Today on Patreon @joespurpleshirt asked me how to start building a following for Twitter or a blog when you're starting from scratch.
This is something I've had to do many times over the years (blogs, book biz, Twitter) and it always works the same way. The first step is to remember that you're not just trying to build up a number of faceless followers. I actually hate the term "followers" because it implies you're some kind of cult leader or something.
What you want to build is a community of people who like your work. When you're a member of a community you're both giving and taking. You have to be generating something of value. And you're not a celebrity. It works best when you're making friends with people who appreciate a shared passion and enjoy it together. Forgetting this fact both hampers your ability to build a community and makes you really unlikable. I guess there's probably a counter-path where you actually do build a little cult and elevate yourself but it's not a great look and it won't work as quickly. The best way to build a community is to find a niche, share valuable stuff, and talk to people.
In 2005 I was just getting started with blogging and really passionate about videogames. When I started my blog I had zero readers. But man did I have opinions and passion. But what eventually turned those opinions and passion into a career was that I didn't just opine in a void.
I made friends! I wrote a lot, but probably split it 50/50 between penning my own essays and commenting on and sharing other people's ideas. This is good for a few reasons: Paying attention to what other people are saying in your niche make your own ideas and content better. You should constantly be learning from people if you want to be on top of your game.
And it also helps other people. It's the community thing
And sharing your own takes on their ideas and building on them helps both of your and encourages them to do the same. Over time I developed relationships with like-minded thinkers and we'd riff back and forth on our best ideas and hot takes.
As your network grows (and I don't like thinking about it like this but I'll say it for simplicity) your writing/content gets better and you rise with the tide as more people pay attention to everyone producing good work in your niche. Within a year my little gaming blog was getting hundreds of daily hits not just because I wrote a lot but also because other people talked about what I was saying and we were all part of a bigger conversation of interesting ideas and content.
Furthermore, any reasonable level of content production eventually attracts attention of bigger fish in your niche and they'll see you're serious and want to help you because many people are actually very kind and good and want to see you succeed at something you care about. Getting noticed by being pro-social and prolific was how I:
1) Landed a salaried job in games journalism
2) Got invited to write a paid column about whatever I wanted
3) Was invited to private forums to discuss book selling
4) Had people offer mentorship and advice
So let's talk about being prolific for a second. You've seen me discuss this in other posts before and it's SO SO important. You need to generate a lot of content and you can't get discouraged when no one reads it at first.
It takes time to roll a snowball down a hill.
The nice things about content (of any kind) are that it's okay if your early stuff isn't your best stuff and you own it forever. I often dust off old ideas, posts, and stories and refine them with a better understanding of the material. It's okay to publish less than perfect. So there's virtually no downside to putting stuff out early and often. In fact, if it's bad, you'll draw criticism and this will help you to get better.
You WANT people to tell you where you suck because it's how you know what to work on. Also, the people who comment are the people who CARED enough to comment. Most people just ignore things that don't resonate with them. Criticism is a gift. If you can get into that mindset it will also help you shrug off negativity better and reduce publishing fear.
Plus, putting work out often and creating a lot is the best way to get better at whatever you're trying to produce. Look at how @visakanv tackles new skills: The dude does like ONE HUNDRED of a thing without stopping. That's a really really good pattern. This is because you don't slow down to ask yourself if the thing you made was good enough. You know you're making 99 more. Who cares if this one was good? You're learning. Just keep chugging. Keep producing. Refine your niche. Think about what YOU know well enough to share. We all have expertise in something (or can develop it) or have things we care a lot about and sharing your passion is a great way to get extra steam to build the muscle required to write a lot about any topic.
You want to build the production muscle by doing something fun. If it feels like playing, it won't feel like work and your tone is more likely to be inviting and encourage people to play along with you. This also helps with the community building aspect.
Have fun. Be lighthearted. Give freely.
The next piece of advice I have is you have to understand who your audience is and go somewhere where you can tell them about the work you're producing. This is how you find your friends and critics. There are lots of ways to self-promote that aren't icky and self-centered. People WANT to be entertained and inspired and talk to you about their lives and passions. If you engage with them you'll have fun and your work will ripple out naturally.
It's a marathon. Not a sprint. I can't say this enough. This is why it's cringey when a stranger rolls into your space and says "HEY BUY MY BOOK HAVE YOU SEEN MY BOOK ALSO I HAVE A BLOG WOULD YOU LIKE MY NEWSLETTER?"
That's annoying and not helpful. The first step of giving is listening and chatting with people. Get to know them a little bit. Understand what they care about and why. Discuss with them. When it's relevant to the conversation or when you're asked a question is the right time to talk about your work. And the best part of the earlier part of being prolific is that when people find that they like your ideas or your content, it's DELIGHTFUL to discover that you have a lot more of it to consume. People love a big backlog of entertaining material to go through. It's fun. This is why the best time to discover a TV series is when it's over because you get to binge-watch the whole thing and love every minute of it unlike the poor people who had to wait weeks or months between episodes and seasons.
People often complain that this advice is daunting and slow because it seems like a lot of work to slowly get to know people and become part of a community and build up a big body of work.
Unfortunately, this is how it works. There is no magic button. It builds over time. But a very exciting element of this build that you recognize when you do it a few times is that it's exponential. It feels glacially slow at first. But the further you go the easier it gets and the more it accelerates. It took me four years of learning to write books before I saw any appreciable sales and six months of focused publishing on a biweekly schedule before those sales became meaningful revenue.
It took a whole year of publishing 3x/week blog posts before I got a column invite. There's this internal struggle you'll have with building anything like this up that you'll need to master. Not quitting in despair is every bit as hard as producing a lot of content.
It's a mental game. When my first book didn't generate the revenue I was hoping for and trailed off FAST I quit in despair for a full year. That was the opposite of what I should have done. I had great momentum and could have built on it. Instead I thought I'd failed and gave up. So you need to push past the suck and just keep going.
Returning to my point about getting to know people in this little community you're building, you should lean on them for help. It's okay to talk about your feelings. People want to see your process and progress. And in fact chatting with fans (friends) and other creatives (colleagues) is the whole point of HAVING a community. You help them, they help you, you all succeed and are entertained and delighted together.
If you're eschewing engagement to focus on work and pumping up arbitrary follower numbers you're missing the point. My first Twitter account had 17k followers and a tenth of the engagement I have right now because I focused on numbers instead of connecting with people. The quality of your relationships is more important than the quantity for any creative endeavor. Having 100 people who LOVE your work is better than having 1000 people who are aware of your work and might occasionally consume it.
So to recap, my recommendations for building an audience/community:
1) Make friends and talk to them
2) Produce a LOT and keep improving
3) Hang out where people discuss content like yours
4) Share when appropriate
5) Keep going and let it build
It takes time and effort but it's SO rewarding.
And I don't mean just financially. I mean the community relationships I develop with friends and readers who love my work directly make my life better.
Tech has never been as rewarding as having someone tell me I helped them. The money will come with time and effort too but it's the friends you make along the way that make it all worthwhile. Otherwise, what are you working so hard for?