How to find your own audience

Simon searching in a maze with their head rising above the edge of the maze wall.

I’ve been tricked into working for social media platforms for free.

And so have you.

Every time you post on social media, you’re creating content for them to monetise. They position Ads around your content and they keep the Ad revenue. If you’re really ‘lucky’, they’ll give you a tiny percentage.

Sometimes, they even get you to pay to put content on their platform, by paying to promote that content more widely. Which boosts their Ad revenue.

This isn’t how the platforms frame it, of course. You’re encouraged to see all this as ‘getting your content in front of your audience’.

But it’s not really your audience. When you build an audience (followers, subscribers) on social media, you’re paying to reach them, either through promoted content or simply in the time it takes to show up and play the game.

So why do we still do it? And is there another, more effective way to connect with people?

On social media, you’re not in control

It used to be that you needed a big-name publisher, a series of magazine articles, or a TV show to have a chance of sharing your ideas and opinions. You had to go through a gatekeeper.

Now the world has changed. But there are still gatekeepers. The new gatekeepers – companies like Meta (Facebook and Instagram), TikTok, LinkedIn and Google – have huge audiences created off the back of ‘user-generated content’. And they control access to the audience for that content.

You create and post content. The platform’s AI decides who sees it. When a platform is growing, many people see what you post. So you keep posting. Then the platform adds a “boost” button and the game changes. Now, to reach the same people, you have to pay. This happens to all social media platforms at some point.

The content may be ‘yours’ but the audience isn’t.

Time to find your audience

The platforms can get away with this as long as the extra reach is worth more to you than the cost of the “boost” button. Social media AI plays you like a slot machine every time it sets the price of a boost.

And it’s not just boosting posts on Facebook; the same is true with Google Ads, YouTube Ads, TikTok, etc. But every time you “pay” to get seen, you‘re paying a gatekeeper to reach the platform’s audience.

This is why it’s important to build your own audience.

A lot of people don’t like to hear this because building your own audience is a lot more work than paying to reach someone else’s.

Be your own gatekeeper

What does it mean to have 100, or 1000, people who would miss you if you didn’t show up with your message tomorrow?

On social media, people won’t miss you much because someone or something else will take your place. But people that have joined your audience – who have raised their hand and said, “I want to hear from you.” – they’ll miss you.

To build your own audience, you need to find a medium that allows you to connect directly with your audience, with no gatekeeper. There are two really good ways of doing this: email lists and podcasts.

Email is a great way to start because people have to join your email list, which is a powerful sign of enrolment (even commitment).

Podcasts are another great way to reach people directly. When you make a podcast, you are going straight to people’s ears. Yes, some platforms inject Ads, but you don’t have to pay to play. When your podcast shows up in someone’s app it’s because they’ve chosen to have it there.

These are the only two channels where you have both direct access to your audience and that audience has opted in voluntarily to specifically hear from you.

Yes, both these routes have their limitations and factors beyond your control – nothing is perfect. But the key here is that when people enrol and opt-in, they are far more open and connected to your message than simply stumbling while endlessly scrolling!

Also, you’ve earned their enrolment. They join up and they stay joined up because of your content. If you can earn enrolment day by day, week by week, then you can educate, inspire and motivate people who are there to be educated, inspired and/or motivated.

But… Someone on Instagram has 1 million followers, surely one post from them is better than a mailing list of a few hundred.

It is tempting to take advantage of a new platform and figure out how to ‘win’. For a while, this might work. You might be one of the lucky early adopters who ‘breaks through’. But you’re still building an audience for someone else. When our ‘someone’ posts on Instagram, that content doesn’t reach every one of their 1 million followers. The platform engineers it that way to keep you coming back with new content – you have to play the game otherwise they can’t win.

Seth Godin said in his podcast, “The people who were easy in are also…easy out. The challenge that you have is to build this persistent connection.” So the longer and harder work is in building your own audience. You use other platforms to do it (I do) but the focus is on getting people to listen to the podcast, subscribe to an email list, or buy a book. All of these are opt-in and the resulting audience is yours, focused on your messages – no gatekeepers.

When it’s your audience, you earned it.

The challenge is not to look for shortcuts or quick wins but to build an audience that has given permission and signed up specifically to hear what you have to say. And to build that audience without gatekeepers that at any time can put you behind a paywall or, worse, close your account.

To reference Seth Godin one more time: what we need to seek out, even if it’s more difficult at first, is the privilege of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to the people who want to get them.

Would you like to hear ideas more like this? If this has got you thinking, then you can get more of these kinds of ideas by becoming a subscriber, listening to the podcast, and buying my book.