Here’s something you don’t hear often: audience growth should not always be the number one priority of your website, blog, or business.
If you’re earning an income through ads and affiliate programs, sure, grow like crazy.
But if you’re selling a product or service, a small audience may actually be the key to your success. In the beginning, at least.
Whether you’re selling an eBook, products, consulting or a newsletter, a loyal audience is far better than a large audience, and a trusting audience is far better than a big one.
A large and loyal audience is the holy grail of any online business, but it’s also the trickiest to achieve. If you thought rapid growth was tricky, try rapidly growing a loyal and trusting audience.
Often, the methods you’ll use to increase one factor will damage the other.
Loyalty requires a sense of attention to the individual, approachability, and finely targeted content.
Large-scale growth requires large-scale vision. Less attention to the individual and more attention to the collective, less approachability, content with broader appeal to quickly expand your audience.
But if your content is only relevant half the time, if your readers and visitors feel like you’re speaking to a collective rather than to them, true loyalty becomes a lot harder to maintain.
The loyal members of your audience are those who trust your advice, who will pay attention wherever they see your name, who will spread the word about you. They’re also much more likely to become your customers and clients.
The problem is this: while a loyal and small audience is better for your sales/business ventures than a large and unengaged audience, a small audience is hindered by one thing: it’s just that — small.
A small audience can only grow so much. It places a natural ceiling on the scope of your vision.
The truth is that, while it isn’t easy, it is possible to have both loyalty, engagement and a big audience.
This delicate balance hinges on perception.
How can you make individuals feel like you’re focused on them while also attending to the needs of the collective?
How can you make your audience feel like you’re approachable without dealing with a thousand requests a day?
How can you aim your content at a broader audience while making individuals feel like what you do is finely targeted to them?
Individual focus, collective appeal
A common growth strategy is to start occasionally changing the content you produce to include new audiences. This content may not always have relevance to your existing audience.
A good example of this would be that one-off content item written for social media that doesn’t really stay true to what you are about.
New audiences gained by this method are usually very temporary — not because social media users are commitment-phobic, but because the rest of your content isn’t consistent with what they came for.
This isn’t to suggest you should produce content which always has the same focus. The smartest content system for growth and loyalty is to write content which includes new audiences and remains finely targeted to your existing audience.
My greatest success with this method has been the article 10 Breeds of PC User Identified and Explained, which is relevant to my existing audience (we either use PCs or know people who do) and a much broader audience — anyone who uses a computer. The article has brought over 50,000 new visitors to the website and continues to bring in over 500 visitors a day.
Appealing to new audiences is essential for large-scale growth, but if you regularly leave large swathes of your audience behind, a culture of loyalty and trust is very difficult to develop.
Your content system for loyalty and growth is this: how can I appeal to new audiences without leaving behind the audience I already have?
Balancing individual connections and getting things done
Customer service is often viewed as the foundation of any successful business. That’s because personal connections are the building blocks of loyalty.
A person might download their favorite band’s latest album with Bittorrent instead of paying for it, but they would be unlikely to steal 99c from a friend.
Another example: think of the one author whose ideas have changed your life/business the most. How much time do you spend thinking about them, as opposed to the time you spend thinking about a dear friend who, though they are caring and entertaining, may not have changed your life at all?
Personal connections matter more than ideas and usefulness when it comes to building loyalty (though the latter two matter most when it comes to large-scale growth).
As your audience grows, so will the amount of people who try to connect with you. It may feel tempting to scale this down, but you’re damaging loyalty if you do so.
One short, positive email exchange will leave more of an impression than your most useful content item.
I disagree with anyone who says deleting emails is a wise option. It isn’t. A disappointed member of your audience is not a loyal member.
Someone who feels ignored by you will find it difficult to be as loyal as they once were.
It takes 10 seconds to thank someone for sending kind words your way. It takes a minute to answer a simple question.
It takes one or two seconds to address your email correspondent by name. It takes another second or two to wish them a nice day.
When you start to ignore these quick and easy things, you are under-valuing loyalty and you are starting to think of your audience as a mass rather than a collection of individuals.
Another fact: if you’re perceived as successful, communicating is a bigger gesture than you think it is. You might identify with this: getting an email response from someone you admire is a thrill — a delight.
On the flip side, being ignored by someone you admire hurts and it highlights the inequality in your relationship: what they do means a lot to you, but they won’t let you inconvenience them for a second.
Connecting with your audience certainly does become more time consuming as you grow, and while I feel very strongly about the merits of elimination, I think this is simply too important to be ignored.
Every comment you write and every email you send builds loyalty. Don’t ignore vital personal connections simply because their results can’t be quantified in numbers.
The central lesson
Anyone trying to turn attention into income should value loyalty as highly as they value growth. Growth counts for nothing without loyalty, but loyalty still counts for something without growth.
What are you doing to make your audience more loyal?
Just as importantly:
What are you doing to make your audience less loyal?
(Because there’s always something.)