Building an audience happens one relationship at a time.
If you’re like me, you’re noticing all these creators with massive followings. It seems like all they have to do is just create content, and then people magically come and engage with them. And so, according to this logic, if you’re trying to build an audience, then the obvious thing to do is create content. Duh.
But then I spoke with Ben Hartley, and our conversation reminded me of my own experience building Interact’s initial audience. As soon as Ben and I hopped on the phone, I immediately started spewing about how we could be affiliate partners, how he could drive other photographers to sign up for Interact.
He was kind but firm when he cut me off, saying something along the lines of, Josh, I don’t really do partnerships like that. Sure, I was taken aback, but, relying on my centering practice to not feel full of shame, I asked him to elaborate.
He explained that when he partners with software companies like Interact, the relationship is usually more fluid. He uses the product (if it could be helpful to him), and then, only if it makes sense, other forms of partnership present themselves.
I was immediately reminded of how companies like Interact grow. Interact didn’t grow because we had some rigid framework to start putting out content or to build an affiliate program. We grew through our relationships.
Now, relationships can be scary. And sometimes (okay, a lot of times), I spend time on relationships that don’t pan out (or, at least, they don’t seem to pan out at first). I remember very clearly working with a top influencer in the marketing world, building a quiz for her brand, and spending hours on the phone. She was so happy with Interact that she sent me a postcard, thanking me for my help.
But then, they stopped using Interact six months later.
I was devastated. Back then, we were barely staying afloat. I had spent north of twenty hours helping that influencer, and she’d just switched to a different platform without so much as a courtesy explanation.
But then, that same influencer continued to refer customers (hundreds of them!) to Interact. To this day, I don’t actually know why she stopped using Interact. I do know, though, that the relationship we built wasn’t for nothing. I’m confident she had good reasons to use another platform. Maybe she was looking for a specific feature, for example.
Speaking with Ben was a good reminder that there is never a point when things become just transactional in business. Growth is always fueled by relationships, no matter how big you get. This is not just a goodwill statement either. From our experience, when we try to “scale” things without putting relationships first, we end up growing, yes, but we attract an audience that is not the right fit for our product, and they end up costing us a lot of money in the long-run.
On the flip side, when we start by connecting with people, it brings an audience who we want to reach for many reasons.
- Stories are currency: I’m copying that from something Jen Olmstead said on the Raw Milk podcast (Go and listen to the episode; it’s an hour and five minutes of pure gold.). In the South, where she grew up, she said stories are currency. They are how people connect. This is so true.
I tested it in my own life. During COVID, I had A LOT of time to walk around and listen to podcasts. When I’m listening to a story, I’ve noticed that I keep walking and barely think about anything else. But when I listen to a “How to (whatever thing),” I quickly lose interest and start thinking about how my feet hurt, the street noise, or my next meeting. Stories are truly the most valuable form of connection.
- Your audience’s stories will attract more of your audience: If you share stories from your ideal customer, it will attract more people like your ideal customer. This is because, very naturally, they will have had similar experiences. When a potential customer reads the story, they will think, Oh, that sounds like me! And what we are most interested in is stories about ourselves, just played out by other people. These relatable stories help us understand ourselves better, and that feels good (that one is science, I won’t get into it now).
Now, I’m not saying that you can’t scale anything with just content—and yes, I see the irony in my writing this article because it’s meant to go out to many people.
But, this article was inspired by a relationship, a one-on-one conversation with the type of person who Interact wants to work with and provide a valuable product for. It is not that you can’t scale and create content to multiply your efforts and turn a small amount of time into a big jump in audience growth, as long as you remember that what really matters is your source.
For Interact, the source is always going to be direct, one-to-one relationships with our audience. Speaking with, getting to know, and understanding the needs of our customers and partners. Then, and only then, can we create content, a product, and marketing materials that actually speak to our ideal customers.
What this looks like for me—the CEO of a company doing millions a year in revenue and scaling quickly—is that I make it a priority to speak with two to three customers or partners every single week. These calls are usually about thirty minutes, but they often stretch to an hour, and many lead to even more calls, and some turn into ongoing conversations that continue for weeks or months.
I am always open about where Interact is and what we are struggling with—and the person I’m talking with is open as well. If we use this space to talk openly about what is going on in our businesses, we can then talk about how we can help each other. Not the other way around.
Building an audience happens one relationship at a time. Focus on building relationships with the people you want to reach, and the rest will take care of itself.