How to grow an audience is quite literally a million dollar question.
Where there is a gathered audience, there is a group one can build relationship with, talk to about a product or service, and when the right time comes – monetize. Having an audience is a valuable thing, but how does one get and grow it?
Content can play a big role, I believe.
The question John posed for this task was: How to grow an audience for an existing blog post – so this wasn’t so much about what one should be writing as what one should do after hitting publish – but before sharing my plan for driving traffic some questions I think it’s helpful to ask of a piece of content:
Do you have in mind a persona or group you hope to talk to?
Does your content touch on something they are directly or indirectly interested in?
Is it self-serving or does it offer value without a catch?
Will you be able to pitch it in a way that makes people click (and not feel tricked)?
If you can’t answer these, no amount of money or traffic forced to a post will work as people will just roll there eyes and bounce away.
In fact promoting poor content, or promoting it to the wrong people, can do more damage than good and be a real brand turn-off.
If you can answer those questions I believe you’re ready to attempt promoting your content and driving traffic to it.
The post I chose, and why
I met Ashley vonClausburg last year at the Design meetup in Detroit. She immediately stood out to me as someone smart, kind, and truthful – all qualities I admire and appreciate. I loved her flash talk at the Grand Meetup, which made me think she was even more impressive and awesome – so when I scanned John list of posts we could promote I clicked hers first – Why Automattic’s remote design team is anything but isolating – because I was curious to see what she’d written.
Herein already lies an inconvenient truth with regards to content and growing an audience: We tend to read things from those we know and trust.
So what is a newcomer / new blogger to do?
Growing an audience from scratch through trust and referrals
That we all tend to read things from people we trust is great once you have won trust, but it’s not good news for someone who has no followers and is trying to grow their audience. This was my assumption for this task, that we were beginning at zero (so no remarketing).
How does a newcomer break into someone’s reading list and win the right to some time in the frantic schedule and life of another human on the earth?
To answer we can refer to our own experience of content discovery: how do you discover a new and interesting person to follow?
I’d argue it’s via endorsements or recommendations from people we follow.
And that most often this is more inadvertent than explicit. Explicit would be someone literally forwarding me an email and saying: read this thing but more often these referals are inadvertent: a RT, a comment on a Facebook post that makes it into my feed, a beautiful quote on Instagram that alerts me to a new account to follow (and I notice in their bio they have a blog), or something like that.
So that is what we want, this organic social ripple. It is a mistake to think there is nothing one can do to aid and influence this endorsement as the content producer:
- You can make the post discoverable and easy to share
- You can be sensitive to how you share it yourself per channel, and
- Finally you can create post highlights that trigger sharing.
More on these points below.
Make posts discoverable, easy to share and thinking about how you slice it per channel
The first and most obvious thing to do is quite practical – make your post easy to share once anyone finds it by adding sharing buttons and integrating social platforms. WordPress had built in tools to make this easy:
Aside from making the post literally easy to share there is the more subtle and oft missed opportunity of sharing it appropriately for the various social media platforms you choose – including paying attention to hashtags, on Instagram and Pinterest especially, for discoverability.
Social media platforms haven’t been created equally and how you choose to slice up a piece of content will affect how it performs. I think of it like a little cake being given to different people in different contexts and needing different serving techniques.
For example, with Ashley’s post I wouldn’t just take the title of the post and the link and fire that off to Twitter and Facebook.
People consume content differently on Facebook and Twitter, and very differently on Instagram where there is no outbound link save for the bio (and people spend ages in ‘discovery mode’ scanning popular hashtags).
Caption length, hashtags, whether to share a photo or a link, are all decisions that matter.
I don’t have time to go into this more, but if you know Gareth Allison pick his brain as he does this for WooCommerce and is an expert in what works best where.
So there is making the post shareable for existing readers, and being mindful of how you serve it up on the different social channels – and finally, there is the art of pulling out ‘sticky highlights’ for social-echo purposes.
The art of creating sticky highlights: tap into emotions that resonate
Become an armchair psychologist for a moment and think a little about what drives humans:
We are desperate to be understood, and know that we are not alone.
We love to appear smart.
We want to help and encourage those we love.
We feel a solidarity with those who are similar to us, or face the same challenges.
If something moves us we want to respond and show we identify with it.
If we are presented with something we know to be true, we endorse and spread it.
That is all quite psychological but these are good truths to keep in mind when your goal is getting someone go as far as RTing, liking or favouriting something you share in order to create the vital social-echo that will spread the word for you.
Would someone feel compelled to pass on what you highlight?
Will it make them look smart?
Will they feel they are helping others like them and proud to bring the insight into their circles?
Does it touch on a relatable truth and fire a heart connection?
If you are able to pull out a highlight or quote, or design a post for Instagram that captures these types of things and stirs these powerful emotions in people – the work of promoting and sharing might well be done for you without you spending a dime.
But we are not aiming at social media shares, you might be thinking, we are aiming to get people to actually click through to read the post.
Yes this is valid. But as long as a sticky part of the post is being shared and can be linked back to the full post, the promise of more of the same should get you your clicks and gather you your audience, over time. And these things do take time.
The temptation is to make the highlights clickbait and share only a half-baked preview that forces someone to click to the post for the value.
This is short-sighted, irritating and not cool. The internet is full of trickery, smoke and mirrors. Forcing people to click and withholding any value until they do so won’t win you loyal readers.
What people do freely leads to a trust-based relationship that will last.
So to summarise the goal with sticky highlights is to deliver some value even before someone clicks – but make it is so good that they do because they want to reach the source.
If this sounds very waffly, it will hopefully make more sense as I give an example of the highlights I’d pull from Ashley’s article.
My plan to get Ashley’s post more traffic with a sticky highlight
When I studied postmodernism at University we were taught that what the writers were striving for was to inject into their writing things that were commonly experienced but that felt at the same time deeply personal.
This meant their writing would have wide appeal but trigger individual emotional connections. They wanted readers to feel their very thoughts had been anticipated and understood – and the brilliance of Ashley’s post is she does this.
In fact her post is packed with these moments.
Her writing is empathetic towards a specific group (designers, and especially those who are self-taught or curious about remote work), she writes from her own experience and can therefore speak with authority and great empathy, and she touches on some truths and fears that her audience can relate to (initial isolation, the vulnerability of sharing a portfolio, progressing and then beginning to be held back by a fear of being Found Out)
If I were to pick a single highlight from her post it would be the Found out moment:
As my career progressed, I eventually found myself working with the long-coveted Real Designers. But a funny thing happened. The more my work involved other designers, the more I withdrew my permission to not know it all.
My desire for information was supplanted with a desire to not be Found Out.
Thoughts like, If I ask questions, they’ll know I don’t know. Be quiet, pull it off, and act like you’ve known that keyboard shortcut since you were a zygote. I hadn’t counted on the nearly primal pull to not be Found Out.
This is so powerful!
I read that and had a strong emotional response and aha moment. I wanted to Tweet it right away to show how true this was, and make sure people I know read it and experienced the same moment of feeling understood.
This fear of being Found Out is something I too grappled with within Automattic, and Ashley writing about this so boldly reminded me of my own journey. I resolved never to pretend to know more than I do, no matter who was asking – and her post reminded me of this vow I made a while back. And stirred feelings of solidarity.
Having identified what I feel is a powerful thing to highlight from this post that would resonate with Ashley’s audience and future followers, I would turn this into a couple of optimised posts for Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest – adding hashtags for discovery purposes.
I’ve run out of time to do this justice, if I am to stick to the 2 hour mandate for this but to give some examples at least:
“Why Automattic’s remote design team is anything but isolating (link in bio) #graphicdesign, #design, #art, #graphic #typography ##webdesigner #freelance”
“I quickly found myself deep in the self-taught designer Cave of Isolation, with only the flickering light from video tutorials and sassy Adobe forum moderators to keep me company.” – read on for more of my journey as a designer at @automattic. LINK
“I hadn’t counted on the nearly primal pull to not be Found Out. I’d spent years desperate to be surrounded by designers that I could learn from. But once I finally had those resources around me, I ceased to take advantage of them.” – lessons from my journey as a designer at @automattic. LINK
“As my career progressed, I eventually found myself working with the long-coveted Real Designers. But a funny thing happened. The more my work involved other designers, the more I withdrew my permission to not know it all.” LINK
What to do with $20?
Now I am really out of time because I waffled so much in the beginning, but – I would use my $20 to promote this post on Facebook. We have done this for WooCommerce blog posts and see a superb lift if we target the correct people.
Assuming I quite literally was Ashley and I didn’t have an existing audience to remarket this too (that yields the best results) I’d use Facebook’s existing targeting and specify females, aged 20-40+, with interests including Web Design, Freelance, Graphic Design.
But hopefully, my theory around highlights holds and the quality of the highlight and resulting spontaneous shares would mean the traffic to this post wouldn’t hinge on the paid promotion alone and it would get some nice eyeballs organically.