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What Can I Do to Grow My Audience?
In the very first "This is Not Advice" column, I explore what it means to "grow an audience" in a time when social media feels broken and relationships have become transactional.
Welcome to the inaugural “This is Not Advice” column! This is a benefit for paid subscribers to What Works—not only receiving the column, but the chance to write in with questions, topics, or situations that you’d like me to weigh in on with more context… but not advice.
Today’s column is going out to all What Works subscribers. But if you like it and you want to support the work I do poking holes in the fabric of what’s “normal” under capitalism, upgrade for just $7/month.
When I’m not reading, writing, and making my own podcast, I’m a podcast producer. My husband and I started YellowHouse.Media to help people make better podcasts—from content to production to strategy. But this is not an ad for that company, just a preamble to today’s question.
Last week, one of our podcast hosts asked a version of a question I’m asked all the time:
What else can I do to grow my [audience, platform, brand, list, etc.]?
To me, this isn’t only a question for independent workers and small business owners—although it’s especially salient for those groups. It’s also a question that points to a bigger trend in work in general. And that trend is the way all workers are now encouraged to be entrepreneurs of themselves. This is evident in the portfolio career model, lessons about personal branding, and what Micki McGee has called the ‘belabored self,’ that is, constant work on perfecting oneself to fit the market.
This question has become quite fraught over the last 9 months or so.
When I would have once been able to begrudgingly prescribe a series of actions on various social media platforms or construct a content strategy designed to attract new readers/listeners/viewers, the media landscape has become, to borrow Cory Doctorow’s term, enshittified. Thanks to enshittification, none of the legacy platforms are viable candidates for a concerted strategy. As I said toon Friday, I simply have no interest in doing what it takes to “make it” on any of those platforms.
But splitting one’s effort across multiple platforms is just watering down already ineffective action.
The thing is, building an audience is not a secondary activity. It’s a primary activity, or it’s just not happening. There is no shortcut (and contrary to the belief of some, there never was) or part-time strategy for building an audience of many thousands. And ‘many thousands’ is the bare minimum for building any kind of career as an independent creator, writer, podcaster, or YouTuber. But I also wonder how long it will be before ‘many thousands’ is a bare minimum for many other professions, both in and out of traditional employment relations.
By the way, I’ve written before (specifically for freelancers and business owners) that audience-building is not the same thing as finding clients—in case that’s your concern. Building an audience and building a client base are two different categories of activity that often share the same tools, if not the same methods.
So if audience-building is a primary activity, what does that activity actually look like?
Well, it’s not all about producing content. Nor is it about self-promotion. Audience-building as a primary activity is relationship-building. It’s legitimately interacting with others who share your interests and fostering mutual concern.
Relationship-building has often been misconstrued as a means to a commercial end.
An influencer might build relationships with their ‘fans’ to increase sales by upping the perception of reciprocity. An agency owner might build relationships with other service providers to grease the wheels for referrals. A job hunter might build relationships with people in the industry they’re looking to break into and get a few steps closer to a new job.
And sure, those can all be ways that relationships do pan out. But audience-building, in my experience and observation, is much more like making friends. The relationship is the end—not what the relationship can get you. But when one makes friends in and around their career, business, or niche interests, those relationships tend to bear fruit.
Typically, the next question is, “Well, then, who should I be building relationships with to grow my audience?”
And the answer is why ‘relationship-building’ can’t be a Strategy (or, at least not in the polished way we like to think about Strategy). “As the entrepreneur of its own self,” argues philosopher Byung-Chul Han, “the neoliberal subject has no capacity for relationships with others that might be free of purpose. Nor do entrepreneurs know what purpose-free friendship would even look like.”
Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman observed something similar. In the insecure, unstable, and uncertain life of the 21st-century, what he dubbed the ‘liquid modern’ because of its lack of solidity, he noticed that humans have learned to treat each other as “objects of consumption and to judge them after the pattern of consumer objects by the volume of pleasure they are likely to offer, and in ‘value for money’ terms.”
Friendship transcends the market.
But interacting with anyone beyond the familiar mediation of the market has become profoundly foreign.
I find Han and Bauman’s arguments incredibly compelling. It does seem that talking about ‘building relationships,’ even making friends, will inevitably revert to Strategy. But I’m going to attempt to thread that needle.
To me, the difference between Relationship-Building Strategy and the more banal making friends is a matter of the presence of genuine interest, and whether that genuine interest is satisfying enough to elicit action or whether it’s merely a means to an end. One of the reasons I switched to Substack, not only for my newsletter but as the primary container of my quote-unquote social media activities, is because many of my favorite writers are here.
Plus, I know that there are many more writers like them here—people I’d be genuinely interested in reading, commenting on, and even talking with if I only knew they existed! Despite having been pretty selective when it comes to who I follow on other platforms, those platforms stopped connecting me with people I was genuinely interested in following years ago. My own contributions to those platforms were reluctant at best.
Making friends happens when I take an interest in what someone is up to, express that interest, and repeat that interest regularly. I can’t make friends with someone simply because they have a big audience or a recognizable name. You might be able to fake it—but I’m autistic, and I just literally can’t fake that.
Taking an interest can mean reading a piece or listening to a podcast episode and composing a thoughtful comment. It can also be saving an article and linking to it later as a source or inspiration. It can also be sharing people’s work that makes me think or feel something. Taking an interest means joining the conversation.
Actually connecting with people and developing relationships of mutual concern is (typically) a slow process. But over time, one finds themself part of a network of people who are looking out for each other and lifting each other up.
Okay, but what about social media?
There was a time when social media platforms were a great place to make friends. And I won’t deny that it’s still possible today, but the culture—not to mention the actual workings of the platforms—shifted and made it more difficult. Luckily, we were making friends and nurturing support networks long before Zuckerberg started plotting to take over the world.
Social media can still be a tool or a channel for building lasting relationships. But it requires a different approach. Think of arriving at a friend’s housewarming party where you only know one or two other guests. You wouldn’t just walk into the room and start talking about yourself or even your interests all on your own. This is exactly how many people approach ‘building an audience’ on social media. You’d introduce yourself to some folks and join a conversation.
What would you talk about with people you didn’t know? What questions would you ask? What would you reveal about yourself? Perhaps those questions sound simplistic, even naive. But many of us have lost the ability (or awareness) to connect with another person without the valence of commercial gain. Back to basics is exactly what’s needed.
A final thought—the question that inspired today’s column was framed by a concern about creating more.
Could another email, video, blog post, etc. make a difference?
In most cases, more is not the solution. The solution, as I’ve written before, is to make remarkable work. Remarkable means something that merits attention—noteworthy. To state what is probably obvious, the word ‘remark’ comes from root words that mean ‘to note again.’
As a writer and podcaster, my job is to make a ‘note’ that inspires others to ‘note it again.’ My own work is most often remarking on other people’s ideas. I add in my own reflections or analysis and try to elicit a response from those who read or listen.
The ‘remark’ might be a comment, a share, a text message to a friend that I’ll never know about, or a shout-out in a round-up post. The ‘remark’ may be timely—or it might come months or years down the line. Creating remarkable work is part of joining the conversation and taking an interest in others. Remarkable work requires engaging with others whose work informs mine in some way.
When the focus is on more, it’s hard to make remarkable things.
And it’s near impossible to allow the space for others to remark.
Even a short blog post or off-the-cuff video takes time. 15 minutes? 30 minutes? An hour? That same time could be put into another revision of the piece that hasn’t been published yet. It could go into finding a story that makes it sing or a historical detail that puts things in context. That time could be used to think through how people with different experiences than one’s own might receive the piece. One can also use that time to read, watch, or listen to something that someone else made—to give it one’s full attention and remark on it.
All of those options—and plenty of others—are a better use of time than making more.
When the focus is on not making things better per se but making them more interesting, it’s a lot easier to strike up the kinds of conversations (remarks) that lead to new friendships and deepen existing ones. And while that’s not exactly ‘audience-building,’ it’s the reason why many people have large audiences.