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Talk to your audience.

“Know your audience.” This simple piece of storytelling advice dates back millennia and transcends artistic medium. No matter what you’re creating, having a deep understanding of how the people judging our work will perceive it is vital to our success. However, this profound, pithy, phrase doesn’t provide any actionable insight into how to know our audience.

So, we just assume we are our audience.

“Make videos you’d want to watch”. This is the advice that gets passed around in creator circles all the time. I think this is great advice if you’re trying to inspire someone to start making videos - which is usually the context it’s used in. But if you’re trying to help people make great videos and build a business doing’s terrible advice.

We all have egocentric bias - we put too much stock in our own opinions and perspectives. Trying to build a business without balancing this bias is a recipe for failure. Not only because it’s a false premise for success, but because it also enables us to be more arrogant and hubristic in the face of negative feedback.

When people provide constructive criticism, we can just shrug it off and say things like, “I just make stuff for me” or “They’re not my target audience”. When in reality, if we truly wanted to just make videos for ourselves - we wouldn’t post them for others to see.

We deserve to take our work seriously. We want to build businesses making content (products) for our audience (customers). So we need to do what great entrepreneurs and product designers do to get there:

Talk to our customers.

This phrase represents the same thing to entrepreneurs as “know your audience” does to storytellers. In fact, it’s literally just a reimagining of the phrase for dumb-dumb business types. However, the reason it’s valuable for creators is it gives us what “know your audience” misses - the how.

Talking to our audience is an actionable mission that brings a ton of insight not only to our content, but to growing our business as creators. It requires us to solve a lot of cold-start problems that most creators experience when starting out.

If you build it, they won’t know you exist.

Early stage creators experience a lot of frustration with discovery. After spending a year growing their skills, honing their voice, and putting out content consistently, they can still experience shockingly limited growth. When I was running Curiository, I’d put the blame for my lack of subscribers on platforms and algorithms that I felt “just aren’t designed to surface and support smaller creators”.

I know the pain. What we have to understand, though, is that platforms are not designed to match creators with an audience - they are designed to match audiences with creators. The algorithms behind YouTube, Twitch, TikTok, Instagram are there to pour gasoline on the fire that is your channel - not to spark it for you. Just like investors in a business, we need to show them some initial traction before they’ll support us.

So, how do we do that? Well, rather than waiting to be discovered, we can take action in discovering our audience. I have found Twitter to be the best place for this. By searching the topics of our content, we can discover other people passionate about those topics. We can engage in conversations and reply to tweets to cement ourselves as part of that community.

Then, start DMing people. We can talk about how we’re passionate about creating content for people like them and ask for feedback. People love sharing their opinion almost as much as they love talking about themselves. Incorporating their feedback creates an unspoken relationship between you and these early adopters. It builds buy-in.

In a week, we can have 10 target supporters giving us feedback, sharing our content, and cheering us on because they feel part of our journey. This is the exact same process product developers use when doing customer discovery in order to co-create the first version of their software. It allows us to have a passionate audience (customer) base ready to watch (buy) before we even release our content (product).

If you build it, they won’t come. So find them first, and build it with them.

Connection catalyzes consistency.

One of the fundamental pillars when building a content-driven business is creating content consistently. It is also one of the hardest aspects for early creators. Building the habit of creating to a schedule is vital in order to grow as a creator and a storyteller, but is also necessary in order to grow our businesses and build a relationship of trust with the platform we create for.

Forming any habit is hard. However, it’s especially hard when there is little to no positive reinforcement and reward for performing the desired action. That’s what early creators are up against: the slog of knowing you’re putting out a video to no one...and having to do it anyway. Trust me, I know the feeling well.

But creating content in the early days doesn’t have to feel like shouting to the platform void. What remedies the feelings of disconnection and isolation is building relationships with early adopters.

Having even 5 people that you feel like you’re making videos for, and then (if you can) premiering the video to them and immediately getting their feedback is incredibly energizing. It provides the momentous celebration you need to train your brain to keep doing this hard thing. But you can only get there by connecting with your audience at an early stage. Which means you need to talk to them.

Create content consistently by connecting with your audience often. It helps you work to publish.

Metrics mean nothing when you’re early.

A lot of advice about starting a YouTube channel trains you to get obsessed with the numbers. Views, average view duration (AVD), and click through rate (CTR) are important to optimize over the long term, but they’re meaningless without a large enough sample size - which you don’t have if 150 people watched your latest video.

In the early days, you don’t have enough data to make insightful conclusions about which thumbnail actually improved your CTR or which format change actually increased your AVD. Until you have 1,000+ people watching your videos, the quantitative data is so trend-less that it’ll really just drive you crazy. This tweet from my friend Sam Reid really encapsulates what it feels like to check metrics as an early-stage creator:

Tweet by Sam Reid complaining about the random nature of the YouTube algorithm.

You can’t rely on the quantitative metrics to tell you how you’re doing in the early days. Instead, invest in qualitative insight. When someone comments saying they liked the video or if they share it publicly, hound them for more feedback. Ask them non-leading questions about what they liked, what they didn’t like, and what they want to see more of. This practice has the added benefit of building the relationships with your audience and enabling you to practice the two tips above.

The metrics matter when you can’t reply to every comment anymore.

In summary...

Talking to your audience is a simple, actionable step you can take to feel better about being in the trough of sorrow and get out of it faster.

If you liked this article, DM me on Twitter! I’d love to get your thoughts and feedback and answer any questions you may have.

Until next time.

Drew Lyton
Drew Lyton
Monday, March 7, 2022

I'm a software engineer, ex-founder and writer who cares deeply about creating a better relationship between technology and society. I'm currently writing a book about early stage entrepreneurship.


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