If there is a single “secret” to succeeding with selling courses online, consulting, coaching, or with any other business that involves marketing and selling your expertise, it’s finding and connecting with the audience for whatever you offer. You must learn how to build an audience.
Actually, that’s only part of the secret.
The other part is that quality generally matters a great deal more than quantity when it comes to audience.
This tends to go double or triple for people trying to build a business off of their expertise, because very often what differentiates you – i.e., what makes you valuable in the eyes of your audience – is that you have developed a distinctive, or even unique approach that places you outside of the mass market.
So, if you can attract huge numbers of people, great. But more importantly, you want the right people. People who are highly likely to buy from you, whether your product is a course, a book, consulting services, coaching, or any other knowledge-based offering.
With that in mind, here are the three main things I have done over the years to build an audience for my business. I share them here not because there is anything special about me or any “rocket science” in the activities below, but for exactly the opposite reason: listen to anyone who has managed to make a living off of selling their knowledge and expertise, and there is a very good chance they used at least two out of these audience building techniques consistently and successfully.
Why Audience Building Matters
This isn’t the longest post here on Learning Revolution, and it’s probably not the best, but I do think this is the most important topic I cover on this site.
My sense is that most people who start an expertise-based business would, given the option, greatly prefer for it to grow into a sustainable business that will thrive. One that will enable them to help other people while doing work they love.
But you simply can’t do that without a group of people who are open to paying for what your offer – what I refer to as an “audience” here. It’s the “market” part of what I call the 3M Model.
That doesn’t mean everyone in your audience will pay and become a customer, but it does mean that you are putting yourself in front of enough people that, if a reasonable percentage of them do pay, you’ll have a viable business.
Yes, you will run into plenty of guru types who will tell you can launch with no audience, no e-mail list – however they want to put it. That’s true – you can launch. But you won’t survive and grow until you have an audience.
If you are selling courses or other digital products, common sense says that you have to have quite a few buyers to make even high-priced courses into a thriving business over time.
If you are a consultant, you may be able to generate a lot of revenue off of one or two big clients, but if you don’t have other strong prospects lined up, then you really have less security than you did at whatever full-time job you left (or plan to leave) to start your consulting business).
Again, that’s just common sense, and it is absolutely fundamental to making your expertise-based business an ongoing concern.
Almost nobody has the audience they need out of the gate, which is why focusing from day one on building an audience is so important. So, let’s move on to the three key approaches to audience building.
1. Magnetize Your Value
I have created many free eBooks, reports, and other “lead magnets” over time. In many cases, particularly in the beginning, I gave these away entirely for free – no money and no e-mail required – simply to build my visibility and reputation in my field. I did this first many years ago with a free eBook called “Learning 2.0 for Associations,” which got thousands of downloads from prospects at trade and professional asssociations. I was shocked at the time, as I didn’t really know much about content marketing or “lead magnets” back then.
Since then, my partner and I have published a range of white papers and reports. I now use these much more as a way to get e-mail sign-ups or as paid products. Even with (or, arguably because of) these barriers to access, they continue to attract my target audience in the trade and professional association market and help build my reputation.
These types of lead magnets are essential to pulling people in to the bottom portion of your Value Ramp and starting to build the momentum that will lead them – willingly, even eagerly – to your higher priced priced offerings. They demonstrate your expertise and, more importantly, they suggest the value you can provide to anyone who works with you.
They are also critical because they give prospective customers a reason to share their contact information with you, typically by submitting a form with their name and e-mail address in order to receive access to the lead magnet. As valuable as other aspects of marketing can be, there is still nothing that works better for selling at scale than being able to e-mail people who have shown some interest in the expertise you can provide.
Even if you aren’t aiming to collect e-mail addresses (though my strong bias is that you should), you still need at least one substantial piece of content that stands you out in whatever market you serve and pulls people to you – preferably something that search engines can find and that people are likely to share on social media. Again, this might be an eBook or other downloadable of some sort; it might be a video or series of videos; or it may just be an in-depth blog post – what’s often called a “pillar” or “cornerstone” post – like this one.
Regardless of whether you require e-mail sign-up, an essential aspect of successful lead magnets is that you shouldn’t hold back. To attract people to your paid offerings, it’s critical to put some of your best stuff out there so that prospective customers trust that they’ll get even more value if they pay. Many experts keep all of their best ideas and concepts behind a paywall, but that just means that few people ever see them.
It can be hard to accept, but the truth is that few of us have ideas or knowledge that aren’t available in one form or another from someone else. Really, it’s our unique value as ourselves that pulls people to us. Leading magnets serve to showcase that unique value, provide prospects with knowledge they can use, and build the trust that will turn them into long-term members of our audience.
2. Pave the Path
Over time, I have created a body of valuable content, mostly through blogging, but also through podcasting, videos, webinars, and other forms of publishing – including the lead magnets discussed above. In the beginning, this was a pretty random effort. I’d simply think up topics I know something about and start writing or recording.
Occasionally I’d get lucky, but for the most part creating content in this way meant that a prospect might read a blog post or two, maybe even sign up for a lead magnet, but they’d eventually move on, usually before engaging with me or my offerings in any meaningful, much less profitable way.
Over time (again), I’ve realized how critical it is to be intentional about this process. Or, put another way, I’ve become much more strategic.
I’ve started to identify the general categories of knowledge that members of my audience – in my case edupreneurs and expertise-based businesses – need to pursue to achieve success. Within those categories, I then identify specific skills and tactics that are important within those knowledge categories and these guide my content production.
Basically, I’ve defined a body of knowledge and related skills that can serve as a roadmap for my audience members. By providing content all along this roadmap, I give customers and prospects a reason to return to me again and again over time.
So, for example, given that much of the focus at Learning Revolution is on monetizing your expertise, business models are one of my major, highest level categories. In fact, this is defined as category in the structure of my WordPress website and I’ve chose to call it “monetization” in the drop down navigation you’ll see throughout the site.
Within that high-level category, I’ve then identified what I see as major business models for edupreneurs and experts. For example, online courses, virtual conferences, consulting, coaching, podcasting. I then produce content that focuses on how to use these models successfully. For example, for online courses:
- How to Create an Online Course to Sell
- How to Sell Courses Online in 2021
- How To Price Online Courses – 10 Tips from 20+ Years of Experience
- The 15+ Best Online Course Platforms to Create and Sell Online Courses
Those are just a few examples – I have dozens of articles here just on how to create and sell online courses, and that’s just one business model. I’ve created – and continue to create – content that supports all of the other business model categories I have identified.
That may all sound a little technical, but I hope you’ll see that it gives you a way to think strategically about the content your audience needs and a way to plan for creating content that will keep audience members coming back as they continue their journey toward mastering whatever knowledge and skills are required in your niche.
Remember, it’s really hard to build an audience with single transactions – i.e., a single website visit, a single lead magnet download, even a single purchase. Your aim is to build relationships over time.
Note, too, that I keep saying “over time.” None of this is the kind of thing you are going to achieve in a few weeks, but you can start laying the foundation for it today by identifying your categories and the related skills, using them to lay out a roadmap for your target audience members, and then starting to build out content strategically, rather than ad hoc.
3. Lock in Leverage
This is arguably the key to successful audience building and it’s what your aiming for with the efforts already covered above: leverage.
When you create a lead magnet, you create a proxy for yourself. That means hundreds, thousands, even millions of people can access a little bit of the value your offer without you having to show up personally.
Similarly, when you develop content based on a body of knowledge and skills, you give your prospects a way to self-direct their learning efforts while always remaining aware of the expertise you can provide.
And, of course, all of the above is easily shareable, making it possible for your prospects and customers to attract more people to you without any additional effort on your part.
Bottom line: you start to lock in the leverage that leads to major audience growth.
So, how else can you get leverage?
Look for any “one-to-many” opportunities that put you in front of groups of people who are likely to value your expertise.
Speaking, in all of it’s many forms, is one of the biggest opportunities.
I say “in all of its many forms,” because speaking these days is not just about showing up at the Rotary Club or presenting at trade and professional association conferences. Certainly, those can still be valuable, and since the pandemic came along, opportunities for presenting virtually at association conferences have made this form of speaking even more accessible.
So, definitely identify key membership organizations in your niche and look for opportunities to speak at their events, but keep in mind that there are are other ways to speak.
Many of those same trade and professional associations, for example, offer regular webinars and they are often looking for speakers. The same is true for companies or even other experts that operate in and around your market niche – the vast majority are likely to offer webinars and/or livestreams as part of their content marketing efforts.
In some cases, these groups are simply eager for content and it’s just a matter of finding the right contact and getting on their schedule. In other cases, you may need to “pay to play” – i.e., pay a sponsorship fee or something similar for the benefit presenting to the organizations audience. Naturally, you’ll have to weigh whether you think the fee is worth, but particularly for somewhat smaller organization, these fees aren’t all that high.
With other experts, you can often trade webinars or other promotional efforts. For example, if they give you the chance to speak to their audience, you might give them the chance to speak to yours. Even if you don’t have a very large audience, this can work. Again, it’s about having the right audience for that specific expert. And, particularly if no hard cash is involved, there’s always an upside to reaching even a small group of new prospects.
Beyond webinars, podcasts have emerged as a major opportunity in recent times. I co-host a regular podcast which has steadily built up to thousands of monthly listens and I also make a point of appearing as a guest on other podcasts that are relevant to my audience. Services like Podbooker make it easy to find opportunities to be a podcast guest.
Last, but but far from least, don’t forget about guest blogging. While it’s not quite the slam dunk that it was several years ago, guest posting on blogs that attract relevant readers remains one of the best all around ways to build awareness of you as an expert, boost your reputation, and attract people to you. And a good blog post can attract traffic for a long time, making it a content asset with a high return on investment.
All of these methods enable you to benefit from “other people’s networks” as my friend Tom Poland puts it in his (highly recommended) Marketing with Webinars. In other words, they give you leverage. So, finding and maintaining relationships that provide these opportunities should be a core part of your efforts to build an audience.
Finally, with any of these methods, your aim should be to collect e-mail addresses whenever possible. That may mean getting the registration list from a webinar. At a minimum, it should mean being able to point people to a landing page for a relevant lead magnet.
It’s once you have truly locked in leverage that you have freedom . The freedom to work on your business, rather than in your business, to borrow the terminology made famous by Michael Gerber in The E-Myth. The freedom to try new things out without worrying your revenue will dry up if you fail. The freedom to really have an impact with your work.
Now is the Time to Build an Audience
A lot of people write to ask me how to get started with whatever version of an expertise-based business they are pursuing. My answer is always some version of the points above.
Particularly if you aim to sell courses or some other digital product, don’t stress so much about getting your course built right out of the gate. You aren’t going to be able to do much with a product anyway without an audience ready to buy it.
If you are selling services like consulting or coaching, then you have less to lose because you essentially already have your offering ready.
But either way, the main thing is to start now.
Get a simple but attractive “home base” Web site set up and start publishing some in-depth, useful posts that align with categories in the body of knowledge you aim to create.
Create a brief, but highly useful lead magnet. It does not have to be as elaborate as the eBook I mention above. In fact, these days, a good checklist or simple self-assessment quiz can work as well or better than bigger, more complex content.
Get set up with a good e-mail provider like ConvertKit or ActiveCampaign so that people can sign up to get access to your lead magnet. Building an e-mail list is still the most valuable thing you can do when it comes to selling anything online.
Find any chance you can to speak – whether at industry conferences or as a guest on podcasts or Webinars. (Until you have built up at least a bit of a list, running your own Webinars may be tough.)
Bottom line: start your audience building efforts from day one – even before you are totally clear on what products or services you will offer.
That’s all for now. As always, let me know how things are going with your efforts to grow your knowledge and learning business.