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63 Comments

Why “Build an Audience First” is Terrible Advice

I’ll be honest. There’s a few Twitter accounts I’m super jealous of. Occasionally I’ll view their profile and each time I see that follower number go up, up up! 7,000, 8,000, 10,000!!

Damn! I only have 62 followers. (at the time of writing and I fully expect it to go down :) )

But here’s the thing. If you want to start a business and your first step is building an audience, you’re doing it wrong.

Building an audience first is like trying to make your home warmer by breathing hot air on your thermometer. It may read 70, 80, 96.8 degrees!, but your feet will still be cold.

A couple years ago Insider published an article about how Arii, an Instagram influencer with 2.6 Million followers, couldn’t even sell 36 t-shirts.

So what went wrong? And where does audience building fit into the overall journey of creating a sustainable business?

It all starts with your target customer. Who are you targeting? What do they need? And what are you prepared to give them?

If you build your audience without first thinking about what you want to sell you may get trapped by them.

For example, let’s say you want to build a SaaS for mid-sized startups. You used to work at one and you think you have a great idea.

You decide that as you build it you should tweet about it. #buildinpublic and all that junk. You tweet and tweet and code and code. Then when you’ve finally built up your audience and launch your SaaS…..no one buys.

Why? Because your audience is comprised of other #buildinpublic indiehackers like you and not mid-sized startup employees. At this point you have two options.

  1. Ditch the audience: You realize you’ve been building the wrong audience for your product. You stop tweeting, upgrade your LinkedIn to platinum premium diamond status or whatever and start messaging mid-sized startup employees.
  2. Ditch the product: You feel loss averse about ditching your hard earned Twitter audience. You switch your product to something they want. Perhaps a Gumroad course on how to grow your twitter audience.

Regardless of which option you choose, you’re still throwing away half your work. Wouldn’t it be better to figure out if your product is viable before doing the hard work of building an audience.

Last February I read Alexander Chernev’s Strategic Marketing Management. It’s very boring but it has this diagram that’s been burned into my memory because it shows with such clarity the 4 different situations you can fall into when targeting your customers.

If you build your audience first you run the risk of looking like the “Shot in the dark” circle. Even if you end up with the “Shotgun” circle, you’ve wasted a lot of effort on people who aren’t going to buy and you may get confused as to who your customer really is.

Long story short. Take the time to understand your target customer before you build an audience because you may build the wrong one or you may not need to build one at all.


Anyway, that’s my spiel. And of course I have a CTA for you.
I made TweetSpacer. A distraction-free tweet thread composer & scheduler. I’m doing $20 lifetime subscriptions for the first 20 customers. 3 spots are left. You can check it out at https://www.tweetspacer.com

I also run CrowdMagnet. A newsletter cross-promotion community to help newsletter creators grow their audience. It's free to join. https://www.getcrowdmagnet.com

You can also find me on Twitter at @AdamFrom1989

  1. 28

    "Build an Audience First" should be "Build a Target Audience First". Then the issue you mention doesn't exist anymore.

    1. 6

      I had read many article of preselling the product, but truly said it is little bit exaggerated and none of the authors used to have a solid saas that sells. They simply write.

    2. 5

      Yes. Having a target audience in mind when you start is very important. However, even at large successful firms, where a lot market research and data about their customers already exist, choosing a target audience is still an uncertain endeavour. Often, you may find that both your target group and product will evolve as you build your product and interact with your audience. So I wouldn't be to specific in my audience targeting early on. Only when you have established product and your really, really understand your target segment should you ignore a general audience.

      1. 2

        There are different ways to approach product targeting. of course.

        For most people who are doing web/service-based products, I think it is still better and easier to start with understanding how your product solves an urgent problem for your target audience. Niche down and then broaden the audience when you get traction.

        Here is a video about product building from Michael Seibel, founder of YC.
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C27RVio2rOs

      2. 1

        Interesting. So you're saying that it's hard to get your target right at the very beginning. So, an audience, which is more loosely defined, can give you the flexibility to help you discover who your true target is. Is that right?

    3. 2

      Honestly - how can you have a target audience with nothing you want to target them with. You can only build an audience that you think could somehow match a niche or possible area of interest. So the above would still apply.
      I am not saying "don't do it" - but I feel the above diagrams still apply.

    4. 1

      The target audience should not be for a product but for you, your brand or a niche you love.

    5. 1

      Ha! Good point. It could have been a much shorter post :)

  2. 7

    I agree.

    As a digital marketer, I'd spent years trying to build an audience first while I was creating a product. When it launched, I found myself in the exact situation you mentioned - ditch the product or ditch the audience.

    I ditched both and started from scratch, only this time, my goal was to solve a problem first.

    If you're solving a genuine problem, people/businesses should be willing to pay for your solution before you even start building.

    This doesn't require you to have a Twitter account or following. Particularly in the early days, making direct contact with target customers should be a key focus.

    As someone who spent years tracking every metric possible, it hurts me to say this, but great products should be built on word-of-mouth growth. They should be so good that your target customers share their experience with other target customers in their own audience.

    1. 2

      Wow. Crazy that this actually happened to you. Thanks for sharing.

      Agree it can be much more impactful to start with those 1 on 1 conversations. It can be a slog but you learn so much from having real conversations.

    2. 1

      but great products should be built on word-of-mouth growth.

      Exactly. I don't use social media in my personal life. I haven't for about a decade. Every product I've used has been discovered through word of mouth. Literally.

      But maybe it's because I'm more of a producer than a "consumer". (not that there's anything wrong with being a "consumer").

    3. 1

      If you're solving a genuine problem, people/businesses should be willing to pay for your solution before you even start building.

      This is exactly what "build an audience" means. It's never been about the formats (like they want to make it look today in all the fuss), it's about having honest conversations, and that can only happen if you a) are tackling a real pain, and b) you're helping the right people overcome that pain. That's building an audience.

    4. 1

      If you're solving a genuine problem, people/businesses should be willing to pay for your solution before you even start building.

      The problem with it is nowadays there are practically no problems without solutions - and building the TA may work much better.

  3. 5

    The funny thing is, the people (for example) of indiehackers.com are a target audience in itself. So, seeing any "great" tips here is actually only someone throwing a fishing-rod. Like you did;)

    I came to the conclusion that this "popularity contest" is just one tool of many in the marketing toolbox and doesn't have to be always the right choice. There are other strategies to get a foot in a market. Today, I'm sitting for about 4 hours in front of Google and research the competition of a certain market. Do I need Twitter follower for that? No.

    Later, in case it makes sense to enter the market I'm researching, I could make use of modern marketing strategies. Like keyword research, a blog, get in touch with influencers of that market (unpaid or paid) etc. If I do that on my own, or if I pay someone to do that - that is another question.

    These indiehacker/startup circles are closed communities that create solutions for problems of that particular community. Which is mostly: Help to build a website/app (NoCode), Twitter bot stuff, Coaches, inspirational quotes etc. I think, as soon as you start to build a product outside of this indiehacker/startup hemisphere, you should leave the community as you don't gain much value anymore. For example, if you want to build a Salesforce product recommendation engine - which you can with the bootstrap mentality - what value do you have when you are popular in the indiehacker-scene?

    Being popular on Twitter is not the first milestone on the road of success. I think, the first milestone is to being able to acknowledge to oneself that you took the wrong route and you have to re-adjust.

    Edit #1: Most indiehackers are dreamers in the first place. Everyone dreams about that one thing. That's why these "how I made $xxx in yy months with 123" posts are popular and "sooo inspirational".

    Edit #2: Additionally, it is important if the product is B2C or B2B. Individuals might be happy to wait for something if it appears to be good. But, problems in a company normally demand a solution immediately. Business people don't wait for 6 months and engage during a public build...

    1. 3

      You're right. Indie Hackers is a marketing channel.

      Originally it was more of a true forum where indie hackers can just talk to each other, but as it became more popular people started using it as a channel to sell stuff to indie hackers.

      They say "go where your users hang out" And if your users are other indie hackers, then you go to indie hackers.

      And that's exactly why I published this post. I have a product to sell (TweetSpacer) and so far IndieHackers is the only place where I've been able to generate sales.

      And it's ironic that I'm saying "don't build an audience" But here, buy my Tweet Scheduler. I'm conflicted about that and even feel kinda dirty. TweetSpacer is young and I have to see where it goes, but I'm concerned about becoming just another indie hacker influencer selling products to other influencers. I hope TweetSpacer can find customers outside of the IH community, and I'm trying to see if that's feasible.

  4. 4

    When it comes to the whole "build in public" thing, it seems to me that people often mistake increasing one's status among one's peers for a marketing strategy.

    We are social animals, chasing status is understandable, it's perfectly okay to allocate resources for that if that's what you want...

    But it's not marketing unless your peer group is also your target audience.

    Also, I think that "building an audience" can be a major distraction, since tweeting and posting on Indie Hackers is much easier than building your product and selling it.

    1. 2

      YES! This is spot on. audience building. Social media. it's seductive and I think the advice around it is misleading.

      Building a real sustianable business that solves a real problem is hard. It's always been hard and will always be hard. But it's better to get real about it than trick yourself into engaging in an activity that ultimately won't get you where you want to be.

  5. 4

    Great picture! And I mostly agree - I think it's easy to get carried away with style over substance when it comes to audience building, but that's because it's really hard and slow to build your true target audience. The sniper approach is basically sales, which is expensive and people intensive, while the slice of pie is more like organic content, but building that up is a hard-slog.

    I've been building for about 6 months now relying almost entirely on organic content to build my audience (trying to get a slice of the pie) and it is only now just starting to pay a few dividends. I recently started to do a bit of building in public to expand my reach (adding a little shotgun to my approach) and to show I'm a real person behind my business... but also it is to give myself a break from writing for Google all the time!

    1. 1

      Thanks for sharing. This sounds like your marketing decisions are grounded in real strategy. You're right, it is a slog. There's no silver bullet to truly understanding a group of people problems, solving them and developing relationships with people. It takes work.

      Everything costs what it costs. Nothing is free. If you want to make $1 million worth of dollars you need to put in $1 million worth of work.

  6. 4

    Good stuff! Thanks for writing this, it does resonate with me.
    But I would like to add a few things here--

    I think I read somewhere -- "Twitter followers are like frequent flyer miles, a big number that is useless when you need it the most" :P

    Jokes aside, I think there is a scope to "build an audience" and then build a solution for them. I think @arvidkahl calls it the embedded entrepreneur approach.

    I think there is space for that kind of entrepreneurship as well.

    Also, if you have a very large audience, then it becomes very easy for you to test out ideas quickly and find out what works and what doesn't. @dvassallo calls his Twitter followers his "market research arm".

    I think that philosophy also has a lot of merits. Especially in a world that is crowded with so many products which are replicas of each other.

    Often the differentiation for a user is the creator than the creation itself.

    Even today, there are people who buy every new iPhone just because they are big Steve Jobs fans. Crazy right!

    Hope that makes some sense.

    Peace.

  7. 4

    Audience is King. @Joshwcomeau just pulled in $500,000 in a week for a course he pitched to his 40k followers.

    Building an audience around a single new product is risky of course. Either building one around you or a specific niche that you love is the way to go.

    It's not easy but people have done it and those who have are sat in an amazing position where they can make magic happen overnight (but it took years to get there)

    1. 2

      I don't know if you can use @Joshwcomeau as a good example to say that "Audience is King".

      It has to be targeted and you have to have a business strategy.

      @Joshwcomeau is a frontend developer selling a course to teach JS devs CSS.

      I'm a JS dev and I know CSS well. But it wasn't always that way. For a long time I was able to struggle with CSS to eventually make the page look right but I never really knew what I was doing and I didn't feel like I had control over the language. Eventually CSS clicked with me after being forced to use it for my job for many years.

      So, I defnitely understand the pain point that he's solving because I experienced it myself and that's the key. He's solving a problem. And his twitter audience is oriented around that problem. All his tweets are about being a frontend dev and CSS and all that stuff.

      Obviously you need an audience and Josh has one, but my argument is that you need to understand the problem you're solving for people first and then build an audience around that. You can't just say "I'll build an audience, any audience and then I'll figure out what to sell them later." It's not gonna work or you'll be forced to pander to that audience and maybe sell something you didn't really intend to like an info product about how to build an audience. This creates bubbles that provide no real economic value.

      1. 1

        The point was without an audience we wouldn't even know about Josh as he would have sold two copies (to his friends) .

        But I agree with you:

        • You can't just say "I'll build an audience, any audience and then I'll figure out what to sell them later."
        • you'll be forced to pander to that audience

        I guess that's the influencer route and who wants that!

    2. 2

      Problem solving is king. If the guy wouldn't have hit a sweet spot, he wouldn't have sales.

    3. 1

      I was just about to reference that!

      1. 0

        Great minds think alike :) and fools flock together :(

        1. 1

          Wow. Did someone not get the joke. Maybe it only works in person!

          1. 2

            I disagree with a lot of what you've been commenting. And also I disagree with the other post you made about it being brilliant advice.

            But yeah, I don't know why that comment was downvoted, seemed pretty benign and lightly humorous to me 🤷‍♂️

  8. 3

    Nice writeup.
    But you're not really challenging the idea of building an audience at all?
    You're pointing out, that you should be building one while clearly considering who your target customer is, which I think is pretty hard to disagree with?

    It's a great point, but the clickbaity title "Why “Build an Audience First” is Terrible Advice" is just off here.

  9. 3

    Thanks for making me feel better about my low follower count.

    But based on your product. I this is more of a "if you cant beat them, join them" story ?

    1. 1

      That's a good question. Yes and no. TweetSpacer is very young. I launched it on March 1st and I'm still trying to figure it out. I'm hoping it can appeal to writers who want an easier way to write long tweet threads, but I worry that I'll only be targeting other indie hackers and just reinforcing this audience building -> info product bubble. I want to provide value to society but if the only way I can make money is through a product like this, I don't know what I'll do. I'm not going to write TweetSpacer off yet, but I'm definitely conflicted.

  10. 3

    I thought it was only me, but it seems you had the same idea as well.

    Fascinating and great tips here Adam. Thank you.

    https://www.indiehackers.com/post/getting-sick-of-the-phrase-build-an-audience-80f8d2d7fb

    1. 1

      :))) Nice. Yeah, the more I learn about business the more complex it becomes and the more nuanced my understanding of it becomes. I get frustrated when I hear tactics like "build an audience" spread around without much context as to when and why it's appropriate and why and when it's not.

      Should you build an audience? it depends on a lot of things that are idiosyncratic to your business and your stage. So there's no easy answer that works for everybody.

  11. 3

    Good advice, I think that is important understand your customer, their needs, problems, what they are looking for and build a community around your target audience, with people that like what you do and be disposed to pay you, generate engagement, listen to the customers.

  12. 2

    A lot of advice on entrepreneurship is just terrible. I really don't know where 'build an audience first came from' but it never sat well with me. What happened to solving problems? Is audience-building problem-solving?

    1. 2

      exactly. It doesn't solve a real problem. I feel like I see a lot more entrpreneurial influencers these days than I see actual entrepreneurs. But the influencers advice would lead people to themselves become influencers. We can't all be influencers. Who's gonna solve the real problems.

  13. 2

    #buildinpublic and all that junk.

  14. 2

    'Build an audience first' should be aligned with your community goals.

    There are many different types of communities that you will need, and not all are targeted as potential customers. But this is great, having a discussion to expand the scope of building an audience when you are starting is truly important.

    Wishing you great success! 🚀

  15. 2

    Really enjoyed this read, particularly the diagram. I've been feeling the echo chamber of the build in public Twitter feed lately as well. It is fantastic for motivation but not so much for connecting with my future customers.

    1. 1

      Thanks! Yeah, the echo chamber can be pretty echoey. I think there's a time and place for growing your Twitter audience, but it helps to know how it fits into your overall business strategy. I think it's easy to get seduced by building social media following. It's shiny and popular and it can feel like real progress. And sometimes it actually is progress. But sometimes it's actually not.

  16. 2

    Thanks, good reading. Now you have 63 followers :)

    1. 1

      Thanks! Hope you enjoyed the post

  17. 1

    Oh boy, you earned a follower!🤗

  18. 1

    Thanks for this. I read a lot of IndieHacker posts and often wonder: So what is the product? (In the context of some given post).

    My takeaways: Providing something valuable to people isn't obvious or easy. And that's completely normal. Along with these introspective questions: What are you targeting? What do they need? And what are you prepared to give them? Where does audience building fit into the overall journey of creating a sustainable business?

    Everything else was well said too. Thanks.

  19. 1

    Thank you for this! Useful information.

  20. 1

    Why? Because your audience is comprised of other #buildinpublic indiehackers like you and not mid-sized startup employees. At this point you have two options.

    This is why I minimized my Twitter. Now it only links to other ways to contact me.
    I went with option 1; ditching the audience

    It was an easy decision.
    I am not a fitness guru, I have no desire to become one, and there are tons of people who have dedicated their lives to teaching others how to eat and lift properly.

    I've managed to narrow my target customer to developers and IT professionals who meticulously track their workouts. Building a fitness app would be trivial for them, but they may not have the time or even the desire to venture down this rabbit hole.

    So yeah I agree, building an audience is not for everyone.

    1. 1

      Wow. That’s really interesting.

      I agree being a guru isn’t for everyone and certainly not for me. I really like the niche you’ve carved out. I know some people in tech who are also really into working out so I think that can be a great market

  21. 1

    It's really not.

    You're at work. Someone from the 2nd floor tastes your delicious homemade sandwich, and he quickly spreads the word that you're making them. Soon you realize you can make an extra $500 every 2 weeks just selling a couple of these, and you let people know that you'll start selling them every once in a while. So what went wrong here?

  22. 1

    This article should be put in the zoo of logical fallacies in the straw man cage.

  23. 1

    If you have an audience that follows you and actually pays attention to what you're saying, pays off really well when launching your product. Same as working on your SEO or any other approach.

    Building an audience takes time but it actually works. The real issue is when you don't have a problem to solve (then nobody will pay attention to what you're saying) or when you're not providing the right content for people to follow what you're sharing.

    Not every approach works for every type of product, so more than making a statement here, it should be more product based, and even then, I've seen many people succeeding by just building an audience while others just can't make it.

  24. 1

    most of this seems exaggerated. but, i do like the image!

  25. 1

    I think it has its place if you see it as more of a validation exercise but I agree that it's overrated.

  26. 1

    I hear what you are saying Adam, and I totally agree in the case of a Saas product, but when it is for an info product for example you don't think it's worth it?
    Or what is your take of the best approach to sell a product when you don't have an audience and you are not in the network of someone of the target audience?
    I honestly think that sometimes building an audience for the sake of it, its time consuming and you might end up with nothing, but what is the best approach in your opinion? :) And thank you for this post, made me think

    1. 1

      It's hard to pick a target and you have to be flexible with it, it may change as you learn more. But start with a type of person or a role that you are interested in and you think there's a painful problem that target is facing. And it's a problem you think you might be able to solve.

      Then, I think trying to get 1 on 1 conversations is the best way to learn more. Usually you can use cold emails to schedule calls. It can be a slog. You may get a low conversion rate from cold email to interview, but those conversations that you do get can be golden. Don't sell them a product or pitch your idea, instead ask them about there current situation, how they currently solve this problem, etc. And always ask for a referral so that you can start sending warm emails instead of cold ones.

      Your target and even your problem may change, but just go with the flow and keep learning. Eventually you may start to hear people repeating themselves and that's good.

      The next part is to synthesize that information (take notes during these calles) and come up with a solution. This doesn't mean jsut build what people say they want. YOu have to see the forest for the trees. If you do this right you'll probably come up with a solution they didn't think of but still sovles their problem. You can do this because they're only aware of their unique problem, but you're aware of their problem and also 10-20 other people's problems, so you can find the commonality and build something that helps them all.

      THis is really hard to do and takes a lot of digital pavemtn pounding and that's the secret that people would like to avoid by convincing themselves that they just need to build an audience.

      A lot of people talk about The Mom Test by Robetrt Fitzpatrick. That book's ok but I think it's a little fluffy and overpriced for what it is. I'd recommend Lean Customer Development by Cindy Alvarez. I think her writing style is not as good, so it's a little confusing to read but it's much more substanive than The Mom Test and has more tactical advice.

  27. 1

    The audience-first approach isn’t 1) Build an audience; 2) Launch any product; 3 Promote it to them.

    No. Instead, you build an audience around your interests. Then, you use your audience as a source of inspiration to figure out what product opportunities exist that intersect with your interests and you audience’s interests.

    1. 1

      I think the typical result of that approach is that you become an influencer that sells info products to your fans.

      You're interested in entrpreneurship, so you attract people who are interested in entrpreneurship. There's really only one thing you can sell them: info products about how to do entreprenerials things. You can't sell a SaaS that requires monthly subscriptions and longer term relationships with customers, because the audience you've attracted don't have sustainable businesses themselves where they can afford to pay for a monthly SaaS subscription.

      Also, I don't know how sustainable an info product business even is, because it's a one time sale, so you either need to get more people into the audience to sell or upsell existing audience members on other info products. But eventually you'll run out of people to sell to. Especially if tastes change and people move away from indie hacking more generally. It's a bubble economy.

      Long story short, building an audience first around your interests will give you distorted market signals that will limit your ability to create a long term sustainable business.

    2. 1

      That's one way to identify problems for which no proper solution exists for. But you could also do a market research (in a market that covers your interests) and try to build a product that stands out from the rest. No audience necessary for that.

      That's why most indiehacker SaaS are the "new and simple solution". They analyze an existing market and build a more user-friendly solution on top.

  28. 1

    That's insightful. I guess the lesson here is that your actions have to align with your goals. Building an audience shouldn't be a goal on its own if you want to have a successful product. Selling a product with no audience can be hard.

  29. 1

    In my humble opinion, the correct way would be – for most products – "build a target audience WHILE building the product".

    Nobody you just engaged with over Twitter is going to be there in 10 months when you launch your SaaS

    1. 1

      exactly. better to create meaningful long term connections with people who have a painful problem you're solving then collecting a lot of low value audience members.

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