Today on Filmmaker Freedom, a crash course in what it really means to build an audience.
We’ll dig into how to approach this process in a way that will lead you to a profitable, fulfilling business selling your films directly to fans.
Trust me, there are a lot of misconceptions out there about audience building, and it's easy to spend months or years going down a rabbit hole that leads nowhere.
So buckle up, because today we're going to set the record straight, and build a strong foundation for all future episodes of this podcast. Here’s the episode..
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The Original Article That Was Read in Today’s Episode
I’m guessing you’ve been told to “build an audience” before.
That phrase is right up there with “tell good stories” for the most ubiquitous filmmaking advice ever.
Don't get me wrong, it's a great piece of advice.
An audience, when built the right way, is one of the few assets that can alleviate the most painful parts of the filmmaking process—funding and distribution.
When you have an audience that's engaged with your work, crowdfunding becomes way easier. So does attracting and persuading traditional investors.
And when it comes to marketing and distribution, an audience gives you leverage and flexibility. It makes you far more attractive to distributors, and dramatically increases the odds that DIY and direct distribution will be profitable for you.
Basically, "build an audience" is great advice for any filmmaker who wants more control over the financial side of their profession.
But there's one big problem.
Usually what people mean when they tell you to “build an audience” is to “get a lot of social media followers.”
And those are not the same thing. Not even close.
So my goal with this article is to dispel some harmful myths about audience building, and share how to do it in a way that’s ethical, fulfilling, and profitable.
I want you to have a strong foundational understanding of this concept, because going forward, this site will be the definitive online resource for filmmakers who want more control and leverage in their careers.
And like I mentioned, building an audience is the key that will unlock more doors than anything else you could be doing.
An audience puts you in charge of your own future. Instead of hoping and praying for industry gatekeepers to put you on the map, once you go through this process, you’ll be calling your own shots.
If that sounds good to you, read on amigo.
What building an audience means
Let's start with the basics. What is an "audience?"
As far as I'm concerned, there are actually two types of audiences you should think about.
A potential audience is a group of people who would dig your work, and who would be interested in hearing from you on an ongoing basis about said work.
A built audience occurs when you attract these folks into your world, and have a reliable, direct means of communication with them.
But let's back up a little bit and talk about this potential audience some more.
These aren’t just generic people who like watching generic films. Nope, this is a specific niche of people, and your primary job as a creator is to serve those people better than any other content creator anywhere.
As indie filmmakers, we can’t compete with Hollywood. We can’t beat them at the game of saturating the mass market with high-budget, commoditized media. If we try to accomplish the same objectives without their resources, we'll lose every time.
What we can do, however, is niche down.
The trick is to find a niche that's small enough that Hollywood doesn't pay attention to it, but is large enough to earn a living for us and our collaborators. We're looking for online communities and networks who are underserved by traditional media, but hungry for content nonetheless.
Once we find them, we can focus our energy on serving better and mattering more to that chosen audience than Hollywood ever could.
And when our work matters more to people, there’s higher potential for us to earn a great living, all while doing work we’re actually passionate about. That’s the goal, right?
Finding your audience
In order to truly matter to a niche audience, you have to deeply understand these people. And I mean deep—often deeper than they understand themselves.
You have to understand their worldview and psychographic profile so that your content appeals to them on a psychological, foundational level. Getting this one thing right is the key to mattering more to people than Hollywood ever could.
I won’t dig too far into how to do this right now, because just this concept alone could be a course. But for now, start thinking about it like this…
You’re looking for people online who share one or more core aspect of your identity—those few people who jibe with your specific brand of “weird.”
Because let’s be honest. You’re weird. I’m weird. Everyone’s weird.
And part of what we all want as humans is authentic connection to people who accept and value us for the weirdos we are. This pattern shows up again and again in psychological research. It’s one of the core drivers of human behavior.
And we can use this in our audience building efforts.
There might be thousands, or tens of thousands of people online who meet these criteria. Thousands of weirdos just like you.
Not just that, but these potential audience members are doing stuff online. They're congregating, consuming content, having conversations, and buying stuff. More than anything, though, they’re searching for their “tribe of weirdos” even if they aren’t consciously aware of it.
So you’ve got this potential audience of weirdos, but you just have no way to reach or communicate directly with them… yet.
The art of attraction
And that’s where the “building” in “audience building” comes in.
Building an audience is the process of discovering who those weirdos are, figuring out how to reach them online, then creating content to attract them into your world.
Notice how I used the word “attract” there. That’s important. We’re not bribing or coercing or bullying people into paying attention to us.
There are certainly people online who act that way, including massive brands, but that’s not what we’re going for here.
Nope. This is all about being an ethical human, and treating our potential audience members with the utmost respect. It's about building relationships and treating others as you would like to be treated.
In other words, when you’re building an audience, you should follow the Golden Rule. Forever and always.
That’s why we seek to attract people into our world.
And the way we do that is with content. Whether it’s video, photo, audio, text, or any other content form, the right kind of content to the right person creates a bond.
By entering the spaces your niche already hangs out online, and creating irresistible content and films based on their psychographic profile, your potential audience actually want to be part of our world.
No bribes necessary.
Storing an audience
This brings us to the next critical piece of the audience building puzzle.
It’s not enough to just attract people into your world, or get them to follow you on social media. That’s a good start, but it’s not enough.
For this to really be worth your time, you must have a place to store your audience—ideally on turf that you own—which means that you must have some way to consistently and reliably communicate with them at scale.
For most people, this is an email list.
I know, I know. I can already hear you grumbling about how you hate email and how nobody uses email anymore and yada yada yada.
To that I would say…. sorry bucko, you’re wrong.
Email, despite being old fashioned and often misused, is one of the best ways to build trust relationships at scale. And when it comes to selling your work, email outperforms social media by 40X.
Not 40%... 40X. Let that sink in.
But perhaps the most important reason email lists are so powerful is that it’s an asset you own. It’s literally just a spreadsheet of names and emails that you can take with you, even if your email marketing company shuts down.
A cautionary tale about relying on big platforms
When your audience is people who’ve liked your page on facebook… that’s bad news. Sorry to inform you, but in that case, it’s facebook who owns that relationship, not you. Same goes for twitter, instagram, YouTube, or any other major platform.
Why’s this such a bad thing, you might be asking? Well, here’s a cautionary tale for you…
About 5 years ago, anyone with a facebook page could easily reach the majority of their audience every time they posted to their page.
But then, facebook realized they could be making money from people with pages. So they changed their algorithms, and virtually overnight, people’s “organic reach” dropped to dismal levels.
Now, if anybody wants to reach all the people who have liked their page, they have to pay facebook to “boost their content.”
That, my friend, is why you must own the means of communication with your audience. Otherwise, your business could be wiped out overnight by some change to the platform you’re using.
Yes, using these big platforms is easier and more convenient. But the price you're paying for that convenience is high.
So even though you may hate it, email is still far and away the best way to own that relationship and means of communication with your fans.
Another option if you really, really hate email
Now, if you’re stubborn and insist that you’ll never use email, there are other options. And there will continue to be other options as tech advances and hits the market. You just gotta keep your eyes out for them.
So right now, in 2019, the other option that really works well for building an audience is to get your audience members into a community platform of some sort.
Since you're only attracting a small niche of likeminded people, there's a ton of value in connecting them with one another.
Like I said before, we're all searching for connection with likeminded folks who share our interests and values. If you can facilitate those connections, your audience will love you.
Practically, speaking, you could do this with a facebook group—although this suffers from the same issues I just talked about—or it could be some kind of other community platform like Mighty Networks or Mobilize.
Hell, you could also use a combination of both email and community (this is what I do).
Getting on the email list is the first step, where the initial relationship is built. But eventually, when I want people to join my inner circle, they get into my private community. It’s part of how I create “super fans” for what I do here at Filmmaker Freedom.
You don’t have to get that complex with your audience building though. Just letting you know how deep the rabbit hole goes.
That’s it. Building an audience is about attracting the right people into your world, and having a sustainable way to communicate with them on an ongoing basis.
Not too crazy, right?
But there’s one more thing I have to tell you about before we wrap this up.
It’s not enough to just “build an audience”
In order for an audience to be a profitable asset in your life, you can’t just have this email list or community or whatever and ignore it.
Nope, in order for it to pay off in any kind of substantial way, you must develop a relationship with your audience, and consistently work to deepen that relationship.
Let’s think about this in a context that every filmmaker should be familiar with… networking.
When you go to a networking event or a festival or whatever, there’s always that one guy who’s eagerly schmoozing and handing out business cards.
If you’re unlucky enough to land in a conversation with him, he’ll talk incessantly about how great he is and what amazing projects he’s working on and how he’s probably going to win an Oscar next year…
And then, without showing an ounce of interest in you, he’ll ask for something. He’s looking for some kind of big favor.
But he didn’t build a relationship with you. There's no trust there, and you have no reason to do anything for him. So you send him on his merry way, empty-handed, so he can accost another poor stranger.
That’s one of the biggest mistakes people make when building audiences. They get people into their world and onto their list, and then they start bombarding them with “asks.” Buy this product, do this, do that.
It’s a huge turn off. Obviously.
And that’s why your goal must be to play the long game and focus on building a relationship.
Like all relationships, that means giving just as much, though ideally more, than you take. And like before, content (preferably sent through your email list or community) is the primary way to do this.
And when you consistently deliver content and experiences that reinforce everyone's shared sense of "weird," you strengthen the bonds between you and cultivate goodwill.
Then, when it comes time to launch a film (or a crowdfunding campaign), your audience will pull out their wallets with glee, because you've already enriched their lives so much. They're just looking for an opportunity to reciprocate the value you've delivered to them.
Just know, when the relationship with your audience dies, so does any chance of earning a living from them. So treat that relationship like one you want to last forever. Put the work in, and you'll be rewarded.
That’s it, amigo. We just built a strong foundation for how to build an audience in the internet age, and not feel like a total sleazebag while doing it.
In fact, if you work through this process, the people in your audience will not only adore you, but they’ll love hearing from you. And most importantly, when you have something to sell—a film for instance—they will be more than happy to buy from you.
That’s the magic of building an audience in an authentic way. When you do it right, the selling takes care of itself because of how deep your relationship is and how much trust there is between you.
So let’s go over what we covered, because it’s quite a lot.
Building an audience is not the same thing as getting a lot of social media followers.
Instead, it’s about attracting a small niche of likeminded “weirdos” into your world with remarkable content that appeals to them on a deep, psychographic level.
For longevity, you must own the means of communication with your audience, and that means getting them on an email list. A community platform can also work, but be careful relying on platforms that you don’t own.
In order for an audience to be profitable, you must consistently work to build and sustain a relationship with them. Without the relationship aspect, and without trust, the audience isn’t worth much at all.
Alright, my friend. That’s enough for today. But like I mentioned before, this is just the beginning. Over the coming months and years, I’m going to share everything I know about building audiences online. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
So if you’re interested in the freedom that comes from not having to rely on middle men and gatekeepers to make a living, stick around.
If you’re truly invested in putting these ideas to use, I’d recommend joining Freedom Fighters, my private community for entrepreneurial indie filmmakers.
It’s not another spammy facebook group or noisy forum. It’s an online oasis just for people like us. A place of sanity and respect, where we try our best to support one another in our respective journeys.
So if you’re interested in becoming a member, here’s where you can get the full scoop and apply (don’t worry, it’s totally free).
Hoping to see you inside.
Lastly, if you enjoy thoughtful content like this, you'll love my Sunday newsletter, Filmmaker Freedom Weekly.
Each week, I share my latest writing and podcasts, as well as a few hand-picked stories from around the web, a short film I love, and a healthy dose of filmmaking inspiration.
If you’re an ambitious indie filmmaker, it’s an email you’ll actually look forward to each week. Pinky promise :)