I hear from a lot of small business owners who say that they want to build an audience.
They want to increase their followers on Instagram or get more views on YouTube. They want more subscribers on their email lists or have more people tune in for their live streams.
They’ve been told that that’s how you grow your business and eventually get customers.
But they’ve been told wrong.
It’s not that building an audience to eventually get some customers doesn’t work. It’s that there are far faster, less energy intensive ways to find customers.
There are some businesses for which having an audience is critical. But there are far more (and generally more profitable businesses, too) that have no audience. They might not even have what many have come to believe marketing looks like in the 2020s.
These business owners know that finding clients is different than building an audience.
And that’s what I want you to know, too.
Before I get into the nuts and bolts of how you do one or the other, I just want to break down some math for you. Because the reality of how this works can be jaw-dropping.
Imagine you run a coaching business, and you have spots for 20 clients per year. You know there’s a 50/50 shot that someone who gets on the phone with you will book into your program. So, throughout the year, you need to talk to about 40 people to hit your numbers.
Many of your 20 clients send a few referrals your way. You also do a few podcast interviews and contribute a column to a website frequented by your ideal customer. You spend some time genuinely connecting with people online and off.
You can easily find 40 people to talk to with minimal marketing.
On the other hand, imagine you run a business with a signature course. To cover your expenses, pay yourself, and leave money to invest in your next round of advertising, you need to sell to 100 students.
The average conversion rate on a sales page for this kind of program is about 2-3%. That means you need more than 3400 people to land on your sales page. And because the click-thru rate on your sales emails is about 15%, you need to have an email list with about 23,000 subscribers to hit your traffic goal.
To build that list, you write a compelling newsletter every week. You invest in advertising. You post daily to Instagram and Facebook. You host a podcast, and you’re starting a YouTube channel. It takes a lot of work, but you make it happen.
Either way, the business models might be generating the same amount of profit!
The difference here is stark.
When we’re just looking at the difference between enrolling 20 people and 100 people, it doesn’t sound that different, right? It’s a factor of 5.
But because the rate of actual sales tends to drop so precipitously when you start moving away from a high-touch offer into a more leveraged offer, the real impact of this move is immense.
So now, instead of finding 40 people to talk to, we need to find 23,000 people to talk to—a factor of (wait, I need a calculator for this one…) 575.
You would likely have to have the ear of 575 times more people to sell an online course to 100 people than you would to sell a group coaching program to 20 people.
I know that sounds shocking. And it certainly can be done with higher sales rates and a smaller audience. But I wouldn’t bank on it (literally).
I will also admit that this example is reductive. It’s not like finding 40 people to talk to about your program is effortless. But it’s likely something you can wrap your head around and create a plan for.
What accounts for this disparity in the numbers?
A business that’s focused on enrolling 20 clients per year will go out and find 20 people who are ready to make a change, ready to buy. This business purposefully positions its marketing and sales to engage with people already looking for support or a product.
An “audience member” has further to go before becoming a customer than someone actively looking for a solution to a problem or path to a goal. That’s why the conversion rate dips so low. It takes more effort and guidance to take someone from follower to customer.
Which scenario is more compelling to you?
Would you rather find 40 people to talk to? Or 23,000?
It’s not a trick question; both are compelling in their own way.
Personally, I love building an audience. I love creating things that lots of people are going to enjoy and find useful. I love stepping on a stage and seeing hundreds of people ready to hear what I have to say.
But not everyone loves that. You might not. You might think that sounds like the 4th circle of hell (and you could be right).
And even those who love having an audience might not choose to run their businesses that way.
You might find the first scenario—the one where you only talk to 40 people—much more compelling. And I am not going to fault you for it.
Today, I run 2 businesses with diametrically opposed marketing needs. One business requires constant audience growth and the content & advertising to make that happen. The other requires no marketing except the referrals from our happy clients.
Both work. Both are entirely good ways to run a business. Both can meet your financial needs and then some.
One takes significantly less time to market on a day-to-day basis and leads to results much faster.
Hint: it’s not the “building an audience” one.
So why do we fetishize building an audience?
My hot take is that it’s cultural.
We live in a celebrity culture.
We’re immersed in a culture dominated by personal brands vying for our attention.
So when someone comes along and tells you, “Building an audience is how you grow a business today,” you believe them. It seems natural. Because people are building audiences are all around you.
Becoming a minor celebrity is not a prerequisite for success.
This little diversion through the cultural backstory of our obsession with audience-building is essential because if we don’t address the root cause, we can’t take more effective action.
So how did we get here?
There are so many factors at play here—celebrity culture, internet culture, capitalist culture—that I don’t even know where to begin.
Nope, I do. Capitalism. It’s always capitalism.
Building an audience gives us a way to capitalize our selves.
Jia Tolentino writes in Trick Mirror:
Even if you avoid the internet completely—my partner does: he thought #tbt meant “truth be told” for ages—you still live in the world that this internet has created, a world in which selfhood has become capitalism’s last natural resource, a world whose terms are set by centralized platforms that have deliberately established themselves as near-impossible to regulate or control.
Capitalism is an economic system defined by the private ownership of the means of production. It is also a cultural system that teaches us how to value our work, the things we own, and the resources we have access to. Capitalism as a cultural system works in tandem with white supremacy, misogyny, and other systems of oppression and enforcement to maintain the power of a privileged few.
Within this system, we’re trying to survive, which means finding ways to be useful, productive, and valuable. So few of us have the power to own anything today, let alone a means of production.
Except when it comes to our selves.
At the intersection of internet culture and celebrity culture and capitalist culture, we find a means of producing attention-grabbing “content.” Scare quotes are deliberate.
By building an audience, we solidify our ownership of that means of production and turn our selves into attention factories.
Except—EXCEPT!—we don’t even get to bring our “products” to a free market because our ability to trade in attention is predicated on the regulation (read: algorithms) of companies that definitely don’t care about how many followers we have.
Building an audience can feel like a safety net.
Jenny Odell writes in How To Do Nothing:
The removal of economic security for working people dissolves those boundaries—eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will—so that we are left with twenty-four potentially monetizable hours that are sometimes not even restricted to our time zones or our sleep cycles.
If we can turn our ideas, knowledge, or even our lives into monetizable units of capital, maybe then we’ll be secure.
Building an audience makes that feel more possible. It’s not so hard to believe that having an audience means that there are people who will buy the offer you slap together if you run into an unexpected expense or happily pay your medical bills through GoFundMe if you get sick.
It’s not hard to believe because it very well might be true. But the trade-off for constructing this makeshift safety net is pretty gnarly.
Building an audience can be a 24/7 job if you let it. It will consume you if you’re not careful (and sometimes even when you are).
Building an audience can influence the way you think about every small thing you do. Is this shareable? Should I post this? What does this say about me?
That’s not a safety net. It’s a cage.
And while the complete lack of a safety net in the United States means that this is a genuine necessity for many, building an audience is no substitute for support.
Yes, I write this having the privilege of having built an audience before everyone was building an audience. So it feels safer for me to admit to the harm trying to keep up with that success has caused me (and others).
But that doesn’t negate the genuine threat that crafting your safety net by building an audience can pose.
Building an audience is a bait and switch.
Most people teaching small business owners how to build an audience aren’t actually teaching the tactics they used to build their own audiences.
They use social media—and their sizable follower counts—to give you ideas about what to post, how to connect with other audience-builders, and how to work the algorithm.
But what they don’t tell you is that they built their audiences by:
- Being in the right place at the right time
- Paying (money or attention) for exposure to established audiences
- Conforming to western (white & straight) beauty standards
Me? I started building an audience in 2009. I was very much in the right place at the right time. That’s not to say that my blog posts and tweets didn’t have merit—they certainly did. But it was a gazillion times easier to connect with people at that time.
I also got exposure to established audiences. I didn’t have the money to invest in a $30,000 mastermind program (which is how many of today’s small business social media darlings get exposed to their first big audience). Still, I did have the time to invest in developing relationships with people whose audiences were more significant than mine.
I paid to travel to conferences where I was invited to speak (for free) to audiences. I spent the time to develop courses I could have sold for 10x the price that, instead, I delivered for free to audiences of 10s of thousands. I worked brand partnerships with Etsy, DailyWorth, and others.
My experience isn’t an outlier.
This is precisely how audiences get built—then and now.
Where I really missed the boat was conforming to western beauty standards. My extremely short hair, big glasses, and questionable fashion choices were all knocks against my ability to attract massive crowds. That’s not a complaint—just an observation.
Even still, I paid for flashy photoshoots and makeup artists and designer clothing to play the game. It didn’t even occur to me not to try to look the part in my own way.
If you’ve ever seen a small business owner “glow up” as they become more successful, it’s tempting to think that it’s a direct result of financial abundance. And that’s not exactly wrong.
But it’s not exactly right, either.
It’s a power play.
People who conform to the of-the-moment western (white & straight) beauty standard have more power in our visual culture. And so when someone purposefully—if not consciously—adopts the hairstyle, clothing, makeup, body type, and lighting that we associate with that power, we naturally give them deference.
Of course, it’s totally fine to do your hair and clothing and makeup and use your ring light in a way that makes you feel best! It’s just that often what makes us feel best (and appear more powerful) is something that’s being dictated to us by some fracked-up systems.
Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist who specializes in the intersection of race, gender, education, and digital technology, told Ezra Klein in a recent podcast episode:
…macroeconomists, especially more critical ones, will now say that what you’re really seeing is, with the polarization and the pulling apart of the economic structure, a re-emergence of the importance of how social position conditions your understanding of your financial position. But if you look at women, however, women workers, for example, non-white workers, that’s always been true. It’s always been the case that we understand the fine-grained differences in our relative economic status based on who we are and our lack of social status.
This is why women apologize for not putting on makeup or drying their hair before a Zoom call. Makeup is a way of signaling our status as professionals (itself a very colonized idea).
It’s why women spend gobs of money on a website before they even have a business. Our digital image needs to match our desire for the status of “entrepreneur.”
The list could go on and on—and it only gets longer as you add more intersecting identities into the mix.
Not conforming to these standards risks being mistaken as not credible, lacking authority, and forgettable—the deadliest sin of internet culture.
The western (white & straight) beauty standard has always been weaponized against us.
But lately, we’ve turned the weapons on ourselves.
Business influencers will tell you how to use hashtags or cute videos to grow your audience through the perfectly coiffed waves and smoky eyes and shallow depth of field. They’ll show you how to use all the latest features to boost your engagement and work the algorithm.
And we do as we’re told—because beauty privilege is a heckuva drug.
Meanwhile, the thousands of followers they’re adding to their accounts come from visibility swaps with their mastermind buddies, the PR people they pay to get them into big-name magazines, and the partnerships they do with brands.
That’s the bait and switch.
Okay, this is getting depressing.
I didn’t set out to write a depressing article about audience-building. I actually find all of this stuff quite exciting. Because, once you know what’s really going on, there are so many shoulds and supposed-tos that you can shed.
At this point, you’re probably wondering:
“So am I supposed to build an audience or not?!”
Building an audience is an excellent move to make if you love the kind of work that attracts an audience or if you’re passionate about building a business model that requires a large audience to be profitable.
But if neither of those things is true. You can relax. Take a deep breath. Sigh it out.
You don’t need to build an audience so much as find clients or customers. And those two actions can look very different.
So I thought it would be helpful to break down common marketing strategies and how they take shape whether your priority is to build an audience or find customers.
Social Media: Audience-Building vs. Finding Clients
Social media marketing seems like it’s best-suited for building an audience.
When you’re building an audience on social media, you create content that’s designed for (relative) mass appeal, geared to an audience who may not know your brand at all, and easily shareable.
There are a lot of ways to do this that probably make you roll your eyes.
But there are ways to use social media marketing with nuance and finesse. It’ll just take some experimentation to find the right balance for you.
When you’re finding clients on social media, you’re likely using platforms more like a consumer and less like a creator.
Sure, you post stuff—but your profile is more of a portfolio than a traffic engine.
Instead, you spend time connecting with other people 1:1. You’re leaving genuine comments on posts and messaging people in response to their posts. You are networking.
The people you are networking with may or may not turn into customers. That’s not really the point. The point is that building relationships pays off—and it pays off much faster than building an audience.
Social media can be a potent networking tool (and that’s how early audience-builders built their audiences, too). But you do actually have to put work into it. The good thing about that is that the results are immediate. Instead of posting to crickets, you’re getting replies and developing friendships.
Content Marketing: Audience-Building vs. Finding Clients
The audience-building side of content marketing looks pretty similar to social media. You create content that will appeal to a relatively broad section of your potential market in a way that appeals to someone brand-new to your brand and makes it easily shareable.
Then, you figure out how you want to distribute it: guest blog post, post on your own site, search engine optimization, asking others to share it, etc…
You might even pay to get that content in front of new-to-you people.
Once you’ve got the content in front of new people, your goal is to get them to sign up for your email list or, at the least, follow you on social media. You know it’s going to take some time for them to be ready to buy.
On the other hand, content marketing to find clients is different. The content you create is designed for the person who is actively evaluating their options. They might be in other parts of that process, but they’re aiming to learn something, fix something, or achieve something and trying to figure out the best way to do that.
That means that search engine optimization is a great option—people who are actively searching tend to be much closer to making a purchase.
Case studies also work really well for content marketing to find clients. You can also create content that explains your process, sheds light on a specific issue or offers unexpected insight into the very thing your potential client is thinking about.
When you’re creating content to find clients, you know that a single blog post can inspire an inquiry or even a purchase. A couple of good pieces can really seal the deal. When you’re marketing to find clients, it’s a much faster process. And, you don’t need nearly as many people to read, watch, or listen to what you’ve created to reach your goals.
Podcasting & Video: Audience-Building vs. Finding Clients
Podcasting and video seem like they might have a lot in common—but they function pretty differently when it comes to audience-building.
Video is excellent for audience-building because YouTube is a search engine and a content suggestion engine. If you’re creating the kind of content people are looking for, YouTube will show it to people. And, some of those people will turn into new subscribers.
Podcasting is not great for audience-building because podcast directories do not work in the same way. Except for the lucky few podcasts featured on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, podcasts just don’t have a good means for discovery.
Video is also pretty good at finding clients or fueling purchases. The viewer can spot your credibility and experience what you offer in 10 minutes or less. Like with content marketing, because YouTube shows videos people are searching for, you know viewer purchase intent is pretty high depending on the topic.
Podcasting is great for finding clients. Your podcast audience is highly invested in you already; they take 30-60 minutes out of their week to listen to you! However, many podcasters don’t ask for the sale directly from their show, which I consider a mistake.
Partnerships: Audience-Building vs. Finding Clients
Partnering with other businesses is the most underrated way to both build an audience and find clients.
A partnership can take many forms, but the underlying idea is the same. In a partnership, each person in the mix (2 or more) gets exposure to the audience or customer base of the other(s).
It could be a joint webinar, podcast interview, social media takeover, special session in a membership community or coaching group, etc…
Anything that allows you to show off in front of a captive audience is fair game.
The difference between purely audience-building and purely finding clients here is pretty small. The main factor is the size of the group you’re being introduced to and how “close” you get to individual participants.
For instance, many years ago, I did a talk at Etsy headquarters that was broadcast to thousands and thousands of Etsy sellers. This partnership was fantastic for growing my audience. It wasn’t as great for finding clients directly—but indeed, some of those who saw the video eventually became customers.
On the other hand, I taught many classes at CreativeLive in front of a small live studio audience. While those classes were also broadcast to thousands and helped build my audience, my proximity and interaction with the live audience meant that I often earned new clients directly from those classes.
I realize those examples might seem less than accessible.
Audience-building and finding clients through partnerships work at any scale. Speaking to a small group of 6 about precisely what you do for your clients can have incredible results. Hosting a joint workshop with a buddy can put you in front of 50 or 100 or more new people at a time.
Partnering with other business owners probably seems pretty obvious. But don’t discount partnering with brands, too. Think about the apps you use and how you could add value to those audiences. Software companies often host guest posts on their blogs or guest teachers for workshops.
So now what?
If you’ve made it this far, you might very well be questioning your entire marketing strategy. How do you figure out whether you need to put more energy into building an audience or finding customers? How do you adapt what you’ve been doing to meet the actual needs of your business?
First, take stock of your business model. Are you operating a model that requires a big audience? Or are you running a model that can thrive on word of mouth, referrals, and networking?
Next, figure out why you’ve been marketing your business the way you have been—and whether it’s working or not. Have you been following the “best practices?” Are those best practices the ones that correspond to your industry or business model? Have you been operating out of scarcity or FOMO? How could doing less allow you to be more effective?
Pay close attention to whether the things you spend the most time on when it comes to marketing are actually the activities that bring in clients or customers.
Finally, reconstruct a minimalist marketing strategy that reflects how your business really works and what it needs to thrive.
Bottom line: do what works. I know that’s easier said than done—but by paying attention to why you feel like you should be doing certain things, you can spend your energy on the activities that actually make a difference.
This article is kicking off a whole month devoted to building an audience (and finding clients) inside The What Works Network! If you’ve been looking for a home on the internet to support the growth & development of your small business, we’d love to have you join us. Click here to learn more!