EP 211: Building An Audience With Tara McMullin

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A year ago this week, I deleted about 12,000 people off my email list.

That meant that my audience shrank by about 80% with the push of a button.

GDPR was going into effect and, while I wasn’t caught up in the mass hysteria happening in the digital marketing world around compliance, I did look at the regulations as an opportunity to take a new approach to building an audience for my brand.

Quick aside—pro tip: never get caught up in any mass hysteria, especially when it’s about digital marketing.

The me of 2018 felt pretty calm and collected about the whole thing—but the me of 2016 or 2017 would have lost my marbles.

That email list—and the number attached to it—represented all of the work that I had put into writing, speaking, teaching, and positioning my business over nearly 10 years. But there was a problem…

I had become more attached to the number than the people on that list.

And that number was holding me back.

I viewed every marketing, branding, sales, or product development decision through the lens of that number.

I would experiment with messages, angles, and stories to see what would happen to that number—and all of the smaller numbers it would spit out, like click thru rate, open rate, or unsubscribes.

It wasn’t that I didn’t care about the people reading—I cared about them deeply. It’s just so easy to forget that numbers are people… and that sometimes the people I care about most just aren’t represented by the big number but by one that’s much smaller and harder to discern.

When I made the decision to all but start over with my email list, it was a decision to do the work to find that number, rediscover the right people, and rebuild my audience from there.

This month, we’re tackling a topic that tends to be top of mind for most small business owners: building your audience.

Whether your business is the kind that thrives with an audience of 10 or whether you’re aiming to reach millions, we’ll be exploring what works for a variety of entrepreneurs as they work to attract the right people and earn attention for their brands.

Now, I’ve been building an audience online for over 10 years but my perspective has recently made a big shift.

To kick off this month’s theme, I decided to share what’s working for me as we build an audience around honesty and transparency in small business—including my own.

The first thing that’s changed is who I show up as.

When my company made a big shift 2.5 years ago to focus on The What Works Network, I declared that I was no longer the teacher or coach. My products weren’t going to revolve around how much I knew and how much of that I could teach you.

I simply recognized that I didn’t have all the answers—and I wanted to turn my focus to gathering a group of people to build collective knowledge.

This represented a huge change in our business model—and I knew that.

What I didn’t realize at the time was how much that was going to change the way I approach audience-building, too.

For more than 12 months, my marketing strategy remained unchanged.

I would blog, podcast, and run webinars from the perspective I always had: as a teacher and expert.

This despite the fact that I declared our community a “guru-free” zone. We wanted to champion the expertise of all of our members, not a select few. We wanted to flatten out hierarchy and affirm the resourcefulness of everyone in our network.

And yet, here I was, essentially, building an audience and marketing a product in a way that was completely counter to the value proposition I was trying to sell and the philosophy we stand for.

I grew more and more frustrated with the results…

…until it finally dawned on me what I was doing.

I was trying to run in two different directions at the same time and getting absolutely nowhere.

I had to figure out how to run in one direction—and to do that, I needed to relearn everything I thought I knew about marketing.

I had been trained to market myself and my business as an expert, the go-to gal, the person with the answers.

But to successfully attract the right people to our new product, I needed to market myself as the person with the questions, the connector, the facilitator. I needed to market the business as a platform for exploration, a champion of finding what works for you.

Our podcast seemed to be the perfect way to do just that.

After all, it was already a medium in which I was tasked with having the right questions and connecting the audience to the right people. So I threw myself into building a new marketing strategy that revolved around What Works.

We started to build out content strategy more intentionally. We aligned our community focus with our podcast focus. We crafted a tagline and value proposition that could service both the podcast and the community.

Everything aligned.

My role shifted.

I started to get more and more comfortable with having a valuable perspective—but without needing to have all the answers.

And that led to the second big shift…

The second big change I made was how I created content on social media.

The way I use social media has changed a lot over the years.

The platforms have changed, the tactics have changed, and the results have changed.

But really, those changes were just about execution. The strategy was pretty constant—we just found new ways of executing that strategy as the years went on.

This year, my strategy changed.

In the past, my approach has been to prove I was an authority, that I was an expert worth following.

Then, I would endeavor to give people a good reason to get on my email list.

At which point, I would continue to prove that I was an authority and an expert. Eventually, I’d have something to sell and would use both social media and email marketing to give people a good reason to buy.

This year, as I’ve already mentioned, I abandoned the need to prove myself as an authority or expert.

Instead, my focus has been on modeling transparency and vulnerability.

Everything I do is about getting people comfortable with opening up and sharing something they might not otherwise share so that others can benefit from it.

That’s what I do here on the podcast. It’s what I do in our community.

But I’m not doing it very well at all if I’m not also modeling that transparency and vulnerability myself… if I’m not sharing the lessons I’m learning or the mistakes I’ve made.

So I’ve made a practice of doing exactly that.

I’ve chosen Instagram as the platform I’m most focused on right now.

It’s a great place for me to literally be seen—in selfies and portraits that display both my physical and lifestyle transformation over the last couple of years—and to be metaphorically be seen in short essays that stretch my ability as a writer and communicator.

Tactically, it means that I’ve switched my language from “you” language to “I” language.

I own the questions, the mistakes, and the learnings. I don’t force them on you.

If you scroll through Instagram, you’ll notice plenty of people who’s captions are all about you. You should remember this, you should do that, you should take no BS from anyone.

All of that “you” language creates a power dynamic. It subconsciously tells you that the person “youing” at you has it together and they can help you get it together.

Now, that framework might be legitimately useful for your business. But it’s pretty antithetical to mine!

So I abandoned that “youing” framework.

My short essays are all about me—my shortcomings, my mindset, my learning, my mistakes, my victories, and my progress. But in being all about me, they invite you to consider your own learnings, mistakes, and progress.

As a result, my followers have skyrocketed. My posts get saved and shared. Comments come fast and furious.

When I mentioned that I’d be talking about my own audience-building on the podcast, Brooke Frontiera, the co-founder of WonderWell Workshops, asked me how I manage to stand out without just getting “louder.” She said, “Louder just seems to be so close to noise.”

I agree.

And I never want to be part of the noise.

One of the best side effects of abandoning the “youing” framework is that what I share is so markedly different than what others who are building platforms share.

That difference helps my content rise above the noise.

But the other thing that helps my content rise above the noise without getting louder is by just being willing to be visible.

So much of social media strategy, from what I can tell, is actually about hiding. We’re hiding behind professional graphics, hiding behind photo shoots, hiding behind cute outfits, flat lays, and hipster coffee shops. We’re hiding behind mantras and memes.

The more content we put out, sometimes, the more we hide.

I decided to stop hiding and start showing up fully, honestly, transparently.

If you want more on my social media strategy, I recently went in-depth with both Jess Freeman on The Digital Lounge and Carol Cox on Speaking Your Brand. You can find both podcast interviews on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to What Works.

The final adjustment I’ve made to my audience-building strategy is abandoning the funnel.

Instead of building a sales and marketing funnel, I’ve been nurturing my ecosystem.

I used to think about building an audience the way many people do. It starts with the lowest barriers to entry, the podcast and my social media.

From there, people join the email list. Then they attend a free event or sign up for an interest list. Then, finally, some of those people buy our product—The What Works Network.

I would make flow charts, project conversion rates, and set goals for each level of that funnel system.

And? They’d never seem to work out.

It made sense in my head and on paper… but the microeconomic reality just didn’t prove out.

So I stopped trying to force it.

Instead of assuming that people would only buy once they got to a certain point in the funnel, I started assuming that people might buy from anywhere.

I started to assume that a taste of our product was enough to get people intrigued enough to sign up for their first month.

For instance, if I told you that sharing info like what I’m sharing here—the insides of my marketing strategy and how I approach it—was just the tip of the iceberg of what our members share inside The What Works Network, wouldn’t you want in?

So what does this look like tactically?

Once I focused on nurturing the ecosystem that already existed instead of crafting a funnel that few people followed, I realized I could start thinking of my audience-building strategy in terms of medium instead of channel.

That means I don’t have a Facebook strategy, an Instagram strategy, an iTunes strategy, or an email marketing strategy.

It means I organize my strategy around personal micro essays and candid conversations. Then, I distribute those two media as far and wide as possible.

My personal micro essays can end up on Instagram, on Facebook, in emails, and on LinkedIn.

My candid conversations can take the form of podcast episodes, videos, or live events.

My goal isn’t to shepherd people from one platform to another. It’s to meet them where they’re at with the media I create so that as many people as possible can engage with it, trusting that that content is going to be what they need to decide to take the plunge with us or at least stick around for more.

That brings me back to those 12,000 email addresses that I deleted.

Many of those people joined our email list when I was showing up in a different way and offering something completely different from what we offer now. Many of them joined when I was blogging regularly instead of podcasting. Many of them joined for all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of seasons that aren’t relevant to them or to my business anymore.

Instead of desperately trying to keep their attention and losing my own focus in the process, I decided to let it go.

And I believe my audience is bigger and stronger than ever because of it.

More people download the podcast or comment on my Instagram posts today than ever read or commented my blog posts. More people DM me or write back to emails I send. More people save and share my work.

And, because of all that, more people are using our product on a daily basis.

My audience has changed a lot over the years and that’s okay.

And most importantly? I’m glad you’re part of it.

I’d love to give you a sneak peek at what we have on tap for this month we’re spending on building your audience.

First up, next week you’ll hear from Andrea Jones from the Savvy Social Podcast. Andrea shares that, despite being the founder of a social media agency, she is most engaged in building her audience through behind-the-scenes networking. You’ll hear exactly how she does and why she has all the notifications on her phone turned off.

Then, you’ll hear from Kim Herrington, an SEO consultant and the co-founder of Orsanna. Kim and I talk about how SEO can help you build an audience by focusing on exactly the kind of content that drives traffic—and organizing it in a way that both humans and bots love.

Rachael Kay Albers, a web designer and marketing strategist, and I talk about how her audience exploded when she combined her love of sketch comedy with her pet peeves about digital marketing… and created the Awkward Marketing video series.

Then, you’ll hear from Eli Trier, who helps introverts and quiet revolutionaries build audiences through community projects. Eli shares how she came up with the idea and how she organizes all the moving pieces of facilitating a 30-day in-depth discussion on a single topic with a whole host of contributors. Plus, you’ll hear how Eli distinguishes community projects from telesummits—a marketing tactic I’m not a fan of.

Finally, you’ll hear from Bawdy Book Worms founder Thien-Kim Lam about how she’s building a niche audience around erotica and the toys that go with it. Gird your loins!

And, smack dab in the middle of this month…

…we’re hosting our latest virtual conference at The What Works Network and, of course, tackling building your audience head on.

During the conference, our members will hear from Dana Kaye on building a magnetic brand, Amy Walsh on representing your work and your business visually, Dr. Michelle Mazur on creating a rallying cry to move your audience, and Alethea Fitzpatrick on building an audience with a value for inclusivity.

Our members love these conferences—not just because it’s a great opportunity to learn from others in The Network, but because it’s the chance to have an extended conversation about topics that are incredibly important about how we’re doing business today.

Plus, it’s a great opportunity to take a break and focus on working on your business instead of in it. Heidi Johnson told us, “it’s like giving myself a hall pass to get a refreshing drink of water…for the whole day!”

Bonnie Gillespie said, virtual conferences are “by far my favorite part of my What Works membership: these day-long deep-dives with varied voices and [points of view], all led by Tara and framed for us to take action as we go. YES, my interactive learner looooooooves these jam sessions!”

Sound like your cup of tea?

Want to spend the day jamming on building your audience with us?

It’s all going down June 13 from 11am-5pm Eastern/8am-2pm Pacific. All sessions are recorded and available for almost immediate replay.

But… you have to be a member of The What Works Network to join us!

We’re opening membership on Tuesday, June 4—just in time for this virtual conference.

When you join us, you also get access to monthly Insider Hours, where you can ask me about how I’m running my own business (just like this podcast episode!) or observations I’m making as I talk to business owners all over the world and from all different industries.

You also get access to monthly Flash Masterminds, your chance to put yourself in the hot seat and get real-time feedback from other business owners. And you get access to monthly Community Roundtable discussions, your chance to deep dive on our monthly topics.

And, of course, you get access to our private network of experienced small business owners. It’s real talk about what’s really going on in small businesses today: everything from operations to hiring to marketing to scaling to taking time off.

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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EP 299: How To Design Your Own Sales System

EP 299: How To Design Your Own Sales System

This week, I’ve got 4 more stories to share with you from small business owners who have intentionally done things their own way when it comes to sales and selling. They’ve found what truly works for them–even if it bucks the prevailing wisdom or would make a bro marketing expert role his or her eyes.

These stories come from business coach Ashley Gartland, marketing expert Amy Lippmann, designer Mel Richards, and work reinvention coach Lydia Lee.

Listen for how they incorporated these same considerations into finding their own unique sales systems. They designed their systems with personal values, strong relationships, reduced anxiety, and agency in mind.

EP 298: Creating A Less Harmful Sales System with Wanderwell Founder Kate Strathmann

EP 298: Creating A Less Harmful Sales System with Wanderwell Founder Kate Strathmann

This show is called What Works for a reason.

Sometimes it’s a declaration: this is what worked for this small business. And often, it’s a question, “What works?”

Today’s episode is very much a question, many questions, really:

What works when it comes to selling when you want to avoid manipulative or exploitative practices?

What works when your values conflict with many of the best practices of selling online but you still want people to buy your stuff?

What works when it comes to sales in a business that is actively anti-racist and anti-capitalist?

And even more bluntly: Can you even sell things without causing harm or perpetuating harmful systems?

My friend Kate Strathmann is the founder of Wanderwell, a bookkeeping and consulting firm that grows thriving businesses while investigating new models for being in business.

Recently, Kate took a bit of a detour from how she’s used to building her business, which is 90% referral based and fueled by deep relationship- and community-building. She decided to offer a small group program called the Equitable Business Incubator as a way of exploring anti-capitalist business practices and how they apply to the small businesses we’re building.

To fill the program, Kate need to sell differently.

Which led her to asking the question: Can you even sell things as a anti-capitalist?

While that might not be your specific question, I have a feeling that you too have wondering how you can effectively sell your offers without causing harm, perpetuating harmful systems, or damaging relationships. And that’s why I knew Kate and I needed to explore this topic on the show.

This is a conversation about what a kinder, less harmful sales process could look like—and it probably contains more questions than answers. But I’m confident those questions can help you find the answers that are right for you and the sales system that you want to build to make your business stronger.

We start out by defining what we’re really talking about when we talk about capitalism and anti-capitalism. Then, Kate shares how the Equitable Business Incubator came to be and how she ended up selling it. And then we dig into what makes many of the sales formulas and best practices being taught today problematic—and how to think differently to create your own alternative practices.

Now, let’s take a look at what works for creating less harmful sales systems!

EP 297: Selling A New Program With Proof To Product Founder Katie Hunt

EP 297: Selling A New Program With Proof To Product Founder Katie Hunt

Today’s guest is Katie Hunt—who is a member of the former group and serves the latter group.

Katie is the founder of Proof To Product, which helps creative entrepreneurs run and grow thriving product-based businesses. She works with designers, illustrators, and artists to help them develop in-demand product lines and get them sold in stores all over the world.

Not long after the pandemic threw her business and the industry she serves for a major loop, Katie and her team launched Proof To Product Labs to provide a completely digital, ongoing support opportunity for business owners when they needed it most.

And that launch was a smash.

Katie and I get into all of the nuts and bolts of how she adjusted the offer to meet the moment and how she warmed up her audience before the campaign, as well as the exact mix of emails, podcast ads, and social media content she used to sell the offer when it went live. We also talk about how she sees the sales system evolving in the future and how the offer has been received now that people are using it!

What Works offers in-depth, well-researched content that strips away the hype of the 21st-century economy. Whether you love the podcast, the articles, or the Instagram content, we’d love your support