Getting Traction for your "Build an Audience" phase

After following some of the bootstrapped community in 2013 (e.g., Amy Hoy, Nathan Barry, Brennan Dunn, Rueben Gamez, Justin Jackson, etc.) one of the biggest themes I’ve taken away is that launching a product without an audience is the easiest path to failure. I’m taking that to heart in 2014, and I’m stepping away from the code I’ve been writing to focus on creating content to build my audience, long before I have any code I’m ready to share.

My question to the forums is: how do you go about building traffic for this initial push?

For me, my idea is to build a blog (with an email list) that targets the audience I want for my app: consultants, and primarily design consultants. The site will be some variant of “How to be a better design consultant,” with articles posted weekly. Before buying a domain or even designing the site, I’m committing myself to writing at least 5 articles, so I have something ready to go when I launch.

The problem is: I can have the best content, but how would I go about publicizing it? I’m lucky to have a blog with a few hundred readers already, but it doesn’t really drive a ton of traffic from what I can tell. All the anecdotes I’ve heard are that depending on sites like Hacker News, etc. to drive readers is usually a huge initial spike (if you’re lucky) with a huge falloff, hopefully with a few people converting to email subscribers.

So I’m curious what you have done to publicize your content and gain that initial traction.


You’re right about HN, it’s probably not a community containing many people in your target audience. The trick then is to find out where those people are hanging out online.

Off-hand, I would suggest trying to post to Designer News and try posting something to Dribbble. As far as I’m aware, they are the 2 big designer communities online.

I am also taking this to heart in 2014 for my new business.

I created a Twitter account but I’m finding it hard work to build an audience, especially when I don’t have a product to show.

So I am shifting my strategy: instead of building a large following, I am working on building a small audience of highly-followed people. Basically I am looking for the influencers in my market and working hard to get them aware of my existence. Usually this means replying to their relevant tweets with intelligent (hopefully) comments and additional info, commenting on their blog posts, etc…

The idea is that when I do have something to show, I hope to have a better chance of them spreading the news, thereby leveraging their audience instead of building my own. We’ll see how this works…

Oliver - I wonder if there’s content you could create that isn’t directly related to your product. You probably don’t want to build an audience solely to sell something to, but instead to genuinely add value. Just my opinion, but it might be a more effective tactic.

To be clear I almost never mention my future product in my tweets. Instead I talk about my opinions on the talked-about topics of my market.

If the goal is to eventually get the word out about your product, I think it might be more effective to have a few good connections who do have an audience rather than to build the entire audience yourself and then also build your product.

I launched with almost zero audience. Only after launching have I discovered how difficult it is to build one. Having said that I don’t know that it makes sense to delay getting a product to market while building an audience. You will spend a lot of time on the business side yet be potentially pushing off development and launch until the audience is just a little more ‘x’.

Having a viable and running service means you have paying and engaged customers that you can be honing your offerings on while building an audience. Plan for slow and steady growth, not some massive spike and virality. If that happens great but in all likelihood it won’t. I think building an audience is great and certainly helps speed up product take off but the danger is thinking an audience will guarantee success. Neither an awesome product or an audience guarantee success. It takes sweat, planning and some luck.

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You need to get something going, but don’t let it be all consuming. You need to build the product. The product is what you get to talk about, the product is what you want to sell, the product is what will excite people.

Too much focus on content marketing is going to take away significantly from the product. Spend some time on content/marketing, but get your product done and get it launched. If you can build up 100 or so beta sign ups you’re probably good enough. More is better of course, but I had 80 when I started UserScape and the first full year we did about $110K and these days there’s way more competition for eyeballs then back then.


@ian That’s very a interesting insight, thanks for sharing. Where did you find your 80 beta users?

Content marketing seems like it is a real balance: you need an audience, but you don’t want it to overtake building the product itself. The question is: how do you start building initial traction with potential users? My plan was to hopefully pull beta users from the list I’d build up.

It seems like part of the reason people suggest that you build an audience is that if you can’t convince 20 people to download an ebook, how are you going to convince them to buy an app.

Is there value in having an audience? Absolutely. As a bootstrapper with limited resources and time, should your primary focus be building an audience? I wouldn’t advise it. At least not when you’re getting started.

I would start with figuring out whether the product you’re planning on building can deliver enough value.

Will people pay for it and will they get value? This step is obvious but it’s often tougher than it sounds. I see lots of people either skip past this step or invest way too much time here (months of interviews and tests). It’s important to keep in mind that your product will change over time as you learn from your early customers, and the best learning comes when people are using and paying for the product.

Anyway, if you’re past that initial step, investing some time in building an email list is probably a good idea. You don’t need thousands, just enough people that you can learn from. Like Ian said, he Launched with just 80 people. I had just under 300 people on my list and it was more than enough for me to get really good early feedback, have a few paying customers right away, and learn a bit about how to reach my target audience. There’s lots of value in doing some marketing before you even start building a product, just make sure you balance both.

You asked how to get readers for your content, but you might want to take a step back first. Maybe content marketing isn’t the best approach for you.

Where are your customers? What are all the places that you can reach them? (think blogs, forums, newsletters, search, social, influencers, podcasts, video, etc.)

Now think about what personal advantages you have. Are you a great writer? Do you give great presentations? Do you do your best work through relationships?

Match up what you’re good at with channels that have potential and start there. Remember, there are no rules. Just keep in mind that you might have a tough time at first but you’ll get better. It’ll likely take more work (and action) than you think it will, but you’ll learn a lot in the process.

If it is blogging that you’ve decided to invest time in, make sure you’re doing enough to get your content in front of the right audiences.

Some ways to do that:

  • Guest posting (it takes a lot more posts than most people think but can be very effective)
  • Interviews of people with the right audience
  • Getting on places like HN (not my favorite, but see if it works for you)
  • Ads to your content (mainly FB infeed and Twitter)
  • Target keywords that have search volume (relatively easy but takes time and
    you need a higher number of posts)

There’s more you can try but you get the idea. Hope this helps! :slight_smile:


Awesome job @earthlingworks. What he said.

Content marketing is great (he’s turned me around a bit on this) but to me unless you’re really focused and can laser target it with your product (hard bc as he says your product will probably change a lot early on with customer feedback) it might take a darn long time to develop, write and edit an ebook.

All that time is time you don’t have a product with any paying customers, not even 1. I’d much rather see you have a basic product with 5 paying customers and then start thinking about more marketing rather than months of pre-marketing for something that doesn’t exist.

It’s a balance of course, you’ll have to do SOMETHING to get some people on a mailing list and all, but if it feels like you’re building a whole 2nd product to get some people on a list that’s too much.

Just my 2 cents, but I also hate when I see people get all distracted over making $8,000 on an ebook when what they really wanted to do was start a software company.


Overtime, you absolutely should work to build your own audience, but doing so too early is wasteful IMO.

One of our biggest regrets in starting KickoffLabs, was over thinking creating content. We blogged, tweeted, etc quite a bit, but it really didn’t get us anywhere (at least not at first).

When you are first starting out, my recommendation (and the one which helped us the most) is to go where your (potential) customers are today and engage with them there.

For us, a big win was Quara. There were lots of people already talking about landing pages. The next big area was existing blog posts. Search for content that is relevant to your product and engage (read: DO NOT SPAM) in the conversation.

I am going to call this approach “Lean Content Marketing”. Look for my book and conference announcement next week.

Stumbled across this post today from Nathan Barry

I think it more accurately and eloquently explains my thoughts on audience first.

Here’s the money quote for me.

"Now, I’m not saying that you should build the product and then grow an audience around it. That’s an almost sure way to fail. Instead you should plan the product—not build it—and start building an audience that is a good fit for that product.

The mistake is that people come up with an idea for a product (a book, an iPhone app, a SaaS app, etc), launch it, and then try to find an audience. That’s not at all what I am saying. You do just enough product planning up front to identify a target audience and then build both at the same time. Talk to the potential audience and try to get them to preorder, get their feedback on specific features, and find out what pain points they have."

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My general problem with that approach is he’s now speaking as someone who has already done it. For someone just starting out bootstrapping planning your entire product and the perfect audience for it and then executing on both at the same time is very difficult.

Of course you’re going to be doing multiple things at the same time early on, but generally speaking most of your time should be on product because it tends to change a lot. Sure if you have laser focus, then maybe that doesn’t apply. Usually not the case though.

Also it depends very much on what you want to do. If you want to make $10K selling ebooks that’s very different than trying to replace your $100K salary or make a $1M software company, etc.

Most of the new wave bootstrapper thinking ignores actual goals for easy wins. That surely leads to more people making something over nothing, but I don’t know that it leads to more people actually reaching their original long term goals.


Good conversation.

It seems to me there are two distinct times when an “audience” is critical for a bootstrapper:

  1. Pre-product: You have an idea. You could spend 6 months building it and then try to pitch it to people. Or you could create a twitter and a blog and a landing page and see what kind of reactions you get. You aren’t looking for a huge audience, just enough to discover how your market reacts to your idea and interact with potential future customers.

  2. Launch time: You finally built your product. Your runway is partially exhausted and you really badly want/need to make sales. Now the bigger the (relevant) audience the better. But face it, if you had your head down building your product you may not have had much opportunity to build a huge following.

I think it’s important to do #1, but it doesn’t have to be a drain. In fact, it’ll probably save you a lot of trouble by not building something that people didn’t want, or finding out too late that a majority of your customers needed feature X and you totally didn’t plan the code around that. But I don’t think you need to talk to more than 20 representative people to get that info.

It would be great to have a huge audience for number 2 but again I think a small audience of influencers is far more efficient than trying to build your own massive following.

Following up on Oliver’s post:

Two phrases for different stages:

Pre launch ‘know your audience’: this means know who you are building for, be specific. Make sure you are meeting a need or want that is specific to the audience. Also vet ideas against people in said audience. Know that people in that audience will buy your product. Don’t be afraid to engage members of the audience for ideas, initial vetting, beta users, etc.

Post launch: ‘build your audience’. Now you have something you know the audience (in general not a specific list of names you have) wants/needs. You are now doing two things, one building customers and two building an audience that may not yet be customers but hopefully will. This is the group you generate marketing content for, building a following.

Hey Scott -

I like your insights here. Can you give an example of how you can go where your potential customer is, get involved and NOT sound spammy? Of course we all love our products and it’s hard to not say, “you should try this” so how do you soft sell that, especially if you’re new to the community you’re approaching?

Generally, I think the answer is you can always sound un-spammy if you add value with your answer.

If someone where to ask, “How can I improve my conversion rate” and I answered “use KickoffLabs” I would certainly be right (:)), but this would be spammy.

If I instead explained that you can get much more out of each conversion using our Viral Boost feature and would see an increase in conversion rate it would be a little less spammy.

However, if I explained

  • it should be easy for users to share your page after they sign up,
  • we have seen landing pages double there conversion rate by doing this,
  • this also helps you identify influential customers,
  • this is the out of the box experience you get with KickoffLabs

I believe we added value and snuck in a bit of self promotion without the spam after taste.

Technical founders (at least in my experience) are always a bit gun shy when it comes to self promotion. The thing you need to remind yourself is that if you don’t share your products benefits, who will?

Does that help?

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Definitely! Thanks Scott!

Great discussion @marcelosomers! Thanks for mentioning me in the original question; sorry it took me so long to find this and respond. :wink:

How do you go about building traffic for this initial push?

First, before you jump into publicizing content you’ll need to lay a foundation:

  1. Hang out in communities where design consultants hangout (I couldn’t tell from your question if you were talking about Web design consultants or Interior design consultants)
  2. You can also start to build communities: my podcast [Product People][1] was one example of that, [my blog][2] is another.
  3. Look for opportunities where you can help: This is crucial step. Look for trends: where do Design Consultants need help? What pain points come up over and over again?
  4. Take those pain points and turn them into blog posts: my favourite Derek Sivers quote is from [Start Now: No Funding Needed][3]. In it he says: “If you want to be useful, you can always start now. It will be a humble prototype of your grand vision, but you’ll be in the game. Start by teaching someone this week. Starting small puts 100% of your energy into solving real problems for real people.” This is the approach I use when making blog posts: discover a pain, and write about it. If there’s a lot of people who experience that pain, they share it naturally, because it’s helped them.
  5. Put an email sign-up for at the end of every post: the email sign-up form is you asking “Hey, was this helpful? Let me keep helping you!” Tell them you’ll email them every week (for example, I send my newsletter out on Saturday).
  6. Start emailing them right away: don’t wait. Even if there’s just 5 people on the list. If anything, make your first email this: “Hey, I’d be interested to hear what projects you’re working on at work right now. What’s your biggest struggle currently?” Use the feedback you get to re-start the process: observe the pain, find an antidote (usually a blog post), and put a sign-up form in every post.

How do you go about building traffic for this initial push?

Amplifying your content is all about tapping into networks that are bigger than you. I talk about this more in my first book, but here’s a quick rundown:

  1. Find people who have already built a large following: for me, starting a podcast was a great way to meet these folks. I could send them an email saying: “I’d love to interview you for my show” and they’d respond. After the interview, I’d have a relationship with them. I’d also use little bits of those interviews in other pieces of content (like this) - then I’d email the guest and say: “Hey, this one comment you made in our interview was so powerful, I decided to write about it here…” More often than not, the guest would share it with their audience.
  2. Find networks bigger than you: is there a Hacker News for Design Consultants? A sub-reddit? A paid membership site? An email list? A really well trafficked blog? Find out what those are, and figure out how you can share your best content in those places (guest post, share the link, embed the link in your response).

I’ve found for myself, that this eventually creates a powerful snowball effect: eventually, when you tweet, it will have a bigger response (because you’ll have a larger following). When you send out an email to your list with a link to a post, more people will share it. When you publish a blog post, folks will submit it to different sites for you, because they’ve become passionate fans.

I hope this has been helpful. @marcelosomers: I think you’re on [my mailing list][6] already - if so, just send me an email if you have more questions.