Building Direct Audience

(Continuing with Tom Davidson’s contribution)

You’ve done lots of work to get to this point – defining your “job to be done,” researching the potential and actual size of your audience, understanding the intricacies of the audience funnel. It’s all useless – and your vital mission will go unmet – if you can’t build and grow an audience for your work.


There are many methods – and no set formula that will work for your project. But here are some quick idea-starters. Look through them, brainstorm your own, and then apply the measuring and testing process described in the previous section (The Audience Development Plan).


Sites that cover a geographic community can use in-person events much more easily than sites that cater to a community of interest that may be spread over an entire continent. But assuming you can meet your community face to face, what is the best way? Community newspapers learned long ago that they could not only cover the local parades and little league season openers, but could participate with sponsorships. Their people could set up booths, hand out promotional products such as T-shirts, meet new customers and remind others that they are part of the community. As the old saying goes: News ain’t in the newsroom. So find ways to meet your community where they are.

INN members run elaborate events such as the Texas Tribune Festival, which has drawn thousands of attendees over three days in downtown Austin. But INN member Mississippi Today makes a point of hosting more intimate events – open conversations in bars – with a Newsroom in the Taproom series. Other variations could be coffee-shop meetups with your editors or receptions with your donors where their “price of admission” is bringing someone who doesn’t know your organization.

You don’t have to organize all these events yourselves. Offer to do a meet-and-greet at community events, share your expertise on a conference panel, or help promote a community concert in exchange for a table in the lobby to promote your organization.

The keys: Be authentic. Make sure your presence enhances the event, rather than interrupting it. And – if you can – collect email addresses of interested people!

Email Lists

Why the focus on email addresses? Because you can do so much with them. Eventually, your development director can ask them for money. But not at first; that would be like a speed-dating marriage proposal.

Instead, you should have a templated series of emails you send to new acquaintances, explaining your project, discussing some of your successes, and asking for help in getting the word out about your work. Your goal is not to ask for money (yet) but to get these new friends to read and watch your work, and hopefully to build a habit of usage.

Email Newsletters

Maybe your audience problem is that people sample you but don’t come back often enough. Your metrics may show a high percentage of unique visitors who come to your site only once a month. Even the best sites have “one-and-done” rates of 50 percent – thanks, social media. But if your rate is pushing 70 percent or more, you need to do more to build habit.

Email newsletters are a terrific tool – one of the best – for building loyalty. They remind people of the value of your work, and they put them only one quick tap of their phone away from your work.

For proof of this concept, look at, the INN member that covers the world of public media. Here’s a view of the site’s traffic by day of the week. That spike that happens every seven days follows the Thursday publication of a weekly email newsletter.

You can start, as Current does, with a weekly compendium of your best headlines. But look for other newsletter ideas, too – are there other jobs you could do for specialized audiences? Those might make worthwhile newsletters, too.

Lookalike Marketing

Email addresses have another – and powerful – use: You can use tools like Facebook lookalike marketing (and Google’s “retargeting” tools) to cheaply advertise to specific email addresses (those people you met at a community event, say) – and to others whom you don’t know but should.

Here’s how that works: Take a list of known fans of your work. (Maybe they’re loyal subscribers to an email newsletter, or steady donors). You can upload that list to Facebook and ask Facebook’s algorithms: “How many people in this geographic area (or who share this set of interests) look like the people whose emails I just uploaded?

In other words: If you have a list of just a couple hundred known fans, Facebook can use that trove of information they know about all of us to find other people who likely have the same interests – and thus would be interested in knowing about your project.

For a more detailed explanation of the techniques involved, see the free classes on audience targeting at Facebook Blueprint.

Social Media

This used to be a lot easier: Build a base of Facebook fans. Post content. Watch your audience build.

What Facebook giveth, Facebook can taketh. That doesn’t mean your social media presence is useless; it just means that you can’t rely on Facebook automatically showing your stuff to all of your followers for free anymore.

Instead, be strategic: Yes, encourage sharing. Yes, post your best stories (and get your staff, board and friends to post, like and share). But also pay attention to how others use the tools. Notice, for instance, how The New York Times uses sponsored posts – yes, paid ads – to promote great stories and to promote subscriptions. You might want to test how similar techniques can help you build newsletter signups or donations – both from your current followers as well as those “lookalike” audiences mentioned above.

Summing Up

These are just starting points for a true audience development plan – or, more accurately, your audience-development process. The key is to relentlessly focus on ways to grow your numbers – and then persuading some of those users to make your project part of their news habit. Test those ideas. Keep doing the ones that work; discard the ones that don’t and move on to the next.


How the Biggest Consumer Apps Got Their First 1,000 Users (Lenny’s Newsletter, 2020)