April 29

How to Use the Small Army Strategy to Build An Audience for Your Work

Building an audience is harder than it's ever been even though it's one of the greatest times in history for creatives

You can compete with the mainstream media, write sensationalist clickbait, or put "Trump" in the title of your latest article. You might even get someone's attention. But it's not a viable long term strategy to build an audience.

The alternative is to employ what Chris Guillbeau calls "The Small Army Strategy".

The small army strategy isn't about reaching as many people as possible. It's about reaching the most fanatical people possible. It's about reaching people like Kamga who will message your friend on social media, show up with a gift in hand, and write you a blog post for your birthday.

It's about fanatics and true fans, not followers and visitors to your website.

Media Fragmentation and the Smallest Viable Audience

The challenge for most people who seek to make an impact isn't winning over the mass market. It's the micro market. They bend themselves into a pretzel trying to please the anonymous masses before they have fifty or one hundred people who would miss them if they were gone. - Seth Godin

You're not going to become the next Steve Jobs, Oprah, or Beyonce. Today's fragmented media landscape gives people access to over 500 million channels. In addition to television and radio, the internet gives us media in all forms. You can't grow tomatoes by planting seeds in the cement.

There won't be another Oprah. People who want to become the "next Oprah" are chasing illusions.

Tribes are the logical result of a fragmented media landscape. Everybody has a metaphorical microphone.

  • You can shout louder in an attempt to reach a bigger audience. Or you can create something that resonates for the people who are already there.
  • You can hack, optimize, and employ tactics. Or you can pour that same energy into the work of creating something people can't help but pay attention to.

In both scenarios, the second is harder because there's no map for emotional resonance. There's no formula for work that's unmistakable.

Mass Media is Rarely Unmistakable

When was the last time you heard someone say "last night's segment on CNN changed my life"? Media for the masses is for the most part noise. We might believe it's designed to inform us. But the real purpose of mass media is to sell ads. It doesn't matter whether it's right or left.

When asked about the 2016 Presidential campaign, Les Moonves said, "It may not be good for America, but it's been damn good for CBS. Who would have guessed this circus would come to town?" The head of NBC admitted to giving Trump more coverage during the 2016 election because he was good for ratings.

I never really watched news before. But these days it's so insane, I find it entertaining.

If you reach a million people who don't give a shit, you haven't succeeded. You've just made noise.

If the goal of your work is to change someone for the better, it makes no sense to pursue the largest possible audience. There's a difference between producing media for the masses and creating art for what Seth Godin calls "the smallest viable audience".

Starting Building an Audience with One Person 

Everybody starts at zero. You publish a blog post hoping you'll be discovered. Crickets. It's hard to build an audience by interrupting strangers on the internet. It always has been, but this is even truer today.

  • Just look at the home page of a website like Medium. It's impossible not to be overwhelmed by the paradox of choice.
  • There are thousands of podcasts in the iTunes library.

You can attempt to cater to the people you might never reach. Or you can create for an audience of one. You can do something that will be worth it no matter how it turns out. Besides, what you create for an audience of one is much more likely to reach an audience of millions.

I choose podcast guests based on personal curiosity. I design free e-books like The Scenic Route because I love designing interesting experiences. If it resonates with people, that's a bonus.

You can't expect someone to be excited about your work if you're not.

So who is your second reader?

The people you already know are the most underrated potential audience for your art. Find one person who cares. Then find, another, and another until you reach 1,000 true fans.

The Most Important People in Your Audience

We prioritize growth over service, reach over depth, and eyeballs over hearts. We chase meaningless metrics. We overlook the infinite value of what can't be measured. Who are the most important people in your audience? The ones who are already there.

The people who are already there are your biggest fans. They're the ones who have the potential to change your life, to be there when shit hits the fan, and stick by your side when you're lost. Not only is it easier to serve the people who are already there. It's more effective and more profitable over the long-haul.

A few months ago I was in Colorado for a speaking engagement. One of my listeners found out. Because I was on hiatus from social media, he messaged my friend. My friend said, "Dude, some internet stalker messaged me about wanting to meet you." I saw who it was and said, "Oh yeah, I know that guy. Tell him to email me, and I'll meet him on Tuesday." I was five minutes away from where he lived.

Why would I go and meet someone like Kamga? He's shared my work. He's supported me. He even wrote me a blog post for my birthday. I went and met him because he's one of the most important people in my audience.

Perceived Status does not Equate to Value

When we judge a person by their perceived status on the internet, we overlook their potential impact on our lives. One of the most important mentors in my life had a hundred followers on Twitter and a blog that was six weeks old. He was a "nobody." But I wouldn't be where I am without his guidance.

Genuine curiosity is a much better filter for relationships than perceived status. Some of the most amazing guests we've had on the Unmistakable Creative aren't famous or well-known. Everybody has a story worth telling. Don't overlook it because of how many followers they have.

As I said on Mark Schaefer's blog years ago, emerging talent is the most undervalued asset on the internet.

Do Things That Don't Scale

At the heart of every unicorn or success story is a willingness to do things that don't scale. When nobody knows who you are, doing things that don't scale is your competitive edge.

After struggling to convert advertisers, our copywriter suggested I talk to my listeners. Even after 10 years of The Unmistakable Creative, I find myself doing things that don't scale. I've been having one-on-one conversations with listeners. But there's more to it than this.

Every tactic in that small army strategy requires you to do things that don't scale.

  • Send personal emails to the first 1,000 subscribers or customers of your product.
  • Talk to one user or customer every week on the phone.
  • Send someone a gift in the mail. (It's the least crowded inbox in their life).

Yes it takes time. Yes it takes effort. But isn't it worth it to light people's eyes up? Isn't it worth it to find your way out of lingering in obscurity? Isn't it worth it to turn followers into fans and fans into fanatics?

Be So Good They Can't Ignore You

You can buy ads, build a brand, and accumulate a massive following. Maybe people will pay attention. But as John P. Weiss once said, "Social media success is a byproduct."

The alternative is to be so good they can't ignore you. When you commit to mastering your craft, it's a commitment to your audience. It's a signal that you value their two most precious resources: their time and attention.

For me, that has meant pissing off podcast guests. It's meant asking people to do a second take. It's meant scrapping interviews when I wasn't happy with them. It's meant saying no to people everyone else would say yes to. It's meant listening to every episode and making note of what I could do better.

Mastery Instead of Metrics

Chris Brogan once said to me, "Nobody ever won a race by looking sideways". But every time you check your ranking in the iTunes store or Amazon, you are doing exactly that. Every time you salivate over the glamorous life of your heroes on Instagram, you're doing that.

This doesn't just prevent you from growing. It leads to madness instead of meaning.

  • Nobody has ever increased their traffic by obsessively checking their Google Analytics.
  • Nobody has ever sold more books by obsessively looking at their Amazon ranking.
  • Nobody has increased their amount of podcast downloads by checking iTunes constantly.

All of those things are byproducts of focusing on mastery instead of metrics.

Mastery means focusing on the right things. It doesn't mean:

  • Focusing on the perfect profile picture or tagline for your Twitter profile.
  • Optimizing the home page of your website that nobody visits.
  • Spending thousands of dollars on podcast equipment when you don't have listeners.

But people focus on the above, because they're easy. You don't really have to put anything on the line. You can find tutorials online to do just about everything I've mentioned above.

But you can't watch a video, read an article or listen to a podcast to become so good they can't ignore you. That takes years of deep work and deliberate practice. It takes doing things that aren't always fun and easy. It takes what Seth Godin calls "emotional labor".

Make Something Unmistakable

Standing out is essential to the survival of any business, brand, or creator.

A few months ago, a friend sent me a list of potential podcast guests. All of their sites looked exactly the same. When people take Marie Forleo's B-school course, mimicry often follows. You can use the same fonts. You can use the same lighting in your photos. You can use the same layout that a successful person's website has. But you are not going to become that person.

It's not a knock on Marie. But people believe, "If I do what she does, I'll get the results she has." This completely overlooks the blatantly obvious variable that throws off every formula for success: YOU. In doing so, people overlook their gifts, and deny the world the very thing that might make them unmistakable.

If there's a thousand other options for what you're offering, you've created a commodity.

On the flip side, Mars Dorian is the definition of unmistakable. You know his work the moment you see it. But it's not for everybody. Some people think it's too edgy, too masculine, or not "upmarket enough"

A few months ago, I was doing a workshop for a major bank. They had rolled out a new campaign. I had seen their posters at the local shopping center. But the only reason I noticed them was because I was speaking to the marketing team the next day. Most people didn't notice them.

Asking a brand that has been around for 100 years to bring in a provocative edgy illustrator from Berlin might make heads roll. But it would also make customers pay attention.

Asking a publisher who has designed their covers in-house for decades to hire Mars will be met with resistance. But he's also the person who caught Glenn Beck's attention while he was randomly browsing Amazon. He's the person who designed a cover for a self-published book that became a Wall Street Journal best-seller.

A thousand things are competing for everybody's attention every day. If what they see doesn't stand out, they won't remember.

Build a Permission Asset

Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal, and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them. -Seth Godin

What is a permission asset? It's something that gives you permission to engage with your audience. It gives you an opportunity to connect directly with them. It's something you own. The best permission asset is an email list. Your Instagram feed where you get a thousand likes, or your Facebook group with a million fans just causes you to confuse attention with accomplishment.

Avoid Building Communities on Rented Land

When people offer online courses, they setup Facebook groups. When we offered our Fearless Writer's Masterclass at the beginning of this year, Kingshuk encouraged us to use Discord. We created a space where nothing else was competing for everyone's attention. Engagement went through the roof and interaction between our students was at an all time high. If you want to build a highly engaged audience, don't build your community on rented land.

How Long Does it Take to Build an Online Audience?

It takes one crucial ingredient that most of us would rather sidestep: plain, old-fashioned hard work. - Jeff Goins (goinswriter.com)

It's hard to say how long it will take you to build an audience. You can't control how fast your army grows. As Steven Kotler said to me this weekend at his workshop, "There are no secrets to high performance."

It's taken almost 10 years to build our audience at the Unmistakable Creative. We've grown slower than people who started after us. We're smaller than people think we are. But, I'd like to think our audience would miss us if we're gone.

Your job as the leader of your army is to keep showing up, and lead your soldiers through their battles in the lifelong war of art.


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