Myth #2: Success means millions of followers
The most important part of growing your audience isn’t amassing millions of followers. In Chapter 2, you'll learn about the different types of actions audience members take, and what it takes for you to build an audience of true fans.
Who do you follow that, when they post something–a blog, a podcast episode, a video–you drop everything to consume their content? You know, like when Beyonce or T-Swift drops a new album or like back in the day when a new Jackie Chan movie came out.
For me, it’s gotta be the Miracle Whip YouTube channel. Their last video from four years ago was a documentary about how they approached the town of Mayo, FL about changing their name to Miracle Whip, FL. It started out as a simple marketing stunt but evolved into something much more special. When are you going to start making videos again Miracle Whip? We’re ready!
In all seriousness, I can easily think of a handful of creators that make me stop what I’m working on when they share new content. I bet you can too.
What if you could become that person?
The quality of your subscribers is more important than the quantity
When people talk about building an audience, they usually point to some number of subscribers or followers.
YouTube sends out its coveted play button awards based on how many subscribers a channel has. Many companies award sponsorship dollars to podcasts based on their number of downloads. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits and thought leader in the creator space, shares that his newsletter is sent to over 2 million people .
If you really think about it though, what matters to you probably isn’t how many people you have in your audience, but how much those people care about the things you create. When people care about something, they’re more likely to drop what they’re doing to listen, watch, read, comment, share, or buy. These aren’t just followers, they’re fans.
Would you rather have 50,000 email subscribers who ignore most of your emails, or 500 highly engaged subscribers who drop everything when they see an email from you in their inbox, reply with questions, and buy your products?
“In the beginning, one of the mistakes I made was falling into all of those shoulds and getting caught up on subscriber numbers. No matter how many subscribers I had, I just wanted more.
More sounds better, right? More is more. But when I thought about the metrics that matter, I started to look at my open rate. I started to look at my click rate and my conversion rates. The larger the list got, the other numbers that mattered went down. The subscriber number went up. That felt really cool. But in fact, I just ended up paying more for my email provider because I was getting more subscribers. So I was getting a lot more people, but they were a lot less qualified.
My email list is smaller now than it was years ago, and I’m okay with that because my open rates are consistently near 50% and that’s really high. So people are opening my emails. That’s way more important to me than having a big list. I want the people who are actually gonna open my emails to go and look at my offers and then ultimately buy.”
So rather than building your goals around some number of followers you want in your audience, let’s focus instead on growing an audience of fans.
Why grow an audience of fans? Fans take action
Action is more powerful than simply pushing the follow button.
Fans consume: They read your posts, articles, and newsletters. They view your pictures or videos. They listen to your podcast episodes. They buy from you.
Fans respond: They give a like, a heart, or a thumbs up. They share their appreciation in a comment or a reply.
Fans inquire: They ask questions and offer feedback.
Fans share: They retweet, share, or link to your content on their channels. They offer their thoughts and opinions or elaborate on your work.
Fans partner with you: They support you and/or actively and consistently promote your work to others.
What you believe about an audience influences what you’ll do to build that audience. If the main goal is just to increase your number of followers, you’d focus on things that produce that result, like SEO, clickbait, enticing offers, etc. These tactics may be able to earn people's attention in the short term, but they won't build an audience of fans.
So what does it look like, practically speaking, to do things that lead to fans instead of just followers? Here’s what Podia creator Emily Mills, who teaches sketchnoting and runs an online community, has to say about how she attracts her biggest fans.
“One unscalable thing I do currently is a once-a-month hangout, and it’s basically just a free hour where you can come and hang out with me on Zoom.
I usually have some kind of a loose program, like, ‘I’m going to teach you about this,’ or ‘We’re going to do a Ted Talk and sketch note it together,’ or ‘We’re going to a sketch note Christmas card.’
But I always say when we’re working together, ‘If you have an unrelated question, you can ask it, it is free game.’ So if someone really, really wanted to learn from me and they had no money, they could just show up to that and ask whatever they wanted.
It’s obviously not scalable to do hangouts for free all the time, but I can do it once a month at least. And for right now, it’s working. I have people that show up that I think are my biggest fans, like the lady who’s bought everything I’ve ever sold. Past coworkers that I used to do sketching with join just because they miss me and want to hang out.
It’s a place for people to meet me, get to know my vibe, and put a face to the name. I hate admitting this, but I think people like me, they like my personality, they like the way I present things, and they like that I’m authentic and real.
You gotta give the people what they want, and if what they want is more of you, you have to share yourself, which I don’t like doing because I feel like I’m a more private person.
I don’t share any personal details on social media. It’s all work-related. But if that’s what they want and it makes them feel a kinship with me and they want to buy from me, I guess I should do that.”
Turning followers into fans through authenticity, reciprocity, and doing unscalable things
Authenticity, building reciprocity, and doing unscalable things are three key ideas Emily describes in her story. Let’s talk about each.
Being authentic with your content looks like…
Using your own voice: This means writing or presenting in a way that feels natural to you. Whether you like to crack jokes or you’re very straightforward, let that come through in your content.
Being real and honest: This means sharing your own experiences and opinions. It can look like telling both the stories of your successes and your failures, and the lessons you learned.
Showing your personality: This could look like including photos or videos to show who you are as a person. You can share your personality in the way you design your content, the setting in which you film your videos, or even the style of clothing you wear.
Being honest with your audience and being true to yourself builds trust, deepens your audience's connection with you, and turns them into fans.
Building reciprocity looks like…
Providing no-strings-attached value: Emily mentions that her monthly hangout is free and an opportunity for her audience to ask questions, learn from her, and get feedback on what they’re working on. When you provide free value, it’s natural for people to want to reciprocate that by sharing your work with others or even buying from you.
Doing “unscalable things,” or things that would seem impossible to do with a large audience, could look like…
Replying to every comment
Making content specifically based on an audience member’s question and giving them a shoutout
Inviting your audience to spend time with you at a monthly digital (or in-person) meetup
You may not be able to do unscalable things forever, but they can make a huge impact when you’re first growing your audience.
Podia creator and life coach Carl Martin shared how he uses reciprocity and unscalable actions to deepen his connection with his audience.
“Whenever someone takes the time to respond to my newsletter with feedback, constructive or positive, I thank them by offering a free coaching session. These are some of my most engaged advocates, so it’s my way of deepening my relationship with them since they are most likely to buy my products and support amplifying my content and my message, thus building my audience.”
Being authentic with your content, giving away free value, and doing unscalable things unlocks fan behavior, which as we mentioned before includes people sharing your work with others and partnering with you to grow your audience. So maybe cultivating fans is the way to get that YouTube play button.
Regardless of whether or not this approach earns you millions of subscribers, it’s definitely the best way to grow the kind of fans who will drop everything to check out the latest thing you’ve made.
Now that we’ve discussed where you can find an audience and reframed what an audience actually is, let’s talk about how many places should you try to build your audience.