A few nights ago I was having dinner with a listener of the Unmistakable Creative, and he asked me “how do you build an audience for your work?” I found it difficult to answer his question because there is no silver bullet. Over the last ten years I’ve seen people attempt many tactics:
- I’ve watched podcasters sign up for online courses, participate in review exchanges with other podcasters in those courses, artificially inflate their rankings and delude themselves into thinking they’re reaching an audience when the only people they’re reaching are the other students in the class.
- My friend Paul Jarvis designed some of Danielle Laporte’s first websites. When I interviewed him several years ago, he said people would come to him and ask him to design a website that looked like hers. He would have to tell them that he didn’t want to do that and that it wouldn’t work for them. They assumed that if their website looked like hers, they would become just as successful.
There are no growth hacks, shortcuts, best practices, foolproof formulas or ideas that are guaranteed to work.
Building an audience for your work is hard. And if you’re not up for that, you’d be better off reading some clickbait about the ten things you can do this minute to get a million new followers. If you’re up for the hard work, keep reading.
The Unmistakable Creative is an anomaly in the podcast world because we’ve been around longer, grown slower and have a smaller audience than some of the podcasts that started long after we did. When most people find out that I’ve been working on it for ten years, they’re usually stunned.
By the time you know about somebody’s work, they’ve been at it for a long time.
Dani Shapiro wrote three books that in her own words “came and went without a trace.” It was her 4th book that put her on the map. Given my experience with writing books, I’d imagine writing four books probably takes a minimum of about ten years.
Is it possible to grow faster? Absolutely. But it’s the exception more than the norm. Sometimes people are in the right place at the right time.
Patience is an essential trait for building a career in the arts or for that matter any career. And a fast rise is often followed by a rapid fall. Think about all the hot startups that have run out of money and all the viral videos that captured our attention for a day and quickly became an afterthought.
To create something of real value takes time. If you’re not willing to spend at least a year working on something it’s highly unlikely you’ll find an audience for your work.
Sam Altman famously said your most significant competitive advantage is a long-term view which he defines as ten years.
In a world where everyone’s parade of accomplishments are on display, we’ve conflated vanity metrics with value, and confused attention for a genuine connection. You can game the system to gain more fans and followers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve produced anything of real value.
You can employ more tactics, or you can make better art.
Employing more tactics is faster, more comfortable, and might produce a short-term result. But if you choose that route, you’ll have to keep employing more tactics. You can’t hide shitty art and lousy products behind great marketing for too long. Eventually, it will be revealed for what it is. You might be relevant for a brief moment of time. But ultimately, you’ll become an afterthought.
Making better art is hard. It rewards its creator long after the average person quits. It takes time, effort, energy, and grit. It’s the result of years of deep work, deliberate practice, and becoming a master of your craft. But it’s also much more likely you’ll create something timeless. As Ryan Holiday one said, “nothing can survive long-term without word of mouth.” Make better art and more people talk about it. Easy to say, hard to do.
The only viable long-term strategy for building an audience an increasingly noisy world is to be so good they can’t ignore you.
Attention is the currency of achievement and nearly all time management problems are attention management problems.
Social media has made it possible for people to be famous for being famous. You can collect hearts, likes, fans, and followers by sharing quotes and pictures on Instagram. But this doesn’t take skill, can be easily replicated, and outsourced to the lowest bidder. It also doesn’t require a consumer to invest much of their attention in what you’ve created. It’s just one more thing for them to scroll through. To add to this, all these sources of distraction are gradually eroding our attention spans and turning us into the cognitive equivalent of athletes who smoke.
To do something like writing a book you have to invest a great deal of time and attention. For someone to read that book, they have to invest time and attention. If something takes deep work to create, it’s much more likely to lead to a deep connection with an audience. The more they have to invest in you and your work, the more loyal your audience will be.
For the sake of this article let’s define your work as some form of media, blog, a podcast, a newsletter, etc. People overlook the profound power of consistency when it comes to building an audience for anything. Habit drives media consumption.
- For ten years, every Thursday, millions of people tuned in to NBC to watch Friends. But let’s say NBC decides to air episodes whenever they feel like it. Watching friends would never become a habit for millions of viewers.
- Seth Godin hasn’t missed a blog post in more than 6000 days.
- The Unmistakable Creative airs every Monday and Wednesday. Other than last week, when my new book came out, we’ve stayed consistent with this schedule for more than five years.
A few years ago, I heard a podcaster open an episode by saying “hey guys I know I’ve been gone for the last three weeks.” Chances are anybody who might have been listening no longer was. When you set the expectation that you’re going to show up consistently your audience will as well. When you don’t, they scatter like Brazilians do from Ipanema beach when there’s a cloud in the sky (If you’re Brazilian I’m sure you’ve witnessed this).
Producing something consistently increases the volume and quality of your creative output.
If there’s an alternative to what you’ve provided that’s better, faster, or cheaper, people will choose it. If on the other hand, there is no alternative because what you’ve created is different not better you’re more likely to find an audience for it. As I said in my first book Unmistakable: Why Only Is Better Than Best, when nobody does what you do in the way you do it, your competition becomes irrelevant.
Building a loyal audience for your work is a long game. It might take years, possibly decades. It’s a journey into a vast landscape of the unknown and uncertain combined with the possibility of scenic beauty and bliss that becomes an essential nutrient, something that might eventually reach an audience of millions, but at its core, you do for an audience of one.