Building an audience in the lawless age of the internet

Building an audience in the lawless age of the internet

PR has transitioned to the digital world. With everyone vying for attention, how can brands distinguish themselves in a meaningful and lasting way?

There are a lot of questionably ethical hacks and quick tips about how to build an audience. And many of these work at least part of the time, for some people, for a little while. But building an attentive audience that endures over the years is not something you can shortcut.

A dedicated audience takes time to develop, and the secret is to consistently provide value and spend the time to build connections with the people you want to reach. At least, that's how Rand Fishkin did it.

During our PR Roundtable, Prezly founder Jesse spoke with the guru of SEO Rand Fishkin about how he’s established himself in a field that seems to be ever-changing, and how he’s built a brand that endures during a time when the internet seems to be moving at lightning speed.

As the founder of SparkToro and the former CEO of Moz, Rand wrote the book (or rather, the blog) on building a lasting and engaged audience for your brand.

Rand has been in the world of digital marketing for over 20 years and has maintained his status as an industry leader while the internet transformed into what it is today. We get Rand’s insight into:

  • Collaboration, partnerships, and relationship building with sources of influence as the most effective way to gain an audience
  • Prioritizing meaningful content over “hacks” or quick tricks to keep your audience for the long-term
  • Finding a consistent method for connecting with your audience that builds over time by providing
  • Tools to build and support that organic audience outside of traditional media lists
  • How to create content that people will want to share within their industries and communities
  • Using data to inform strategy and inspire creativity

To watch the complete discussion, including a surprise guest appearance by Totoro, visit our PR Roundtable page.

Let's look at the juiciest bits from the Roundtable and gain some insight into how to build and keep your audience.

Rand Fishkin
Rand FishkinSparkToro

Find something that you can repeatedly do and that each time you do it, you get more and more value out of it.

Finding your audience

Say you have an amazing product that you wholeheartedly believe will change lives – if only you could get eyes on it. You have a message for the world, but how do you get people to listen? What can you do to set yourself apart from the literal millions of other brands out there and create an engaged audience?

In the cacophony of the internet, it can seem impossible.

Here's how Rand did it.

Look beyond journalists to get your story out

According to Rand, the best way to build an audience is to identify people of influence within the community you want to reach and collaborate with them. Provide value. Be funny, interesting, witty, charming (without being smarmy). Do a podcast, write a guest blog post, give a keynote speech, choreograph an interpretive group dance that truly means something.

By collaborating with other brands and content creators, you put yourself in front of their audience.

Some people will love you. Some won’t. But the people who do like what you have to say will seek you out for more of that je ne sais quoi. They join your audience. And sometimes, your collaborators end up becoming the most vocal and enthusiastic part of your audience, which is a double-win.

This sounds like a lot of work. A lot of hard work. Isn’t there some sort of shortcut, app, or quick trick to bypass the whole process of community engagement? What if I don’t want to be interesting or funny or engaging to build an audience? Can't we just pay for advertising exposure instead of building it slowly and organically?

According to Rand, traditional advertising is a shortcut. Spending money for exposure through traditional paid advertisements bypasses the need for organic audience growth. But does it endure in the same way as really investing in your audience and delivering content that they want to share and distribute?

Understand your audience

As brands, we have to practice empathy. Empathizing with your audience is the key to connecting with them. What might work for one demographic could be abhorrent to another.

Questions to ask include:

  • What kind of media are they consuming?
  • Where do they learn, grow, and engage in their field? Where do they network, and how (Discord, Reddit, Facebook Groups, Twitter)?
  • What content medium will resonate with them most (comic, webinar, podcast, tweet, long-form retrospective, interpretive dance)?

Can you growth hack your way to greatness?

In short, not really. Gimmicks, tricks, and even things like traditional paid advertising may increase exposure in the short term, but they do not create consistent, long-term growth. Even generally accepted practices like buying media lists can get you the odd feature but will they create a community around your brand? You may get customers, but will they be fans?

Even "going viral" is often useless for long-term growth and not a good use of time for sustained audience building.

Growth hacks typically suffer from rapidly diminishing returns. It may work once, or even twice, but the effectiveness isn't sustained over time. Rand pioneered what he calls the Marketing Flywheel (check it out, it's great).

Find something that works, that connects with the people you want to reach, that resonates with your audience, and will become more effective over time.

Rand Fishkin
Rand Fishkin

Our methodology for marketing has been: Identify sources of influence that reach our audience, go try and earn coverage, a partnership, a co-marketing event, do an interview with them, do a webinar with them, do a podcast with them, do something on social media with them.

Own your content

This is a conversation you see happening more and more frequently, but why is it important? Why shouldn't I publish all my stuff on Medium or LinkedIn or YouTube?

Taking ownership of your content is crucial because it stops you from being at the whims of major social media conglomerates, who are known to change their algorithms at a moment’s notice.

Here's a better way to do it.

Host your content, whatever it may be, on your own website and use social media to tease excerpts from it that always link back to your own site.

Social media can be a great tool to connect with your audience since people are already there. But it shouldn’t be the be-all, end-all of your content, because you lose control over its scope and distribution quickly. Instead, use it to give a sample your content, and link back to your brand.

Owning your content through your website is the best way to keep your content reflecting your values to your hard-won, engaged audience. It also gives you the opportunity to say, "Hey, do you want to keep in touch? Here's my newsletter."

Why newsletters are great

Newsletters are underrated magic. A newsletter mailing list is literally just a group of people who have said, "I like you, I like your message, I want more of what you have to say, please send it to me directly." This is huge for brands; this is the audience.

A newsletter is an opportunity to keep doing the thing that drew your audience to you, and it is entirely within your control. You are hand-delivering your message to people who eagerly want you to succeed, and that is very cool.

Mark Manson, a popular author and blogger, is a neat example of building a massive audience through a mailing list. He went from a small-time blogger to a New York Times bestselling author using the power of his mind, his website, and a newsletter (which now has over half a million subscribers).

Another cool example of a newsletter done right is TL;DR. One guy, Dan Ni, wanted curated tech news from the web sent to his inbox, so he made it. It went from just Dan and an idea to over 135,000 subscribers. In an AMA ("Ask Me Anything") on his website, Dan said, "I recommend anyone already thinking about starting a side project and having a particular niche in mind to at least try out a newsletter."

We tend to agree, which is why Prezly newsrooms give you the option to include a newsletter sign-up form in their footer.

Use audience discovery tools to narrow things down

So, you have great content, a great product, and a great brand. Where’s your audience hiding? It would be great if there was a glowing door with a comically sized arrow pointing at it with “YOUR AUDIENCE” written in neon letters. But that’s not how this works.

We must go to the spaces where our potential audience is already spending their time, and then we must make what we have to offer attractive in a way that our audience will respond to it and distribute it to their audience.

Say, for example, you have a small business making novelty butter sculptures for weddings and themed parties on Etsy. Your product is amazing, albeit niche, and you can’t even begin to imagine where your (presumably millions of) eager fans and prospective customers may be hanging out.

That’s where audience discovery tools come in.

Tools like Rand’s SparkToro help brands discover the influencers, websites, social accounts, subreddits, podcasts, and other corners of the web where your future butter sculpture enthusiasts are spending their time. This allows brands to tailor their approach to a potential audience, using an empathetic awareness of what the audience actually values.

Butter yet, it can also help you in your pitch.

Here’s an example of this being done very well as told by Rand:

Once you know where your audience is, what they’re looking for, and how to connect with them, that’s when the magic starts.

Our thanks to Rand Fishkin for taking the time to chat with us! Check out his book Lost and Founder as well as his Twitter for great PR, startup, and marketing content. Subscribe to our PR Roundtable for more stimulating interviews with fascinating people in the world of PR!

Katelynn Sortino

Katelynn Sortino

Storyteller, Prezly