How to start building an audience when you don’t have any audience yet

We started Hacking UI with zero followers, zero readers, zero people who knew what Hacking UI was, zero people who cared, zero people on our mailing list. Fast forward 3 years later…
Yeah, that’s me, on stage, after being invited to talk in front of hundreds of people in a conference abroad.

Ok, so you want to start getting yourself out there. You want to write, blog podcast, or whatever it might be.

It might be in order to develop your personal brand. It might be to extend your client reach. It might be just to share experiences with others.

The thing is — you already made a crucial decision: You want your thoughts to be communicated publicly. You want to gain followers.

You figured out for yourself what Grant Cardone says in his book The 10x Rule: “Obscurity is your enemy”.

“Obscurity is your Enemy” — Grant Cardone

But then, a scary thought arises

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An annoying voice echoes inside your head:

“Who am I really writing for? I have no audience yet. Who will see my articles, even if I do write them? How can I build an audience if I don’t have none yet to begin with?”.

Usually this is where most people give up and don’t start writing at all. But that’s a shame. You should definitely not stop here, and in this article I will completely break down why.

Furthermore, in this article we will:

  • Define what ‘Audience’ actually is
  • Sharpen that definition even more for us aspiring content creators
  • Term drop & explain ‘The Honeymoon Period’ and why it’s important
  • Term drop & explain ‘The Circles Method’ for gaining audience
  • Go into the actual actionable items you can do RIGHT NOW to start building your audience
  • Explain how to build and maintain a weekly newsletter
  • Discuss writing online, and how you can make it work out even if you are busy like a bee
  • And we’ll finish off with some inspiration and food for thought

Sounds good? Let’s go!


I’ve been in the no-audience situation three times already. 2 out of those 3 times were with my blogs. Both started with zero audience. but the first time that I’ve been in this ‘I have no-audience’ chicken and the egg situation was 9 years ago, when I decided to become a freelance designer.

I had to start with zero experience, and zero clients. I think that was the hardest point to get ANY ‘audience’, but I still managed to do it and grow a nice clientele.

Nowadays, I run two content publications, one of which is my full-time job and main business.

I started out 5 years ago with Pixel Perfect Magazine, which - today — is Israel’s most popular design blog (in Hebrew). Then, 3 years later, I launched Hacking UI, with my partner David.

From the Hacking UI ‘Scaling a Design Team’ event in San Francisco, Nov 2015 (more pictures from the event are here, audio recording here)

With Hacking UI we managed to grow our audience to over 23,500 email subscribers in only 3 years, all organically.

Today, Hacking UI is our full-time job. Our audience made it possible for us to quit our (pretty damn decent) jobs, and now we can serve our audience even better!

Ok, enough about us, let’s talk about you.

Let’s define ‘audience’

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Before we go into the actual methods of starting to get audience for your content, let’s clarify what ‘audience’ actually is:

I would define it as so:

Your audience is made of actual people (humans) that:

  • Read your stuff once, but then later consciously return to read your content
  • Actively seek to consume new content from you
  • Usually sign up to get content from you in any ‘push’ mechanism (i.e. They sign up to your mailing list where YOU can control when to send them your content)

By this definition, we are not talking about people who are just visiting your site once, or reading one article from you and moving on. We’re talking about people that consumed your content, and then thought ‘This is great!!’ and signed up to get more, and then actually got more.

Let’s get even deeper with what ‘Audience’ should mean to you

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I, personally, see my core audience as my email subscribers.

People who actively subscribe to get my content in their inbox (by the way you’re welcome to subscribe to the Hacking UI newsletter as well).

I’m grateful for any ‘like’ or retweet on social media, but I can’t count those people as part of my core audience.

Traffic to your blog, or social media followers, are just random people for you as a writer. They come and go. You can call them ‘audience’, but they are certainly not your core audience.

When you post on any social platform, hoping to get your message across to your audience:

  • You are at the mercy of that platform’s algorithms (and we all know how frequently those change)
  • You are at the mercy of the time of day your audience visits their feed. As you know, any item in a feed has a super short lifespan on social networks (unless you pay to boost them).
  • You are competing with that person’s friends for his/her attention.
  • You have no control over who leaves you or joins you. These people can like your FB page one day, and then Unlike you the next day without you being able to ask them ‘Hey, where are you going? Why are you leaving?’

An email, on the other hand, is way more personal:

  • You have full control over the sign-up funnel
  • You have (almost) full control over the unsubscribe funnel
  • Plus, people that give you their emails show a higher level of trust in you (unless you tricked them into giving you their emails which is a wrong way to go)

With email there are still some factors that you can’t control. For instance when Google decided to create that “promotions” tab in Gmail, making most newsletters disappear into that tab and never make it to ‘inbox’. Nevertheless, email is the safest tool for you to communicate with your audience in my opinion.

There are a lot of ways to collect emails from people. Most email list building techniques go like this:

People see your content → You offer them value by downloading something → they sign up, but don’t give a shit about you

But I want you to do it differently:

People see your content→ You give them so much value, and only then you tell them they can sign up→ They sign up and can’t wait to consume more of what you have to offer.

The interesting thing in this second option is that once people sign up to your list like that, they start what’s called “The Honeymoon period” with your emails. They will wait anxiously for your next email, they will share your content, and they will keep this relationship alive as long as you keep providing them value.

By giving them value — you make them true fans. Which, by the way- you need only 1000 true fans to be successful.

Therefore, anytime I write or put out any piece of content, I do it with one main purpose: To make a positive impact on peoples’ lives.

Whether be it through inspiring them, delighting them, or teaching them something that will benefit them in their work or lives.

Do not write or put out content just for the sake of gaining audience. If you do that, you will most likely produce content which is not valuable.

If a person reads your article and you manage to make an impact on them, they are yours (in a good way).

Think about yourself. How many sh*tty or ‘clickbaity’ articles do you come across? How many intelligent-yet-so-fuck*n-mediocre articles that don’t teach you anything new do you come across on a regular basis?

But, sometimes, just sometimes, you come across an amazing article that you tell yourself “WOW!!! I have to follow the person who wrote this! I want to read everything she has to say”.

Ok, so we agree that the best way to get an audience, is by producing content that will spark emotion and make an impact.

The word ‘content’ has a bad rep. Let’s call it ‘publicized thoughts’

If you gain an audience through your high quality publicized thoughts, it’s that audience that will eventually support you in a win-win situation when you have something to sell them.

Yes, I said the ‘S’ word. ‘Selling’ is no curse-word. It’s what made me be able to quit my day job and shift Hacking UI from a side project to my full time job. Now I can serve the Hacking UI community way better.

Your audience should be people that you would be happy to meet & talk to over a cup of coffee.

These are people, that if you come to their hometown and organize a meetup, will show up and be eager to say hello and meet you in person.

So, therefore, I press hard on having a mailing list, and more so on running an active weekly newsletter.

“Ok Sagi, I agree with you on the mailing list part, and I now know what ‘audience’ should mean for me. But how do I start building it?”

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Ok so for this I would like to start off with this short 2min video from a talk that I gave at IT Weekend Ukraine:

(Note: If you’re like me, you would want to watch this at a faster speed, so I invite you to try out a free chrome extension I built that allows you to watch videos at faster speed. It will save you a lot of time in watching videos online)

Let’s call the method I described in this video The Circles Method.

The Circles Method Recipe for gaining audience

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Ingredients:

  • Your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and any social account you are already on
  • Your friends and family
  • Willpower
  • A sprinkle of patience

Method:

  1. Sign up, and open a mailing list on Mailchimp (10 mins). Can be on any other email marketing platform as well, but I use Mailchimp and it’s free up to 2000 subscribers.
  2. Get a link to refer people to sign up for your list (Mailchimp provides you with a sign-up page to share). Here’s the article that would teach you how to do that.
  3. Ask your family & friends to sign up to your mailing list. Call your mom/dad, your brother/sister. Have them sign up. Same with your friends. Talk about your newsletter on every occasion. Have your friends sign up when you meet them for drinks (Mailchimp has a mobile app for adding people to your list on the go, and I bet any other email provider has as well).
  4. Reach out to ALL your friends on social media:
    a) Post publicly on facebook about it: 
    “Hey all, I have a new newsletter I’m starting, and would love any of you to sign up! This will keep you updated on what I’m up to in my career. Would love your support! And more so, if you can share this post it would be awesome and will help me maybe reach some of your Facebook friends that might find my content relevant to them.[LINK TO SIGN UP]”
    b)
    Send private messages to all your close friends.
    c) Send DMs and stories on Instagram & Snapchat to friends to sign up
    d) Send DMs on Twitter to friends and acquaintances, and tweet out publicly about it.
  5. Post the sign-up link on your social media profiles: Be it Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Linkedin, Dribbble, and any other relevant platform.

What will happen next:

Your first inner circle will now start liking and sharing your content.

For instance, let’s say you write about design and share it on FB.

Now, your brother might share your post, although he has no idea what the hell you’re talking about. But he cares about you and believes in you, so he shares. So now one of his friends happens to be interested in the topic you’re writing about. She sees your post, reads it, and enjoys it. She now subscribes to your list, and you get your initial ‘second circle’ audience!

These circles only expand and keep growing, and each circle (obviously) is bigger than the latter.

The Circles Method is just you starting to get the word out through your current audience.

Yes, your family & friends are your first circle audience. They might not be your most relevant audience. Hell, they might not be relevant at all to what you write about. But… they are your biggest fans and evangelists.

They will share the word about you in any possible situation they can, and keep on doing so FOREVER.

I still get likes and shares from my mom on some of my posts, and I have no problem with that. 👍

Activated your first circle? Great! Now it’s time to start developing the relationship with your audience

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In other words — time to start your weekly newsletter.

Start sending your audience something in their mailbox once a week. Why once a week? Because being in touch with your audience less than that is not effective to have them stick around and believe in you. Let alone TRUST you. You have to engrave your name in your audience’s minds.

But how do you come up with a good enough write up once a week?
Well, you don’t have to. In Hacking UI, we have a curated links newsletter, and we recommend you to start with one as well. It’s super easy to just share the links to what you already read/listen to/watch during the past week.

Every time you come across a nice article, just save it inside a spreadsheet. Then, once a week, go to Mailchimp, put a list of links, write a super short top paragraph about what you’ve been up to this past week or just describing what you liked about the links this week, and send away. Btw — You can even make this process and learning curve way easier with our own tools and course that we bundled together into a program we call CurationKit.

Even if you have only 3 people on your list to begin with, send your first issue right away, and treat every send like you have hundreds of people in your list already.

It’s actually the best thing ever because you can tweak your newsletter bit by bit to make it awesome already by the time you’ll have more people from that second circle join your list.

It’s also super important to develop that relationship with your audience from day one. Again — it doesn’t matter whether you have 3 people on your list or 20K. Treat your audience as the audience you wish it would be both in size and behavior.

Started sending that weekly roundup? Great, now it’s time to start writing?

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Start writing. Just start.

This is a topic to a whole different post, but you have to write without fear. Just write to inspire people in any way that has inspired you.

Write to teach people something that YOU learned recently that you think at least 50% in your industry/surrounding still haven’t learned. Write about your experience. Write an article showing what YOU read. Write an article describing your workflows and tools.

Do you want to create an impact in the world? Cool, but just sit your ass down and do it. You can also use this free email course to expand your knowledge on how to start writing effectively.

The beautiful thing is — It doesn’t have to be that often if you already have a weekly newsletter!

David and I wrote on Hacking UI every once in two months since we had our full-time jobs, but maintained our newsletter on a weekly basis.

The surprising effect of writing every once in two months was that people started to anticipate our articles.

We put out nice quality articles and our audience enjoyed it. Also, with today’s content overload, it’s refreshing to have a publication that takes its time in writing content (as long as the content that eventually gets created is valuable to your audience).

Creating an article every once in 2 months is a task that you can really get done. Just put aside about 1.5 a week to write, and you’ll be good with a long form article by two months. Think where you can squeeze an hour and a half. Maybe it’s in the mornings, maybe it’s in the evenings, maybe it’s on the weekends. But whatever you do, tell your loved ones about it, and book it in your calendar. When you finally get there — make sure to turn your iPhone on airplane mode and shut off any other distractions.

Whenever you put out an article, make sure to place a sign-up form at the bottom of it.

The form should say something like: “Did you enjoy this post? Sign Up for my newsletter so you won’t miss another article”.

To place the form, if you’re on Wordpress, use MC4WP, or just use the default embed widget from Mailchimp. If you’re on Medium, use Upscribe (or any other service allowing sign ups).

Don’t forget to later share each article you write to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and any social account you are on.

Here are some things you should do as well with each piece of content you make (I’ll name just a few):

  • On facebook, make a list of relevant groups to post to. Save that list as an excel, and use it with each new article you write. Make sure to read each group’s community guidelines and stick to them.
  • Post each article to other networks that you are less active on as well. maybe Linkedin, maybe some Slack channels in your field, share it on Reddit (find relevant subreddits by googling ‘best subreddits for [TOPIC OF YOUR ARTICLE]’).
  • Use Instagram! Post a picture of your article, and update the link to it as your main Instagram profile link. In Instagram you can’t link from image descriptions, you have only one call to action, and that’s from your main profile bio. In your picture’s description, explain what the article is about and ends with writing “link in bio”. Then add a second comment on your own picture with relevant hashtags. This site is amazing for hashtags.
  • Post on relevant upvoting platforms such as DN or HN or GH, and ask your friends to give you the first few upvotes so that it picks up (nobody will tell you to do that, by the way, but everybody does that). Don’t send them a direct link to your post on these platforms, but do tell them to go to the homepage of the platform, find your post there, and upvote it.

We all start with nothing

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We started Hacking UI with zero followers, zero readers, zero people who knew what Hacking UI was, zero people who cared, zero people on our mailing list.

Think about all the people that you follow and admire their writing. They too started with zero audience. Tim Ferriss started from zero, Pat Flynn started from zero, Jeff Goins started from zero, Paul Jarvis started from zero, Jason Zook started from zero, Benjamin P. Hardy started from zero, Tobias van Schneider started from zero, Julie Zhuo started from zero, and so did any other thought leader. Btw — if you haven’t yet followed any of the above, you should really do so!

Throw that bottle in the ocean

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To finish, I would like to talk about a part of Neil Gaiman’s inspiring commencement speech: “Make Good Art”.

He talks about “putting a bottle in the ocean” as the analogy for writing: Every time you write, it’s like putting a bottle in the ocean and expecting someone to receive it on the other end.

Not only to receive it — but to also write back so you know they got it.

At the beginning, it seems like nobody gets your message in a bottle. Seems like nobody reads your article or even cares. You have to patiently send one message, then another, then another. Be consistent, don’t give up. Have faith.

Slowly, you will start seeing those bottles return, and once you start seeing them return — they never stop.

You just have to be persistent. 
Never give up. 
Keep on writing. 
Be patient. 
Make good art!

Now go and start building your audience!

Got questions? I would love to help. I actually now dedicate 2 hours a week to help others, free of charge. You can book it here.

Enjoyed this post? Please show it by 👏

Want to get to know me more? Follow me on Instagram (and feel free to send me a DM so I’ll know you followed after reading this article and will follow you back)

Yours Truly,
Sagi Shrieber


Resources from this article:

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