4 Reasons Why You Need To Build Your Audience Before Your Product

Let’s keep it simple.

Building a product that can be successfully marketed and sold to the masses is hard. Like, super hard.

It requires a number of things both on a business and consumer-level to go right. Between the right connections, timing, understanding the market and having a skillful team in support, as many, if not all, variables need to break in your favour.

The classic approach has always been “If You Build It, They Will Come”. Or described alternatively, a process where a product is designed and produced, marketing is initiated and customers are hopefully acquired through a couple of different sales channels. This approach can lead to success but carries a lot of risk. And it’s incredibly difficult to pull off.

Thanks to our continuously connected world and the power of social media, the classic approach has been flipped and can now be done in reverse. Instead of putting the product before finding a market, we can now build the audience and bring them a product that they actually want.

Like I said at the beginning, let’s continue to keep things simple. Building an audience before launching a product is advantageous due to the following:

  1. It establishes a group of qualified buyers that can eventually be sold to.
  2. The audience acts as a test group, providing feedback and helping to better achieve product-market fit.
  3. Having an audience establishes credibility and expertise in a field, validating work to outsiders.
  4. In many instances, it’s less costly and resource intensive to build an audience first.
“Marry the problem — not the solution” — David Bailey

If there’s a single guiding principle of putting the audience before the product, that’s it. Allow the audience to reveal their pain to you and solve for the pain.

Here’s why the audience-first approach should be the go-to technique for the bootstrapping entrepreneur.

1. The customers, market and pain are identified ahead of launching an actual product.

After all the R&D, product development, marketing campaigns and sales calls, what happens if no one wants your product? This is a constant and very real fear for any entrepreneur looking to bring something new to market. Look at what happened to Juicero as a recent example.

Why not avoid a nightmare like this and establish who the buyers before the product is complete. That’s the beauty of building the audience first. In an audience-first approach, time is taken to build a loyal following who continue to provide their attention in exchange for valuable content of some kind. This can be done a number of ways: blogging, podcasting, through Instagram, Twitter or creating videos on YouTube, as examples.

To demonstrate, let’s use creating YouTube videos which review different types of craft beers as our audience building method. Over time, viewers should start to resemble a pool of potential customers based on shared characteristics (ex. 60% of subscribers drink a craft beer at least once a month). If the number of channel subscribers can be grown to 1,000, we now start to have the outline of a market. As a byproduct, this method also happens to reveal the possible pain of potential customers: finding an enjoyable craft beer. That’s why they keep coming back to hear the reviews. Now, when we’re ready to start a monthly craft beer subscription service, who would it make sense to promote it to first?

2. The audience acts as a test group for your product.

The idea of building a feedback loop between a business and its’ consumers often doesn’t get much airtime, but is super critical (especially with early releases). Thankfully, if the audience has been built in the correct way this part isn’t terribly difficult.

Whichever way a following is built, striving to build “two-way interactions” should be part of the plan. While the primary value exchange will be one-way, it’s important to “leave the door open” for the audience to communicate back on what’s working and what isn’t. Modern mediums for creating and sharing make this quite easy to do and commentary is actively encouraged. Feedback through comments, reactions (or non-reactions), clicks, views, etc. will help tell the story of how something has been received. Even without a product, the behaviour of the following should start to paint the picture of what appeals to them.

Going back to our example of craft beer reviews, a simple experiment could be to run two videos together and ask subscribers to “like” their preferred one. Other ideas: sending a short survey to subscribers, eliciting feedback through a contest or having subscribers comment on what beer to review next. These are all easy and cost-effective ways to have the audience start to shape the future product. Even better, whatever is created is molded to what is demanded by the market.

3. Having an audience validates the creator.

When someone walks down the street and sees a large crowd gathered around, the natural inclination is to stop and see what is happening. The crowd validates that whatever everyone is peering at is interesting or worth a look.

This is the reason why we observe some type of “liking” functionality across every social medium platform and customer reviews for online shopping. The audience helps the new visitor to decipher whether something is worth engaging with or not. Taken a step further, the audience builds the credibility and expertise of it’s conductor. If valuable info can be delivered regularly from a knowledgeable perspective, credibility will slowly build. Expertise comes from not only the audience deeming one to be a reliable and informed source, but outside acknowledgement too. In a world of Amazon customer reviews and Yelp ratings, the crowd can be of great influence.

Thinking again of craft beer, it’s easy to see why having an audience would help our longer-term goals. The more subscribers our YouTube channel has, the more likely we are to get higher views on our videos. With more views, our videos are more likely to get more “likes”, naturally surface higher in searches and more frequently be related to similar content. The increased publicity that comes with having the content more widely viewed reaffirms the value provided to existing and new audiences.

4. It is often more affordable and requires less resources.

Our audience-first approach yields another major advantage over initially building a product: cost.

In a base case, the tools needed to start a social media account, a blog or podcast are free. We need only to devote the time and attention to continually building content and a following. Available knowledge resources and productivity tools can help to better cater to our audience as the following grows. Additionally, at the initial stages small monetary investments can lead to large productivity gains versus comparable investments in a marketable product. Contrasted with building a product, which normally requires a larger investment of resources and expertise, and the winner is clear for the bootstrapped-minded.

How would this look to an aspiring YouTuber? Laptop, mic, solid internet connection and a sampling of local craft beers would be just about all needed to get started. For those crafty (pun, absolutely intended) enough, personally reaching out to craft brewers declaring love for the beverage, explaining the purpose of the YouTube channel and how they could help, will eventually lead to a complimentary 6-pack or two. A focus on authenticity and being knowledgeable will win over high-quality productions; people enjoy interacting with people that seem the most similar to them.

Situations where an audience-first approach may not work . . .

All ideas are not created equal and this method is definitely not a one-size fits all. While the audience-first approach works great for ideas that can be bootstrapped from humble beginnings or are targeted to consumers, there’s a few specific cases where building a product first is more sensible. Here’s a couple of examples.

  • Selling to businesses: Whereas consumers are willing to give their attention for a very low value threshold, the threshold for businesses is much higher. That, or you actually have to pay for their attention (think: lawyers bill by the minute, dentists bill by the tooth). Either an incredibly immense amount of value needs to be delivered by the creator or attention has to be bought (which kinda of defeats the purpose of what we’re doing).
  • If capital is available for investment: If capital is available and the long-term risks are minimal, start building. There’s definitely a benefit to growing a following and understanding the market beforehand, however, available funds acts as convenient way to more quickly resolve these issues. In many entrepreneurial cases speed is crucial, and capital undoubtedly helps to smooth the process from idea to reality.
  • A highly similar product already exists: Part of the reason for building a following first is establishing awareness for something that may be novel. If that awareness already exists, rehashing similar viewpoints will likely do little to attract attention. If the work of building awareness in a new segment is done, look to find a niche, make a marginal improvement on a existing solution and go to market.

But, how difficult is this in practice?

Like I said at the top: building a product from scratch that will have the best chance of success is difficult. Building an engaged audience which can ultimately be converted into paying customers is . . . less difficult.

It may sound a bit discouraging on the outside but in reality this route can lead to more opportunities and invaluable experience. Instead of being tied to one product, why not tie yourself to a few? Let the audience make the decision on what they want and make it seem like pure coincidence that you can happen to provide it.

How would this work for your great idea?

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