How to build an audience before building a product

Written by Justin on July 30, 2018

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson started 37signals as a classic web design firm back in 1999 — along with just about everyone looking to make a buck off of the dot-com boom.

They created a blog, called Signal vs. Noise, to share their best practices and ideas about web design and development, and launched a web development framework, called Ruby on Rails, to help developers quickly build web applications. By 2004, both had become immensely popular among other web development agencies.

Leveraging this loyal following for both research and sales, they launched Basecamp in 2004 and quickly scaled the business to 2.8 million customers and more than $100 million in revenue without taking any outside funding! And, the rest is history.

Fried and DHH saw the value of creating helpful resources and building an audience around that value. Without Signal vs. Noise and Ruby on Rails, Basecamp wouldn’t have become the runaway success that it is today.

So, how does this apply to your business?

Conventional lean startup wisdom says that the best way to build a product is to go out and talk to your customers and discover their problems — and that is absolutely right! But, how exactly do you go out, find customers, and build relationships with them?

It turns out that good content requires the same lean startup principles as building a great product — you need to discover problems to come up with topics, test solutions by writing content, measure whether the content resonates with the audience, and constantly make improvements. 

The difference is that content is much faster to deploy than a product and enables you to build trust and strong distribution channels while testing your ideas. You can leverage this later on to sell a product with a lot less effort. 

For the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on building a blog because that’s what we know best. The same core principles apply to building an audience through any medium, however, including social media, YouTube, podcasts, or others.

Nobody Cares About You

Building an audience is easier said than done. Nearly two decades after 37Signals launched Signal vs. Noise, it’s much harder to launch a blog that gets noticed — there’s a lot more noise. The Internet is a daily battle for attention with millions of blog posts published every day and it’s only getting more competitive. Even worse, more than half of online visitors read an article for less than 15 seconds! That’s not a lot of time to grab their attention.

Building an Audience

Source: XCKD

You can certainly write posts that draw in tens of thousands of visitors by targeting the right keywords and content — in fact, the process has become more science than art. Add some misleading clickbait headlines and you can get even more traffic from social media!

But, page views aren’t correlated to customer insights, and clickbait headlines won’t help you build an audience. You might even lose credibility. Sumo estimates that the average email opt-in rate for a blog is just 1.95 percent, or less than two in every 100 visitors, compared to 4.77 percent for top-performing blogs that provide visitors with real value.

The best performing blogs answer burning questions or improve the reader’s daily life, and then makes a compelling offer to collect an email address. After a visitor signs up, you can then keep them engaged with a drip email campaign, newsletter, or other content.

Interview Your Target Customers

How do you find burning questions you can answer? 

Many successful bloggers write about their own problems and solutions, as well as share advice they’ve learned over the years. For example, 37Signals created Signal vs. Noise to share their experiences building web and mobile apps to build an audience of web development firms that had the same problems. This is a good way to start, but you have your own biases and it can be tough to look at areas where you’re an expert as if you were a beginner. 

And what if you are targeting customers outside of your area of expertise? For example, someone that works outside of the legal profession may have some idea of the problems faced by paralegals, but without being in the trenches and going to work every day from 9-to-5, it’s difficult (or impossible) to have a true understanding of their pain points.

This leaves two ways that we’ve found work best:

  • Observe Them in the Wild - Amy Hoy recommends finding where your customers are interacting in the wild and observing them. For example, look on Quora for common questions, subreddits for interesting discussions, or even industry forums to see what’s relevant. Try to get a read on the audience’s values and find their core pain points before coming up with potential solutions.
  • Ask Them Directly - Lean Startup encourages entrepreneurs to get out and actually talk to their target customers. We wrote about how to interview potential customers for product ideas, this is the same concept. Only now you really shouldn’t be pitching. Tl;dr - use open-ended questions to get them to talk about their problems and then mine those responses to find their values and pain points before coming up with potential solutions.

Use the insights from these processes to compile a list of the most common values and most frequent problems that are mentioned either online or in interviews. Then, brainstorm some solutions to these problems based on what you’ve learned.

Make an Offer They Can’t Refuse

The next step is taking these problems and solutions and packaging them into compelling offers that your target audience can’t refuse. 

Wait.

We’re not just going to start writing content?

That’s right, first we need a goal. Something to drive our readers towards. This is also known as the hub-and-spoke content model. You start by building a hub, a core piece of compelling content. Then, you leverage the same work and research to create related pieces of content (or spokes) to draw readers in. 

After drawing in visitors with compelling spokes, these offers will be used to collect email addresses, encourage social media followers, or otherwise build an audience.

This is also are how we’re going to begin testing our eventual product ideas. If a visitor doesn’t find something valuable enough to exchange their email address, there’s no way they’ll be willing to eventually pay money to solve the same problem.

For example, suppose that your target audience is small business owners struggling with their taxes. Your research has shown that the three biggest problems these businesses face are

  1. Finding the right accountant.
  2. Calculating their quarterly estimated payments.
  3. Tracking receipts for write offs in case of an audit.

You might come up with three different offers to address these problems:

  1. A Guide to Choosing an Accountant (PDF Download)
  2. A Worksheet for Calculating Quarterly Payments (Google Sheet)
  3. A Simple Receipt Tracking App (Smartphone App)

There are countless other offers that could be developed to address these problems that take a wide variety of formats. For example, you could also create an e-course, write a curated newsletter, or host a webinar. The key is solving the problem in the most effective and convenient way for the customer and then leveraging it to build an email list.

If you don’t have domain expertise, you may also want to reach out to experts in the field to help build out the content. Tell them that you’re writing a guide and want some insights in exchange for a call out or mention. Most people are more than willing to lend their expertise and you can use these same people later on to promote the content across their own networks.

Write Content That Doesn’t Suck

The final step in building an audience is writing and syndicating content around the offer you’ve created, building an email list, and then keeping that list engaged over time.

Start by taking the offer that you’ve created and use it as a basis for separate articles that you can publish on your own blog or a hosted blog like Medium. Each article should be more than 1,000 words long, definitively address a key question or concept, and provide a call to action to download the offer to build your email list.

A great way to find these topics is typing the topic into Google and looking at the related searches at the bottom of the page. For example, the phrase “accountant overcharging” into Google, which brings up a wide range of different topic ideas:

Building an Audience

You can then write about these topics based on the Guide to Choosing an Accountant offer mentioned earlier:

  • Is Your Accountant Overcharging You?
  • A Guide to Disputing Accountant Fees
  • Does Your Startup Need a Bookkeeper?

There are four things to keep in mind when writing content:

  1. Write an Attention Grabbing Headline - Spend time writing many different versions of a headline. Don’t overpromise and underdeliver (e.g. clickbait), but make it clear that you’re offering something of great value to your audience.
  2. Focus on Telling Stories - Write stories to help humanize problems and solutions while making the content more entertaining and inspiring to read. Did you notice our anecdote at the beginning of this article about 37Signals?
  3. Make It Easily Readable - Incorporate images, videos, and other media help break up content. And use short sentences, bulleted lists, and subheadings make the text more digestible than long paragraphs.
  4. Be Comprehensive & Actionable - The reader should finish the article feeling like they have a good understanding of the subject and a plan in place to solve the problem. Don’t make them look elsewhere for another part of the solution.

You can collect email addresses using lead generation tools like OptinMonster and marketing automation tools like MailChimp or Drip. The offer should be sent immediately after a sign-up occurs to deliver on your promise. After that, you can keep the audience engaged by creating a drip campaign that sends them a preset sequence of emails or a regular email newsletter that contains information that may interest them.

Finally, the best way to syndicate the content is to share it in the Quora threads, subreddits, or forums that you used to discover the problems in the first place. If you interviewed any experts in the process of writing the article, you should also reach out to them to see if they will share the content across their networks. Industry specific newsletters are another good way to get your content out.

Note from Andrew: I run StartupWatching, a bi-weekly newsletter full of startup knowledge, inspiration and background stories. It’s a lot of work to consistently find great content, so I’m always looking for tips.

Leverage Your Audience

The final step after attracting an audience and cultivating an email list is leveraging them to launch successful products. After helping them over time (lots of time - don’t post a single blog post and then start spamming your readers with sales crap) with free content, you have built up social capital that you can spend by asking for their help.

You can use the audience in several ways:

  • Research - You can reach out to a subset of your audience with an email to set up a customer interview to learn more about their problems, or send all of them a Google Survey to glean insights to help build your product. For example, you might ask them, “list three of the most frustrating tasks you encountered today” to identify pain points.
  • Beta Testing - You can use your audience as a resource for beta testing new products or ideas. In some cases, you may even be able to pre-sell them on products that solve their problems using the trust and rapport that you’ve built up over time. For example, you can offer them a 50% lifetime discount if they pay for the product before it’s built and offer them a refund if the product isn’t finished in six months.
  • Early Access - You can often turn your audience into your first customers given the trust you’ve built up over time. Offer them a discount for being a loyal follower or early access to new features.

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Justin is a tech blogger and independent software developer. He writes about a wide range of topics, from the latest developer frameworks to startup advice.