It’s really hard to build an online audience. When you start out, you try it on your own and then you begin to wonder what the trick is. Maybe you start to track what successful people are doing. After a while, you begin to notice a recurring theme to the advice. Lots of tactics, little strategy.
Here’s a list of the common tactics for building an audience:
- Pick a “Niche” Topic
- Incorporate SEO keywords
- Produce large quantities of content
- Be consistent and regularly produce your content
- Don’t cut corners — your content must be high quality
- Self Promotion is essential
- Stay the course. It takes time & commitment to build an audience
At first glance, these seem straightforward. But these tips often lead to a lot of wasted and counterproductive effort. I struggled to make this high-level advice work for me and got frustrated because I was seeing the same advice everywhere. What was I missing? And then it clicked.
The internet is a dynamic system. Your approach to building an audience online must include a coordinated effort.
I was performing each of the recommended tactics but I wasn’t doing any of them in coordination. I had no strategy. When I took a high-level overview of why each of these tactics is important, I realized how I could improve my work moving forward.
Here’s what I learned.
The Real Goal — Pick a Topic, Define a Target Audience, and Become Familiar
No matter what you produce, your goal should be to repeatedly have your content “found” by the same people. When the same people find your content over and over again, you become familiar with them. As you become familiar with the same group of people, you start to become a trusted resource.
You want to become a trusted resource in your topic area. Trust is a currency of the internet.
Trust is one of the most important elements of digital life. Establishing trust is a precursor to building and maintaining influence in digital communities. We build trust through social proof of work, establishing a reputation of trust by building a paper trail of digital content.
Once trusted, you can take advantage of network effects when your audience shares your work with their network. This is why quality matters. Would you share low-quality information with your network?
Let me show you why these common tactics are important in an overall audience-building strategy.
Why Niche Topics & SEO Matter To You — The Attention Economy
Here’s a simple truth, you’re not going to build an audience if you don’t understand how the internet is evolving in the Information Age.
Information is now produced in such massive quantities that it‘s become commoditized. It loses it’s value and appeal because it’s so widely available.
Here’s a secret no one tells you when you start out creating content. No one cares what you have to say. And if you don’t adapt to how the internet functions, no one will ever care.
The commodification of information created an attention-based economy and this economy is changing the content landscape. Understanding that the internet is fundamentally changing how people consume information is critical for making people care about your work.
According to author Chris Anderson, the internet made Long Tail content profitable. You can think of Long Tail content as very specific ideas that have larger audiences.
The Long Tail
In 1988, a British mountain climber named Joe Simpson wrote a book called Touching the Void, a harrowing account of…
In his original article featured in Wired Magazine, Anderson highlights how the internet reduced the costs for people to add information to the web and reduced the costs of bringing communities together.
This led to an increase in information. But not all information is useful to all people. It created a need for filtering the web into useful chunks. Search engines support this organizational effort by exploring web content and indexing it by topic keywords.
This is important to understand so that you can optimize your content to be found by interested people. Your SEO strategy needs to conform to your niche topic. Ie: What is your topic and who would find it interesting? How might these interested people search for what you create?
If you only use high traffic keywords across different topics, you may generate traffic but no community. Instead, it’s important to focus on being indexed on an exclusive topic to capture the attention of interested people.
Niche topic selection and an SEO strategy will make it more likely that the people who find your website will enjoy what they find.
The Mere-Exposure Effect Builds Trust with Quantity & Consistency
As your topic and SEO strategy come together, it’s important to focus on how you can build trust within your interested target community.
Building trust on the internet requires establishing familiarity. Digital environments take us from small physical communities to interacting with communities on a global scale.
On an individual level, it’s challenging to trust strangers. We overcome this by working to establish a sense of familiarity in our digital communities. The mere-exposure effect or the familiarity principle states that in the face of many options, choices or in this case - lots of content, individuals develop preferences for the things and people that they become most familiar with.
The takeaway — a large component of establishing trust in digital settings is being highly visible on a consistent basis. Half the battle is becoming familiar with an audience. You do this by producing a lot of content on a consistent basis.
But becoming familiar isn’t so simple.
According to Dunbar’s Number, most people can only maintain 150 stable relationships. This is important to understand in the context of audience building. It’s hard to keep track and feel familiar with an infinite number of people. That’s why it’s helpful to focus on a niche topic and build your strategy to become familiar with a narrow range of community. It’s much easier to become familiar with people that are already actively seeking your content on a regular basis.
But it’s not enough to get in front of the same group of people repeatedly. Your content must be of high quality. In a commoditized information market the quality of the work you produce matters. It’s a key differentiator.
Self Promotion to Attract Attention & Establish Familiarity
How else can you differentiate your content? Using the network effects that come from strategic self-promotion.
Aimlessly self-promoting is a wasted effort. Your self-promotion tactics must support your broader content strategy. Promoting your topic and keywords in communities that are more likely to care about your content than not.
This is important because not all social media platforms are created equal. They serve different communities and have different tradeoffs. Similar in concept to Paul Graham’s essay, Cities and Ambition, you can think of these platforms as having unique personalities and attributes.
You need to find the right platforms with the right communities to promote your topic.
As an example, I tried promoting a summary article about VR on Hacker News. It’s a community with a sophisticated understanding of technology. This was not the best place to post a high-level overview essay. Although it’s a technology forum, my essay didn’t provide enough depth to be of interest to the community. As a result, it didn’t drive any traffic to my essay.
It’s important to invest time in finding the right platforms to self promote. Each time your content is shared, it increases the likelihood that interested people will interact with you. This reinforces the mere-exposure effect and the likelihood that you will develop a serious following.
Sharing also supports stronger rankings in how your content is indexed by search engines. The more people that share links to your content, the higher you rank, and the easier it is for interested people to find your work. It’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop.
The Bottom Line
It’s important to build an overarching strategy to support your content creation. Without a strategy, your audience building tactics will more than likely lead to wasted effort and frustration.
By learning how the internet works and will evolve over time, you can ensure that your audience building is successful.
Other essays on the attention economy to support your understanding of the Information Age:
Why is “The Media” Becoming Polarized?
The attention economy is transforming media in the Information Age
Building Trust in the Digital Age
How technology created a new path to establishing trust in a digital world