Share Your Secrets: How To Build an Audience
I spent four weeks studying people whom I follow with sizable followings to find out (1) what makes them of interest to their audiences, and (2) how they got started.
In total, I looked at the profiles of 27 persons:
- Content Creators: Daniel Vassallo, Justin Welsh, Sahil Bloom, Justin Jackson, Patrick McKenzie & Gary Vaynerchuk.
- Product-led Marketers: Sahil Lavingia, Brennan Dunn, Julian Shapiro, Jason Fried & Tony Dinh.
- Builders in Public: Pieter Levels, Courtland Allen, Pat Walls, Rob Walling, Nathan Barry & Elon Musk.
- NYT Bestselling Authors: Ramit Sethi, Tim Ferriss, Seth Godin, Chris Guillebeau & James Clear.
- Industry Authorities: Rand Fishkin, Neil Patel, Marc Andreessen, Paul Graham & Naval Ravikant.
This post is a summary of what I've learned. I'll lay out the commonalities, patterns, and observations of what has helped all these people start and grow their audiences.
Here are my findings.
1. SHARE ONLINE
Let's start with what all 27 of them do — share online.
It's not about building an audience. It's about sharing your experience.
You have to write or create online, either by blogging or on any other platform like Twitter, podcasts, videos, or through books.
a. Find your tribe
Sharing online without direction isn't going to be very effective if you don't appear in front of the right people.
Find your tribe.
Without being somebody you're not, identify the tribe you belong to.
And speak to them.
They'll likely be all ears because you're one of them; you already know the language, the hot topics, and have your own opinions to share.
- Tony Dinh identified the indie hacking & tech niche on Twitter to connect with.
- Daniel Vassallo engaged with current and former Amazonians embarking on his solopreneurship journey, having just left the company.
You'll probably also know the best platform to reach your tribe - blogs, email newsletters, Twitter, books, or podcasts.
This is how you attract your initial audience.
b. Be findable
Make it easy for others to learn more about you.
Share your story and history. Have a bio written down somewhere on your website.
Maybe even put a nice picture of yourself on your website for others to use.
Blog frequently and consistently. Share detailed updates on what you've been working on.
Justin Jackson is a great example of this, sharing annual updates on his blog since 2013.
c. Be consistent
Every one of the 27 also engaged others online in some capacity weekly, if not daily.
They essentially did what anyone could do: create content, and publish consistently over a long time.
“Self-promotion is like cooking - if you don’t do it yourself you’re going to pay someone else to do it for you.”
- Patrick McKenzie
Justin Welsh has also said that content creators have to continually show up and generate the content that keeps the business running.
When you publish consistently, you'll eventually say something original, deep, and insightful that resonates with your audience.
“Keep showing up.”
It might happen as a one-off at first. Then it occurs again. Next thing you know, you've made a habit out of it.
A following isn't built overnight. It takes time, persistence, and consistency.
Keep showing up.
d. Share everything you know
Teach what you know.
Remember, it's not about building an audience. It's about sharing your experience.
Take the most preciously guarded insight you have into your industry, and give it away online, for free.
That is what will get you an audience.
2. SELLING TO AN AUDIENCE
While not strictly within the scope of starting and growing a following, I want to dedicate a section to talk about selling to an audience.
The purpose of wanting an audience is, for many, to sell to them; to make money.
But we know no audience wants to be sold to.
In my research, I've found it's entirely possible to have a, not merely willing, but enthusiastic audience for a product you're selling.
There's at least three win-win ways others have done this.
a. Listen to your audience
Your Twitter following can be a barometer for testing or getting product ideas.
Share what you know and your audience's reception to your tweets will help you gauge what to build. These tweets should get ~10-100 times more likes compared to your usual tweets. Examples:
- Daniel Vassallo's thread on the good parts of AWS led to his first info product, a book of the same name.
- Justin Welsh figured that he should create a content course from the signals in his social media feedback.
Add a contact form or payment link to further validate that interest:
- Sahil Lavingia validating investment interest in Austen Allred's fund.
- Getting pre-orders for Pat Walls' Lean Email course.
- Pieter Levels started NomadList from crowdsourcing a Google Sheet.
Let your audience tell you what they want you to build for them.
With this approach, you need to try many things, and keep effort minimal. Tweets, with the ability to (1) pack an idea into a small text post, and (2) fairly objectively evaluate the audience's reception, are a perfect vehicle for this exercise.
b. Teach to be heard
If however you want to find an audience to fit your product, instead of letting your audience lead you — good news; that's possible too.
I'm calling this product-led marketing. The key is to meaningfully educate your target audience or target customers.
An excellent example is Jason Fried whose company 37signals makes Basecamp, a project management and collaboration software for teams. His potential customers and target audience would probably be C-level execs at companies, or team and project managers. To benefit them, he puts out a lot of content on how to start, run and grow a business, publicly sharing much of the behind-the-scenes at 37signals.
- Sahil Lavingia of Gumroad has written a book and created a course for how creators can create side incomes.
- Brennan Dunn appears on numerous podcasts to speak to the merits of email marketing, himself the creator of several newsletter-related products.
- Julian Shapiro has used teaching as marketing across his many projects, including open source software, running a growth agency, and investing.
And please note: It is of vital importance to give, give and give even more before you make any outright asks of your audience — if at all.
- 98% of Ramit Sethi's content is given away for free.
- 99% for Tim Ferriss.
- Gary Vaynerchuk has a whole book on the subject, Jab, Jab, Jab Right Hook.
c. Have a mission
The last method to have an audience for your product is to be mission-driven.
Having a mission is a superpower.
Anyone who has a brand worth something is standing for a cause that's bigger than themselves or their products.
- Elon Musk's fighting climate change at Tesla, and wants to make the human race interplanetary through SpaceX.
- Pieter Levels has said he hopes to help humanity realize that we are more similar than not.
- Nathan Barry's personal blog is centered around the mission of teaching everything he knows.
- Pat Walls from Starter Story is on a mission to help 1 billion people make money online.
They all have a greater mission, an objective that's bigger than just personal benefit.
Striving towards a mission lights a fire under it; driving interest and energy into your contributions towards that mission.
There's a larger goal to fight for. Your products, sales, and company are all just a tiny part of that that future you are striving to create.
Stand for a cause.
3. PEDDLE SECRETS
Secrets that only you know create a moat for your personal brand.
Does your profile indicate that you know something others don't? Like:
- Having a lot of money
- Having a lot of followers
- Having done something unconventional
- Anything really, that's the exception rather than the norm
Ask yourself, what's something you know that others don't?
That will help you craft a message that only you can deliver.
a. Gain deep expertise
People will spend time listening to a subject matter expert on a topic they're interested in.
These experts are ones who've spent a long time at the top of their respective fields:
- Paul Graham, Marc Andreessen and Naval Ravikant are leaders in (and many would say founding fathers of) the startup investment space.
- Neil Patel and Rand Fishkin have been and still are leaders in the SEO game.
And it's not just in traditional domains; you can carve out your own niche and become its leader:
- Rob Walling has created a niche community he's the leader of: bootstrapped, "small" startups.
- Pieter Levels is pretty much recognized by the digital nomad community as Chief Digital Nomad.
Strive to become an expert in your field.
b. Have unique experiences
Authors of New York Times bestsellers belong in this category.
But having that coveted NYT#1 badge isn't what makes them worth following — it's their experience and expertise shared through their books.
Tim Ferriss, Chris Guillebeau, and James Clear started their journeys traveling the world right out of school.
Ramit Sethi and Seth Godin founded companies before publishing their books.
Chris, James and Ramit also started by writing a blog that later (over many years) transformed into their first books.
Seeking unique experiences helps you create and deliver your message in a way no one else can.
c. Be yourself
You might think that uncovering secrets are off-limits to the average person. You're wrong.
Being yourself itself is a secret.
As a unique individual, no one else knows what it's like to be you.
Start by being yourself, and accepting who you are.
Don't try to be somebody you're not.
It's okay that you're not a finished product. Nobody is.
You know how once you hear the hook of a story, you really want to find out its ending? You can get people interested in your story. That'll get you followers.
These are secrets you don't need permission to share.
You already have your life story's hook. Tease it out of yourself, then all that's left to do is pursue the ending.
d. Do research and analysis
Research and analysis unearth secrets hiding in plain sight.
It takes a lot of work to find relevant information from what's sitting out there on the internet. Then performing the analysis — connecting dots and fitting pieces together — is another gargantuan task.
"He found patterns ... It almost felt like cheating, he recalls; the best research always feels that way. You can’t believe all this gold is just sitting right there, for anyone to take."
- Courtland Allen doing the research for Indie Hackers at its inception
And people can learn from this work, which means it's a form of teaching.
This also means that anyone could exchange their time for secrets. That's pretty cool to know.
4. BONUS: ENTERTAIN TO BOOST RESULTS
This one's an optional extra.
People benefit from, but are not entertained by, plain learning. Sahil Bloom's best tweet threads incorporate captivating stories from history to provide entertainment alongside financial education, amplifying the effect and reach of his content.
Tim Ferriss' extremely popular podcast (and to an extent, podcasts in general) maintain a conversational tone that's easy to listen to. Interspersed with a couple of jokes here and there, it makes for excellent edutainment.
And according to Tony Dinh, posting memes also help!
To recap, here's how you get a following:
- Write online: for your crowd, share about yourself, teach what you know, and be consistent.
- 3 ways to sell to an audience: Let them tell you what to build, educate your customers, or have a mission.
- Peddle secrets: from deep expertise, unique experience, being yourself, or research and analysis.
As mentioned earlier, my findings in this post are based on my research notes, which I spent approximately 100 hours compiling.
The notes dig into the initial, starting phase of audience growth for each of the 27 persons mentioned in this post, and details data points, notes, background stories, links, references, as well as their steps and methods for building a following.
At over 9,000 words long (35-minute read time), it's far too long to include with this post. You can receive a PDF or EPUB file of it here when you sign up for my newsletter.
Otherwise, I think that's it. I hope you've found this useful.
I'm Guan. My goal is to become a better indie hacker. To get updates on my journey, subscribe using the form below.
This post was written using WriteMapper, my mind-mapping desktop app that was crucial in helping me outline and organize my thinking and put it together coherently.