Audience building for SaaS

There's a right and wrong way.

[Link to original blog post]

A while back I came across the concept of building an audience as a way to grow a following and to grow a customer base. Along the way, I made the mistake of equating audience with customers.

I shared some learnings in a tweet and on Indie Hackers. It kinda exploded and the discussions around it made me realise that I was wrong about why I'm wrong.

Here's what I have learned and gathered from the discussions.

What are you building?

First, let's be clear about what you're building. This post is about building an audience (useful), but don't confuse it with building a followership (not so useful) or a community (great, but lots of work).

Followership: This is when you're purely focused on the numbers of people who are following you. If your goal is to have more Twitter followers today than you had yesterday, then you're building a followership, not an audience. If you intend to build a business with and learn from those who follow you, then building a followership is the least effective way.

Audience: I'm going to use Alex Hillman's definition here: "An audience is a group of people with common goals and interests, that you can study and most importantly SERVE". People in your audience look forward to learning from you, and to engage with you, and for you to engage with them too. Building an audience can benefit you as an individual and benefit your SaaS business.

Community: When your audience not only engages with you, but with each other too, then you have a community. The content you put out there brings in people into your audience, who also identify and interact with each other. Community-building is high-effort, and in some communities, a full-time job. But you will be rewarded with a fantastic opportunity to serve and learn from your community, for profit or otherwise.

"My previous business was a community, I built a community for quite a long time before deciding how to turn it into a (7-figure) business. And the community was who I sold to." - Rosie Sherry

What are you building an audience for?

You need to be clear about your goal of building an audience.

It basically boils down to this: are you building an audience for yourself or for your SaaS?

Building an audience for your business

Building an audience for your business means building an audience around the problem you're solving with your SaaS.

For example, if you are building an app to solve the problem of securely storing cryptocurrency, then create content around this problem and how you would go about solving it. Talk about your experience trying to build a solution, how it's progressing, and what you've learnt along the way.

Sharing highly relevant content to your target niche about a problem you're solving for them can build an audience that can also eventually become your customers.

Hey.com's founders, DHH and Jason Fried, are great examples of founders who know how to build an audience around the problem they're solving. And yes, they are also highly adept at using their platform to pick fights against larger companies and, in the process, building a huge fan base!

Building an audience for yourself

This is about building an audience for your personal brand. People who follow you want to learn from you, be entertained by you, or be inspired by what you have to say.

With this audience, you can be more general in the topic you write about, although there's nothing wrong also with being laser-focused.

For example, while building that crypto app, you could be sharing (on your personal Twitter account) stuff you learned about blockchain, coding up a browser extension and building a business in the crypto space. This type of content may not be that interesting to your app's customers, but other people in your industry would. And you will be building trust and reputation for yourself in this space.

Paul Graham is a great example of someone who has been able to build an audience around himself as someone who knows a lot about building and growing startups.

Building for business, yourself, or both?

Both is better.

Remember that an audience follows you because they want to learn or be entertained. SaaS customers buy your software because they have a problem to solve.

The sweet spot would be to build an audience that trusts you, and at the same time, also who will buy your product because they believe that you're building it with their interest in mind.

If you're not able to find that overlap, then build your business and personal audiences separately.

Build it in the right place

Go to where your audience is - they won't come to you. So once you know who you want to serve, your next task is to go find out where the community meets online to discuss related topics with each other.

Arvid Kahl gave a great example with Ravelry, a community for knitters:

It's a forum with millions of regular visitors that's only focused on knitting, crocheting and all kinds of needlework. It's not on Twitter, it's not on Facebook: it's right there, inside this forum-based community. If you want to build an audience for people who knit, your best bet is to become a part of their community and build your audience in there.

Engage appropriately

Your audience isn't there to be sold to. They are there for you to serve and laern from.

Along the way, commercial opportunities will arise while you are serving them, and you should be ready to grab it.

Build in public

"Building in public" is trendy amongst makers now, and there is a lot of advice around why and how to do it.

But here's the point of building in public: to learn and build on what you've learned. By openly sharing your thoughts around a particular topic, your experiences, what you've learned, and being open to feedback on what you shared.

It's not about posting progress reports - this doesn't build an audience (unless they're into progress reports).

You don't need an audience

If your goal is to gain customers for your SaaS business, audience building is just one way to do it. You don't NEED an audience.

Customer acquisition is an integral part of building a SaaS business, and I recommend you experiment with acquisition channels. Sometimes the channel that works best isn't the most obvious one at first.

Channing Allen interviewed a bunch of indie makers on Indie Hackers and uncovered 8 different ways they got to their first customers (without paying for ads). None of these ways involved building an audience.

Don't blame the audience if you can't sell

If you are not making sales, despite an audience, then don't blame the audience.

There are many other factors to consider (from Alex Hillman again):

  • Is it an audience that tends to buy on value?

  • Is it an audience that tends to buy software to solve their problems?

  • Were you effective in communicating the problem that your software helps them solve?

  • Was the problem painful enough that they'd be willing to pay for it to be streamlined or automated?

My next steps

So my mistake was to confuse audience building for me and for my business as the same things. And I got to the wrong conclusion that audience building isn't useful for SaaS founders.

The truth is, audience building CAN be useful for customer acquisition for your SaaS, but it's not always the best channel. If it is, then the audience should be built around the problem your SaaS is solving.

And you SHOULD build an audience for yourself. This builds your own personal brand and an audience who will follow you regardless of what you're working on next.

For my current SaaS project, a Twitter bookmarking service, there are other channels more effective than audience building so I will continue to build traction with those channels.

And I am clearer now about the purpose of my personal audience-building, which is to build my personal brand around building a SaaS business, as well as growing as a freelancer and micro-agency owner. I will continue to do this on Twitter.

Thanks and credits

Thank you so much to the following people who have contributed to the discussion: Rosie Sherry, Arvid Kahl, Alex Hillman, Scrivs and Kevon Cheung.