#19 Ask not what an audience can do for you

Ask what you can do for your audience.

Welcome readers old and new. This is one of Thomas’ notes in his search for ideas which are surprisingly general, or generally surprising. You can find all past issues here.

Audiences are sexy, and these days everyone wants one.

Growing substacks, twitter follows, paid and unpaid subscribers. Conversion, retention, k-factor. By putting in the work, you get the audience you deserve. If the rate of newsletter formation is anything to go by, more people than ever feel that they deserve an audience.

To have an audience is to own many tiny slices of people’s attention.

An audience is potential energy. Properly released, an audience can flow downstream into warm-intros, pre-orders, and job offers. (It did for me– I got my current job and one consulting gig through my writing.)

An audience is a credential. It gets you a seat at the table by implying (but not guaranteeing!) that you have something to talk about.

To have an audience is to have success. At least, that's what the seemingly successful will tell you. But an audience is a target, too. It’s pretty hard to get cancelled when no one cares who you are.

Discussions about audience growth are almost tautological– everyone with a megaphone from which to pronounce the brilliance of growing your own audience… ...already has an audience. If they didn't have one, you wouldn't hear from them in the first place.

There is a flood of cultural noise about audience growth– and individuals and organisations are getting carried away in it.

So many individuals and organisations are so sure they want to grow– but don't know why. Two examples:

I’ve become acquainted with an AI ethics institute, whose mission is growth. They also claim to want to encourage companies to build Responsible AI, when they can't even define the phrase AI, to say nothing of the word “Responsible”. Their mission statement is an amalgamation of business buzzwords and run-on sentences. The only thing they seem to be sure about is that they want to reach more people.

Elsewhere, on Twitter, an new “creators” are popping like whack-a-moles. With their edu-tainment threads, bait questions to drive up engagement and persistent use of the 👇 emoji, I’m always conscious I’m moving down their marketing funnel, no matter how good the insight-porn is.

To both groups I want to ask:

Who are you aiming to reach?

Why are you trying to reach them?

For many of these creators/organisations, I think the answers are:

as many people as possible,

for any reason they’ll like.

Being deliberately vague about your target customer may seem like an expedient way to quickly run your business. But in the not-so-long-run its a reliable way to run your business into the ground.

Growth is only as good as the reason for growing.

People only remember you if you give them a good reason to. And you should only grow if you have a good reason to. What need are you providing to your audience? What part of their lives are you fulfilling? If you don't know, then you shouldn't grow.

These days, it's fashionable to think of the positive feedback loops that lead to growth as a flywheel. The more effort you put into spinning the wheel, the faster and faster it can go. But this metaphor is missing an important component.

If a company's growth loop is like a flywheel, then that company's purpose is like it's axel. It's a fixed point that doesn't change, as the company spins faster and faster. It holds the flywheel to the ground, keeping it tethered to reality.

Sure, to grow you need to reduce friction on the axel, and to increase the speed of the wheel. But without a purpose, it doesn't take long for a growing company, or a growing newsletter, to spin out of control.

An organisation or creator without a well-defined reason to exist is just like a startup without product-market-fit. And like so many startups who try to grow without product-market-fit, "poor retention is always the result".

What to do if you think you deserve an audience

One day I would like to have a big audience.

In fact, I believe I deserve one. This is egotistical, but it’s true.

I haven't worked out exactly what I want to say to my presumed audience yet. I don’t even know who I want to be in it. But I do know two things:

  1. I know that when I say something I know is worth saying, I want to hurl it from the rooftops. I want everyone who could benefit to hear it.

  2. I know that I am determined to avoid gathering lots of people together with clickbait-y writing or pop-ups or growth hacks. For my writing to collect like clutter in thousands of people’s inboxes, unloved and ignored.

I’m going to start and re-start small. And through learning from each person who reads my writing, carve out a little niche of my own. Only once the drip of new subscribers becomes a deluge, and if I want to dive deeper into my content will I scale up my stuff.

For now, I’m collecting my thoughts. I’ll keep this newsletter nice and cozy for a while yet.

But I’ll conclude with some gusto:

If you think you deserve an audience, there's only one thing to do. Keep working, searching, learning– until the audience comes to you.

So, audience. What can I do for you?

Thank you for reading my writing. You have the right (but not the obligation) to suggest what I should think about next.

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