Blogging

Building an Audience Before Building Your Small Business

If it’s true  what Jim Rohn says, that “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with,” then I am feeling pretty good about myself.

I have been lucky recently to spend time with a number of fellow entrepreneurs at early stages of their dreams. Some were close friends and family - others are new friends and new business. All of them impressive and inspiring.

I have found myself discussing a variety of business plans with varied leaders. Two newlyweds taking steps toward opening a locally sourced food and wine business on Long Island. Another the co-founder of a Charleston, SC based brewery. Another a distiller and expert on Korean Whiskys planning his own Brooklyn based brand. The last is an innovative furniture maker in the midst of raising a series A in New York.

These are all vastly different businesses that I felt emphatically compelled to give the same advice: Begin building your audience before you begin building your business!

People tend to humbly and quietly go about their planning, waiting until they are farther along and can more thoroughly prove themselves. But the smart move - and the brave move - is to take a risk by putting yourself out there much sooner.

Start interacting and building trust with the audience your business will serve. Learn what they like, what they want to know, and what they need to know. Then start giving it to them.

Launch a blog, or a video blog. Start a podcast or make series of educational videos. Host a webinar or interview an industry expert. Write - take pictures - network - design - create - share… Whatever!

Just honestly and vulnerably share what you know and love with people. That inspires excitement, trust and eventually loyalty. The sooner you start the better off you will be.

I have been giving this advice so much that it was clear I needed to write it down. Here are some of the benefits to beginning to build an audience before you are ready to open your new business.

Develop the habit

Creating a habit of content creation is a real challenge. Start developing that muscle as soon as possible.

Get in a mindset where every part of your journey is viewed as a content generation opportunity. Everything you learn - every challenge you face - every connection you make - All can be an inspiration to create something interesting and helpful.

People think they will immediately begin pumping out great content when their business launches… It doesn’t work that way. You need to cultivate the habit of creating and sharing until its part of your identity.

Get to know your audience

You will learn about your audience as you build it. The process of building that relationship will teach you what your audience responds to, who influences them and what they need.

You will be in a much better position to design and sell your product when you better understand your target customers.

Steepen your learning curve

Immersing yourself in the audience development process speeds up the rate at which you learn all sorts of things.

You’ll be researching posts, sharing data, interacting with people, meeting influencers, answering questions, finding new distribution channels, testing tactics and much more. Content creation puts you in the role of teacher and teaching is often the best way to learn.

All that work naturally increases the pace of your own learning. As an entrepreneur you need to be learning as much as possible and audience development can be a key driver.

Hone your message

Creating content for your audience is a great way to continually hone your messaging.

As a small business or startup owner, you likely won’t have a team of top copywriters to start. You will need to work exceptionally hard to develop messaging that will resonate with customers.

They say “if you want to be a better writer… write!” Committing to building an audience will force you to practice your craft and hone your messaging in time for your business to benefit.

Reach early adopters

A new business needs to be strategic about who they are targeting at each stage of their growth. Beginning your audience development at the earliest stages can help your reach the all-important early adopters.

The broad-market customer you may target when you are established is precisely the wrong group to target at the earliest stages. That’s because a broad-market customer won’t consider an unproven new option - they won’t consider you.

However, there is a small portion of the market comprised of early adopters that want to be first to try something new. This group will also be interested in your struggle to build something new.

The story of your entrepreneurial journey may catch the attention of this early adopter customer. And that customer type is the single most important factor in the early success or failure of your business.

As your business grows, the early adopter crowd will lose interest in you because you are no longer the hot new thing. But by then you are a proven entity which is now attractive to the broad-market audience that ignored you in the beginning.

Use content as a networking tool

Becoming a content creator can be a great way to support your in-person networking efforts.

Successful networking can be vital to the planning process of your business. Whether you are raising funding, looking for a co-founder, recruiting early employees, or prospecting for your first clients - you need to be taken seriously.

But it can be difficult to establish your expertise in the early days when you don’t have an established business - or even a business card and website.

Pointing to content you have created gives something tangible to showcase your expertise and make you memorable. Having a blog, a YouTube channel, a podcast, or some other creative output can really help bolster your credibility.

Head start on SEO

Getting a jump on content creation is going to provide you with a big SEO advantage when it comes time to actually launch your business website.

Google values unique, relevant, frequently posted content above all else. Quality is the most important factor but it is unrealistic to believe that quantity has no impact.

The majority of new small business websites launch with only a handful of pages - which makes sense. Your site should be easy to navigate and should focus only on what is most important.

But if you are able to tie in an existing blog - or other resources like video, infographics, podcasts, etc - you add additional content without distracting users. In fact, it will improve the user experience - which is what search engines reward.

Don’t worry if you don’t know your eventual company’s name or have its domain. The majority of any SEO value you gain can be passed to your site later using 301 redirects or canonical tags.

Your business will have a big advantage at launch if you have already built a treasure trove of content.

Build a photography collection

Building your community will have the side effect of forcing you to develop your own photo library.

Getting attention online generally requires great images to pair with your written work. Your posts will perform far better with a visual to help tell your story.

Getting in the habit of producing content will also get you in the habit of collecting great photos. I have written in the past about the importance of building your business photography collection.

Start producing content and you will likely become your company’s first photographer without even trying.

Build while you still can

Another advantage to building audience before launching your business: you don’t have the distraction of running your business.

The best marketing is a great product or service. I recommend you remain exceptionally focused on design and execution in the early days.

That won’t leave much time for building an audience. You will be distracted from developing your product - or you won’t have an audience to tell when the product is ready.

An audience-first approach allows for extreme product focus at launch. When the product is just right, you’ll already have loyal fans eager to hear about it.

SUMMARY

  • Begin cultivating an audience long before you launch your new business
  • Don’t wait until you are ready - Take a risk and just start creating and sharing
  • Develop a habit of being an “always-on” content creator
  • Start learning about your audience by interacting with them
  • Force yourself onto a steeper learning curve
  • Craft, test, iterate and improve your messaging before the pressure is on
  • Reach early adopters by sharing your journey as an entrepreneur
  • Use your content to accelerate your early SEO results
  • Use content creation as the impetus to build your own photography collection

First Blog Post Anxiety – 4 Realizations to Relieve the Pressure & Get Started

I’ve been agonizing over this one blog post for months now. And that’s because it’s my first post. Not my first blog post ever, just the first of my very own blog - My own forum, with my own topics, written in my own voice. My success or failure will impact my own reputation and that’s daunting. The first post will be the hardest, right?

I find myself putting so much pressure on this first post. It has to be AMAZING! I tell myself that it should address a perfectly defined target audience. It should reflect my voice and convey the range of my personality.  It should entertain, inform and inspire my theoretical readers. It should be shareable, searchable and feedable. And it should not make up words… like feedable.

It should be unique and entirely original yet rely on established practices that have proven successful. It should have a narrative but should obviously be a list… aren’t all successful blog posts lists?

The easy but dangerous analogy is that this is the first page of a long book that will be my masterpiece. That’s an unfair analogy though.

The author of a book isn’t expected to write a perfect first page and publish it before they even know where the story is heading. They don’t have to design a cover or develop the marketing plan in order to complete the first page. A distribution plan or a system for collecting and responding to feedback isn’t a required first step. A blog needs all that. A book author can start by just writing a first page - and they don’t even have to do that first.

But there are many other characteristics of a blog that make it much easier than creating a book or some other piece of long-form content. And those characteristics are where I think you should focus to ease the pressure and just get started.

For this first post I wanted to share a few of the realizations that gave me comfort and helped me get rolling. It will fall short of AMAZING, but it turns out that’s okay.

1) Nobody is reading yet

I found relief when I started reminding myself that none of it matters that much because nobody will be reading it in the beginning anyway. That sounds like a demotivating thought but it can also be really liberating.

In fact, if you are really expecting significant readership early on then you’re probably setting yourself up to burn out and quit anyway. Success requires a long term commitment that must last after the excitement of starting has long faded.

My realistic side knows that I’m going to have to write dozens, maybe hundreds of posts before I build the audience I hope for. That means I have a lot of time to improve my approach and my style as I work on building that audience.

It can take a lot of the pressure off knowing you have a lot of time to hone your skills without the added pressure of actual readers.

2) Blogs can be edited

A blog is one of the few publishing mediums that offers the opportunity to screw things up and fix them later. Nothing goes to press. There is no elaborate video-editing or re-shoot. It won’t sit on a shelf stuck in eternal mediocrity.

If you have ideas for how to improve a blog post later - You can simply make the edits, click a button, and your blog is better.

In fact, it’s probably a good idea to plan on revisiting your content later so you can keep it up to date. The search rankings of a post are also likely to benefit from being edited and republished because Google likes to serve recent and up to date content.

Pamela Vaughan and her team at Hubspot have been looking hard at how to get new life out of their older content. She also talks about it in more detail in this podcast interview with John Bonini from Impact Branding & Design.

Some blog posts will be truly evergreen, never needing an update to remain relevant. But that is probably the exception, not the rule. Other content can be made to be evergreen by going back to it, keeping what remains relevant and adding new information and insights that keep up with all the change.

3) A blog will evolve

I find myself getting too caught up in the long term planning of my blog. What topics will I cover over the long-term? Do I address a particular topic when I’m writing about that other related topic, or are they separate posts? Should I offer more ‘how-to’ type suggestions or focus on big picture strategy or motivational thoughts?

Before I know it, I’ve spent all my time creating a theoretical three year content calendar instead of writing. Having a plan is good but you may need to force yourself out of the planning phase.

It helps to accept that a blog is a living thing that will continue to evolve. It doesn’t have to have a long planned arc that begins here and ends with some profound conclusion.

A common thread of advice I keep hearing from writers I respect is that the best way to get better at writing is simply to write. Ann Handley’s new book Everybody Writes does a nice job of imparting confidence that the act of writing itself will help you find your tone, hone your process, and discover the topics that excite you.

Basically, at some point you have to stop planning so you can start typing. Your work will evolve and improve with time.

4) You can cut yourself some slack

I’m just going ahead and giving myself permission to put out some lighter blog posts.

Don’t get me wrong. I want every single post to provide value to my readers. That’s my obligation if I hope to keep them. But I’m giving myself permission to occasionally put out a post that is shorter, requires less research and takes less time.

Part of my anxiety with finally launching my own blog is that I know I need to be consistent and extraordinary in order to be truly successful. Once I get started, I have no choice but to deliver week in and week out. But I have a day job, a wife, a baby, another baby on the way, hobbies, exercise, things I want to read, things I want learn, chores, errands… and sleep… I want some damn sleep. Haha

I could easily keep pushing back launching my blog because there is always a week I can see coming where it’s going to be nearly impossible to find the time to put out a 1000+ word post that is thoroughly researched, well written, properly edited and entertaining.

Giving yourself permission to occasionally publish a post that is a bit short or light on research makes the whole process seem more approachable. I look to marketing legend Seth Godin for some inspiration on this one. Seth writes a blog post nearly every day. Many are long, detailed and require lots of research. But many are short, punchy and probably pretty quick to write. But those posts are usually still amazing.

Now, I don’t have the genius of Seth Godin to rely on. But I have spent a lot of time learning and thinking about my topic. In a pinch, I’m going to allow myself to draw on those reserves and bang out a quick post.

So cut yourself some slack on your expectations of what has to go into every post. Having high expectations for yourself is great, but cutting yourself some slack may help get you going.

Summary

  • The first post can be the most difficult – It will (hopefully) get easier
  • Don’t agonize over the first post – Nobody is reading yet – And that can be a good thing
  • You can always go back to improve or update a post – In fact, you should be anyway
  • Your blog can and should evolve – Don’t spend too much time on the master plan
  • Give yourself a break sometimes – A short and quick post can be powerful too