The best business, with an unbeatable, quality, and affordable product, still has a 99% chance of failing if no one knows about it.
Sounds crazy. And in any sane world it would be.
Unfortunately, our sane world has been replaced by the Attention Economy—a place where your product/service lives or dies not purely by how good or how valuable it is (although that’s the first question you should ask), but by how many people you can get to look at it.
Visibility is your path to success. Without thinking about how you’re going to tell people about your product well before it’s out in the world you’re pretty much shooting yourself in the foot.
So, how do you carve out your place in this new environment if you’re just starting?
Let’s take a look at a few time-tested methods for cultivating an audience of raving fans.
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Why your business needs a content strategy
Before you begin, you need to be clear about your business identity.
How are you going to talk to your community?
What sort of tone are you going to use?
What’s your company’s personality?
One brand that has created an impeccable tone is MailChimp. In their public style guide, Voice and Tone, they carefully list the ideal adjective for how their brand should be perceived, followed by a more specific clarification:
With these rules in place, you always have a baseline to judge your communications against to see if they’re on brand, whether it’s a tweet, blog post, or release notes.
Another method is to pick a figure or ‘totem’ to base your tone around.
Who do you want to sound like? Is there a famous public figure (or a combination of ones) that you think would embody your brand?
One former teammate of ours at CloudDevs worked at a digital agency where they chose Samuel L. Jackson as their totem for his tell-it-like-it-is attitude. Everything they did was straight to the point with no fluff getting in the way.
Your identity isn’t just words
To complement your tone, ask yourself what aesthetic elements (colors, textures, fonts, etc.) you are going to use so readers and users new and old can spot you a mile away.
Going back to MailChimp, they use a combination of a wordmark, logo, and specific colors to ensure that their brand is consistent on- and off-site.
Here’s the MailChimp logo: Freddie.
And their description of how to use him:
“Freddie is our mascot. We don’t use him in combination with our logo. Freddie always faces right, and he always winks.
“Freddie is fun, but sometimes our communication is serious. If you’re using branding on a serious message, please use the MailChimp script logo.
You know about MailChimp. Some folks don’t. If you’re talking to an audience that’s unfamiliar with us, where ‘MailChimp’ isn’t written or said, use our script logo.
If the audience you’re speaking to is familiar with with MailChimp, feel free to use Freddie to represent the brand.”
You don’t necessarily need a cute animal mascot for your company, but you need to think just as in-depth about how you visually represent your brand.
And while this identity may shift as you grow, having a starting point puts you on the road to consistency from the get go. And consistency is what really cultivates trust.
Create content that speaks to your specific audience
Once you know who your identity is, it’s time to translate that into content for your audience.
The key here, is not to dilute who you are with who you think your audience wants you to be.
Cutting through the noise of the Attention Economy requires transparency, openness, and honesty.
Plus, according to an Edelman study of 11,000 consumers, 92% of people want to do business with companies that share their values.
Best-selling writer Jeff Goins calls these his ‘tribe’, while designer and author Paul Jarvis calls them his ‘rat people’ (because for Paul, a rat lover, the 1% of people who feel the same way as him about these little creatures are the ones he wants to connect with).
If you’re stuck, here are a few ways to test if you’re being open and honest about your values:
Be opinionated (and even a little controversial)
There’s a balance between being open and opinionated, and being controversial just for the sake of it. As marketing professor and best-selling author Jonah Berger explains in Contagious: Why Things Catch On, a certain level of controversy can boost help build buzz and get your work in front of new viewers, but too much reduces it and scares people off.
Ask yourself, what do you care about?
What made you want to start your business in the first place?
What problem were you upset about and wanted to solve?
Make a statement
In a conversation with Henry Ford in 1931, Thomas Edison said that he’d “put my money on the sun and solar energy”. Based on the common sense of the time (and the company he was in) this statement probably seemed pretty crazy.
But it stuck and now we’re still talking about it almost 90 years later.
Before you publish anything, ask yourself: Did I say what I wanted to? If not, why? What am I afraid of saying?
Listen to your own voice
Novelist John Dos Passos described Writer’s Hell as a place where you’re forced to read and contemplate your own work, but there is no better way to understand and find your authentic voice than through self reflection.
Read back what you’ve written in the past, even if it’s just tweets and Facebook posts and start to hear your own voice.
Get over the fear of putting yourself out there
Lastly, you’ll need to get over the most common objections that all new writers and content creators face:
“No one wants to hear what I have to say”
“Everything’s been said before”
“I don’t know where to start”
Remember that your audience wants to hear from you. No one has said things the way you have. As writer and product Dan Harmon (Community, Rick and Morty) said:
Get in front of the right people
Just like you can’t just build a product and have people come flooding in, you can’t just create content and expect people to find it. Look for places where your audience will hang out.
What social networks do they use?
What blogs or forums do they frequent?
Are they on Reddit? Hacker News? Medium?
Do you need to go after traditional press and submit to places like Forbes, Business Insider, or Inc.?
Getting in front of the right people also sometimes means getting away from the wrong people. If you’ve built an audience around a different product it can be hard to give it up, but can yield huge returns.
Just look at Alexandra Franzen, who deleted all of her social media profiles and now has a waiting list for clients that’s over a year long.
Or Jason Zook, who deleted a list of 25,000 former customers to start fresh with his Action Army. Did it work? You tell me. His last launch netted $178k.
It’s a classic case of quality over quantity. If you need more proof, please just read Wiredfounding executive editor Kevin Kelly’s now-famous essay on the power of just 1,000 true fans.
Building an audience is no longer a ‘good idea’. It’s a requirement.
If you’re not recognizable, somehow unique, and getting people to pay attention to you, your chances of building any sales traction are slim to none.
There are simply too many people vying for your potential buyer’s attention.
Not having an audience makes the barrier between you and the success you crave about ten times higher.
But when you have an audience—even just a small, engaged group of people eager to hear what you have to say and offer— they are the most powerful safety net you can ever create.