It’s easy to feel like you can grow a loyal audience in no time using the latest growth hacks or Twitter and Facebook tricks. But the truth is, it’s not that simple.

Growing an audience is hard.

You have to have talent.

You have to put in a lot of work.

And there’s no 1–2–3 solution.

In this post, I’m happy to share some of our experiences from building an audience at Buffer alongside six key ingredients to successfully building an audience.

Let’s get started!

pablo (21)

Why it’s difficult to build an audience (and why there’s no shortcut)

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” ― Theodore Roosevelt

It is no secret that we live in an age of information overload. Yet many of us are in search of a larger audience. More readers on our blog. A bigger following across social media. A group of people who read, engage with and amplify everything we share.

The problem is, we live in an attention economy. Everyone is vying for consumer attention, and there’s only so much to go around.

Attention is limited

We all have 24 hours in a day. There’s nothing we can do to change that.

Each day on Facebook alone we are potentially exposed to 1,500 pieces of content. When you add in Tweets, Snapchats, Instagram posts and all the other content we’re exposed to daily, it’s easy to see why it can be so hard to break through as a content creator.

The below graphic from Moz shows how content fatigue could start happening very soon:

how-content-fatigue-happens

It takes a lot of swings

Each day we have a tiny window to grab people’s attention and make an impact with our content. And many of us are in search of that one, elusive thing that’ll get us rolling on the path to success. But that’s not how it works.

Think of yourself as a Major League Baseball player, for every home run, for every cheer from the crowd, there are thousands of practice swings and plenty of strikeouts. Content is no different. You need to step up to the plate and bring your best every day if you want to be a success.

There’s no shortcut to building an audience. It’s a long, winding road. And it takes a number of elements to succeed. Below I’d love to share some of the key ingredients to building at audience.

The 6 essential ingredients needed to build an audience successfully

1. Look for what’s next

The World is moving fast, and opportunities are arising everywhere. New platforms and new trends breed new opportunity. And for early adopters a unique chance to build an audience as Gary Vaynerchuk explains on Medium:

If you play close attention to the people who popped on Vine, or the people who popped in the early days of Snapchat, or Instagram, they all happened to be the Christopher Columbus of their platforms. They were early. So as those platforms took off, they developed disproportionate amounts of followers as new users joined and found them.

First mover advantage

A study from Harvard Business Review found that companies identified as believing strongly in the benefits of adopting new technologies receive a “first-mover advantage” — and are more likely to lead in both revenue growth and market position than their peers.

The same theory applies to new social platforms too. As an early adopter, you can gain first mover advantage and, as Gary Vaynerchuk said, you have the chance to become “the Christopher Columbus” of that platform.

By focusing on what’s next and experimenting with new platforms and technologies, you have an opportunity to jump ahead of the competition and build an audience before the platform is too crowded.

Hone your skills

Shaun McBride, better known as Shonduras online, is one of Snapchat’s first homegrown celebrities, and brands are spending upwards of $30,000 for advertising deals with him and other Snapchat stars.

Before Snapchat, Shonduras honed his skills as an artist. Snapchat merely provided a platform for him to share his skills with the world.

shonduras

The biggest opportunities ahead probably aren’t on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube but on platforms we don’t even know about yet. That doesn’t mean you can’t start preparing for these opportunities, though:

  • If you want to be an influential writer, practice writing: on your blog, on Medium, on Twitter, or anywhere you can scribble down a few words.
  • If you love to create video, experiment with Vine, YouTube, Snapchat, and Beme.

Whatever your skill set, find new ways to be creative. Hone your talents. And then when the next big platform launches, jump on it and set the trends there.

2. Have a voice

Everything has been said before, but it’s never been said by you. Your point of view is what makes you interesting. — Jory MacKay

For periods in my writing life, I’ve relied on content that is ‘good enough’, content that gets a point across. That ticks a box. But doesn’t reflect me or my personal beliefs.

On reflection, this doesn’t feel the way to break through and build an audience. Great content should make you feel vulnerable and a little discomfort upon publishing.

As Jory MacKay points out over at Crew, when you approach a new subject, ask yourself ‘how can I cover this in a way that only I can?’  Your voice is what will make you stand out from the crowd.

Saying the same things as everyone else, in the same style will only add to the noise. And you’ll get lost in the endless sea of content published every day.

The below graphic from Sean McCabe illustrates how to find your unique voice perfectly:

your-unique-voice

3. Do things differently

At Buffer, we’re super lucky to be well-known for our content. But our rise wasn’t an overnight success — and certainly didn’t come easy.

It took some trial and error. And a few years back we found a recipe that started to pay off.

buffer blog traffic

From day 1, we have invested in content marketing at Buffer. Leo kicked things off on the blog back in 2011 and since then we’ve been through quite a few evolutions and tried many different tactics to build our audience.

Here’s a quick at the development of our content over time:

  1. Twitter tips: January 2011 – October 2011
  2. Pivot to social media tips: November 2011 – June 2012 
  3. Pivot to lifehacks, writing, customer happiness and business: June 2012 — March 2014
  4. Pivot to social media marketing and content tips: March 2014 to now

And a fun gif showing how the blog design has changed:

If you check back through our first posts, they contain great content but they weren’t distinguishable from other social media blogs out there.

At this stage – when we weren’t getting hundreds of thousands or millions of views per month – we could’ve decided to focus elsewhere. Instead, we tried to do things differently and create our Buffer style of content.

We pivoted from Twitter tips to broader social media tips. And in June 2012 we pivoted again. We began focusing on in-depth, well-researched posts that broke down potentially complex subjects into clear, understandable and highly shareable content. Things started to take off after this pivot.

Here’s an early example of one of these posts:

Leo post

After some success with this style of post, the biggest jump in traffic came when Belle Beth Cooper joined the Buffer team, and we doubled down on producing unique content.

If it wasn’t for our early experiments, we may never have discovered the potential of this type of content and may never have unlocked all of the traffic (and conversions!) we see today.

You need to keep evolving

Leo and Belle were so great at discovering the potential of in-depth content. Another shift for us occurred a year or so ago when we came to focus social media marketing and content tips – paying particular attention to the visuals and images within our articles.

More recently, Kevan shared that our social referral traffic has nearly halved over the past year. This post sparked a ton of discussion about our content both internally and externally.

The below Tweets from Rand Fishkin especially resonated with our team:

rand fishkin

This debate gave us a chance to reflect and re-evaluate our content. It also inspired Leo to share our marketing manifesto. Since then, we’ve re-focused and started experimenting again. As Kevan explains: our blog is our greatest marketing asset. And we just keep changing it.

Only time will tell if our new experiments will pay off. However, one thing is for sure – the hard work from the past years will go to waste if we don’t continue to push ourselves and figure out how to continually keep evolving our content.

4. Hard work

I’ve learned from experience that if you work harder at it, and apply more energy and time to it, and more consistency, you get a better result. It comes from the work. — Louis C.K.

Success comes from the work that no-one sees.

If you want to build an audience you need to put in a lot of hard work.

Let’s take Seth Godin for example.

Before he was a best-selling author and marketing thought leader he was Seth Godin, just another blogger.

Godin’s blog has posts going back to 2002. But, as Ailian Gan points out on her blog, it’s around 2006 where Seth Godin hits his stride and starts to sound like the Seth of today. That’s four years of finding his voice and honing his skills.

Another example is Nils Wagner, the man behind Hoopmixtape. Hoopmixtape’s website and YouTube channel receive millions and millions of views each month.

What’s not clear is the work that goes on to ensure it stays that way. Sam Laird explains over at The Classical:

To stay on top, Wagner travels tens of thousands of miles yearly to gather footage of elite prospects, sometimes driving thirty hours straight and living out of his car for weeks at a stretch.

Building an audience is hard work. And you’ll need to put in the hours if you want to succeed.

5. Focus on quality

In our Buffer marketing manifesto Leo explains:

Sometimes we think that just putting out a consistent number of things will just create some outliers that’ll help us win. Heck, I even believed this for a long time and advised people to just focus on quantity. I don’t think that’s true anymore. Yes, we need to output things at high quantity, but we need to treat every single piece of output as the one that’ll be a breakout hit.

Going back to the baseball analogy from earlier on, every time a batsman faces a pitch, they’ll see it as a home run. Everything they have will go into the next swing. And to build an audience you need to feel that same way about every piece of content you share.

You need to feel that everything you put out is excellent. Every post, every video, every image has the chance to be a hit. Without this feeling, you’re not going to break through the noise.

Quality shouldn’t be confused with perfectionism. Perfect sits in your drafts for too long. Perfect causes delays. Quality is published consistently, without lingering.

On quality vs. perfection, James Clear explains an excerpt from Art & Fear on his blog:

The ceramics teacher announced that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”.

Well, grading time came and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity!

It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat around theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

6. Be consistent

It takes patience to build an audience, and it takes courage to keep putting yourself out there time and again.

Consistency is key, and it doesn’t come easy as Sean McCabe explains:

I think people believe that those who show up consistently have some sort of magic power or inherent ability. “It must come easy for him,” they say. “For others like me, it’s hard.”

Here’s the reality: it’s not easy for anyone — even the people that make it look easy. In fact, if someone is making it look easy, they’re probably working all the harder.

When Unbounce launched, consistency played a big role in the growth of their audience as Co-founder, Oli Gardner, penned 300 posts for the Unbounce blog over a six month period.

Consistently creating content was also critical to our early growth here at Buffer. Within Buffer’s first nine months, Leo wrote around 150 guest posts, which were vital in helping us acquire our first 100,000 sign ups.

Leo explained the importance of consistency over at Search Engine Watch: “Of course the early ones barely drove any traffic and only very gradually did things improve, I think that’s very important to understand. It will take a while until you can find the right frequency of posting.”

Another great example of the power of consistency is Youtuber, Casey Neistat.

When Neistat started daily vlogging he had around 520,000 subscribers on his YouTube Channel. Now he has over 1,500,000 subscribers.

You can see the impact his consistent, daily posts had on his subscriber growth from March — July 2015 below:

casey-neistat-subs

One of the best ways to achieve consistency is to set a schedule for yourself and stick to it. Most of us only create content when we’re hit by a moment of inspiration. But if you’re looking to build an audience, you need to be putting yourself out there regularly. 

I’ve always struggled with this one myself. But now, knowing I have to create content on a regular basis, means I can’t skip writing. Instead of sitting down and wondering which days I’ll write, I now have a schedule in place.

Over to you

Building an audience is something I’m continuously working on both personally and at Buffer. The rewards make it feel worthwhile – seeing people share your content and enjoy your work is priceless.

In a way, this post serves as a public reminder to myself that I need to be dedicated and focused every day if I want to succeed and continue to build an audience.

To summarize, here are six action points to keep in mind when it comes to building an audience:

  • Hone your skills and keep an eye on what’s next
  • Find your voice and create content in a way that only you can
  • Discover what makes you different
  • Work hard
  • Strive for quality and avoid seeking perfection
  • Be consistent and put yourself out there every day

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this too. What are your feelings about growing an audience? What have you tried? What’s worked?

Drop a note below in the comments and I’ll be excited to join the conversation.

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Written by Ash Read

Content crafter at Buffer. I’m fascinated by storytelling, entrepreneurship, and travel. When I’m not writing, you’ll usually find me on a football pitch or basketball court.

  • I needed your reminder to speak my own voice. Sometimes I get burned out writing on the same topic and find my writing loses it’s personality.

    One of my best writing “tricks” is to put any blog post aside for a day. When I go back to it I always see obvious ways to make it much better that don’t take much work. Often it’s a matter of changing the order of things or adding a better lead in sentence. Oddly, if I “sleep” on it I often wake up in the morning with a great idea or two on how to tweak a post to make it better. I keep a notepad by my nightstand for this very thing!

    • Hey there Deane, thanks so much for dropping by the comments. I love that tip! Sleeping on a post is something I try to do regularly too – it’s so much easier to come back and edit a post when you’re approaching it with a fresh, clear mind. Thanks Deane! 🙂

  • Good ideas. I’ve used most to come to the fore in my Montana niche. It’s incredibly small, but I’m an expert and identified as such now. It took awhile, about a year or so, but regular posts, anticipating what people wanted to read, and having a unique voice were critical.

    Now I can do anything in that niche. That’s the key – understanding your niche so much that you dominate it and everyone knows it.

    • Hey Greg! Awesome to hear you’ve had some success building an audience. Thanks so much for dropping by the comments 🙂

  • David Butler

    Ash really great topic and post! Today an audience is like a rainforest. It’s a social rainforest where you need to discover your right place and build credibility and shared influences. It’s also very dynamic with friends and enemies:) Your 6 points can help us survive for sure. I find it is also difficult to assemble all the tools required to work on your 6 points. My sense is that there is not really one place to go to work on all the tasks associated with discovery, creation, production, and measuring social media at least not without an IT person to create and manage it. Buffer is excellent at planning the production and providing the analytics at a large scale! We created a social Story Sheet to make one place and super simple template to work own the audience and the message. We integrated with Buffer’s amazing APIs to create a “Super Buffer”. It’s called iPositioning so you may want to take a look at http://www.ipositioning.com

  • I have so much appreciation for your content. You write with such honesty and true value. Definitely one of my all-time favourite blogs. Thank you. (Emily Taylor)

    • Thanks Emily, that really means a lot! 🙂

  • Michelle Johnson

    I spent a lot of time building an audience on YouTube. Even though I consistently produced weekly high quality cooking videos for 2 years, when I launched my cookbook I got less than 20 sales. So, I think there’s more to it if you need to build an audience of buyers vs an audience of free consumers. I’m not sure what I could have done differently.

    Others on YouTube supposedly had good success when they launched cookbooks. That experience has turned me off and I’m now working on building my email list – which I should have been doing more aggressively from the beginning anyway.

    • Hey Michelle, thanks so much for your comment. Your point on an audience of buyers vs free consumers is so interesting. Thanks for sharing!

    • Dustin J. Verburg

      That’s pretty crazy, Michelle. It sucks to put in all that effort and then figure out your audience might not have been the right one for conversion– though I suspect those people are still strong advocates for what you do.

      Once you do figure everything out, you’ll be a force to be reckoned with. You’ve already put in so much groundwork.

      • Michelle Johnson

        I think they are still strong advocates. They are just more interested in free content. Cooking videos take too much time to produce, including buying ingredients and testing recipes multiple times. I just can’t justify doing it for free anymore.

        I’m still plugging away with getting the proper building blocks in place. I hope you’re right 🙂

        • Dustin J. Verburg

          I can imagine it’s all pretty difficult, but you’ll pull it off. Best of luck!

        • Hi Michelle,
          there are much more options to cross-check, which you might not have been done and you can do from now on. There are a lot of millions of views.
          I am studying currently a lot of online business work and for me it seems, that the most success comes from your own doing as an attractive character and that your audience is getting more from cold to warm and so they are willing to buy from you.
          You need the right state in yourself to be act and seen as an expert for your fans and customers. If you are only a “normal” one, the interest is too low to buy a book from you.

          Let this thougths work inside yourself and check your posts, videos etc against it. Maybe you find a lot of points to make it a bit better 😉

          Wish you all the best.
          Have FUN. Go4it.

          • Michelle Johnson

            I humbly think I did exactly what you said. Take a look and let me know what you think. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PcmwR4cUVOE

          • Michelle – to me what’s missing in your well crafted pitches are colourful beautiful photographs of the finished item – and visual excitement in your kitchen / clothes etc. From just watching these promos I’d say you have plenty of substance, I just want to see the sizzle

  • Great post Ash.

    Twitter is particularly hard to gain clicks from now and an email list is super-important.

    I love the content here on Buffer and it’s one of the only sites that I regularly read and share.

    That says to me that it’s different and that I know it’s worth coming over to.

    People have to invest what little time they have to read your content and you’d better make sure it’s not the usual drivel!

    Nothing ever happened overnight and it’s refreshing to hear that. I’m sick of all the “build a tribe in 5 minutes” crap we see out there.

    Cheers!

    • Thanks so much, Todd! Amazing to hear you regularly check-in and share our content – that really means so much!

  • Will Anderson

    Great post! I really liked the excerpt about the pottery class you included. Definitely a relevant point to make about getting yourself out there and taking action. Obviously none of the folks you mentioned would’ve achieved their notoriety without being consistent, for any of their respective mediums. It can also be fairly draining to see what all’s out there for how to’s on crafting content. Everyone’s always vying for space!

    • Hey Will, thanks for the comment. The pottery class excerpt really hit home with me too. By being consistent and pushing out quality content you learn so much more than you would waiting until something feels ‘perfect’ to publish. So great to hear your thoughts, Will! 🙂

  • Love this post Ash! Totally motivating and cannot agree more with the consistency with quality aspects. In growing an audience online, Its not really possible to go back and start early on the big ones (but still important) and very good to keep and ear out to be the Columbus of a new platform for your niche. Its fun to F4F on some platforms, but recommend growing through influencers and producing content that can engage because you found your voice. Great examples in this post.
    Have a terrific Tuesday and sharing this with my network. 🙂 Cheers!

    • Hey Steve, thanks for the comment! It is hard to break through now on the bigger social platforms but I’m sure it can still be done and agree it’s definitely worth keeping up a presence. Appreciate you taking the time to read this one and share your thoughts. Cheers Steve! 🙂

  • Dustin J. Verburg

    I love that the Buffer team’s philosophy constantly hits on “make it awesome, not perfect.” I feel that way too, but I also really struggle with it, especially in writing. If I don’t feel it’s perfect, I keep working on it and it takes too long. But I’m getting better. With music, it’s easier to just latch on to the raw feeling and throw perfection out the window (Sam Phillips seemed to agree, and his records had an audience: http://www.npr.org/2015/11/23/457083328/the-man-and-the-mistakes-that-invented-rock-n-roll). With writing, though– it’s just so hard to say “good enough!”

    I also loved the ‘evolution of Buffer’ gif and timeline. Awesome post.

    • Hey Dustin, thanks for dropping by the comments. Finding the right time when a post feels good enough to publish is a challenge. I tend to let a post breathe for a day-or-so after writing and then if I re-read it and my guy feeling is that it’s high enough quality to hit publish then I go for it. 🙂

      • Dustin J. Verburg

        That’s a good and sensible method. I’d like to think I do that, too. But I don’t always. Sometimes I just don’t finish the “writing” part in the first place because the ‘what ifs’ won’t stop running through my head, haha.

        Maybe I should write that out on a post-it note in 4 easy steps.

    • I’m going to try to make “Make it awesome, not perfect” my new mantra — I love it!

  • Found the article by way of a re-share on an industry publication. In the words of our modern internet hyperbole: “This.” Being an industry insider/blogger within an industry which is notorious for not being early adopters (credit unions), the building an audience has come at great challenge. A handful of views is “success” here. Of course, this gives little opportunity for scalable growth.

    While the numbers are orders of magnitude higher than my own, I appreciate your collecting them for reference. It’s interesting to see what “pops” for someone. The idea of believing every post is “the one” ensures energy and passion is there along the way.

    Refining your voice and writing style is important, and I agree with the pottery allegory. Can’t improve what you don’t try!

    Thank you for your insights, and I know I’ll continue Force-pushing my way through the credit union industry! Yes, the geek mind has no off switch.

  • Anasss

    Enjoyed the post Ash! Some random thoughts:

    1- Figure out why you need an audience:

    Are you trying to be part of a conversation? Do you want marketing amplifiers?Do you want to market your brand? Do you want to be “influential”? Do you seek to incorporate online audience into your irl network?

    Sometimes it’s best to just forget about your audience and create for creation’s sake. If you focus too much on your audience, you will start speaking in their voice and not yours.

    2- On voice:

    Can a corporate blog have an authentic voice? Possibly, but my inner Zizec and McLuhan whisper “nope”.

    The way content (corporate content) is crafted currently doesn’t really accommodate voice imho. Writing style and aesthetics can define corporate content but to have voice you need a willingness to show personality (including the bad stuff) and be provocative (incompatible with positivity cultural value?). “The Tyranny of analytics”, “Curiosity Gaps” , storytelling and pretty graphics will get predictable results: Likes, followers, mentions, leads etc. but they dont guarantee uniqueness.
    Example: You can do popular song covers, play them in relevant venues and draw decent crowds every time. It doesn’t necessarily mean the audience is attracted to your “artistic voice” — unless you’re Hendrix-ing covers 🙂
    Or, you can do your own stuff. Lesser crowd initially, but more dedicated and interested in what YOU have to say!

    I better stop this before it turns to an essay!

  • Nice Post Ash Read Thank You For Sharing This

  • Really great post @ashleyread:disqus. Personally I really struggle with producing quality and quantity. Due to time limitation and my own lack of creativity, it often feels as if I am only capable of putting out mediocre content. I really liked the pottery story though. Perhaps I need to focus on consistency first and then learn from that as I go.

  • I love the story of the ceramics teacher you quoted in this article; it shows how quality comes from practice and practice comes from quantity. A lot of experimentation and trial and error is required for every craft.

  • Thanks for the post, This give me so much ideas on how audience building works. It’s also reminding me that nothing great take little work to be done. But great work pays!

  • Kayla Rodriguez

    I really like this. It IS hard but you’ve outlined some great tips. I think we should move past an audience view which assumes one way communication for a community view. You have to also be a contributing member to the community. Add value to the community by producing content that matters to it. And beyond that, share content that your community creates. Create a two way dialogue so your “audience” has a larger stake in your content.

  • Jeremy Boyum

    I love this, been social media-ing for a long time and try to constantly learn. (because I don’t want to grow stagnant and then go backwards…. I’ve done that so many times) I’ve been working on my latest project for a little over two years and we’ve had spurts of growth but it hasn’t quite taken off yet. It was so encouraging to read about your experience and SEE the growth that you guys experienced in starting in 2013. Brilliant article, thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Terence Mentor

    I started my Youtube channel and Facebook channel last year with 2 goals in mind:

    1) I’d do whatever I can to make great content.
    2) I’d keep making videos – even if no one was watching.

    I think that because I had no expectations of immediate fame or success, this has helped me push out 19 videos that are gradually getting better.

    I think having a love of content creation, as opposed to a love of recognition, is really helpful!

  • Andrea Singer

    The persistence thing is one of the biggest struggles I have – I have all of the skills necessary to build and market a successful blog. I just tend to get overambitious for two weeks, and then bored. Trying to take the slow & steady approach with my latest project.

  • Andrea Pacini

    Nice and useful read Ash. Thank you! Be consistent, this is my main takeaway.

  • I think @Dedanas:disqus is right on the money when he mentions the “WHY”. You need to have an answer to that. Most people (building audiences) don’t have that. They just “want to build an audience”, because that’s what everyone else seems to be doing.

    Yes, it’s nice to have a lot of readers, subscribers, followers.. but why do you want to have an audience to begin with?

    – Do you want to to grow your audience so you can sell your product or service to more people?
    – Do you want to grow your audience so you can get your work read/seen/consumed/shared by more people?
    – Do you want to grow your audience so you can impact more peoples life’s with the things that you do?

    Or is it just vanity metrics for you? You just want to be “Internet famous”?

    I think we should all focus much more on the why and stop giving so much of our attention on the how (how to get more visitors, how to get more followers, etc.).

    From the WHY, we will find our purpose (and our voice). And in the end, that’s what matters the most. At least, that’s how I see it. What do you guys think?

  • ishan

    Small but insightful blog in someway related to the topic being discussed.

    Have a look!

    http://obliquepyramid.com/blog/strategies-for-Digital-Scaling-up-of-businesses.html