Get the Message: How To Find Your Next Audience

The best way to build a large audience is by combining lots of small ones

Welcome to Attention Matters, the newsletter from Storythings which gives you practical insights and tools to grow your audiences’ attention.

One of the things we say a lot to our clients is “building your audience is like making a patchwork quilt”. We first realised this working in media in the 2000s, in particular from working with fandoms around music and TV properties. In today’s newsletter, we’re going to unpack what we mean by this, drawing on two recent articles from A Media Operator and Toolkits.

As the traffic from search and social continues to decline, we’re helping our clients build more diverse, and resilient, content strategies that draw on multiple sources of audience growth. If you’d like us to help with your content strategy or production, we’d love to talk.

The Message:

Want to build a large audience? Focus on building lots of small ones.

For the last fifteen years, we’ve relied on social platforms and search to build our audiences for us, trying to build huge follower communities that then drive traffic to our sites. But as we explained in our previous series about how content discovery is broken, those growth tactics aren’t working as well anymore. We’re seeing a lot of articles lately across digital publishing and B2B content strategy that are saying the same thing - the days of building your audience on a few big platforms are over, and we’re entering a new era of niche networks.

But how can you find and grow your audience in this new era?

The Quotes:

“The era of big, branded houses that can serve a broad audience is over. Instead, it’s going to be smaller, niche publications. That doesn’t mean there’s no path to building a big business; however, it does mean you’ve got to be intentional with the audience. It’ll look more like a network that gradually expanded compared to something massive. And honestly, that’s probably for the best

- Jacob Donnelly, A Media Operator

“Great sites with content that people like receive traffic in many ways. People go to them directly. They come via email referrals. They arrive via links from other sites. They get social media mentions… It just means you’re likely building a normal site in the sense that it’s not just intended for Google but instead for people. And that’s what our ranking systems are trying to reward, good content made for people. It also means you've built a site that's not dependent on any single source of traffic, which in my nearly 30 years of being involved in some way with online marketing, is a healthy good thing,”

- Danny Sullivan, Google Public Liaison for Search

The quotes are above are from two articles that bring a slightly different lens to the question of how we build audiences now. In the first, Jacob Donnelly reports on how Punchbowl News, a hyper-focused news site covering Capitol Hill, is expanding into tech coverage. This is a huge and crowded market, so Punchbowl is sticking close to its core value proposition, and Punchbowl News Tech will focus on policy and regulation. In Donnelly’s analysis, this is a smart move, as it grows their audience incrementally, staying close to their original value proposition:

“What I like about this myopic focus is that you’re not starting from scratch from an audience perspective. If your audience cares about what Congress is doing in one area, it’s quite possible a subset of that audience cares about other topics. And so, you’re not starting from zero.”

The second quote, from a Twitter/X post by Danny Sullivan, is interpreted by Jack Marshall at Toolkits as a sign that Google is encouraging content publications to increase the diversity of ways users discover and engage with their content, not just relying on search optimisation. Marshall’s final take is that the best way for Google to rate you as a high quality site is to, well, act like a high quality site:

“Going forward it appears the best way to attract traffic from Google is to look like a genuine site with a genuinely engaged audience. And the best (and possibly only) way to look like you have a genuinely engaged audience is to focus on actually building one.”

The Insight

These two factors - diversity and incrementalism - should be core to your audience growth strategy. This is where our ‘patchwork quilt’ analogy came from at Storythings. Getting the attention and engagement of your audience is not like turning on a tap - there’s not a single lever you can pull to unleash a torrent of attention. Instead, you build large audiences by starting with a small one, and then building a network of other related audiences around it.

The way to do this is to first look for adjacent audiences - your next audience is often right next to your existing one, like the patches making up a quilt. Don’t try and grow your audience by striking out into a completely new area, but look for areas that are related to the core value propositions of your content (btw, you do have a core value proposition, don’t you? If not, don’t worry, we’ll cover this in a future newsletter).

The Action

Once you’ve identified an adjacent audience, and a value proposition that appeals to them, look to your existing community to find ways to link out to that new audience. This could be via existing engaged audience members who you could reward for helping grow awareness. Or it could be a promotion sharing opportunity with a partner who already reaches that audience. Informal partnerships, collabs and cross promotion has long been central to audience growth strategies, from the early web-rings and blogrolls of web2.0 to the new networks of recommendations and boosts on email newsletter platforms like Substack and Beehiiv.

We love quoting our friends at US agency Everyone At Once on this - their audience development work is based on one core insight - “your audience has an audience”

As an agency focusing on working with fandoms around huge entertainment brands like Doctor Who and Orphan Black, this is more than just a cute quote. EA1 understands that growth doesn’t come from just focusing on your most engaged community, but understanding how ‘active fans’ act as a bridge with more passive fans. Their approach is not just to look for the hotspots of engagement in your community, but also the odd spikes and connections that show signs of growth in new communities.

This is the kind of growth signal you can only see if you’re committing to a content format over a long time. You just don’t have time in a short-term campaign to see these kinds of signals. If you’ve run a newsletter, podcast or video series for months or years, you’ll know what we mean - that weird spike of interest and attention that makes you think “where has that come from?” and drives you to your stats dashboard to find the source.

If this feels familiar, then congratulations! you’ve just found your next audience.

Reading list

In this video from the 2013 Future of Storytelling Festival, Kenyatta Cheese, the founder and director of Everybody At Once, and Kevin Slavin explain how ‘your audience has an audience’ is the insight that shapes digital culture.

The sector that most understands the power of collaborations to open up adjacent audiences is probably sports fashion, and Nike were the pioneers of the strategic collab. This GQ article picks the 50 greatest Nike collabs in history. After reading this, ask yourself the question - what collab or partnership could help you reach your next audience?

If this was worth your attention, we’d love to hear from you! Please reply to this email to get in touch, or share the article on Linkedin tagging Storythings.

See you next time!