Early Audience Development Doesn’t Scale and That’s Okay
When I think about some of the media companies I respect the most, I admire how loyal their audiences are and how actively they share their content. There’s a community that exists that is really engaged with these brands.
However, that wasn’t always the case for them. For most of these media companies, the early years were about doing audience development that might not have scaled. The advice to “do things that don’t scale” is what many founders hear, but I think it is particularly necessary for media.
The ironic thing about a media business is that much of what we do doesn’t scale no matter how much we may want it to. Think about content creation. You can put some processes in place to help improve the speed that content is created, but at the end of the day, there is only so much a person can write. If you want more content, you have to hire more people or commission more pieces. One piece of content is still one piece of content and it takes time to create. Content creation is a linear growth exercise.
The same goes for sales by the way. No matter how hard you try, there are only so many hours in a day and a sales rep can only get on so many calls. The only way to increase the number of sales calls is to hire more people. So, doing things that don’t scale is literally in our DNA.
But audience development, I believe, is one area where we forget about doing the things that don’t scale. This is the sort of stuff that is monotonous, time-consuming, and you’re left looking at these microscopic changes to your audience and wondering if it ever will go anywhere. It can be appealing to try and find ways to grow the audience faster. Media companies that raise a lot of money often try to pay their way to growth and for early stages, this is the worst thing they can do.
In my opinion, any new business that is launching—and that’s either a new company or just a new vertical—should start with the simple things.
Let’s run through a few examples of what that might look like…
One thing that I try to do—and often fail at—is to reply to every single email that I receive from AMO readers. At any point, you can hit reply and it hits my main inbox. Here are two reasons I try to do this. First, you pay to read what I have to say and I believe that a semblance of access is part of that. Second, it allows us to build a slightly deeper relationship that might contribute to a reduction in churn. Plus, getting to know the people who read my publication week after week has become really nice.
The same is true for any media company. As the reader begins to form a relationship with the brand, they are more likely to stick around. Those early readers can go on to become brand ambassadors, early paid subscribers, attendees of your events, or prospective advertisers.
You may not realize it now, but by replying to those early emails, engaging with them, and then thanking them, you’re setting a foundation for the future.
Another idea is seeking out the ideal readers of your publication and engaging with them one-on-one. This can be done in a variety of ways, but one of the more interesting tactics is using LinkedIn messages. If you know the names of companies that operate in your industry, you can find their lists of employees and send a quick message to each of these people letting them know about your newsletter.
A simple script could be:
Hey [Insert Name],
I write a weekly newsletter about the business of [whatever]. I break down the five most important stories of the week and offer context on why it’s so important.
If you think this would be helpful to you, I’d love if you subscribed.
It’s true that there is a ton of message spam on LinkedIn, but if you actually get the person’s name right and are quick with your message, it could get you the early subscribers you want for your newsletter. I wrote the above script in about 30 seconds, so maybe you can come up with something a little better, but the point is the same.
Think about it another way. If you send 1,000 messages and you get a 10% conversion, that’s 100 people on your email list. Is it fun? No. Is it scalable? No. But it’s 100 targeted people that are now on your email list who can fall in love with what you’re doing and share it themselves.
Another example is how Adam White at FOS created his early content. In his AMO podcast episode, he talked about how he did 110 informational interviews over the course of the first year of the company. This content served a dual purpose for him.
The first is that he needed content to actually build an audience. But the second was that each of these interviewees could go on to become an advocate for the brand. Why would you agree to be interviewed if you’re not at least a little interested in the individual or media publication that is interviewing you?
This was a smart way to build early goodwill with the right people in his industry. Fast forward to today and FOS is expecting to be profitable this year with high seven-figures of revenue.
One final idea is to look at Quora as a place to find an audience. Last summer I wrote about this:
Quora is a question & answer site that, often times, ranks pretty highly for many of the same keywords you might be trying to rank for. The strategy here is straightforward. You use Quora to help you build audience to the content you created targeting that keyword.
When you find a question that is related to your article, you want to write a solid answer to it. So, if I had an article about SpaceX or ULA and I saw the question “What’s the difference between SpaceX and ULA,” I could reference my content in the answer and link back to my site.
To succeed here, you need to create really great answers, which means you might spend 5-10 minutes writing something up. And it might be a complete flop and few people engage with it immediately.
However, these answers live forever, so if yours is the best, it might become the one people see first. Years from now, this work that you did could still be sending users your way.
The reality is this… much of this is not scalable. And honestly, it’s probably not the best use of your time once you’ve got that foundation figured out and you’re seeing growth happen because of your current audience. But that’s the real point right there: until you have a foundation of loyal users, you’re not going to have anyone to share your publication either on a platform or through word of mouth. Once you’ve done this work, you’ll have loyal readers and then they’ll start to help you grow.
It may not be glamorous, but my suspicion is that the media companies that do this, especially when they’re starting out, are the ones that will succeed in the future. Send 1,000 LinkedIn messages, reply to 100 questions on Quora, and respond to every reply you get. As you look back years from now, those people that sign up might still be loyal readers.