To build an audience is a powerful thing.
According to Tommy Walker, “return traffic is the most important thing. If you never get that return traffic, you are never going to get to the consideration point.”
This post will be all about how to capture the attention, interest, and loyalty of your readers.
We’ll explore how you create a connection with your readers that makes them want to come back, just to read *you* and whatever you produce (whether you’re a solo creator, brand, publication, working with influencers, whatever).
How to Measure Your Audience
If the goal is building an audience, we should first consider what constitutes an “audience,” and how that differs from other content marketing metrics.
Much like conversion metrics, how you define an audience member depends on your specific context. Also like conversion metrics, there’s almost certainly an escalating scale of discrete actions that lead up to the most engaged audience members.
What is an Audience?
An audience is a group of people who consume or interact with your content regularly. It is composed of individual audience members, who exist on independent continua in your sphere of influence.
This means that an individual audience member can become a “follower” and can also leave the audience at any time, and the “audience” itself is filled with a changing cast of audience members.
Now, for the nuance.
The Escalating Scale of Audience Engagement
If a “conversion” is the most proximal discrete action in a business sense (e.g. a lead generated or ecommerce purchase), and a micro-conversion is a discrete event that precedes and correlates with the eventual macro-conversion (e.g. an ad click or email list signup), then we can map out a hierarchy of audience engagement similarly.
This is how I look at it, in order of importance and engagement:
- Sees your content on social media periodically
- Reads your content periodically
- Follows you on a 3rd party platform (Twitter, TikTok, YouTube channel, etc.)
- Subscribes to an owned channel (email list, substack, etc.)
- Reads your content regularly
- Engages with you and your content regularly
- Pays for your content
- Pays + reads + engages with you regularly
Where you define an audience member depends on your business. For creators or “thought leaders” making money solely off of content, it might be when someone pays for your content. Or it may be when someone subscribes to your email list for free. A startup or small business might have a different definition, such as someone regularly engaging with their email marketing campaigns or new content.
In almost all cases, I think it would be too early to consider someone who sees your content on social media platforms (awareness) or reads your content periodically as a follower. Not only are you dependent on algorithms for your reach, but it’s simply a lower commitment.
The most common definition of an audience member is someone who subscribes to an email list, though I can see two potential arguments against that.
One is that not every email subscriber is engaged. Anum Hussain put together a brilliant presentation about her approach at Sidekick (now HubSpot Sales), which treated content like a product. They mapped out engagement metrics like “monthly active subscribers” to define which email subscribers were actually reading their content. Harder, but if you’re serious about it, probably better.
Another is that some people subscribe to you or follow you, not as a fan, but as a hater. While “hate following” is unhealthy on the part of the follower, it’s not uncommon.
Unfortunately, like any metric, you’re going to have to make the tradeoff between precision and utility. The more granularly you define your audience metrics, the less useful they’ll be because of the amount of time and effort you spend collecting and cleaning up the data. But you also don’t want loosely defined metrics, such as just aggregating all the above stages I listed.
Defining this metric is the job of the content strategist, probably in conjunction with a good analyst. In my opinion, your best approximation of your audience is usually with three buckets of metrics:
- Overall readers (total pageviews or traffic)
- Subscribed readers (conversion rate of readers to subscribers; total email subscribers or leads)
- Highly engaged subscribers (like Anum’s “monthly active subscribers”; those who read on a regular basis)
We’ll leave out customers or purchasers for the sake of this article, as some may be your “audience” and some may just want to buy what you’re selling (I, for example, wouldn’t consider myself a superfan of the dish soap I buy, but I am a customer).
A good qualitative way to think about this is to flip the script: ask, “whom do I follow?” In a podcast discussion, Allie Decker described what she thinks of when she considers herself a “follower” or audience member:
“That means I bypass Google and I look at what they’ve written, no matter what the topic is. I appreciate the way that they think and the way that they approach whatever they’re writing about. It’s like how you have a favorite author – their newest book, you’re going to buy it. Doesn’t matter what it’s about.
I kind of think that that translates more into blogging and writing online than anybody can admit, because so many things are just keyword-based — which, there’s value to that. But I think building up a reading habit outside of Google alone is incredibly powerful.”Allie Decker, co-founder and head of content at Omniscient Digital
Audience vs Community
An audience signifies a unilateral or bilateral relationship with a group of people. You, the creator or brand, are speaking, and the audience listens. Sometimes, the audience speaks back to you and you listen (in the case of YouTube comments, blog comments, reader emails, etc.).
A community is different. A community is where members speak and listen to each other.
While the difference can seem foggy, a good question to ask if you want to know if you have a community or an audience is, “if I stopped creating content for 3 weeks, would it grow or would it die?” (paraphrased from Sam Parr on the My First Million podcast)
Product Hunt is a community. Your blog probably has an audience.
It gets murkier with individual examples (for instance, Sam Harris mainly has an audience of podcast listeners and book readers, but he also has a subreddit which is a community).
We’ll keep things simple: audience = creator talks to group of people, community = group of people talk to each other.
How to Grow an Audience with Content Marketing
Growing your traffic and revenue from content marketing is related yet distinct to building an audience. On one level, it’s straightforward:
- Write content
- Find readers
- Give them more content to read
However, most bloggers don’t ever build true “audiences.”
You can have, for instance, a blog post that ranks for a search term (let’s say “how to run an A/B test”). Someone can read that blog post, yet not be in your audience. They can even, arguably, download an ebook offer that you have on that page (“11 step checklist for running A/B tests”) and still not be considered an audience member.
So I’m going to decouple our usual refrain of mapping out your customer pain points to search keywords, determining intent, and producing and promoting content designed to bring in search traffic (or social traffic). That’s all distribution focused. “How to grow an audience” is a question of retention.
A Formula for Content Marketing Audience Development
In our Kitchen Side discussion, we talked through a tentative formula for audience building:
Trust (quality x repetition) + uniqueness = follow
At the center of every fan is a feeling of trust towards the creator. I trust that Tim Dillon will make me laugh, just as I trust that examine.com will have accurate and useful information about supplements. Trust is built via quality and consistency. You have to provide value through repeated interactions.
How many iterations is going to vary depending on the fan, the type of content, and how unique your voice is.
Uniqueness is something you provide that no one else does. It could be a style of speaking or writing (think Gary V), or it could be a structure or format of creation (you’d recognize a WaitButWhy or Stratechery article even without the logo).
Quality: Having Something Worth Saying
No matter what approach you take to content marketing, the question “what do I write about,” will come up and will be important to answer.
Some organizations prioritize keywords with the highest search volume. They go after traffic volume.
Some teams go after high intent keywords. They map SEO keywords to their products and try to drive conversions.
Some have elaborate prioritization frameworks that factor in CPC, difficult, volume, and customer journey stages.
However, this is all SEO-driven content. In all of these approaches, your baseline data pool is a 3rd party SEO tool. If you want to build an audience, you may need to step outside of your comfort zone and talk to your customers.
These are my favorite ways to drive topics that are worth writing about:
- Personal experience and strong opinions
- Customer research and pain points
- Reverse engineering interest
- SEO with some flavor
As Whitney Wolfe Herd said on Tim Ferriss’ podcast, “The most expensive currency in the world is experience.”
The world of content is filled with rehashed ideas and bland summations. If you have years of personal experience in a given field or subject, that’s hard to replace. It’s hard to compete with. And it’s fucking compelling to readers.
I want to read Jeff Bezo’s shareholder letters and I want to read Simo Ahava’s content on Google Tag Manager. I can read anyone’s shareholder letters or content about GTM, but I know that these two have the personal experience to back up the content they produce.
Again, experience is an expensive currency, which is why it’s so important to figure out what your unique area of experience is and lean into it.
Don’t have any unique experience or viewpoints? Get some. Ryan Holiday’s advice to aspiring writers is brilliant: “go do interesting things.”
“It was going to therapy. It was getting into pointless arguments. It was having friends who are smarter than me. It was traveling. It was living (briefly) in the ghetto. I was able to write about the dark side of the media because I put myself in a position to see it firsthand.
All these things gave me something to say. They gave me a perspective. They gave me a fucked up writing style that makes my voice unique. They gave me opinions that tend to piss people off.”Ryan Holiday
To put it more bluntly, if you’ve never run an A/B test, you probably shouldn’t write about how to run an A/B test.
Pain Point SEO
If there were ever a silver bullet in marketing it would be “talk to your customers.”
Benji and Devesh coined the phrase “Pain Point SEO,” which is basically a customer research methodology applied to content marketing. Instead of simply looking at which keywords get the highest search volume or which keywords your competitors rank for, you look at which topics your customers actually care about.
This is a version of Voice of Customer research. In essence, you want to tease out the pain points, fears, doubts, hesitations, motivations, and interests of those in your target audience. You want to write about what they care about.
How do you learn what people want? Here are some research methods I like (with links to describe how to do them):
- Customer Surveys
- Community Engagement
- Conferences (just go and talk to people, you’ll learn a ton)
- Customer Interviews
- Social listening
- Analyzing sales and support transcripts
This method, by the way, is what we used to grow the CXL blog when I worked there. We didn’t look at keywords.
Instead, we built a Facebook community where people constantly asked and answered questions. We triggered a survey for new email subscribers on their third email on the drip campaign. We fielded reader comments and spent a ton of time in communities like Growth Hackers and Inbound. We ran two conferences and went to many more, all to understand what the hell people talked about and what they cared about.
And then we wrote about those things. We wrote the “best articles in the world” on those subjects, and people came to read them.
More on Immersion: Become Your Audience
We used distinct methods of research to capture qualitative data at CXL, but more importantly, we immersed ourselves in the community and surrounded ourselves in the topics discussed. In setting up a survey or conducting an interview, you’re trying to be an objective observer. In immersion, you’re trying to become a subjective participant. It’s like gonzo journalism, kind of.
Say you run a fitness blog.
You *could* find topics to write about by looking at competitors in Ahrefs, or by interviewing your target audience (people who want to get jacked). Or, you could simple become a member of your target audience, in which case, it’s going to be wildly easy to come up with great sticky topics, because you’re writing *for yourself* now as well.
This, in essence, is how I write about experimentation and CRO. I spent years going to conferences, working with clients, reading books, and immersing myself in the industry, and now I have a fingertip feel for which topics are most interesting and which questions are left unanswered. I can write about these things to satiate my own curiosity.
What about Personas?
Personas, the way most people know them, are entirely overrated. Not useless, but close.
Dreaming up a target persona with a cutesy name like “artistic Alex” and very specific demographics (who is 29 years old and likes the color blue) won’t help you create a passionate fan base or create high-quality, engaging content. It’ll create an easy excuse for procrastination and narrow-mindedness. You can procrastinate on shipping because it feels productive to tweak your persona and plan. You can safely exclude topics you actually want to write about because “artistic Alex isn’t interested in X.”
Now, personas are valuable on a macroscopic level, in that they can rally disparate teams around shared understandings of your model customer. This assumes that a) your company is large enough to warrant the additional effort and b) you’re actually creating data-driven personas (which most companies are not).
To learn more about how to create data-driven personas, read this post.
Uniqueness: how to create a recognizable style
Developing a unique voice and style is an emergent property of doing otherwise interesting work. Typically, one cannot strategically construct a unique yet inauthentic voice unless they cater towards the far side of the sociopathic scale. Instead, you have to uncover your voice via practice, confidence, and repetition.
You can, however, design unique formats by which to apply your writing.
For example, at the beginning of CXL, Peep Laja looked around and saw that most content was shallow (300-500 words) and not backed by research. So he took the opposite approach and wrote long form content that had citations for every fact or opinion.
Now, that’s the style de jeur. But it’s important to ask, “what is everyone doing, and what is everyone missing?” If you can fill that, you can stand out from the crowd.
Or rather, take the Mark Twain quote, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” In other words, don’t do shit just because other people are doing shit.
Examine.com is a great example of this. There’s an abundance of research scattered all around, and articles that are narrative in structure, about supplements. They built a format that is simultaneously scannable for quick consumption, but one that you can dive into more deeply if you so desire.
In our Kitchen Side conversation, Allie talked about the value in depriving yourself of comparison in order to let your own voice flourish:
“I just feel like our creator economy would be much more interesting if people just stopped looking at other people. It’s harder than ever to be yourself, because we are drowned in all of these codes and strategies and hacks and tips.
Of course, that stuff is valuable. Like, success stories are great and people deserve to share how they did it. And yes, we pick up something here and there that infuses into our own strategy.
But, over time, doing too much of that, you’re going to lose that voice or you’re going to feel like your voice isn’t good enough, or you’re going to feel like your ideas aren’t good enough. And I mean, I’m speaking from direct experience. So sometimes I wish I could just shut everything off and create.”Allie Decker, co-founder and head of content at Omniscient Digital
I feel exactly the same, so I’ve been doing two exercises from The Artist’s Way to break that up and find my voice again. The first is Morning Pages, where I simply write 3 stream of conscious pages first thing upon waking.
The second is a reading deprivation challenge, where I’m purposely not reading before the evening. The way Julia Cameron describes it:
“For most artists, words are like tiny tranquilizers. We have a daily quota of media chat that we swallow up. Like greasy food, it clogs our system. Too much of it and we feel, yes, fried.
It is a paradox that by emptying our lives of distractions we are actually filling the well. Without distractions, we are once again thrust into the sensory world. With no newspaper to shield us, a train becomes a viewing gallery. With no novel to sink into (and no television to numb us out) an evening becomes a vast savannah in which furniture — and other assumptions — get rearranged.”Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way
So stop reading other people’s shit and write your own. Escape competition through authenticity.
Repetition: Just Show Up (But How Often)?
Finally, if you stop producing, they’ll stop reading. You have to show up and ship. But how often?
Again, depends what you’re publishing and what the expectations are. I don’t care how often examine.com publishes new stuff, because there aren’t that many new supplements coming out.
I expect WaitButWhy to take a long time to finish an article because they’re wildly unique and in-depth (i.e. the quality and uniqueness are enough to counterbalance the lack of frequency).
But if CXL stopped shipping new stuff for a year, I’d probably find a better source of CRO and data driven marketing knowledge.
So, it depends.
It also depends on which network you’re publishing. Twitter, you’ll need to constantly stay top of mind because the environment is so chaotic. LinkedIn, less so, but still need to publish 2-3x a week. Blog, you can ship on your own pace to an extent.
The principle that matters is, according to Peep Laja in my interview with him, is mental availability.
The way he describes it:
“Mental availability — when I think of content marketing, I think of Alex Birkett, if you have mental availability in my mind.
If every single day I see you on my LinkedIn and Twitter or wherever I hang out, TikTok maybe, you maybe do dance videos and say “content marketing!,” that builds mental availability. Or if I see April Dunford in every imaginable channel, saying, “positioning positioning, positioning,” she’s the first one in my mental availability roster. I can’t even think of who’s number two there.
Any CRO query you have on Google, CXL ranks for fucking everything. I better skip the middleman and just search on CXL.”Peep Laja, CEO of wynter.com
That’s what repetition brings you: a linear connection between an idea and the content you write. That’s the ultimate win for a content marketer looking to build an audience.
Building an audience is hard and not for everyone. In fact, many businesses and content marketers should never actively try to build an audience. Instead, it should become an emergent property of the work you’re already doing.
However, if you can create a connection with your audience and capture their attention and loyalty, it’s clearly a powerful thing. It brings you leverage, insights, and direct response marketing capabilities unmatched by those producing bland SEO articles that drive single pageview sessions.
To drive return visitors, have something to say, say things frequently enough to matter, and say them uniquely enough where you stand out. That’s it. Happy audience building.