The Ethical Guide to Building An Audience The Right Way

Over the years, I’ve tried building an audience using every tip, trick, and hack out there.

I paid for fans on a Facebook Page (when that was a thing) and bought followers on Twitter (I was a big deal in Malaysia for 24hrs).

I’ve even bribed people with giveaways of iPads, MacBooks, heck even cash!

But I’ve learned that all those efforts were a complete waste of time.

Actually, let me correct myself:

All of those efforts building an audience were a complete waste of time, except for being able to learn that all of those efforts were a complete waste of time.

The effort it takes to grow a passionate audience isn’t as difficult as chiseling a beautiful statue out of marble. But like chiseling a statue, you need to be armed with the right tools, the right motivation, and a whole bunch of determination.

Let me help you chisel away and build an audience ethically.

Building an audience

Before you even begin building an audience, you need to tame your ego.

When it comes to anything that can be quantified, our egos quickly become our worst enemies. And boy-oh-boy, do we live in a time with numbers being shoved in our face at every turn:

  • Twitter Followers
  • Facebook Likes/Followers/Friends
  • Email Subscribers
  • Website Visitors
  • Customers
  • YouTube Subscribers

The worst part? Almost every platform puts these numbers front and center any chance it gets. The more numbers you see the more numbers your ego craves.

I wish I could tell you there was a magical way to tame your ego. Some concoction of Diet Coke + Coffee + Chipotle (the usual daily meal plan for any entrepreneur). But alas, it only comes with effort and experience.

It’s damn cliche, but when it comes to building a following, you must focus on quality over quantity. Learning to tame your ego can help you sift through the numbers and find the people who give you the most value.

How deleting my entire audience helped me grow the right audience.

Earlier this year I did something unthinkable to most people. I deleted an email list of 25,000+ subscribers that I had been growing since 2010. 25,000+!

Why in the world would I do such a crazy thing??

Because that audience wasn’t right for me or the business I was trying to run.

Remember all those ‘growth hacks’ I talked about earlier? Turns out lots of people sign up for a mailing list if they think they’re going to win an iPad.

Here’s the problem with building an audience based solely on incentives: That’s all they ever want.

My list eventually got to the point that whenever I would send an email, something I had spent time on and poured my heart into, the only responses I’d receive were:

“I didn’t sign up to hear about this crap!”

“Where are the giveaways? That’s what I’m here for.”

Even more demoralizing was the dwindling open rate. What hovered at around 15-20% for the first year or two slowly dropped below 10%, then 8%, and then as low as 5%. Talk about a red flag slapping you in the face.

So I pulled the plug. I realized sending emails to that list was always doing more harm than good. Hitting delete on 25,000+ people was not easy, but I’ll never forget the immediate feeling of relief after I finally did it.

How to build the right audience from scratch (two important things).

Luckily, I had seen the writing on the wall a few years before things got bad and started to build an entirely separate email list. With the chance to start over, I started looking at people I respected with sizable audiences and reverse engineering how they were growing their list.

The two most important things I discovered were:

  1. They have been building their audience slowly for a long time. Quality takes time and not a single person I look up to has built their list in just a few months.
  2. They are very straightforward with saying who exactly their list is for.

While the first insight made sense, the second one seemed very narrow-minded to me at first.

But then I saw the power of it.

As I started to grow my new list I made it very clear who this new email list was for and exactly what you’d be getting if you signed up.

While those statements have evolved over the years they’ve been the guiding force of growing my audience.

My current list is not super impressive compared to other online entrepreneurs. It fluctuates around 15,000 subscribers with a 20% open rate. But do you want to know the statistic for my email list that matters most to me?

I make 90% of my income directly from my email list. The other 10% is made up of book sales, software profit sharing, and YouTube ad money (a paltry $70 per month, lol).

These are the actual (and ethical) audience building and growth tactics that work.

I understand that you want these things to happen quickly. Most of us aren’t able to sit idly by while we see our competition (or friends, even) grow their audience and their business.

In my experience, growing a loyal and committed audience boils down to 3 main factors:

  1. Defining who your audience is and focusing heavily on bringing them value.
  2. Creating consistent content that solves problems for your audience or inspires them to become the best version of themselves they can.
  3. Actually giving a crap about these people and spending time interacting with them.

These points can seem a bit nebulous, so let’s look at how to practically apply each one:

1. To build an audience, you must first define your audience.

The easiest way to attract the right people is to be crystal clear in the copy on your sign-up forms. For example:

“If you’re a freelance designer or developer, this is the email list for you. I want to help you grow your business with my weekly articles.”

Now, whenever you create content you can put it through your audience definition filter.

When you finish writing an article (or creating any piece of content) ask yourself, “Will this help or resonate with freelance designers/developers?”

And don’t be afraid to be polarizing. If you do an interview or go to an event, own your niche and say “I’m not the guy who helps advertising agencies and Fortune 500s. I want to help the freelance designers of the world, because that’s who I am!”

Your audience connects with you because you share strong values. And the only way they’ll know how you think is if you’re outspoken and clear.

2. Creating great content attracts your audience, creating consistent content keeps them there.

If you’re sending out weekly newsletters use the 9/10 rule: 90% of your articles should be valuable content that helps your audience, while the other 10% can include pitches for products.

Worried you don’t have an audience yet to communicate with? My wife sent her first newsletter to just 4 subscribers, 2 of which were her and me. She stayed consistent and years later has a list of more than 10,000 people!

I keep a running list of topics I want to discuss based on things that interest me, but also regularly get inspiration from questions I get from my audience. Over half the articles I write are email responses I’ve sent to people that I elaborate further on.

If you find yourself answering similar questions from your audience that’s a pretty good sign that you should turn those answers into an article or podcast that will reach more people.

If you use other channels to promote your content, be sure you’re staying consistent on them as well. I repost every article I write to Medium two days after I write it for my website (and include a link to join my weekly newsletter). That link goes to a specific page on this website that welcomes people from Medium and gives them a rundown of who my email list is for and why they should (or should not) join.

I average about 100 new email subscribers a month using this tactic and many of them have purchased multiple products I’ve offered my list.

3. You absolutely MUST give a crap about your audience.

I don’t know anyone that has a passionate audience that doesn’t interact with them in some form.

For me, that’s replying to emails. For you, that could be creating videos, running a Slack channel, or being active on Twitter or Facebook.

Whatever vehicle you use for communication, spend quality time there.

Find ways to remember things about people. I do this naturally, but apps like Contactually can help you manage this. And if you are building an email list, MailChimp allows you to add notes about each individual subscriber.

If you sell a lot of products, reward your customers with free bonus content. Notice I didn’t say offer free bonus content to get new customers. Audience retention is way more important than audience acquisition in my experience!

Don’t focus on just building an audience, focus on building a defined loyal audience

I’ve learned my lesson when it comes to audience building. I know what works for me and what’s bringing me (and my audience) the most value.

If you can put your ego in check, define the audience that’s right for you, and be consistent in providing value, you will build a loyal audience.

I’ll take an exponentially smaller audience that’s loyal, over a large unqualified audience any day.