Recently one of my readers reached out via email with this question:
The few times I actually tried to start small half-time online business I’ve always run into the same problem: considering that I’m 19 years old and that I have almost no network (I have friends and stuff, but we don’t share interests when it comes to this kind of things) how should I go about starting an audience from scratch?
This is a great question. After all, if building an audience were no problem then marketing would be a cinch! All we’d have to do is tell our beloved audience that we have a new product, and because they love us so much they’ll open their wallets and tell all of their friends!
If only it were that easy.
Multiple Levels of Audience
Before we get into discussing how to start an audience from scratch, let’s list out the various types of audience relationships:
- Acquaintance - These people have heard of you or your company. That’s it. If they hear of you again, it will sound familiar, and they’ll likely pay more attention.
- Informed Acquaintance - These people have heard of you, and they actually know a bit about you or your company.
- Follower - These people know about you, and want to continue knowing what you are up to in the future.
- Customer/Client - These people are ready to give you something (time, money, personal data) in exchange for the value you or your company provides.
- Advocate - These people know you, and like you. They may be Customer/Clients, perhaps not, but they are spreading the word for you.
For the most part these levels of audience increment sequentially. Someone starts acquainted with you or your company, and it takes a few positive interactions for them to eventually become advocates.
For the following methods of growing your audience from scratch, we’re going to focus on targeting the first three levels of audience.
1. Twitter Relationships
One of the easiest ways to connect with new people is via Twitter. You can search out who is interested in your topics by using Twitter’s search tool and reading through the Tweets. Once you find a handful of folks with similar interests, look at who they are following and who is following them. Pretty soon you’ll have a large hand-full of relationships ready to pursue.
There are a number of ways that you can turn some of those Twitter folks into members of your audience. The best way is to get them to notice you by being helpful. Retweet things that they are tweeting, answer questions that they post out on Twitter, reply to interesting things that they are tweeting if you feel that you will be adding value to the conversation.
I can list off a number of relationships that I have now that started this exact way. Some of these folks have gone on to be regular readers and commenters on this blog, some help promote a project that I’m working on, and some have purchased my SaaS Marketing Essentials book.
2. Forum Reputation
Another way to build an audience from scratch is to spend time in a relevant forum for your target audience. There are a wide array of subreddits to check out and participate in, as well as dedicated sites that focus on specific niches. Are you a programmer? Hang out on StackOverflow. Are you a designer? Hang out on Dribbble. Are you a marketer? Hang out on Inbound.
The more you leave helpful comments, share interesting links, and add to the community overall, the more you will build reputation with others that are hanging out in the forums.
3. Guest Blogging
When I first created this list I thought that a good method of building an audience from scratch would be starting a blog. However, until you have an audience to share that blog with, nobody will read those posts that you’ve spent so much time on. Eventually you’ll want to have your own blog, but it is hard to gain traction with one until you have a small audience in the first place.
Instead of leveraging your own audience with your blog posts, why not leverage someone else’s? There are many blogs that accept guest posts within every niche. Some have formal guidelines for how to submit a guest post, but some may just have to start with an email using the contact form. A great introduction would go something like this:
Hey there! I really enjoy your blog, especially the recent post on (X). I’m curious to know if you would be interested in a guest post on (related topic Y), as that seems it would be a good fit for your audience. If this sounds interesting to you I can send over a draft for your review, just let me know!
If you have guest posted elsewhere, feel free to include links to those articles at the end of this email. Also, if they respond positively, make sure you also follow up by asking what guidelines, if any, they would like you to follow. There may be a certain length that they try to stay over/under, or a certain number of images they try to include with each post, etc.
4. Attend a Conference
A way to supercharge your network and audience is to attend a conference and get to know folks face-to-face. If you can’t get away to a conference, go to meetup.com and check out a local event where you can meet some people in-person.
It is human nature to feel closer to those whom you have met in person, and as a result, become a part of their audience to some degree. One day I started noticing that the majority of people who were retweeting, replying to, and favoriting tweets of mine were people that I’ve met in person. After making this discovery I created a dedicated Twitter list of people that I’ve met, and I make sure to interact with those folks to keep relationships strong.
5. Give Something Away
Recently I stumbled across the story of Josh Earl, who grew his audience by over 200K subscribers in 2 weeks using a giveaway. He didn’t even create the product for the giveaway, it was a license for a software application that costs $70. Now, Josh’s story is an anomaly, as I’ve run my own giveaways and have spoken with others who have done the same and that result is not typical. However, it is a valid method for gaining at least some new email subscribers, with potential for explosion if it takes off.
Besides a giveaway contest, you could create a PDF document that people can download in exchange for their email address. The more valuable the content within that PDF, the more likely people are going to share it with others. Mike McDerment from FreshBooks recently did this with success, as his free ebook was shared around the web via social media, ultimately growing and expanding FreshBook’s email list.
6. Comment on Other Blogs
Neil Patel from QuickSprout recently wrote a post outlining how he spent a month leaving 249 comments on others’ blogs, which in turn lead to 3,891 visitors back to his own site. Building a relationship with others is a way to build trust, and when folks have trust in you, they are more likely to subscribe to your email list.
7. Pay for It
I saved paid advertising for last because this one can be a little tricky. Certainly you could give someone $100 for signing up for your list, but unless the value of having them on your list is greater than that, you are wasting your money. If you aren’t already, eventually you will be monetizing your list by offering them products for sale, or growing traffic to your site where you have paid advertisements, etc.
The key is to find out about what percentage of those on your list end up making a purchase, and then doing some math to determine the average value of a subscriber. If, for example, you discover that the value of a subscriber is worth about $1, and you’ve found a channel that costs about $.50 per acquisition, then pouring money into advertising makes a lot of sense.
Now, before you get to that point, there is still some value in paid advertising. Sometimes it is needed to get the ball rolling with your first handful of subscribers. Perhaps you just need that little boost to start to get some social mentions going and word-of-mouth sharing.
Getting started without an audience can look like an uphill battle. However, with a little creativity, some time, and perhaps even a little cash, there are a handful of ways to get that initial flow of signups coming.
Do you have any tips to share on growing your audience from scratch? What has worked for you? Share with us in the comments.