Should you start with building your product? Or your audience?
By Brandy Alexander-Wimberly (Director of Digital Marketing, Interrupt)
They say the purpose of a business is to create an audience. But what about creating an audience first, then creating a product or service for that loyal audience?
To build an audience, you need to create something for that audience to consume. So what we’re talking about here is the marriage of “content and marketing.”
Content marketing is of course a buzz term right now, but the buzz is backed by real world examples of entrepreneurs finding a niche, building a relevant audience then monetizing the ecosystem.
We spoke with Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute, to discuss his theory of content marketing, and how startup founders can find success by following a 6-Step Process.
Pulizzi sees audience and monetization as so intrinsically connected that he’s calling a piece of this process the “minimum viable audience.”
“We found dozens and dozens of case studies of companies that have done this exact same thing and we reversed engineered the case studies and realized they follow the same six steps.”
Compare that to the now industry standard concept of the “minimum viable product.” Build the audience first, then launch the product to fans, versus build a product, then look for an audience.
These six steps became a formula for an initiative focused on inspiring founders to rethink the entire launch model.
6 Steps to Building an Audience Primed for Monetization
1. Identify Your Sweet Spot
This spot is the intersection of a knowledge or skill set (something in which the business has a competency) and a passion area (something the business feels is of great value to society or inherent value to the target audience).
2. Content Tilt
Once the sweet spot is identified, the business needs to determine the “tilt” or the differentiation factor to find an area of little to no competition.
3. Build Your Base
Consistently generate valuable content through one key channel (a blog, a podcast, YouTube, etc.).
4. Harvest Your Audience
Increase the audience and convert one-time readers into ongoing subscribers.
Think of the model like an octopus, with each content channel being one of the arms. How many of those arms can you wrap your readers into to keep them close to you (and coming back for more)?
By this time, you should armed with enough subscriber information (both qualitative and quantitative) that a multitude of opportunities will present themselves to generate revenue.
Success Stories of Building an Audience First
The 6-step theory of minimum viable audience as a path to revenue has more than a few success stories.
Pulizzi points to Ann Reardon, the “Baking Queen” of Sydney, Australia. When she started her baking blog, millions of baking blogs already existed.
“So she looked at how she could cut through the clutter to get people to pay attention to her,” says Pulizzi. “She focused her Content Tilt on “impossible food creation” videos — like how to make a giant Snickers-shaped cake using five pounds of Snickers.”
Her video of another cake replicating the Instagram logo in every slice went viral. In 2012, her How to Cook That YouTube channel had 200 subscribers. Now she has almost 2 million.
“Now she has baking brands working with her and she’s growing it into a multi-million dollar property, all built around subscribers,” Pulizzi points out.
Another example is L.A.-based designer Joy Cho. Cho started with a blog in 2005 and has created her audience over time. Notice she was not an overnight success (and people rarely are.) In 2011 she began to build her audience on Pinterest. “She’s now one of the top most pinned people on Pinterest and she’s been able to monetize using the same six step process,” says Pulizzi. “She is now one of the hottest designers out there, she’s done design integrations with Target, Microsoft and a bunch of other big companies.”
How the Audience-First Model Can Help More Startups Succeed
According to Pulizzi, the formula works well for startups because of the pivot factor. “Even if you look at Y Combinator, one of the most successful accelerators out there, their success rate of these really amazing companies is only 10 percent,” says Pulizzi.
How can we improve the success rate of promising startups? Pulizzi says he thinks many of them need a better way to go to market. “Instead of focusing everything on a product or service, that we probably would have to pivot anyway, why not build a loyal audience in a certain area, and sell them a product or service after that?” The better you understand an audience, the better you can understand their needs and build a product that works for them, Pulizzi points out.
Content Marketing for Non-Content Folks
But what if you’re not a natural content creator? Pulizzi says the two things to consider are your passion and your expertise and look for the intersection of those two facets of your life. Take Ann Reardon’s YouTube baking channel, for example. Pulizzi points to her passion for education and teaching, which set her apart from other content creators.
Even if you don’t consider yourself a content creator, if you’ve got the following, it’s enough to get started and differentiate yourself.
- Passion: Are you passionate about this? Really? Your passion will determine if you will be dedicated to put in the work… or not.
- Skill & Knowledge: What authority do you have to communicate on this topic?
- Content Tilt: Remember this is the area with little to no competition where you can become the leading expert in the world.
Okay, so what’s a real-life startup example? Pulizzi details out the hypothetical concept of a startup founder looking to create a SEO platform.
Is your strategy to create an SEO e-book? First, type “SEO ebook” into Google. You get 11 million results. Think yours will stand out and cut through the clutter? It probably won’t.
“You really need to focus on the particular audience you’re going after,” Pulizzi suggests. “You have to go really super niche.” He thinks this is where startups go wrong — when they look at the total addressable market.
“You have to go niche to be successful with this,” he says. “To be best of breed, you have to set the goal of almost becoming the leading expert in a niche area.”
The Long Road to Content Marketing Success
So how long does it take to succeed with content marketing? In terms of the investment in time for success, Pulizzi recommends a dedication of at least one year to build an audience that can scale, or in his terms, “knows, likes and trusts you.”
Take a look at BuzzFeed. You may think they just came on like a storm in 2011, but Pulizzi points out the site stated in 2006. Ann Reardon built a few hundred subscribers after a few years. And it took a few more to reach those millions.
The overall lesson is that it takes time, effort and consistency to build that audience. So for an entrepreneur, the question becomes: “Do I pour my resources and time into developing content and an audience, or into building a product without a loyal audience?”
And thinking beyond writing is also critical. Video, podcasting, email and social media are all relevant channels for growing an audience. There are more content creation resources out there today than have ever been on the planet.
“If you’re focused on solving a customer problem, focus your stories about solving the problem, which you can do in all sorts of different ways,” Pulizzi recommends.