Marketing your business

My First Year Teaching: How I Built My Audience

By Brennan Dunn

Exactly a year ago I started my newsletter.

Though it didn’t really start out as a newsletter. At the time, I was writing my first book, Double Your Freelancing Rate. I decided that instead of just collecting email addresses, I’d presell the book for 20% off. Well, it worked. And I netted a few thousand dollars in initial sales — even though I was quite a few weeks away from delivering a finished product.

I knew that if I paid something to someone I didn’t really know and was met with radio silence, I’d get pretty perturbed. Hell, I might even ask for a refund. With this in mind, I started sending out a weekly mailing to everyone who bought my book. I extracted highlights from what I was writing, summed them up into an easily digestible format, and introduced my signature plain formatted, “Hi $NAME, …, Cheers, Brennan” email structure.

This carried on for a few weeks, and then I launched the book.

The natural next step would be to send out mail only for major updates, but I kept writing. Each Tuesday, I tried to send another thousand or so words to the list. And people… liked it. I started deviating from topics directly related to the book, and started braindumping about freelancing in general.

And then I got an email, “Brennan, could my friend get on your newsletter? He hasn’t bought your book yet, but he’d love to get these emails.”

I had a newsletter and a fledgling audience.

Here’s what I’ve learned over the last year:

I’m A Teacher Above All Else

The biggest surprise in retrospect is that I’m not a founder, or a writer, or a podcaster, or whatever. I’m a teacher. I help connect dots, and my products are the glue.

When I support Planscope, I’m teaching people how to better manage their projects and Planscope just happens to be the medium. The developer in me screams, “it’s fancy CRUD!” But it’s not. It’s an opinionated workflow that is very much inline with what I write about in my books, my newsletter, and my blog posts. When I started focusing on how the bits and bytes of Planscope would grow my customers’ businesses, a new world appeared in front of me.

This helped me get over the “LOL ebook” gut reaction I had when my friend Amy recommended I write a book. My book would end up helping grow the reader’s business, and the bits and bytes this time around were cast as a PDF instead of a web application.

And the same with my second book, and my workshop, and then my next workshop, and my podcast, and so on.

Different mediums with similar business-growing results. By focusing on the end goal — e.g., helping an upstart consultant formulate their value proposition so they can charge more — it became second nature to think, “Well, what other problems might this upstart consultant have?” And this has helped me create complimentary products that serve different facets of my customers’ businesses.

But this leads me to…

Your Audience Is Not A Piggy Bank

The biggest misconception around audience building is that once you get an audience, BAM!, you have ready-to-buy customers. Not so. While it’s true that it’s much easier to sell to people who’ve already successfully paid you something and got significant value in return, it shouldn’t be taken for granted.

As mentioned above, I take a portfolio approach to my business. I don’t have a singular product or service. I have products like Planscope and my books that are fully automated, and then I have higher-touch products like my workshop or coaching services which require my real-time engagement. At the moment, I’m planning new products that I’ll be unveiling in a few months or early next year.

I also give a tremendous amount away for free. My newsletters aren’t teasers that lead people to a paywall — the overwhelming majority of my audience has never bought anything of mine. And that’s totally fine, because I want my free stuff to be valuable in its own right.

Quite a few people have asked what the upside is to giving away anything for free. After all, if you do that… no one will pay you anything, right? Wrong.

When someone feels confident that you’ve given them value — that you’ve taught them something that makes them better off than they were — they’re more likely to buy something of yours. I figured this out when taking Amy Hoy’s 30×500, and it’s been the fuel that’s propelled my business to where it is today. Giving away high quality (read: extremely useful) information helps a naturally skeptical reader realize that you’re legitimate, sincere, and are capable of providing value. People will gladly pay for value.

If I feel like you’re capable of helping me add $10,000 to my income this year, why wouldn’t I pay you anything up to $9,999 to do that? The real reason people won’t is that there’s inherent risk that they won’t be able to add that $10k to their bottom line, so their willingness to pay decreases with each doubt and hestitation. Giving away awesome content is the single best way to counter that doubt.

Segment Your Audience

There is no uniform subscriber of mine. Some are still salaried, some are just getting started, some are on the verge of failure, and some are established (or even run teams.)

There’s also no uniform product that I offer. Planscope, The Blueprint, and my latest workshop come in different packages. My premium workshop requires an application process, and it’s priced to actively discourage hobbyist and new freelancers from joining. But because I’m able to offer a number of products, each that may or may not relate to a particular subscriber, I have an outlet for just about every type of person who might join my list.

Also, it’s really hard to get someone to go from being on your list with no history of cashflow between you and them to spending $1,799 on a workshop of yours. But when you can introduce a step ladder system, where you provide an entry-level pricepoint, like $49, and then later offer buyers of that product a significantly more expensive and significantly more valuable product, there’s a lot less resistance. That buyer already trusts your ability to deliver value in exchange for money.

Don’t Fear Rejection

Not everyone’s going to like what you do. Not everyone’s going to buy from you. This is just how things are.

My first encounter with rejection was seeing people unsubscribe. These days, something’s wrong (or terribly right) if I don’t get a dozen or so unsubscribes with each newsletter of mine. But this is just self-segmentation at work — someone willingly joined your newsletter, they heard you out, and ruled that the content you were giving wasn’t valuable to them.

Sooner or later, you’ll get people who think you’re exploiting the “impressionable masses” (no joke, I’ve been told this.) All the “But I offer a full moneyback guarantee if someone doesn’t think it’s worth it” rebuttals in the world won’t affect this naysayer. Just note: when you’re successful and have a public persona (even if your footprint is small,) these people will show up.

Ignore them.

Make It Easy To Enter Your Ecosystem

See that little floating thing in the bottom right? Type in your name and email, and you’ll be sent a 5 day email course on freelancing (it’s a series I ran a while back on my newsletter that proved quite successful.) On top of that, you’ll get added to my mailing list. Buy a book? You’re on my list. End up at my squeeze page and fill out the form? You’re on my list. I’m even starting to roll out email opt-ins to my video content.

The goal should be to make it stupid simple for someone to get even more value from you after they’ve consumed something of value (for free) from you. Offer call-to-actions at every logical crossroads, and ideally offer a Carrot — an immediate incentive — that won’t have someone who subscribes to your newsletter on Wednesday waiting for the following Tuesday’s newsletter.

You should also onboard new subscribers. For a while, I just would throw people directly into the mix of my weekly newsletter. Nowadays, when you join my newsletter you’re getting three emails:

  • +1 day: Welcome to the list, here’s who I am and why I think you should listen to me. But most importantly, what you’ll get out of listening to me.
  • +3 days: What’s the number one problem with your freelancing business? (These responses are automatically labeled in GMail for research.)
  • +6 days: The number one problem that freelancer’s have told me about. This is a soft-sell for my book, Double Your Freelancing Rate, but it also helps new subscribers connect with the existing subscription base.

This helps new subscribers understand who I am, where they are, and establishes early on that I want them to actually talk to me. You want you and your audience to have a bi-directional relationship.

Time And Hard Work — The Secret To Success

I’m getting pretty close to 7,000 subscribers. A year ago today, I had just one.

There was no tipping point or a hockey stick curve in my growth. It’s very much up and to the right.

Ever since I’ve put myself in the public sphere and started highlighting my business experiments, quite a few people have asked me for “marketing advice.” And it’s often the usual story: build a product, put up a website for said product, and wonder why no one shows up on launch day with credit cards in hand.

Like with anything, growing an audience and sales revenue requires dedication and hard work. I’ve written a lot of guest posts, poured hundreds of hours of time into my newsletters, replied to just about everyone who’s ever emailed me, and more. A lot of these were shots in the dark — experiments that would either fail or succeed. But with each email, guest post, partnership, and dollar spent on a not-so-successful ad campaign, the direction you’re shooting toward becomes a little less hazy.

And that’s the goal: clarity. You understanding how to best serve your audience, you realizing that you can make a living serving this audience, and helping your audience be much better off than they were before.

Your audience is your biggest asset. You learn from them and occasionally get money through offering them products; but most importantly, they learn from you. A lot from you.

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