When building an audience, never use smoke signals. Assume that you’re a publisher, and like most publishers, you think your content is pretty cool. You want other people to get a piece of your cool content—but you need to let them know that your content even exists. So you light a fire on some social media platform and start sending generic messages: links with pithy headlines, quotes from the content, provocative questions, etc.: hoping that a relatively low percentage of your extant audience will see the link, an even lower percentage will click on the link, and an even lower percentage will light their own fire and share the link. The logic of this content distribution strategy is simple and based on an efficiency proposition. Generic social media messaging requires a small investment of resources compared to the payoff, at least if you have a large enough audience. Low conversion rates from pre-packaged links necessitate a substantial crowd effect. Without a sufficiently massive user base, social media traffic and subsequent audience growth will remain inconsequential.
For small and medium-sized publishers that lack intrinsic credibility and brand celebrity, building an audience requires a different strategy. Content distribution and engagement with readers needs to be customized and personalized. New readers must feel like valued members of a community where valuable content is circulated. Generic signaling does not generate instant value. Of course, startup publishers often lack the resources to conduct custom or personalized content distribution campaigns. Such campaigns demand dedicated personnel and an additional diversion of editorial resources from content generation into content distribution. Yet, building relationships with new readers is worth a considerable investment of resources. Exactly how much remains a question of business strategy, but the opportunity-cost of launching better content distribution channels is attractive regardless of individual publisher parameters.
What does custom content distribution look like?
1. Targeted by demographic. New followers and readers should be grouped according to demographics: gender-identification, race-identification, age-identification, class-identification, etc. Content should be pushed out to targeted demographics using @ cc’s, direct messages, email digests, or recommendations surfaced on the site.
2. Targeted by interest. New followers and readers should be grouped according to interests. For example, a tech publisher might classify readers on interest in hardware versus software, mobile versus desktop, etc. Classifications can be based on data flowing through cookies or social media profiles. Again, content should be distributed through @s, dm’s, emails, and recommendations.
3. Human, not hollow. The secret to social media interaction is to avoid the affect of automation, even where automation is unavoidable. Twitter responses from official, anonymous accounts should still betray the touch of a human team. That’s why NASA’s Mars Rover Twitter account has been so successful. Use first-person, avoid PR speech and marketing filtration, and rely on cultural references to communicate human intelligence (or the lack thereof). Obviously automated and generic “mass mailings” come across as hollow. As a publishing operation scales, accomplishing #1 and #2 while maintaining #3 becomes more difficult. Developing a thorough social media style guide that rejects “hollow,” mechanical, and computerized affect can help ease the resource burden.
4. Don’t play defense. Don’t wait for followers and readers to query you. Reach out and ask for opinions from individual readers based on #1 and #2. Use the search function on social media platforms to find small-time influencers outside of your core audience, and based on their demographic profile and interests, bring them into the conversation around your content. Although mentions, retweets, and comments should receive customized responses, there’s no reason to wait for inbounding engagement. Start personal engagements before your readers.
5. Reactive, not responsive. Never just “respond” to conversations on social media platforms, reader inquiries, or inbounding messages. Be reactive. When a publisher is responsive, he concludes an engagement series. “It’s a wrap.” Instead, react to readers. Think about starting new engagements from otherwise limited interactions.
Building an audience means building an army of one. Or rather, an army of many ones. Over time, the resource intensive production of custom content distribution channels can be transitioned into permanent pseudo-custom structures. Therein, individual readers, though incorporated into selected demographics, feel like distinct, independent consumers.