Don’t know what product or service you should be selling? That’s actually fine, says Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute and author of the new book Content Inc.: How Entrepreneurs Use Content to Build Massive Audiences and Create Radically Successful Businesses.
“In most cases [early on], you don’t have the product or service right, anyway,” he says.
Instead, he recommends that entrepreneurs “flip the model on its head” and build an audience first, and only then figure out what to sell them. “What if you spent the time and understood the audience better than anyone else? It’s basically a future list of your customers,” he told me during a recent interview in New York City. “That audience knows, likes and trusts you more. And they’ll actually tell you what to sell [to them].” That means when you do start to sell, it’s a faster, easier and more lucrative process.
He recognizes that building an audience without a clear path to monetization may feel frightening to entrepreneurs watching the bottom line. “Is it a leap of faith? Sure. But I actually think it’s a less risky model as long as you’re patient and as long as you have the time.”
So how can you build an audience successfully? Pulizzi, not surprisingly, is a strong believer in the power of content creation. First, you have to specialize.
“Just take content marketing, for example. Now it’s such a crowded space. There’s no way you can cut to the clutter. You’ve got to find your content tilt,” which he defines as your unique niche and spin on a subject. “What is that area of little to no competition out there, where you actually have a fighting chance to break through?”
As an example, he cites a pet supplies company that originally considered blogging about pet supplies, which was way too broad. Instead, he urged them to drill down -- first to the subject of “traveling with your pet,” and then “pet owners in Southwest Florida” who travel with their pets. Says Pulizzi, “Now you’ve got a chance. Now you can be the leading expert in the world on that.”
Next, you want to think carefully about the channel you use. “A blog, a podcast, and a video series are the first three options I’m going to be looking at when building my base,” says Pulizzi. You want to ask yourself, How would this story best be told to my audience? You should think about where your skills lie (perhaps you have a particular knack for writing), where your audience is already congregating, and whether your content is especially compelling in one format or another (if you’re frequently doing demonstrations, video may be optimal).
Finally, you need to produce consistent, high quality content. “It’s quality over quantity,” says Pulizzi. “That didn’t always used to be the case,” but Google has been steadily improving their algorithms to prioritize excellent work. You don’t necessarily need to post every day, but he argues that the minimum effective dose is “one fantastic piece per week.” You should also evaluate when you reach the point of diminishing returns; the Content Marketing Institute started with posts three times per week, and eventually increased their rate to posting three times per day. But their audience didn’t want much that frequency, and they ultimately settled on daily posts, instead.
Pulizzi believes that entrepreneurs are particularly well positioned to leverage content marketing. “I think small businesses and entrepreneurs are better suited for it because they are more patient [than large, established corporations],” he says. “When you’re going to the big companies it’s like, We need it right now. But a small company can say, This is a three-year tour and I’m going to make this work. It’s about putting in enough time, knowing that the benefits on the back side are going to be amazing.”
Building an audience requires patience and faith. But the trust and loyalty engendered are well worth the effort.