried every audience growth tip, trick, and hack out there.
I paid for fans on a Facebook Page (when that was a thing) and bought followers on Twitter (I was a big deal in Malaysia for 24 hours).
I've even bribed people with giveaways of iPads, MacBooks--heck, even cash!
But I've learned that all those efforts were a complete waste of time.
Actually, let me correct myself: All of those efforts were a complete waste of time, except they allowed me to learn that all of those efforts were a complete waste of time.
The effort it takes to grow a passionate audience isn't as difficult as chiseling a beautiful statue out of marble. But like chiseling a statue, you need to be armed with the right tools, the right motivation, and a whole bunch of determination.
Let me help you chisel your perfect audience.
Before you even begin building, tame your ego
When it comes to anything that can be quantified, our egos quickly become our worst enemies. And boy-oh-boy, do we live in a time with numbers being shoved in our face at every turn:
The worst part? Almost every platform puts numbers front and center any chance it gets. The more numbers you see, the more numbers your ego craves.
I wish I could tell you there was a magical way to tame your ego. Some concoction of Diet Coke Coffee Chipotle (the usual daily meal plan for any entrepreneur). But alas, it only comes with effort and experience.
It's damn cliché, but when it comes to building a following, you must focus on quality over quantity. Learning to tame your ego can help you sift through the numbers and find the people who give you the most value.
How deleting my entire audience helped me grow
Earlier this year, I did something unthinkable to most people. I deleted an email list of 25,000 subscribers that I had been growing since 2010. Twenty-five thousand!
Why in the world would I do such a crazy thing??
Because the audience I had built wasn't right for me or the business I was trying to run.
Remember all those "growth hacks" I talked about earlier? Turns out lots of people sign up for a mailing list if they think they're going to win an iPad. But here's the problem with building an audience based solely on incentives: that's all they ever want.
My list eventually got to the point that whenever I would send an email, something I had spent time on and poured my heart into, the only responses I'd receive were:
"I didn't sign up to hear about this crap!"
"Where are the giveaways? That's what I'm here for."
Even more demoralizing was the dwindling open rate. What hovered at around 15 to 20 percent for the first year or two slowly dropped below 10 percent, then 8 percent, and then as low as 5 percent. Talk about a red flag slapping you in the face.
So I pulled the plug. I realized sending emails to that list was always doing more harm than good. Hitting delete on 25,000 people was not easy, but I'll never forget the immediate feeling of relief after I finally did it.
How to build the right audience from scratch
Luckily, I had seen the writing on the wall a few years before things got bad and started to build an entirely separate email list. With the chance to start over, I started looking at people I respected with sizable audiences and reverse engineering how they were growing their lists.
The two most important things I discovered were:
While the first insight made sense, the second one seemed very narrow-minded to me at first.
But then I saw the power of it. As I started to grow my new list, I made it very clear whom this new email list was for and exactly what you'd be getting if you signed up (see this in action here). While those statements have evolved over the years, they've been the guiding force for growing my audience.
My current list is not super-impressive. As of writing, it's at 8,289 people, with an average of 10 new subscribers a day and a pretty consistent open rate of 30 percent.
But do you want to know the only statistic for my email list that I actually give a crap about?
I make over 80 percent of my income directly from my email list. The other 20-ish percent comes from people referring me to their friends and people finding me organically (social media may account for 1 percent, at most).
The actual (and ethical) audience growth tactics that work
I understand that you want these things to happen quickly. Most of us aren't able to sit idly by while we see our competition (or friends, even) grow their audience and their business.
In my experience, growing a loyal and committed audience boils down to three main factors:
1. Defining who your audience is and focusing heavily on bringing them value.
2. Creating consistent content that solves problems for your audience or inspires them to become the best version of themselves they can.
3. Actually giving a crap about these people and spending time interacting with them.
These points can seem a bit nebulous, so let's look at how to practically apply each one:
1. Defining your audience
The easiest way to attract the right people is to be crystal clear in the copy on your sign-up forms. For example:
"If you're a freelance designer or developer, this is the email list for you. I want to help you grow your business with my weekly articles."
Now, whenever you create content, you can put it through your audience definition filter.
When you finish writing an article (or creating any piece of content), ask yourself, "Will this help or resonate with freelance designers or developers?"
And don't be afraid to be polarizing. If you do an interview or go to an event, own your niche and say, "I'm not the guy who helps advertising agencies and Fortune 500s. I want to help the freelance designers of the world, because that's who I am!"
Your audience connects with you because you share strong values. And the only way they'll know how you think is if you're outspoken and clear.
2. Creating consistent content
If you're sending out weekly newsletters use the 9/10 rule: 90 percent of your articles should be valuable content that helps your audience, while the other 10 percent can include pitches for products.
(Fun note: My girlfriend sent her first email newsletter to just four subscribers, two of whom were her and me. She stayed consistent, and two years later has a list of more than 2,500 that makes up almost all of her revenue, too!)
I keep a running list of topics I want to discuss based on things that interest me, but also regularly get inspiration from questions I get from my audience. Over half the articles I write are email responses I've sent to people that I elaborate further on.
If you find yourself answering similar questions from your audience, that's a pretty good sign that you should turn those answers into an article or podcast that will reach more people.
3. Actually giving a crap
I don't know anyone who has a passionate audience and doesn't interact with them in some form.
For me, that's replying to emails. For you, that could be creating videos, running a Slack channel, or being active on Twitter or Facebook.
Whatever vehicle you use for communication, spend quality time there.
Find ways to remember things about people. I do this naturally, but apps like Contactually can help you manage this. And if you are building an email list, MailChimp allows you to add notes about each subscriber.
If you sell a lot of products, reward your customers with free bonus content. Notice I didn't say offer free bonus content to get new customers. Audience retention is way more important than audience acquisition, in my humble experience.
Don't focus on building an audience, focus on building a highly-defined and loyal audience
I've learned my lesson when it comes to audience building. I know what works for me and what's bringing me (and my audience) the most value.
If you can put your ego in check, define the audience that's right for you, and be consistent in providing value, you will build a loyal audience.
I'll take an exponentially smaller audience that's loyal over a large, unqualified audience any day.